(Zaedi Zolkafli is the founder of FelixEntertainmentDotCom and The P Ramlee Cyber Museum)
1 July 2015
P. Ramlee, Malaysia's Foremost Artist Mistreated
By Zaedi Zolkafli
Last year, on 16 April 2014, was the 50th anniversary of P. Ramlee’s homecoming to Malaysia. That day passed by quietly and forever forgotten in the country’s history. The Asia’s Most Versatile Talent Award winner made a hasty decision to leave Singapore after completing his last film at Jalan Ampas Studio called Tiga Abdul (lit. Three Abduls) that he saw for first time when it was cinema released in Kuala Lumpur on 22 April 1964. Upon his migration to Malaysia, he was issued a Persekutuan Tanah Melayu (The Federation of Malay States) identity card dated 16 June 1964 bearing the name Ramli bin Puteh @ P. Ramlee with his race identity conspicuously blank in the relevant section.
This Indonesian lad (whose father arrived in British colony of Penang from Aceh) won his first singing contest as a member of Pemuda Indonesia Keronchong Party in Penang before making his fame and fortune in Singapore. At a tender age of 19 he rose to become the biggest star attraction amongst the pool of talents from all over Nusantara Melayu (the local name for Malay Archipelago) residing in Jalan Ampas. The initial 'P' in Ramlee’s name became synonymous with 'Pujaan' (Idol) in Malay. He went on to win many local and international awards for songs and films that he created.
In the run-up to his return to Malaysia, P. Ramlee was conferred the position of 'Sergeant Titular' by the Malay Army Regiment in appreciation of his role in Sergeant Hassan (1958) that boosted the morale of its ranks. He was later bestowed the Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN) by HM King of Malaysia Tuanku Syed Putra Jamallulai on 27 September 1962. A lower standing award that does not carry any title and recipient number unlimited. P. Ramlee was also photo'd with his wife Saloma having tea with the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. This “close relationship” between the trios became a wicked gossip by an Indonesian magazine during the confrontation years that followed the formation of Malaysia.
History has dictated that P. Ramlee's biggest mistake (personally and professionally) was his come back to Malaysia. He had a flawed vision of making Kuala Lumpur into the next film center. Starting with the unrealized dream of his own Perusahaan Filem P. Ramlee to take over that tiny Merdeka Film Studio in Ulu Klang. Followed by formation of the Malaysian Film Industries (better known as Perusahaan Filem Malaysia or PERFIMA) with several ill will friends. Finally, the launching of Rumpun Filem Melayu in August 1973, not after his sudden death months earlier.
P. Ramlee would celebrate his 86th birthday if he is still alive today. He died young at the age of 44 on 29 May 1973. The passing of a broken hero. In the last days, he was rejected by his former employer, booed by his old fans and gradually forsaken by junior colleagues. Worst of all, neglected by those in power.
A true patriot, P. Ramlee featured a 'Hotel Malaysia' mock-up in his film, Nasib Si Labu Labi (lit. The Fate of Labu and Labi) released April 1963, even before the federation of Malaysia was formally declared. Taking scenery shots of Kuala Lumpur's spanking new landmarks for one of his first Merdeka Film Productions, Masam Masam Manis (lit. Sweet Sour) in 1965. Exploring multi-racial theme in no less than two drama films not much later. Performing a Joget duet with wife Saloma about the newly Malaysia in yet another. But his love for the country was all in vain.
The legendary P. Ramlee is the epitome of a great Malay sidelined by the UMNO political circle. His futile mistake trying to get into politics, contesting for the party’s division chief of Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur and lost. He performed on stage during election campaign for then youth chief Harun Idris, who became Chief Minister of Malaysia’s richest state of Selangor. Harun would return a favor to P. Ramlee many years later, promising to officiate the launching of Pawagam Rumpun (lit. Rumpun Cinema), abruptly renamed Pawagam P. Ramlee after the artist’s untimely death. The country also boasted having the only sitting Prime Minister with film script credit for two Malay epic color, Mahsuri (1958) and Raja Bersiong (lit. Vampire King) released 1968. It might be the Tunku’s displeasure at P. Ramlee’s hesitance to be involved in his second film. But the final blow to P. Ramlee when he was told off by second PM Abdul Razak Hussein that “You sudah tua” (You already old).
Malaysia mistreated P. Ramlee. He was never allowed to host musical program on the Government owned Radio Television Malaysia (RTM). He appeared on two television dramas, one of which was cancelled mid-way. The original tapes might been rerecorded for other programs to save material cost because of shortsighted. While his wife Saloma was shooting TV shows, P. Ramlee would spent waiting at the studio’s canteen. Twenty-five years after his death, all station channels controlled by the UMNO-led Government stopped air playing Azizah, the song about a pretty girl that put P. Ramlee on the road to fame. Funny thing, the original lyrics had “mata kamu yang bulat” (your eyes are roundish) that is unlike the Chinese-looking wife of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which is THE subject of a ban.
