It wasn’t a scene you would expect in a Muay Thai gymnasium in the heart of Bukit Bintang.
Nine teenagers, armed with a book and pen each, were seated right in the middle of the training area, engrossed in a group activity when they suddenly stopped to greet their new visitors at Dragon Muay Thai Club at Jalan Alor.
All nearly clean shaven, the boys lined up and quickly introduced themselves to Malaysia Mixed Martial Arts Association of Malaysia president Rashid Salleh and this writer with much humility.
When they are not training for Muay Thai, they are busy injecting good vibes.
These boys are known as ‘Batch 4’ from Discover Muay Thai.
One of them Aziz (not his real name), who turns 20 on April 17, dropped out of school at the age of 15 after failing his PMR examinations.
“I was bumming around and then realised I was interested in vocational stuff and wanted to study IT (information technology). So I enrolled in a college when I was 17,” said Aziz, whose father is a retired policeman while his mother works as a security guard at a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur.
“I dropped out of college after my family couldn’t afford the RM2,700 fees. So I got involved in drugs, mainly ice. I started selling and consuming. I was even sent to a correctional facility in Puncak Alam twice.”
Aziz recalled he was at the correctional facility when he was involved in a trip to Johor for an event. There he met a counsellor whom he called ‘Ibu’ (mother).
“There were some kids with punk hairdo in various colours during the function and I paid no heed to them. They were part of another group.
“I then met Ibu and she told me those kids were eager to start a new life and I was then intrigued to know more.
“After the function and when I was back at home, Ibu reached out and introduced me to Discover Muay Thai. It’s been a wonderful journey since.”
Aziz and his Batch 4 mates started staying at Dragon Gym since last week.
Co-founded by Imran Harith, Discover Muay Thai is a social enterprise that started in 2015 with the goal of providing opportunities to street kids and troubled teens.
“Our youngest participant was a 14-year-old and the eldest is a 31-year-old who are part of this batch,” said Imran.
“We select eight teenagers for each batch. It’s an academy for the underprivileged and each batch session lasts between three and four months. The selected few will work as trainers at our gymnasium in Puchong, here in Dragon Gym, or become personal trainers for individuals and corporations,” he added.
Discover Muay Thai’s star athlete is Awangku Abdul Rahman Awang who hails from Bintulu. He was part of the second batch and went on to represent Malaysia in Muay Thai at the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines.
“the idea is not to solely turn them into athletes. It’s about getting them off the streets, out of poverty and to do something beneficial with their lives.”
Imran said it was tough introducing the concept during the early days as many shied away.
“Some even thought I was trying to build my own gang, a cult,” he laughed.
“They were wondering what I was doing with a group of boys of different races and backgrounds, all bald and learning Muay Thai.”
Imran said he and his team reached out to several families living in People’s Housing Programme (PPR) flats to understand why teenagers there resorted to joining gangs or got involved in crime. They even stayed with some families for a week to get a better feel of the environment.
“It’s because they waste their time doing nothing. They then become gang members as they are comfortable in their area. The units are small, about 700-800 sq ft and some homes have eight people living within. When domestic fights take place, it gets ugly.”
Imran said he knocked on many doors only to receive a big no.
“I then met Dragon Muay Thai owner Leko Beh and made a deal with him. He understood the concept and believes that everyone is equal. So all of them have to shave their heads bald to be the same and cut off links with their past gangs.”
Equality is also seen within the gymnasium as Buddhist statues greet visitors at the counter while there is also a Muslim praying room.
“And the Kuala Lumpur Baptist Church is around the corner. We also have an ustaz (religious teacher) who comes once a week.”
Imran said the boys were being trained to integrate with society.
“They stay with us for about three to four months and they work … they man the counter at the gymnasium, they help customers during training, some are tasked to wait downstairs to escort women customers to the gymnasium and there are those who will cook and even clean toilets.
“They also do gardening, undergo English language classes, attend counselling sessions and take care of our rabbits!”
Imran said this will enable them to learn a thing of two about management, public relations and appreciating those around them. It also gives them a sense of responsibility and dignity.
“We also find job opportunities for them and encourage them to study or find jobs too.”
Today, Discover Muay Thai enjoys support from Food Aid Foundation while glove manufacturer Hartalega is their main sponsor. They work closely with non-profit organisation Chow Kit Youths while doctors from Hospital Beyond Boundaries check the boys regularly.
Discover Muay Thai did train girls during a one-off programme in Bestari Jaya.
“The plan is to grow Discover Muay Thai to have a base in Langkawi and in Sabah or Sarawak.
“We monetise our efforts through Muay Thai classes or through corporations that hire our trainers on a retainer basis. A portion of the earnings goes back to the boys’ welfare like their books and equipment.”
“I know money is important but doing this provides me great satisfaction,” he added.
As for Aziz, his immediate plan is to get his 16-year-old brother, a school dropout who is not doing anything at the moment, into the programme.
“I want to be an inspiration to my younger brother. I want him to join us as early as next week. I may not end up as a Muay Thai athlete but perhaps this will open other opportunities for me and my brother.
“I’ve stayed clean from drugs and I like the changes I see in myself. I want to prove to my friends that I can change … that I will change to be a better person,” Aziz added.