Heroes are born all the time, often in the shape of ordinary people performing extraordinary endeavours. Such is the story of the three young founders of Discover Muaythai, a martial arts academy in Puchong.
Discover Muaythai is the brainchild of one of its founders and chief executive officer (CEO), Imran Harith, who, while on a trip to learn the art of Muay Thai in Chalong, Thailand, was impressed by a group of humble and disciplined children helping out at a gym there.
Imran was shocked to learn that the children ranged from orphans to victims of human trafficking and domestic and sexual abuse, from cities around Thailand. Children saved from these situations are being sent by the Thai government to certain Muay Thai training centres around the country, to help rebuild their lives.
This gave Imran the idea to pioneer such a project for troubled children in Malaysia.
At that point, Muay Thai had already made inroads in Malaysia, but public perception was that it was all about violent fighting in the ring. In truth, Muay Thai teaches many values, the core value being, respect. It is for this reason that Muay Thai proponents do a dance called the “Wai Khru Ram Muay”, a ritual performed by fighters before a fight to pay homage to their teachers and family, to bless them with victory.
With this deep understanding, Discover Muaythai was founded in September 2015 by Imran, Sanul John, the chief sustainability officer (CSO) and Khairul Azri, the chief operating officer (COO).
Discover Muaythai is a sports social entity that aims to empower at-risk and underprivileged Malaysian youth aged 15 – 22, by improving their socio-economic standing and self-development through values ingrained in Muay Thai such as discipline, self-confidence, respect, resilience, leadership and honour.
All three founders are Muay Thai practitioners and each comes from a very different background. Khairul, from Kampung Pasir in Segambut, known for its notoriety, rose above his situation to graduate with a degree in TESOL.
The 31-year-old energetic COO of Discover Muaythai says, “I feel like our path was charted by the divine. We had the inspiration to do this but our reasons were different. I grew up as an at-risk youth so I understand. For quite a few years now I have been engaging with underprivileged youth from both rural and urban poor communities, but I needed a tangible initiative and that happened with Discover Muaythai.”
Imran, 30, holds a degree in Public Relations while 33-year-old Sabahan Sanol, is a political science graduate. Of the three, Imran has the most experience in Muay Thai.
Muay Thai began as a professional fight sport with no achievement levels or belts, unlike other martial arts. The technical progression of the athletes/students of Muay Thai is divided into levels of knowledge called Khan.
Out of a total of 15 Khans, the three friends have reached Khan 6 and have obtained relevant certification from Persatuan Muay Thai Malaysia to train others. They do not intend to get into combat fighting, rather, aspire to pursue higher levels of Khans in Muay Thai for the purpose of training youths.
The trio met when rendering their services to myHarapan, an NGO dedicated to supporting youth projects and initiatives. They adopted myHarapan’s advocacy of social entrepreneurship and social business to start their own social enterprise where Muay Thai became their platform to kick start youth empowerment.
With their exposure at myHarapan and their experience in dealing with youth, they managed to identify a common problem between poor urban and rural youth. “These boys from a young age become involved in social ills such as drinking, smoking, doing drugs, bullying and joining gangs and committing criminal activities, to taking part in illegal racing.
“However, from our research and observation, we found they have tremendous potential, just not the support to go beyond the classroom atmosphere. They also learn differently and are inclined towards alternative education such as the performing arts, music and sports. This is why we decided to use Muay Thai as a platform since it has the requisite qualities to bring out their capabilities,” explains Khairul.
Discover Muaythai started its pilot programme upon obtaining a grant from myHarapan in 2015. They partnered with the best in Muay Thai, the Dragon Muay Thai Club in Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur.
At the start of each programme, Discover Muaythai selects eight boys from poor, broken homes and troubled families. The boys are interviewed to ensure they have the determination and commitment towards the four-month programme. During this period, the participants stay at Dragon Muay Thai Club’s dormitory where food, lodging, basic Muay Thai training, fitness training, English and entrepreneurship classes are provided for free.
The boys are kept busy throughout the day with numerous activities, starting with a jog in the morning, cooking their own meals, giving back to community by volunteering at Discover Muaythai’s partner NGOs and other team and character building activities.
Discover Muaythai has been lucky to have the support of other individuals, such as Puan Dalila [affectionately called “Ibu” by the boys]. With her more than 20 years of experience in corporate training and also in dealing with troubled youth, Dalila handles the psychology aspect of the boys.
“Upon completion of the programme it is hoped the boys return to school and further their education. This is Discover Muaythai’s intended outcome but should the boys decide not to return to school, they can work with partner NGOs or with Discover Muaythai as co-trainers,” says Khairul.
Although Discover Muaythai has successfully completed three years, the academy is not without its challenges. Aside from the challenge of finding boys who are able to commit to the lengthy four-month course, the founders are hard-pressed to generate income to keep the programme going.
The big challenge is in balancing social initiatives with business acumen. In its initial stages, they were not making profits and each founder had to make personal financial sacrifices.
Khairul adds that it doesn’t stop there. “A big challenge is keeping track of the progress of participants once they have moved on, to ensure that they do not revert to their old habits. Running the programme for four months also means we have to make sacrifices on family time as our full concentration is on the programme. Dealing with the boys can be tough because they can be rebellious, and, have to be handled with care.”
Nevertheless, Discover Muaythai’s success stories outweigh their challenges. All past participants so far have moved on to better things and lead more confident lives. Khairul proudly highlights that some have pursued tertiary education, others have joined the workforce making decent earnings and yet others have gone on to local and international level Muay Thai competitions representing their state and Malaysia, even obtaining gold medals.
Discover Muaythai itself is going places, with Imran being appointed Chairman of “Sport is Your Gang”, a global initiative of the Muay Thai industry targeting youths from challenging backgrounds, encouraging them to play sports, specifically Muay Thai.
Aside from this, Discover Muaythai has also been receiving invitations from universities and corporate entities to conduct mobile training at their sites. Due to the high demand for a similar programme for girls, Discover Muaythai aspires to achieve this in the near future, apart from improving existing facilities to accommodate more boys into their annual programme.
Clearly, Discover Muaythai’s young fighters are kicking and punching their ways to finer lives.