Funnyman Kumar is raising laughs for a serious cause

Comedian Kumar at the Beyond Social Services premises in Whampoa Drive to try to understand the women's experiences of poverty.
Comedian Kumar at the Beyond Social Services premises in Whampoa Drive to try to understand the women's experiences of poverty.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Kumar at the Beyond Social Services premises in Whampoa Drive.
Kumar at the Beyond Social Services premises in Whampoa Drive.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Eight women sat on plastic chairs arranged in a circle at a void-deck office on a rainy Wednesday night.

The women, who live in rental housing and are all mothers, took turns to talk about their struggles in taking care of their families.

One related how some neighbours had chipped in to buy milk powder after seeing a financially strapped neighbour feed her baby son condensed milk.

Another visibly exasperated woman told the others how she had made multiple calls to the Housing Board to get a broken window in her rental flat fixed, but to no avail. After months, a government officer finally called her back, but it was only to chase for rental payments.

A third woman said her sons each get $2 a day in food vouchers from their secondary schools, but the sum cannot buy anything more than a drink and some finger food.

Listening attentively was a slim figure with hair tied up neatly in a ponytail and sitting slouched back in a chair. This was not another harried mother, but a funnyman known for his drag performances.

Veteran comedian Kumar was at the Whampoa Drive void-deck premises of Beyond Social Services to befriend the mothers and to try to understand their experiences of poverty. Some of the insights and anecdotes gleaned from the session will be used for a charity comedy fund-raiser that he will hold at nightclub Zouk on Feb 8.

All of the show's proceeds will go to Beyond Social Services, a charity that helps less-privileged children and youth break out of the poverty cycle. The organisation estimates that there are around 60,000 children and youth living in rental housing in Singapore. It said it reaches out to residents in 47 out of some 260 rental blocks here.

In the show, Kumar hopes to talk about how those who live on less cope and remain upbeat, and also debunk some stereotypes of the poor.

"They are not self-pitying but are very happy people.

"Some people feel that they are asking for it, as they have many children despite their financial situation. But no one deserves poverty," said the 49-year-old, whose real name is Kumar Chinnadurai.

The local entertainer knows what it is like to be poor.

"When I was in Primary 5 or 6, we ate rice and water, and if we were lucky, we got some salt in it," said Kumar, who has three siblings.

Across the globe, it is not uncommon for comedians to pair comedy with a cause, as humour can advance social justice and advocacy. A good joke can change how people think and act. "Laughter is the best way to get messages across. When people laugh, they do a bit of self-reflection and confront uncomfortable truths," said Kumar.

He added: "I realised that the underprivileged can joke about their problems and make them sound simple when they are quite complex.

"For us, it is the opposite. We are always unhappy and making mountains out of molehills."

Yet Kumar also hastened to emphasise that he will not be making fun of the fact of being poor. "There is nothing funny about that. What I want to surface are the issues that the underprivileged face."

To do so, he will be inviting some beneficiaries of Beyond Social Services up on stage for a question-and-answer session after his stand-up routine. These include a primary school dropout who later became a French cuisine chef.

At the end of the two-hour discussion with the mothers, Kumar said he was especially touched by how single mother Suraiyah Mohamed Ghaus, 45, sought to show love and be best buddies with her five children, despite running the household on her own. Her 25-year-old son still lies on her tummy on the sofa every evening as he fiddles with his mobile phone.

Said Madam Suraiyah, who is also a volunteer with Beyond Social Services: "It is very good that Kumar comes to talk to us to understand what is happening in our lives. I watch TV, and experts make observations and analysis about things, but no one hears the voices of the ones who are actually suffering on the ground."

Single mother Emily Yang, 30, who runs a cleaning company and has a son, said: "I don't think people will really understand the issues we face, but I think the laughter will at least spark some awareness."

To buy tickets to the Kumar for Beyond show, visit bit.ly/2pRPNfp.