Man at His Best

The Conscious Uncoupling Of Munah And Hirzi

The comedic duo has been producing parody videos on YouTube for 10 years.

BY Wayne Cheong | Jan 24, 2018 | Culture

Photographs by Ronald Leong, Styling by Eugene Lim, Artwork by Priscilla Wong, Hair and make-up by Sha Shamsi using Burberry, Stylist assisted by Joy Ling.

Munah and Hirzi are the self-proclaimed “founding princess and prince” (or, in an updated sense, “founding queens”) of Singapore’s YouTube scene. So, what do you do after uploading about 365 videos, garnering 32 million views and building 144,000-odd subscribers? In Munah and Hirzi’s case, why not end it all? After a decade of YouTubery, the pair are parting ways but trust them not to go quietly into the night...

On Munah: Cotton coat, faux fur coat, leather boots and wool scarf, all by Burberry.

On Hirzi: Cotton coat, wool knitted pullover, wool and mohair trousers, and wool scarf, all by Burberry.

June 4, 2017

Hirzi Zulkiflie greets me in a blonde wig, hair cascading down his shoulders; an electric blue baju kurung wrapped about him. This isn’t shocking. It’s familiar if you’re privy to his and Maimunah Bagharib’s videos on their YouTube channel.

He apologises for not picking me up earlier. “We were shooting,” he says, his phone still in his hand. It is around 4pm and they’ve already wrapped four outdoor scenes and have several more to shoot.

We’re at a terrace house on McNair Road. The two-storey structure decked in the splendour of the colonial and the ethnic is now home to a jewellery shop called State Property that’s run by Hirzi’s friends. They have the place for the day to shoot the final Hari Raya in the City video.

Filming takes place in the kitchen. There, the camera, sound and lighting crew is embodied in one assiduous fella named Dzafirul Haniff. (“Budget lah,” Hirzi offers.) As he frames the shot, the dinner table is a subject for a still-life painting—dishes of tuna, mutton, rice in various tin pots; a label-free bottle of Coke, a Sriracha bottle, a Jacob’s biscuit tin on its side.

At one end of the table, the Makciks take up their positions—Hirzi as Syasya NW; his co-conspirator, Munah as Kathee Staircase; Hubab Hood as Tina Togok; and Nadiah M Din, her pregnant belly concealed behind the spread, as Gina Va Gina. On the other side of the room is a Panasonic GH5 Lumix on a dolly track. Two lights flank the shot.

Hirzi is in “director mode”. His face is a stoic cliffside that crumbles with quick spurts of frivolity. His directions for the scene are succinct and to the point. With a film vision in mind, the volume in his voice is slightly raised as he instructs Dzafirul to get close-ups of the actors eating—their eyes aren’t supposed to be in the frame, just their masticating mouths.

We later learn that it took nothing short of a miracle for everyone to gather today. Most have packed schedules so allowances were made, timings shifted. It turned into a delicate process like breathing life into clay—too much kneading, a wrong turn with the thumb, and the effigy is ruined.

Throughout the day, we are privy to what it takes to create a Munah and Hirzi film. While there are the requisite planning and commitment, an ability to improvise is needed. The production timeline might be finalised but it is not carved in stone; the people involved know that plans are sketched out in wet clay. It also takes a certain amount of shamelessness. You might be asked to plank in a dirty HDB staircase or enter a crowded McDonald’s to sing the opening to Enigma’s “The Return to Innocence”. Or, in Nadiah’s case, a little faith in the sturdiness of furniture as you’re asked to mimic a heavily pregnant Beyoncé tilting back on a chair.

This is a love story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl are seldom apart. Boy and girl spend the next 10 years making YouTube videos. Boy and girl seek to dissolve their partnership. You know, your typical love story.

Munah: I was annoying and he was annoying as well. When we met, it was so great to find someone that I clicked with.

Hirzi: I was already gravitating towards her when we first met during [orientation] camp [in Temasek Polytechnic]. When school started, she was in a different class but I would actively look out for her at lunch.

Esquire: What was it that attracted you to her?

Munah: My beauty. [Laughs]

Hirzi: I can’t put a finger on it. I didn’t know whether she was funny or fun to be with. I was just drawn to her.

