Writing for a Cause: What Drives You?

by Isabel Joy Kua, Ong Yong En, Victoria Junior College

Forget the dramatic sensationalisation of MRT seat-hoggers, petty queue cutters and errant teenage smokers. Prabhu Silvam and Muhammad Afzal bin Abdul Hadi are more interested in bigger issues that provide more food for thought.

Prabhu is a Singapore-based journalist whose works have been featured across Forbes, Esquire, The New Paper  and Singapore Architect Magazine. Aside from this, he has also embarked on projects which focused on gaining a glimpse into the lives of body collectors in Kodaikanal (India) and refugee children in Cisarua (Indonesia). Locally, he has started projects involving Singaporean teenagers who suffer from terminal illnesses and their families, telling their stories one by one.

Meanwhile, Afzal, a Project Manager with The Hidden Good, is passionate about nurturing leaders of tomorrow. He is also a Youth Corps Leader under the National Youth Council, and has led projects and events relating to various sectors of society including Youth, Special Needs and Elderly.

Empathising with the struggles of others through insightful interviews; Humanizing the devastation of war through poignant photography; Empowering the disempowered through the beauty of written words. These are what Prabhu and Afzal have set out to accomplish -- be it through Prabhu's intrepid adventures to ‘off-the-beaten-path’ destinations, or through their heartfelt engagements with members of the local community. They aspire to provide an alternative lens through which we can perceive the world in all of its causticism and callous cruelty, a lens untainted by the reductive simplification of lives into mere meaningless numbers. They aim to enrapture without dramatization and empower without desensitisation.

Embarking on advocacy journalism has allowed Prabhu to go within and beyond the shores of Singapore to understand more about different communities and issues that are close to His heart. During the session, he shared about his journey to Kodaikanal, India to find the body extractors of the area’s infamous mountaintop suicide points. Inspired to do so given the little information about these individuals, Prabhu and his colleague searched high and low for these body collectors. Given the taboo subject of suicide and the corollary cover-ups of incidences revolving around suicide, it proved to be no easy task for them to find these men.

Prabhu has also visited the refugee camps of Cisarua in Indonesia and interacted with child refugees from Iran, Afghanistan etc. The insightful aspirations and hopes of the children have been compiled and published on the website - https://www.refugeesofcisarua.com. Closer to home, he has embarked on a project called ‘On the edge of life’. Through this project, he has managed to gain more insight into the lives and thoughts of teenagers battling terminal illnesses and their families. Disenchanted with the ‘Hollywoodization’ of end-of-life experiences, he aimed to humanize such individuals, in an attempt for one to re-evaluate palliative care through broaching on the taboo subject of death.

Furthermore, after the 2013 Little India riots, Prabhu and his colleague were inspired to gather ground sentiments and provide alternative perspectives to the riots; invaluable insights that may have been drowned out by the scathing and sometimes unfeeling criticality of government officials and academics of sociology. Anecdotes provided by shopkeepers, residents and even foreigners who happened to pass by, were collated into the book called ‘Riot Recollections’

Perhaps Prabhu's areas of interest are not necessarily what we may deem ‘conventional’. In fact, parents and friends would probably raise their eyebrows and provide unsolicited ‘words of wisdom’ if we were to embark on similar projects as well. This is but one of the myriad of challenges besetting journalists. Many  journalists may also actively ponder about the extent to which they should ‘sugar-coat’ realities, and downplay the extent of human atrocities around the world. To Prabhu, the answer is definite. He believes strongly in laying bare the facts and realities of what he has seen and experienced, doing so in an empathetic and educational way. Without such a decision, he believes that we would be deluded by our illusory film of myopia, enclosed in our own silos of ignorance and becoming increasingly distanced from people who suffer from dire circumstantial conundrums.

It is also unsurprising that challenges abound Prahbu whilst he was finding the appropriate individuals who are willing to provide  with insights for his narrative- He vividly recounted his experiences of trying to seek out for body collectors in Kodaikanal. After countless market-hoppings and tongue-lashings by locals, who were repulsed by he and his colleague’s purportedly ‘negative’ portrayal of Kodaikanal, they almost raised their white flags and packed their bags. However, on one of their last days, with a fortunate stroke of serendipity, they chanced upon a body-collector sitting diagonally opposite them in a market teahouse!

Paradoxically, though they intend for such stories to be of a noble and selfless purpose, it can also renege on unspoken norms of ethics. For Prabhu, this was most apparent in their projects on the child refugees of Cisarua and the experiences of Singaporean teenagers with terminal illnesses. Given the deeply personal nature of their experiences, publishing it may seem insensitive, invidious, and even insidious. He managed to reconcile with this by ensuring the centrality of his purpose in his writings - his mission of enrapturing, educating and empowering readers to view the world through multiple perspectives.

With the seemingly endless onslaught of fake news, and the erosion of trust accorded to traditional mainstream media, the nobility of journalism has been seemingly diluted. However, we should not be too jaded, because there are many journalists like Prabhu who dedicate themselves to noble advocatic causes. He is the kind of journalist who inspires us to break out from the comfort of our echo chambers, and advocate for the causes of less fortunate individuals.

Afzal, who has been deeply involved with his works with The Hidden Good, is greatly inspirational too. The Hidden Good is a team of independent undercover citizen journalists with the aim to instill a positive culture amongst Singaporeans as well as to promote the doing of good works by citizens. This organisation believes in bringing attention to these good works and break the preconceived viewing of the Singapore society as apathetic and self-centred; they believe in the inherent good present in each person, and are working towards bringing that good in society out.

He is involved in the production of a catalogue called ‘the good catalogue’ which is under The Hidden Good. This online catalogue includes stories and features of people, with their answers to 4 simple questions, with some examples of these questions being ‘What is the best advice you can give’ and ‘Name one moment that has impacted you’ etc. The short and sweet feature articles aim to provide a glimpse into the lives of individuals in Singapore, presenting them as vastly different people, with varied experiences, perhaps a deviation from the preconceived homogeneity we may view Singaporeans to possess. Afzal believes that there is a need to focus on pertinent issues to change behaviours and the mindsets of Singaporeans and believes in the importance of four values- awareness, understanding, action and advocacy.

The session with Prabhu and Afzal was indeed extremely insightful, allowing us to gain a greater understanding of how writing can be used to shed light on pressing issues around the world and even locally, in immensely compelling ways. May we celebrate the commendable efforts of journalists who write, not for applause, but for a cause. Let us appreciate their work by being active participants in their projects. Let us do justice to their efforts by remembering the stories, and not merely the statistics.