P. Ramlee’s first film with Merdeka Studio, a sci-horror called Sitora Harimau Jadian (lit. The Tigerman), was banished (sic) after it was passed for cinema screening in 1964. Another film Minta Nombor Ekor (lit. Asking for Lottery Number), a comedy that is part of Ragam P. Ramlee (lit. P. Ramlee’s Melody) released shortly in 1965, was officially banned. His adult drama films oddly missing. Together with his best and most controversial Dr. Rushdi (1970), a beautiful thriller with that usual Hollywood plot - adultery, deceit, con artist, murder and conflict. Yes, these are films that P. Ramlee made in Malaysia. Fallen victims of local harsh ruling on “Sex, Horror and Violence”.
Amazing, how an original work that was passed by old Censorship Board would be collecting dust and become lost forever during quarantine for the second round. Self-censorship by Government and private stations further distorted the artistic expression. Once, an urban TV in dire state had to resort to showing P. Ramlee movie combined with unnecessary cuts to maximize commercial time. Similarly, the guardian of moral in RTM did foolish when the station scissors the horse racing and jolly scenes in Ibu Mertua Ku (1962) that cut logic to the main plot. An old favorite, Sabarudin Tukang Kasut (lit. Sabarudin the Cobbler), is no longer shown on TV with many segments in VCD version literally 'black out' for public view. Apparently, the powers that be are scared of criticism from a dead person. Is it not a sign that 2020 Malaysia’s censorship (read: the country) becoming regressive?
Unlike the good old days when we grew up watching hundred Malay classics, RTM now play rerun of just a dozen popular P. Ramlee movies (of total 66) until we get sick. The weekly slot is on workday night when the children gone to bed thus lessening exposure to young generation. In my book, Koleksi P. Ramlee (Felix Entertainment 2011/2012), I had listed ten challenges in developing the P. Ramlee contents such as setting up a film repository, restoration of old film, reversing censorship, digital preservation, greater accessibility and global campaign. But what can we expect from the Government agencies that are either lost, lackluster, lackadaisical or all of the above.
Over past 15 years I had proposed to the relevant agencies, Archive of Malaysia (Arkib Negara), National Film Board of Malaysia (FINAS), Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) and the Communication and Multimedia Commission (SKMM), a variety of P. Ramlee projects ranging from web portal, collectors’ book, digital documentary and a film remake. There were no official reply, nor invitation to make a presentation. Won’t help when the deputies are lazy, arrogance, pompous and when short of stupid reason, become rude to you. All end-up as my private initiatives without help from nobody. It hit on me that the lousy people and their master don’t give a damn about P. Ramlee.
Of course, there is a whole housing estate, roads, halls, studios and other trivial renamed after P. Ramlee. On 6 June 1990, Mohamad Nasir P. Ramlee received on behalf of his father, the Panglima Setia Mahkota medal. The country’s second highest award carries the honorific title ‘Tan Sri’, normally trendy for retiring politicians and corporate top brass. First time ever, given to a dead person 17 years after, in appreciation of his great contributions to the industry. It quickly become the latest museum collection for public display. Never mind that Runme Shaw, co-owner of Malay Film Productions, got his Tansriship much earlier on 2 June 1965 just before Singapore’s split in the federation. No posthumous 'Datukship', 'Honorary Doctorate' or whatever rhetoric is worthy for a fame artist but his original work of arts. Especially P. Ramlee.
Things must be so tough for P. Ramlee that he just survived less than ten years back home. He made 18 memorable films and guest starred in three more at Merdeka Studio. His newer works never made it as official entry much more to win at film festivals. In retrospect, there is “systematic conspiracy” against P. Ramlee. The final days, he was tormented by a court case as joint guarantor for restaurant loan taken by a film colleague from the Government's Malay Aid agency. Some saying this what triggered a heart attack before the hearing that morning. He died penniless. Taking with him a failed ambition and many shattered dreams. Leaving behind a local film industry that would never gain its former glory. And, a shameful nation that never learn to value the greatest son during lifetime or give right kind of respect after his death.
Zaedi Zolkafli is founder of The P Ramlee Cyber Museum (www.p-ramlee.com). He is also author of Koleksi P. Ramlee (Felix Entertainment 2011/2012) and producer of Rencam Rencana Seniman Agung (1929 – 1973), a 10 mini-series book video to be launched anytime.
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