From The Straits Times    |

She started off as one-half of Munah Hirzi, a local duo that drew hundreds of thousands of viewers to their YouTube channel for their outspokenness and humour. Since retiring from the video-sharing platform in 2018 to pursue her personal and professional goals, Munah Bagharib has graced our TV screens as a presenter and actor, and starred in a number of theatre productions.

Most recently, the 35-year-old was selected to be part of the cast of Hotel, a new play by local theatre company Wild Rice. The month- long theatrical event, which ends on July 8, is described as “an immersive, multi-generational epic (that) explores the notions of empire, nationhood, migration and identity against the backdrop of a shrinking world”. She had previously starred in White Rabbit Red Rabbit (2016), a play by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, which revolves around the theme of individual and personal freedom.

Besides her work in the arts and entertainment industries, Munah is an ambassador for Dementia Singapore. She also speaks openly (and sometimes with a touch of humour) about important issues such as mental health on CNA’s Talking Point and Instagram (@munahbagharib).

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Speaking her mind

Right away, Munah comes across as warm, friendly and bubbly. She is cheerful and chatty, and is candid as she tells us about her carefree youth and growing up in Tampines with her parents, sisters and brother.

But Munah wasn’t always as outspoken. As a child, she says that she was more “guarded”, rarely sharing her thoughts and feelings with anyone.

“I had two sisters but they were much older, and until my little brother came along, I had to find ways to entertain myself, so I was used to being on my own a lot,” she explains.

“I also wasn’t open with my emotions when I was a child. I was expressive in that I loved to laugh, and I didn’t have a problem making friends, but when it came to discussing my personal issues I was shy and not much of a sharer. Plus, I didn’t want to burden other people.

“My problems at the time weren’t unusual compared to other Singaporean students – I dealt with study stress and the pressure to excel. I studied hard but never achieved the results I wanted. That bothered me but I kept my feelings to myself.”

Munah adds that her father, who was a businessman in the sports industry, was quite opinionated when it came to current affairs and world issues. She remembers him telling her that it was okay to speak her mind, but that it was important to do so respectfully and responsibly. He also told her to be prepared for not everyone to agree with her every time.

It wasn’t until she graduated from Temasek Polytechnic that Munah found her voice and started to express what was on her mind.

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In 2008, together with close friend and fellow Communications and Media Management graduate, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Munah created a YouTube channel which later got the attention of Singapore’s youth.

“At first, Hirzi and I just wanted to share funny content. Then, we decided to talk about important issues, such as the general elections, LGBTQ+ rights and foreign worker rights, but with humour. For instance, we’d do music parodies and skits about those topics; these garnered a lot of interest and encouraged people to talk about the messaging behind them.

“Our videos received plenty of positive feedback, and we realised that people really cared about what we had to say.”

In 2015, Munah and Hirzi were invited to their first meet-and-greet at the YouTube Fanfest in Singapore. There, the duo met their followers – mostly teenagers and people in their early 20s – who opened up about the issues they were dealing with personally.

“They shared about struggling with their identity and with finding their place in society,” Munah says with a serious tone.

“Hirzi and I realised that our YouTube channel had evolved, from a place where people could watch funny videos, to a safe space in which they could just be themselves and discuss what was on their mind. I thought back to my own childhood, when I used to keep things to myself, and wondered what it might’ve been like if I’d had a similar outlet.”

Raising awareness about issues close to her heart

Munah began her career in the arts in 2008 and says that her current job as a presenter and actor has helped her open up and express herself more. She is still “a little guarded personally” but has found that the arts are a great way to bring up important issues in a creative way and to get people thinking and talking about them.

Munah isn’t just interested in discussing issues. She’s also dedicated to helping people who may be affected by them.

“I’m interested in many issues, like mental health, homelessness and other problems faced by low-income families, and dementia,” she offers.

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“Over the years I’ve met and listened to many people and learnt about their experiences. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to speak on their behalf, to raise awareness of what they were going through, and to direct them to organisations that could help them.”