Munah: I felt the same way. See, what happened during orientation [camp] is that we had to do something called a “friendship dance”. It’s an icebreaker. The boys and the girls are separated into two circles—one within the other—and they rotate in opposite directions so a different boy and girl interact. My sister who was in Mass Comm in Ngee Ann [Polytechnic] told me that Mass Comm kids don’t go to orientation camp. But I said, “No lah, it should be fun.” And truth be told, during the friendship dance, everyone I met was in engineering, hospitality, whatever, but not Mass Comm. Then, when I got to Hirzi, I found out that he was in CMM (Communications and Media Management) and we started talking for a bit and... it just happened.

Hirzi: It’s like a movie, right? I guess, we’re stars, y’know.

Munah: Yeah, there should be cameras around us.

Hirzi: There are. [To me] Later, you’ll need to sign a release. 

We are at ThaiExpress, chatting and eating dinner before Hirzi zooms off for his next appointment. Watching them, I’m reminded of a vaudeville double act. A veritable Who’s on First routine where the verbal volley is more satisfying than the finish. There’s an easy intimacy between them. It didn’t take much for the initial spark to blossom into an inferno.

Their relationship and interest in video production led to the 10 Dares series on their YouTube channel, MunahHirziOfficial (MHO). Early videos were lacking—the ad hoc camera handling is amateurish, the edits unrefined, but Hirzi cites the stupidity of youth and the lack of prospects at the time as factors behind their decision to embark on what would be 10 years of building the MHO channel.

Success isn’t achieved in a vacuum. Most guest stars in their videos are often friends. Like Hubab Hood, whom they got to know through a New Face finalist, and Nadiah M Din, whom Munah knew through acting. Their stable of friends would soon include the likes of Nathan Hartono, Preeti Nair and Dee Kosh. But the link between Munah and Hirzi has remained steadfast throughout.

Thick as thieves, they are aware of how unique their friendship is, how rare a relationship of this magnitude is. “It’s better than some of the people I’ve dated,” Hirzi says.

Esquire: Back in school, was it always the two of you?

Hirzi: I got possessive with this woman. Everybody needed to assume that when it came to group work, if you get a Munah, you’d get a Hirzi and vice versa. You do not get to split the dynamic, that’s just how the magic was.

Esquire: So, group projects only consisted of the two of you?

Hirzi: I mean, whoever wanted to join the group, could, but at the core was Munah and me. In fact, we’d rather do the work ourselves. You could join us, slack away and get our grades for the hard work that we did.

Munah: We did very well in school.

Hirzi: Munah was on the Dean’s List.

Munah: You did well too.

Hirzi: I mean, I was top-something percent. But not Dean’s List percent.

Esquire: Due to your close friendship, do people assume you guys are a couple?

Munah: All the time. There was a time when we were shooting a video and it called for me to be pregnant. And people actually believed that I was expecting! Y’know who fell for it? Tabby [Tabitha Nauser]! She texted me, “Munah, is this true? If so, congratulations, I’m so happy for you.” 

A nurturing relationship is one where there’s an adequate amount of give-and-take. While opposites attract, there also needs to be an exchange of influence. When they first met, Munah was in dance in CCA (Co-Curricular Activities) and Hirzi was in drama. In 2008, Hirzi was the typical hungry actor, going for auditions, knocking on doors. Munah was interning at CNBC as a studio operator, her mind already made up about settling for a studio job. Hirzi had a role on a TV show and the producers followed up with another role that Hirzi informed Munah about. He nudged her towards auditioning for it, and she clinched the lead role while Hirzi played support.

“It was great,” Munah says, “because, as a kid, I’d always wanted to act but I never knew how to go about it.” Now, Hirzi is more in love with dance while Munah’s focus is on acting. “We’ll exploit our friendship for our career,” Hirzi says. “If there are hosting or acting opportunities that need the two of us, we’ll try that.” But the strength of a relationship doesn’t manifest itself during the good times, it’s the terrible, pressurising ones. And there was an episode in which their partnership took a beating.

