Rhythm of Freedom – musical pathways for prisoners in Malaysia

A Rhythm of Freedom music class at Sekolah Henry Gurney juvenile detention centre in Melaka

A groundbreaking scheme in Malaysian prisons, Rhythm of Freedom, is giving inmates a chance to use music as therapy, skill-building and a path to a new career and income once they have finished their sentence. Karen Stretch investigates.


It sounds like the synopsis of a Hollywood film: music teaching is brought into a prison, the inmates learn to play instruments and sing and, over time, develop their skills so that they can rejoin the outside world reformed, positive and ready to earn and contribute to society once more.

But this is no rose-tinted drama of winning against the odds. In Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu Central Prison in Sabah, the first phase of a pilot project, Rhythm of Freedom, has just been completed, with a group of 40 prisoners learning the violin using the Suzuki method. They have already performed at prison ceremonies, with instruments being donated to the prison and regular training sessions proving the highlight of the week for those involved.

1,000 inmates in the first five years

A joint private initiative between Malaysia Music Teachers Training College (MMTC) and Sabah Prisons, the aim is to work with 1,000 inmates in the first five years. The driving force behind Rhythm of Freedom, MMTC Executive Director, Peter Chua, has no doubt that the project will gain momentum, with hopes that it will expand across Malaysia, Asia and, in time, the world.

Peter Chua (third from right, front row) and the Rhythm of Freedom team giving a Project Presentation to the Director General of the Malaysian Prison Department
Peter Chua (third from right, front row) and the Rhythm of Freedom team giving a Project Presentation to the Director General of the Malaysian Prison Department

‘In just three to four months’ time we could already see the transformation of the prisoners’ lives,’ explains Chua. ‘We can see so much difference. They are smiling and checking when we are coming in to train. Every day, they practise for hours and we are also training the wardens and trying to put a project together to lobby the parliament to fund all the prisons in Malaysia.’

A refreshingly modern approach

Currently working in three adult prisons in the area, it is no surprise that Rhythm of Freedom is under close scrutiny from the Malaysian government. On the back of the pilot’s success, a partner project is also being launched in two juvenile prisons, Sekolah Henry Gurney (Melaka) and the Puncak Alam prison, where 100 under-21s will be given the chance to follow a similar path in just three years. Supported by the Malaysian Prison Department and the Rotary Club of Metro Kuala Lumpur, it offers a refreshingly modern approach, in a prison system where the style of reform has traditionally been harsh and old-fashioned.

Handing over the first batch of violins to the Malaysian Prison Department
Handing over the first batch of Rhythm of Freedom violins to the Malaysian Prison Department

‘When we talk to politicians they are all excited and are watching us to see what we can do,’ says Chua. ‘We can save the country money. Restorative justice is in the news and so we are also educating the politicians and the parliament: instead of punishing, we are giving a chance for prisoners to earn money and pay the victim. I think the politicians are seeing the positive side.’

Rehabilitation can be achieved with discipline and self-esteem

With a similar blueprint, both the adult and juvenile Rhythm of Freedom schemes are based on the premise that rehabilitation can be achieved with discipline and self-esteem.

Phase 1 involves a programme of self-discipline and training, Phase 2, developing motor skills, handling instruments and learning to play, sight-read and understand theory. Phase 3 moves into music technology, composing and programming, with Phase 4 focussing on instrument-making, repair and maintenance. The final phase consolidates the previous work, culminating in national qualifications in piano teaching, tuning and business skills, priming the inmate to be ready for work with the building blocks to create a career, an income and to move in a positive direction.

A practice session with Malaysia's National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage, ASWARA, at Sekolah Henry Gurney in Telok Mas, Melaka
A practice session with Malaysia’s National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage, ASWARA, at Sekolah Henry Gurney in Telok Mas, Melaka

After release, juvenile participants will receive a Certificate of Participation from the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) and professional board qualifications and will be continuously monitored by the Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF).

The scheme is also a timely response to the nationwide shortage of music teachers in Malaysia, while the country’s music education is being targeted by the government, with MMTC central to delivering music training and teaching.

A national accreditation scheme and music entrepreneur training programme

Under the leadership of Peter Chua, MMTC is introducing a national accreditation scheme for music centres and private music teachers. It is also expanding its music entrepreneur training programme nationally (outside the prison scheme) and launching mobile apps for both inmates and free citizens, to support efficient administration and promotion.

With such far-reaching goals, it is easy to forget that the prison project has small steps too. Day by day, inmates are joining the musical experiment and finding challenges and changes which would previously have been light years outside their experience behind bars.

A music class
A Rhythm of Freedom music class

‘The first important thing is that when music was first introduced, prisoners found the passage of time much easier,’ explains Chua, who has visited prisoners on the scheme to record the first-hand impact. ‘They stopped feeling as frustrated and found that every day they were looking for new challenges so it was a very touching experience for them.

‘Before, when they looked for a job after being released, they were told ‘you are a prisoner’. Now we are telling them: ‘You can be the boss, you are the entrepreneur’ and you can see the effect for them. It’s like: ‘Wow – I can be a boss, I can earn money!’’

Impacting both prisoners and the notoriously strict wardens

With a ratio of 30 inmates to one trainer, there are three to five trainers visiting the prisons weekly for Rhythm of Freedom sessions lasting several hours. The impact of the scheme is not only on the prisoners but also the notoriously strict wardens, with a bond being built between the two and a positive effect on mental health already being felt for all involved.

This ties in with the Malaysian Prison Department’s forward-looking goals under its current Director General, Dato’Sri Hj Zulkifli bin Omar, of nurturing productive individuals through integration. The organisation has publicly committed to provide integrated rehabilitation programmes for all inmates based on the Department’s Human Development Plan.

The Rhythm of Freedom team was invited to join the Minister of Youth and Sports at Sekolah Henry Gurney for its Yellow Ribbon project, an initiative to provide employment opportunities for former prisoners
The Rhythm of Freedom team was invited to join the Minister of Youth and Sports at Sekolah Henry Gurney for its Yellow Ribbon project, an initiative to provide employment opportunities for former prisoners

With such holistic and wide-ranging effects, Chua is optimistic that Rhythm of Freedom will appeal much further afield. ‘The Philippines and Thailand have musical schemes within their prisons but they are based just on performing,’ he says. ‘This is something different, with the aspect of entrepreneurship, so this is more intensive.’

Rhythm of Freedom – a model for other countries to follow

He is currently working on a paper for the other nations to look at so that Malaysia can be a model for other countries to follow. ‘Personally, I want to see it set up in every corner of the world in prisons, to learn the soft and hard skills as well,’ he says. ‘We spend about 60m ringgit (£11.5m) a month on our prisons and if we can transform them with music, how much can we save the government and the tax payer?’

Reform systems around the globe will, undoubtedly, be watching the results with bated breath. Not to mention a few Hollywood producers on the hunt for a tale of beating adversity and coming out on top. You read it here first…


About the author

After cutting her teeth on the pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.

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