Munah has struggled with her own mental health in the past, so she understands what it’s like to live with anxiety and stress.

When she first started in the arts industry, she was a freelancer, so her income wasn’t stable. When she did land jobs, she put everything she had into them, but at the expense of her health.

“I was burnt out. I wasn’t good to myself. When the pandemic started and life everywhere came to a standstill, the stress hit me hard all of a sudden and I really struggled,” she explains.

“At first I journaled my feelings, but later I opened myself up to therapy and mindfulness sessions. I also shared my feelings with friends who’d attended therapy and realised that speaking up about mental health had become more acceptable; there didn’t seem to be much of a stigma surrounding it.

“My therapist also helped me with my journaling – she advised me to journal not only when I felt bad, but also when good things happened in my life. When I re-read my journal entries now, I can see how this period was quite balanced.”

“Now, when young people approach me to talk about their depression, stress and anxiety, I listen to them and share my own experiences. I also suggest tools that I think they could use, like breathing exercises to help release stress, and something called ‘mindful showering’, which is super-calming because you have to focus on the water hitting your skin.”

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Giving a voice to caregivers of dementia sufferers

Munah also empathises with people who look after loved ones with dementia. She gets tearful and emotional when she mentions her own mother, who was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia in her early 60s, and the challenges their family has had to face since.

Once a sharp and quick-witted woman, Munah’s 67-year-old mum now has trouble communicating with and understanding others. While it’s been difficult seeing the older woman anxious and confused at times, Munah says that her family does whatever they can to make her feel safe, supported and loved.

“My dad, brother and I are her primary caregivers so we take turns being with her.

“It’s not easy watching her struggle but sometimes she laughs at herself so we laugh along with her. There are definitely challenges in looking after someone with dementia but our family looks for the good bits, too.”

When her mum first received her dementia diagnosis, Munah says that everyone in the family was scared and worried. She acknowledges that caregiver burnout is real and stresses the importance of caregivers educating themselves about dementia and asking for support if they need it.

“Even if you know you’re doing your best, it’s easy to assume that you’re not doing enough.

“But, as frustrating as the journey might feel at times, you shouldn’t be hard on yourself. Looking after someone with dementia can be especially difficult if you’re on your own, which is why you need to access resources and reach out to communities or organisations for education, caregiving services and support.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help because you cannot do everything alone and it’s not healthy to suffer in silence.”

Munah turned to Dementia Singapore for information when her mum was diagnosed with the condition. They gave her plenty of advice, the most important of which was to ask for support. She is now an ambassador for the social service agency and plans to continue raising awareness about dementia, reducing the stigma around it and changing the way we see caregivers and caregiving.

How to express oneself respectfully

In her interactions with young Singaporeans, Munah says that many struggle with defining themselves and carving out their place in society.

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“They find it hard navigating this world, with all its influences and complications, while being true to themselves and sticking to their values and beliefs at the same time.

“They might feel a certain way but society tells them it’s wrong, and that’s when they start to feel conflicted.”

But she says it’s important to talk about how you’re feeling, whether via an online community or with friends, so that you don’t feel alone in your struggle. Some topics, such as sexuality and religion, may be seen as touchy or controversial, especially when discussing them publicly or on social media, but she believes that you can still make your views heard without crossing the line.

“If you have something to say, don’t just blurt it out. Do your research first. Know exactly what you want to say and what you want to achieve by saying it. Get other people’s feedback before putting your views out there publicly. What you share should have substance. And no matter what you say, you must accept that there’ll be people who will disagree with you.

Through her work in the arts, Munah hopes that she inspires others not to shy away from talking about what matters, and to be encouraged to create conversations about issues that they’re passionate about.

“It’s great to see more young people making their views heard these days. That said, if you’re uncomfortable about sharing your opinion in public for whatever reason, then don’t. You shouldn’t feel pressured to speak up just because others are doing so.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Ivan Teo
MAKEUP Fiona Bennett