June 30, 2017

It’s the night before Pink Dot, the annual event in support of the local LGBT community at Speaker’s Corner. While Pamela Oei leads a contingent of volunteers through the motions on the field, Hirzi rehearses with a dance troupe, along with choreographer, Andreas Chua.

The evening is balmy with a few lights enveloping the crowd in a bubble of illumination. In the middle of a routine, Hirzi, dressed in a YouTube top with rolled-up sleeves, cropped jeans, torn at the knees, and Adidas sneakers, stops. He barks something incomprehensible to the dancers before starting again. He does this several more times.

The music they are dancing to is a medley of gay power songs starting with Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)”. To the average Joe, the choreography of shoulder juts, front ball kicks and turns synchronises with the music, but Hirzi, now with a mic in his hand, isn’t satisfied as he tells them to “start from the top”. Over and over. He doesn’t sound angry but there’s an edge in his voice but at the same time, you can’t take him
seriously. Like an angry face emoji. I’m witnessing a Dance Mom.

A few routines later, Hirzi walks off stage to confront the stage manager about the lighting or the sound. I don’t hear the conversation, but from Hirzi’s gestures, it’s evident that he’s not getting what he wants.

Once more, Hirzi goes through the paces, and the crowd from the field start to whoop and holler. The music segues to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and Hirzi puts the mic to his lips to introduce Tabitha Nauser to the stage.

Later, Hirzi expresses surprise that I was present at the rehearsals. “How long were you observing me for?” he asks. “I hope you didn’t catch me in my Dance Mom mode.”

These are the unseen accords of Munah and Hirzi: during client meetings, if one of them is bothered by something a client has said, he or she pushes his or her thigh against the other’s. Knowing this, the other reciprocates by pushing back.

Another is that their operation is distilled down to a good cop/bad cop dynamic. Munah is the former and Hirzi, the latter, as Hirzi reveals he doesn’t have good social skills when it comes to dealing with clients. So, the gentle, smiling face of Munah is the frontline at meetings. She takes the lead. She’s accommodating to the point of saying yes to just about everything and people sometimes abuse her time, energy and money. And she will take it. But when it gets too much for her, that’s when Hirzi steps in to tell it like it is to their clients. In his own words, Hirzi can be “kind of a bitch”.

During the shooting of the “Despacito” parody, Hirzi lost it at Munah over the choreography; she wasn’t nailing the moves and he snapped at her in front of everyone. Not his best moment, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They used to be sync, but recently, it’s the little things, the miscommunication, the lack of synergy that’s been gnawing away at their friendship. Hirzi suppose that it’s a cyclical thing. Like the old wives’ tale of how a human body is renewed after seven years of shedding its dead cells, he figures that maybe it’s the same with friendship, that it’s time to relearn things about each other. Familiarity breeds contempt and this might make for a case study.

But the biggest factor could stem from the stress accumulated from the closure of their YouTube channel. Actually, that isn’t an accurate descriptor. It’s more like jettisoning it for other endeavours.

Hirzi: We wanted to do a live show a long time ago. That was in… 2013? We were still in college and very green. The live show idea was still undercooked. We were sitting in [Munah’s] car and we came up with a projection on what we could and could not do, what we could achieve. We never had a specific direction. YouTube was accidental.

Esquire: Were you doing your YouTube channel at the time?

Hirzi: We were actors auditioning for TV and theatre, and YouTube started around the same time. We were inspired by Selena [Tan], Kumar and Hossan [Leong] and the stuff that they do. We watched a lot of stageplays back then. [Points to Munah] Which is why she’s very involved with theatre. Then, [in 2011] on her 21st birthday, I bought her 21 gifts. And one of them was this notebook with different tasks on random pages for her to do. And on one of the pages, it said, “Let’s work on a live show.”

Munah: I knew that you’re supposed to go through the pages throughout the year, but I looked at them all at the same time.

Hirzi: Oh, you bitch. You were supposed to read one page a day. Wait. You looked through it and you did none of it?

Munah: We’re doing this show, right?

Hirzi: That’s true.

