By ROSE YASMIN KARIM
He’s bubbly with a big heart. While Iskandar Syah Ismail loves to tickle your funny bone, there’s a serious side to him too.
When he puts on his red foam nose, suspenders and puffy pants, Iskandar Syah Ismail is Dr Bubbles, the clown doctor, trained to amuse sick patients in hospitals.
“It was Patch Adams (the movie staring Robin Williams) which piqued my interest in ‘hospitality clowning’,” says Iskandar.
From being a self-taught jester, the 33-year-old signed up for a week-long camp at the University of Wisconsin to study the art of being a caring clown. In 2005, he enrolled in a theatrical clowning workshop by physical comedy instructor, Avner Eisenberg, at Celebration Barn Theatre in Maine, France.
His antics have brought humour in the darkest of times, cheering up children affected by the 2004 tsunami up north, earthquake victims in Bam, Iran and bedridden patients in intensive care units.
But his toughest act yet was to bring cheer to 10-year-old Elisha Thovuud on his birthday last year in Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, Sabah.
“Elisha suffers from medullablastoma or brain cancer which took away his eyesight. For any clown, entertaining a visually impaired child is a big challenge. Thankfully, Hilary Chaplain, an American friend who is a clown doctor with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit in Seattle, came up with some terrific ideas — a fart machine did the trick!”
When this big man with a big heart is not tripping over his oversized shoes, he is the head of fund development for Islamic Relief Malaysia, a British-based humanitarian Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
“When I was studying engineering in Bradford, UK in 1996, some friends and I collected warm clothing and sent it by the wagonload to the Islamic Relief branch in Mannigham Lane in aid of the Kosova refugees. That experience became the turning point of my life.
“I switched from engineering to social work,” he recalls.
His parents, however, weren’t amused at the prospect of their son “clowning” around.
“My father’s initial reaction was: ‘Are you joining the circus?’,” he grins.
But it was the words of his former professor, the late Dr N. S. Tavare, that nudged him into it.
“He told me, ‘Go and find your calling young man. Don’t be like me. I am stuck here’.”
When Iskandar was a child, his father, a former headmaster in Pahang, appointed him the school library’s key keeper.
“I would be in that room for t to three hours every day,” says Iskandar, whose favourite reads are John Wood’s Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children and The Clown Doctor Chronicles by Caroline Simonds and Bernie Warren.
Books were a constant in his life, and it is little wonder that the social cause closest to his heart is the Orphanage Library Project.
The project stemmed from a personal quest at age 19, when he was preparing for his A-Levels in Shah Alam.
“A bunch of like-minded friends and I raised funds and books for a village library in Kg Banggol Sembilan, Kuala Nerang, Kedah. We wrote letters to the Youth and Sports Ministry, as well as a few local publishers seeking sponsorships. The Ministry donated RM9,000 and we received boxes of books from publishers like Dewan Bahasa and Fajar Bakti. We even had money leftover, which we gave away to poor school children.”
After a 10-year lull during which he completed his undergraduate studies, served for two years as an English trainer to Laotian diplomats and senior government officials, and worked with the National Cancer Council (Makna), he set up a second library in Bait Al Amin orphanage in Bota, Perak.
Through his blog postings he raised RM2,000 for the library.
From there, the project took off, gaining momentum through word of mouth.
“Donations poured in amounting to almost RM10,000 — enough to set up libraries for two more orphanages: Rumah NurZaharah in Kampung Janda Baik, Pahang and Rumah Nurul Hidayah in Bukit Gantang, Perak,” he says.
“However, after the fourth library was set up in Asrama Bakti Orphanage in Machang, Kelantan, people began questioning whether the cause was genuine,” he recalls.
This prompted Iskandar to tie up with Islamic Relief Malaysia.
“Now all funds are channelled through this foundation and registered donors are given a completion report, receipts and photos. Our budget allocation for each library is between RM9,000 and RM10,000, which will get us chairs, tables, shelves and a minimum of 1,000 books.”
Orphanages, Iskandar points out, don’t have books.
“One I visited had about 10 beat-up books and an annual report sitting on a dusty bookshelf. That was pretty much it.
