Art Culture International

Does slavery exist in Malaysia? These ex-slaves share their answer through… dance??!

Most Malaysians would think of slavery as something that happened in the past, like the African slaves in the US, because the thought of people who are forced to work with no rights or salary at all seems a out of place in the modern world.

So you may be surprised to know that slavery is something that still exists; and it’s happening right here in Malaysia. 

To give you a quick overview, the recent crises involving the persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar and the acute poverty in Bangladesh has seen an influx of refugees making their way to Malaysia in hopes of seeking shelter or a new home. Unfortunately many of them are dependent on human traffickers for the journey and, instead of freedom, many end up in slave camps along the Thai-Malaysian border where they are starved, abused, and sold to buyers. The severity of the situation was highlighted by the discovery of mass graves in Perlis believed to contain hundreds of bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshis.

While numerous articles have been written on the subject (including 4 by CILISOS alone), one Malaysian theatre production company is taking a slightly different approach to the topic.

They’re letting these refugees tell their stories to audiences around the world, but in a really unexpected way…


Their stories will be told though……. dance??! In a container?????!! 😯


Image from TerryandTheCuz via Kickstarter

Yep, SK!N is an upcoming show by local theatre production company TerryandTheCuz that uses contemporary dance to convey what these refugees had to go through to make their way into Malaysia. While we can’t tell you if the show is good or not (for reasons that we’ll get into later), what we can say is that we totally approve of anything that uses exclamation marks in their name…

Cilisos exclamation


So… why dance anyway? So artsy fartsy one? Sorry la we’re not a very cultured bunch and the only dance we know is the hokey pokey or Macarena.

Turns out, there’s actually a very practical reason for it – the language barrier. After interviewing almost a hundred victims, they were surprised that only a handful of refugees could verbally tell their stories, and even then in broken English or Bahasa. Almost 90% of their communication was done through body language, with some showing the physical effects (like scars) of the journey on their bodies.

“… Some of the armies were putting people in the boat and telling them ‘whoever wants to go to Malaysia, get in’. So I got in. I was on the boat for one month. We didn’t have any food. For fifteen days we just drank one cup of water. And in the boat they used to beat us up a lot. Sometimes, they [the traffickers] would kill people for no reason.

I called home after reaching Malaysia. My mother said ‘I don’t know where your sister is anymore, I think she got killed and your younger brother was also killed as well. Don’t come back or they will kill you too.'” – Azim (not his real name), Rohingya refugee, as related by TerryandTheCuz

We also know that the show takes place in a metal container (because, y’know, smuggling), but TerryandTheCuz were very coy about the actual details of the show because it’s meant to be an immersive experience so telling you too much would be a huge spoiler. When we asked exactly how the refugees are involved in the show, their answer was expectedly vague:

“The trafficked persons play a significant role in the work. Through the process the audience will come into contact with them whether they realise it or not.” – TerryandTheCuz

However, you can view their trailer video with footage from a test run below for more clues on what to expect:

The next thing we wanted to know was why they chose the refugee issue of all things, and what they told us was that…


The idea for the show come from the most unexpected of places


Heres what the metal container looks like. Image from TerryandTheCuz via Kickstarter.

In 2014, Terry and his cousin (hence the name, we think) were trying to come up with an idea for a new production that was could tour around the world, so it had to be “global, relevant, and deliver a strong message”. Little did they expect, the answer was lying under their feet the entire time:

“TerryandTheCuz’s office is actually located above an industrial laundry in Subang. We’ve known the workers for a while and one day just in passing conversation; we asked them about their journey to Malaysia. We found out that almost all of them had arrived into the country through illegal schemes, and the ones who had agents had their passports taken away and bonded as slave labour. In total they had been in Malaysia for up to 5 years as permit-less migrants. Some of the stories were horrifying.

Slowly we started chatting to foreign workers at various other establishments and to our horror 70-80% had similar early experiences to the workers at the laundry. The scale of it was immense, and that was when we knew we had a strong message that had global relevance.” – TerryandTheCuz, in email interview with CILISOS.

They approached Tenaganita, an NGO that works extensively with migrant workers and refugees, who agreed to put them in touch with other victims of trafficking and the various migrant communities living in KL.

They also got a number of big names involved in the project, such as award-winning sound designer David Franzke, Australian choreographer Ashley Dyer, and Malaysian performers Suhaili Micheline, Wong Jyh Shyong, and Ren Xin Lee. Sounds like a show that’s good to go, right? Well….


They suddenly lost a huge chunk of their funding…

no funding oprah

Despite getting some seed funding for SK!N from the Department of Arts and Culture (yay!), the scope of the project required TerryandTheCuz to approach private organizations for additional money – not an easy task considering how sensitive the matter was. But after the discovery of the mass graves in Perlis the task became downright impossible, leaving them about RM92,000 short for the KL and Australia shows alone. 

After several more attempts to secure the finances needed for the production – including doing more corporate stuff just to fund their research – they came upon the idea of getting funds from the public using Kickstarter.

…so they need ugaiz to help support them!

By the time this article is out, the Kickstarter campaign would have ended. The good news is that last we checked, they were pretty close to reaching their goal – sooooo… fingers crossed reached their goal!

But what you CAN do is to support the show when it opens in KL from August 9th – 13th. Here be the details:

  • Ticket price : RM80, with RM10 going to Tenaganita for every ticket sold.
  • Location : Art Printing Works (APW), 29 Jalan Riong, Bangsar.

You can check out their event page for more info but even if you can’t make it, do help spread the word (or better yet this article) around to support TerryandTheCuz’s unique attempt to bring awareness to the refugee issue, if not the blood, sweat, and semangat that they have put into making this project happen.

“Ultimately, we needed this work to be made more than any of our other previous projects because of the important message that it carries, one that we are confident will resonate with people all over the world.” – TerryandTheCuz



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