The Kuala Lumpur most visitors see is a city of towering skyscrapers, shopping malls, glitzy bars and hipster cafes.
However, there is another side to the Malaysian capital. After most residents in the city of 7.2 million have made their way home at night, others come out of hiding and start looking for a place to sleep. It could be a bench, the steps of a building or an alleyway. Their beds are old strips of cardboard or discarded rags, while an arm serves as a pillow.
The city’s homeless population has been growing at an alarming rate. According to the latest figures made available by Kuala Lumpur City Hall, the number of street sleepers rose from about 600 in 2014 to more than 2,000 in 2015.
In January, to lend a helping hand to those living on the fringes of society, social enterprise Yellow House KL launched a programme called Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur. Its mission is to improve the employment prospects of former street sleepers in the capital by training them to become tour guides. Once trained, the guides have the power to transform their lives and gain a measure of financial stability.
Candidates for the jobs are recommended by a government-funded rehabilitation camp for the homeless called Kem Pemantapan Jatidiri (self-identity strengthening camp).
“Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur consists of walking tours created, designed and led by the former street friends of Kuala Lumpur,” says Shyam Priah, the founder of Yellow House KL.
“It is based on one simple ideology: who knows the streets better than the street people?”
The Unseen Tours take participants to unique and interesting places not seen by those signing up for conventional tour packages.
“It makes the tourists’ experience more exciting and memorable,” Priah says.
Priah came up with the idea a while back, but it only took off after she roped in Volunteering for International Professionals (VIP) – a government initiative to create a pool of talented professionals who are passionate about sharing their expertise and experiences. VIP helped Priah design the tour programme.
When it comes to selecting the tour guides, Priah says:
“They have to be free from substance abuse, have a certain education level and possess passion, commitment and discipline.
“Chosen candidates go through a random urine test every month to ensure they are substance free.
“They also attend counselling sessions and engage in social responsibility activities for emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.”
The candidates must be Malaysian nationals and able to speak English.
“This is paid work for the guides,” says Priah. “They receive 60 per cent [of the fees]. The rest is retained by Yellow House KL to help others who join the programme.”
According to Priah, the response so far has been good. Since it was launched, more than 100 tourists have made bookings.
“The testimonials and public perception have been encouraging. We have also been approached by heritage and tourism organisations in neighbouring countries [inquiring about] how similar initiatives can be started there to increase the employability of the street community,” she says.
Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur offers three distinct walking tours: a haunted tour, a street art tour and a multicultural tour.
“In the haunted tour, tourists are taken to places and buildings in Kuala Lumpur that are rumoured to be haunted. The street art tour takes tourists to see the creative murals in the city, while the multicultural tour brings them to places with rich cultural diversity,” Priah says.
“These tours are different because they are crafted and created by former street people, who know every nook and corner like the backs of their hands.”
Each tourist pays RM55 (US$13.60) and the tours last up to two hours.
Josh Kam, a 56-year-old former kitchen helper, is one of the guides. He lost his job after an accident and his life began to spiral out of control. He met Shyam and was introduced to the Unseen Tours programme.
“When I was young, I was very interested in being a tour guide, but never got the opportunity. After I was introduced to this programme, I decided to give it a try,” says Kam.
“Yellow House KL has strict guidelines for training guides. We were sent to tourism classes and counselling sessions, and were asked to participate in social responsibility events as part of our capacity building.
“At first, I was not sure if I would be a good guide, but the training I received equipped me with sufficient knowledge to break the barriers and alleviate my fear of not being a good guide because of the stigma and discrimination street people always encounter.”
Kam, who is a quick learner, says he has picked up six languages and dialects: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien. He credits the programme for giving him the opportunity to transform his life.
“I can give something back to society and strive to achieve financial stability. I used to be a loner, but now I mix well with people as I meet a lot of tourists from different countries. I also teach voluntarily at a refugee school that is managed by Yellow House KL.
“One of the things I like about my job is that I get to share stories about social issues, such as homelessness in our country and in the tourists’ countries,” Kam says.
Nur Iffah Najat, another guide on the programme, was initially nervous when asked if she wanted the opportunity to train as a guide.
However, the 23-year-old wanted to see an end the poverty that had long been plaguing her family, so she took the chance.
“I felt more confident after going through the training programme, and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was on the right path. I am currently pursuing my studies in linguistics and my financial stability has improved, thanks to the initiative,” Najat says.