The live show on January 24 is the capstone to their illustrious YouTube career. Prior to the event, videos are uploaded as a send-off to the characters; each clip ends with a montage of the original video of said character. Hirzi, who is editing the clips, cringes at the archival footage. “If there’s anything that we regret, it is the choice of taste,” he says. Munah adds, “We were super confident about what we did at the time though. We were doing our shit. We were funny. We were beautiful.” “I can’t wait for the day when we laugh about this live show 10 years down the road,” Hirzi avers.

Held at The Capitol Theatre, the entire production is the first on such a scale for Munah and Hirzi to tackle. They reveal that they are nervous, terrified even, but they can’t show this fear to people. Even during the conception stage, against well-intentioned advice, they decided to go ahead with it; they don’t know how they will pull it off but they’ve always managed to. “And besides,” Hirzi says, “we’ve announced it so has to happen.”

Producing a live show might be a stroll in the park when you compare it to their past film projects: seven videos shot in three days; “Minahconda”, a music video parody of “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj, was conceived and made in a week. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that they are applying this independent, guerrilla methodology to a stage production. If you ask Hirzi, he’ll say that the entire operation is very millennial-run. They’ll call in favours, rope in friends to help them. Everyone knows one another on the team, it’s very mishpocha. They see it as a collaboration, asking even the multimedia crew what they want to see in a show. “We want all of us to work together and, at the end of the day, look at it and say, ‘Yeah, we’re proud of that show’,” Hirzi adds.

August 20, 2017

Hirzi is having doubts about whether this is how he wants to send his characters off.

It’s a rare pocket of respite with him as we wait for the fire alarms to quiet. We’re on the second floor of the Mamanda Restaurant where Dzafirul, looking a little more tired than usual, is fixing his shot for the next scene.

But before I can even answer, Hirzi shakes his head at his self-doubt. Coincidentally, the alarm cuts out. We find out later that it was triggered by the heat from the studio lamps though no one can be sure.

It’s near the tail end of the shoot, this time a parody of Kendrick Lamar’s “Be Humble”. The room looks like something out of a painting—a single light source from behind large, red curtains slices through the dark and bathes Munah in its glow. The smoke machine to the side hisses a plume of vapour before it spreads into a fog.

Munah, in a white dress, stands askance in the path of the light. The music plays, the camera starts shooting and she starts gyrating to the beat, but Hirzi isn’t convinced by her swagger. “Cross your arms lower,” he tells her from behind the camera. “Lean back a little more.” Munah adjusts herself but she still has trouble pulling off a hip-hop vibe.

Hirzi positions her arms and returns to the camera. This takes several takes. Tension is pulled taut as Hirzi is reminded that he has work the next day and just wants to get this over with. They review the tapes and rehearse until, finally, they get the take.

Later, during dinner, the conversation somehow takes a detour to the animated movie, The Prince of Egypt. Eyes like saucers, Munah exclaims that they love the movie and proceeds to demonstrate exactly how much by singing the opening song, “Deliver Us”.

It has a strange, almost bemusing effect—two Muslim kids singing a show tune from a film with Judeo-Christian motif.

Esquire: Do you have haters?

Hirzi: Of course.

Munah: We have so many. What are you talking about? Is this a trick question?

Esquire: Who’s the biggest one of all?

Hirzi: Probably the conservatives from the Muslim community.

You can’t please everyone and, for Munah and Hirzi, most of the displeasure comes from within the Malay community. Some of the videos are social issues and poke fun at long-standing belief systems. They are aware of the buttons being pushed and the disruption of comfort zones with their activism. Like the decision to support Pink Dot.

Hirzi: The Malay community was quiet about Pink Dot when it first launched. Then, when we became ambassadors, they had to say something because two brown faces were endorsing Pink Dot and anything that questions or breaks away from their religious norms is touchy for them.

Esquire: Did you get the support that you needed from your family?

Hirzi: They didn’t resist it and that, to me, is the biggest support, especially when you come from the Malay community. My family knows what I do, what I stand for, and it’s already hard that they have to deal with their peers about it.

Munah: My siblings are always encouraging. My parents, though, are pretty conservative, but what I appreciate about them is that they understand why I do what I do. So, that made things easier for me.

Esquire: The two of you were supposed to appear at Pink Dot in 2015. Hirzi turned up but Munah didn’t.

