MITRA & Skills Academy: Journeying with the B40 Community

By Kumar Nagalingam

In 2019, I was given the privilege to work specifically with Indian women from the B40 community, in some key states in West Malaysia. The project came through the MITRA initiative in collaboration with Brickfields Asia College. We were to reach out, with the objective of bringing awareness to the importance of family well-being and how maintaining harmony within the family is essential in being successful in all other pursuits.  

From the very beginning, I understood the challenges and complexities. The plight of an Indian woman in the B40 community is twisted with a range of factors that make it extremely difficult for her to find her place and live out her dreams. We were briefed thoroughly by Dr. Selvamalar Ayadurai, the Project Manager of this initiative, detailing our objectives, expectations, and responsibilities, also emphasizing on the challenges of this project. With not much experience dealing with this targeted community, my team and I appreciated the thorough and insightful explanation by Dr. Selvamalar. 

We began the project with some fact-finding trips in five states, namely, Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Johor. I literally entered into a different world when we were taken to some of their homes, witnessing first-hand some of the struggles they faced on a day-to-day basis. Having three square meals, is considered a luxury. Their living conditions were deplorable and shocking to say the least. 

Indeed, it was a humbling experience and one will be left extremely helpless and angry with the entire system and everything else that has led to this. 

The course ran for four days over weekends for each group. Thanks to the great ground work of the respective community mobilisers, the turn-out in most states was encouraging and I was happy to see the enthusiasm in every single woman who attended the course. Our trainers were carefully selected to deliver the modules. They had to have a great deal of empathy, listening skills, fluency in Tamil, counselling skills and a certain degree of detachment to these women’s struggles. This is because one can only be helpful when one is not emotionally dragged into the problems of the people one is trying to help and the trainers knew that extremely well. I must say, all the trainers came through with flying colours. They connected with the participants well and had their trust from the get go. They were sincere in helping, and the intention in making a difference in their lives superseded the need to charge regular market rates for their services.  

However, the nagging frustration is, when you know that these women would have to go back to the same toxic environment after the course and be pulled back into that energy once again and nothing would have changed. And in a way, both the trainers and the women were aware of this. Often we hear from them of abusive husbands and at times even by their children. A good number of them are the sole bread winners of the family and that takes a huge toll on them.

There have been incidences where the children were drug addicts and have violently demanded money from them for their ‘fix.’ Whilst we recognised and accepted that harsh reality as being beyond our control, we channeled all our energy into equipping the participants with the necessary mindset to rise above it all and to be able to influence their respective environment and change it for the better. 

The women were elated about attending these programs as most of them have not ever in their lives been selected to attend a program such as this. Some of these women shared with us the difficulty they faced in getting ‘permission’ from their husbands to attend, and they truly felt somewhat privileged to be there.

It was heartening to see their expressions of gratitude toward the trainers and the organisers at the end of the session. We saw the hunger for knowledge and the need for genuine interaction with others in them and we were glad to have made it possible, though it was just for four days.  

After almost a year (taking into consideration the lockdowns due to Covid19), Skills Academy-Brickfields Asia College, managed to reach out to approximately 250 women, with an average of 40 women in each of the five states. As much as these women took away some valuable knowledge and timely reminders, we the trainers and organisers walked away from it, enriched beyond words.  

I, for one, gained a completely new perspective on the B40 communities in Malaysia, in particular the dilemma of an Indian woman from these communities. They are willing learners and ready to make that change and they need sincere support in helping them make that transition. To stay in touch, we formed groups of five women leaders in each state and till today we would post up valuable opportunities and relevant information that the community may take advantage of.

I am grateful to Mr Raja Singham and Dr. Malar for entrusting my team and I with the project that enabled us to see the other side of Malaysia.