“The orphanages lack resources. From experience, stocking one bookcase with children’s books could cost RM3,000. The other problem is also due to lack of expertise by the orphanage administrators,” he relates.
Islamic Relief Malaysia takes the process of finding deserving orphanages seriously as they do the process of raising funds.
“Our criteria for setting up a library is the level of support from the orphanage management, and the space available,” says Iskandar.
With the aim of having one library for each orphanage in Malaysia, Islamic Relief Malaysia is tackling the project state by state, starting with Perak.
“Smaller, rundown orphanages is our priority. We are also identifying multiracial orphanages that would require our help,” he adds.
Some of the better-off orphanages, says Iskandar, have excess to food but not proper libraries with good books.
“One orphanage had bags of rice in storage that reached the ceiling! The staff had to bring the bags home because they had run out of space.
“And, at an orphanage in Tambun, Perak, the kids were splashing about in puddles because they had nothing to do.”
Aside from cash contributions, Islamic Relief Malaysia also welcomes book donations, but only new ones.
“Orphans should be treated like our own children. Second-hand books don’t do them justice. We are actually quite reluctant to accept used books because from experience, only 10% of the books can be salvaged. The rest — like outdated magazines, tattered workbooks and other inappropriate materials — end up being recycled,” says Iskandar.
“We have to address this public mentality that orphanages are dump sites. When we do get used books in good condition, we sell them to raise money to buy new ones, which is my favourite part of the whole process.”
On Iskandar’s shopping sprees, customers at bookshops would sometimes offer to sponsor books when they learn about the library project.
“Now we buy the books directly from publishers like PTS Publications and Utusan Publications at discounted rates.”
Iskandar is picky when it comes to the books.
“I choose titles from a wide range of subjects, authors and themes — fiction, motivation, career, spiritual, preparation materials for exams — books kids can get excited about.
“We also expose them to national laureates like Datuk A. Samad Said, Usman Awang and Arena Wati. Ninety percent of the titles are in Bahasa Malaysia to strengthen their existing knowledge and the remaining 10% are English books with plenty of illustrations. The Malay translation of Adventures of Tin Tin and Harry Potter are always a hit with the kids.”
Every book, says Iskandar, has a message hidden within the pages.
“We have to be sensitive about the choices we make and be aware of the gender, age and stereotype messages of our selection,” he opines.
The orphans are also involved in the setting up of the library, helping volunteers unpack the books, arrange them on the bookshelves and keep the area clean.
“Entrusting them with the responsibility of taking care of their own books gives them a sense of pride and joy. It’s wonderful to see their faces light up when they curl up with a good book,” he adds.
The Orphanage Library Project promises to have a lasting effect.
“Books can inspire kids to work harder, and the motivation that comes from having an inviting and happy place to relax will affect these children’s lives. From time to time, we do follow-up visits of the orphanages to restock the books.”
When he’s not dodging questions about his single status, Iskandar — as morbid as it sounds — likes to go for a stroll in cemeteries!
“Tanah Perkuburan Jalan Ampang is my favourite spot, but of course, I only go during the day. You may think it’s weird but I just find the inscriptions on the tombstones interesting. It tells a story about the person,” says the third of seven siblings.
In his bucket list of must-see places? Commonwealth War Graves.
“I’ve been to the one in Taiping and I hope to visit the others in Somme, Belgium and Normandy, France someday.”
If you don’t count his unconventional fascination for graveyards, Iskandar is just a regular guy. He is proof that you don’t have to collect an inheritance — or be Angelina Jolie — to make a difference in a child’s life.
Should you wish to read more about the Orphanage Library Project, visit Dr Bubbles’ blog at drbubbles.blogspot.com
To make a contribution, visit the Islamic Relief Malaysia website at www.irm.org.my and click on the Orphanage Library Project Link. You will be asked to fill out a form and mail it to the following address, along with a cheque/bank draft/postal order issued to:
Islamic Relief Malaysia
31-7, Jalan SP2/1
Taman Serdang Perdana
43300 Seri Kembangan
Tel: (03) 8948 6334
Fax: (03) 8948 7339