Hirzi: It was more difficult than people thought it was. We had death threats…someone spat coffee on my face. Friends who saw it wanted to share it on their social media feeds, but I didn’t want that. We didn’t voice out our troubles at the time because we don’t want the kids who are gay or are supportive of gay rights to be discouraged. If they see the tribulation in just speaking up for gay rights, they are never going to be comfortable with themselves.

Munah: Every night, we’d meet up and go for a drive. We weren’t talking; we were just crying from how tough it was at the time. And it was also very difficult for our families. With mine, my dad took it personally and, at that moment, my priority was my dad and I wanted to appease him.

Hirzi: Both our parents expected us not to show up at Pink Dot. That was the weekend of my sister’s birthday and we had to celebrate it at the chalet. I hid all my pink attire at the bottom of my bag and disappeared from the festivities, and they knew why. When it came time to make an appearance on stage, I told Munah that it’s fine not to walk out with me; one of us just had to show up. So, Munah was backstage the entire time, but she couldn’t give an endorsement in public because of the trouble she’d be in at home.

Esquire: Munah, are your critics more vitriolic because you’re a woman?

Munah: I block my haters out as noise, but it’s annoying because they’ve always picked on the way I dress and things like that.

Hirzi: Munah has been a target for the last 10 years with people critiquing what she can and cannot wear. To be clear, we stood up for tudung rights. We believe you should be allowed to wear what you want.

Munah: I grew up believing that your religion is your own. No one has the right to judge you however you choose to practise it. People are so close-minded that when they hate on you, they will do so regardless. No matter how much you try to explain your stance, theirs will always be, “No, you’re wrong, I’m right.” It’s not difficult to me but it’s just something that’s... there.

Hirzi: There should be a discussion about allowing a Malay Muslim to live secularly if [he or she] wants to. Religion doesn’t run Singapore like it does Malaysia or, at least, the mindset of the majority of Malaysians. We always say that we’re racially and religiously tolerant, and I have a big issue with the word “tolerant”.

Esquire: You want “acceptance”.

Hirzi: Acceptance is hard. I want inclusivity. Where you can practise your faith and I can practise mine, and we co-exist in the same space. I say this again and again, from Reza Aslan, “Democracy is not a buffet, you can’t pick and choose where it applies to your rights for.” [Note: The paraphrase is from an open letter by religious scholar Reza Aslan and comedian Hasan Minhaj about supporting the LGBT community. The actual quote is: “Democracy isn’t a buffet. You can’t pick and choose which civil liberties apply to which people. Either we are all equal, or the whole thing is just a sham.”] Munah: We’re not trying to bring any religious community down.

Hirzi: And we’re not telling you to be less Muslim or less Christian. We’re not telling you to be more liberal or gayer. We’re just here as activists. I’m glad that we did this and not have to hide like some of our Malay artiste friends do. They are supportive but they can’t articulate it, and it’s sad. They are conflicted. They hang with us, but when it comes to voicing support, they stay mum.

Esquire: So, if you’re all for the cause, why quit? You have a voice that speaks to the next generation.

Hirzi: If we continue running the torch, the next generation will be complacent. “Don’t worry, Munah and Hirzi will do it.” If you want someone to step up, switch off the tap. If they are thirsty enough, someone will provide the water. The people who watch us are getting woken up, one video at a time. It could be Preeti, it could be Youtiao666, it could be Dee Kosh. Someone will step up.

Hirzi recounts an incident where he was shooting a documentary in the Castro district of San Francisco. At opposite ends of a junction, a Pakistani family and gay parents with their child start to cross. Curious, Hirzi observed the scene to see what would happen should their paths intersect. As both families neared, they acknowledged each other and exchanged a few pleasantries. It is possible, Hirzi thought to himself, that such a world exists.

December 13, 2017

A photo shoot needed to accompany this article. But due to Munah and Hirzi’s schedules and our own, we finally had to settle on a five-hour block at midnight after their nightly dance practice.

The industrial building where the shoot takes place is tombstone-quiet, but step into the studio and the silence is broken by barking laughter from Munah and Hirzi at the make-up table. We’re shooting them as their respective characters, but our photographer, Ronald Leong, wants to elicit sombre emotion from them since they are being “killed off”.

The transformation is almost instantaneous. As soon as the wigs and the costumes go on, their characters materialise and they converse with us in their roles.

There is one particularity. When Leong asks for their last words before he takes the images, some were ripostes that rake laughter from those present, but there are others that feel not much of a departure from what their real selves might say. As though they are able to speak their peace through the mouths of their characters. In one intrinsic moment, the topic shifts to Pink Dot and Hirzi, who is attired as Syasya—blonde wig and skimpy top, fierce as the devil—lets loose several projectiles, each hitting the mark of some hidden truth. “I don’t give a shit about the haters because we’re going to open up this close-minded landscape.” “Syasya isn’t afraid of your hate.” Then, Leong asks Syasya what’s the one thing that she’d like to see. She pauses, which is unusual because she’s always quick to answer. Something changes in the air; the mood dips and Syasya replies that she wants her father to accept her for who she is when she comes out to him.

With a click and Leong captures that moment of vulnerability before thanking Syasya for her participation.

Later, when quizzed on what transpired in there, Hirzi says that Syasya’s answer is based on the experience of his friend Muhammad Khairul Ikhwan, an artist and a drag queen. Khairul was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and given two months to live. Even with the grim prognosis, Khairul’s father remained distant. After suffering a sudden seizure, Khairul was warded at Singapore General Hospital. Munah and Hirzi rushed over to visit him and bumped into Khairul’s father. They expected him to rebuke them as “the ones who took Khairul to Pink Dot” but instead he said that he’d just applied lipstick to his son’s lips. Khairul passed on soon after that.

Hirzi’s eyes shine when he tells that story. Maybe it’s something that he wishes for himself, maybe it’s something he hopes for other people, that before the setting of the sun in one’s life, they are able to find some sense of closure.

It feels like it’s time to end it all. Put the kibosh on the YouTube channel. At this stage, Munah and Hirzi have already achieved a modicum of success and traction in their own careers. Online is something that they stumbled into, making films and mistakes, all in the hopes of shifting to a mainstream platform.

And the true test of strength comes after they leave the Internet behind. Can you still make art? Sure, Munah and Hirzi acted or produced to some degree in other mediums but the safety net of YouTube was always there. They have dipped their toes in the water and found it inviting; now, they need to be thrown in at the deep-end.

Hirzi: There’s this co-dependency between Munah and I. It’s a link that works and it’s magical, but I don’t know if, after the show, whether I can put things together the way Munah could for me.

Esquire: And still you’re willing to close the door.

Munah: I don’t think we’re closing the door.

Hirzi: It’s more like breaking the shackles so as to run further. Our channel faced hate from many conservatives and haters; we got pulled from Suria in 2012 but we went on to bigger things, bigger paychecks. This is what happens when you have a best friend with you; you can run in any direction and further than ever before. And now, we’re going our separate ways.

A big reason why there’s an audience for their work is their chemistry. It’s honest. It’s the kind of intimacy that friends share. They know each other’s schedule because they have been embroiled in each other’s day for the last 10 years. Now they want to experience being independent entities.

They had a taste of it when Hirzi moved to LA for school. They did their own thing, lived their own lives and it felt... freeing.

Munah: As much as everything is online and being watched, there’s something about having a friendship without the scrutiny.

Hirzi: It’s almost a given that if you were to meet me alone, the first thing you’d ask would be, “Oh, where’s Munah?” And it happens to us all the time. Not that we hate it but we wonder what it would be like to be recognised as individuals.

There’s a word, “cleaving”. In one definition, it means “to divide, to split” and, at the same time, it also means “to adhere to, to remain faithful”. It’s a contronym, a Janus word, and it’s fitting for what Munah and Hirzi are doing. The carefully orchestrated scaffolding of their online lives will fall and, when the dust clears, they will live normally as friends. They will discover new things about each other. This severance will bring them closer together.

But what will make them return? What can entice them from honouring the sanctity of the sunder? What can pull them in from the cold? The prospect of a movie starring the two of them? Hirzi quickly dismisses it but then thoughtfully adds, “Unless it’s by Jack Neo.”

Imagine that: Ah Girls to Minahs.

This feature was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, January 2018.