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The times they were a-changin (P.

Written by Dr Timothy P. Barnard
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 16:06 - Last Updated Sunday, 13 November 2011 13:08

ONE of the most important cultural figures in Malaysia today is a person who passed away
almost 30 years ago. His work, however, can still be seen throughout the country, and his
popularity is confirmed by the continued presence of his films and music on television and radio
in Malaysia and Singapore, while VCDs of his films are easily available. Most Malaysians
would have little difficulty identifying his picture or voice. His name is P. Ramlee. Born
Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Puteh on March 22, 1929, in Penang, Ramlee was a
multi-talented artist who would come to dominate the Malay-language film and recording
industries in the 1950s and '60s. Ramlee came from a traditional Malay family and started his
singing career in Penang. Arriving in Singapore in the late 1940s to work as a backing
singer in the films produced by the Shaw Brothers Organisation, he slowly broke into the
film industry, initially playing bit parts. By the early 1950s Ramlee had established himself as a
charismatic singer and actor, whose popularity led to an increasing role in all aspects of
filmmaking, where he left his mark on the cultural and social history of Malaysia and Singapore.

Malay filmmaking and Singapore

Malay language film production in the 1950s was centred in Singapore. The two main studios
producing films for the Malayan market were Cathay Organisations' Cathay Keris and the
Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Production Studios. These two studios eventually produced over
200 films in the 1950s and '60s. Although there was little difference in the stories, acting
and quality of the two main studios, Cathay Keris was perhaps best known for its pontianak
(vampire) series while the Shaw Brothers was the home of P. Ramlee. Between 1948 and 1964
Ramlee would eventually appear in 43 films for the Shaw Brothers. Working from their
Jalan Ampas studios, Ramlee directed 16 of these films, and directed one other film (Pancha
Delima - 1957) in which he did not appear. In addition, he often wrote the scripts, while
also composing and performing the music that would appear in the film.
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The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
Written by Dr Timothy P. Barnard
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 16:06 - Last Updated Sunday, 13 November 2011 13:08

The film world that Ramlee worked in was a multi-ethnic environment. Initially, Chinese studios
hired Indian filmmakers and technicians to shoot stories starring Malay bangsawan
(traditional theatre) performers. Many of the early films had a distinct Indian cultural flavour, with
the songs and dances often associated with Indian film. As Malay films grew in popularity,
however, there was a movement to have more Malay control over their content. This was
related to larger movements involving nationalism, modernity and culture in Malaya during the

Questioning modernity and traditions

The golden age of Malay film production occurred during a period of monumental social and
political upheaval, as residents of Malaya had to deal with a communist insurgency,
modernisation, and questions over the future relationship between Singapore and Malaya.
Among Malay intellectuals one of the most important organisations was Asas 50 (Angkatan
Sasterawan 50 or Generation of the Writers of the 1950s), whose members were artistes and
writers who wanted to question many of the basic assumptions in Malay society. The
members saw themselves as frontline warriors promoting a modern society, but also
questioning some of its basic elements. Their critique of British rule and modernisation, as well
as ''feudalistic'' elements of Malay society, resulted in a period of artistic renaissance
among the urban-based Malays of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.Spearheaded by the
Singapore Malay Journalist Association, and the work of Asas 50, there were strong
nationalistic feelings that were expressed in the desire that Malays should direct their own
films, which should represent ''true'' Malay society and culture at that time. As Ramlee once
proudly proclaimed: ''My art is not for money, my art is for society.'' To this end, he tried to
portray the ''common'' man and the problems he encountered in a rapidly changing community.

In the early 1950s Ramlee portrayed the young hero in a series of films that quickly solidified his
status as a rising star. This popularity was supported by his growing status as a musical
artiste. Ramlee recorded more than 350 songs, many of which were integrated into his films. He
used his growing popularity to secure the right to direct a film on his own. This was the
beginning of the most productive period of Ramlee's career, from 1955 to 1963, during
which he made many films that are considered to be classics and he was able to address the
issues that confronted Malay society.

The first film Ramlee was able to control fully as a director, screenwriter and actor was Penarek
Becha (1955), which portrayed the difficult life of a trishaw driver in a modernising society.
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The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
Written by Dr Timothy P. Barnard
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 16:06 - Last Updated Sunday, 13 November 2011 13:08
He went on to mix his unique brand of humour, song, and drama into a series of internationally
award-winning films, including Anakku Sazali (1956), Bujang Lapok (1957), Sergeant
Hassan (1958) and Ibu Mertuaku (1962).

Penarek Becha, 1955

In all of these films, Ramlee focuses on the problems that many Malays were experiencing in
balancing a traditional life with the pull of modernity. For example, the main female
character in Penarek Becha, Azizah (played by Saa'diah), must negotiate her position between
the demands of urban society, represented by her father and the material riches
surrounding her, and the kind trishaw driver who shows her the communal spirit of the
kampung. In this respect, Ramlee was able to capture many of the complex and
ambivalent feelings that Malays were experiencing during the 1950s. In the process, he
effectively dealt with many of the same issues that the more literary Asas 50 had. He had,
however, conveyed the message to a much larger audience, while also entertaining them
in a style that was uniquely his own.

Move to Kuala Lumpur

Despite his success, Ramlee always felt that his artistic potential, and the monetary rewards
due such a star, were limited by the studio system in Singapore. In the early 1960s there
was a series of strikes against the Singapore studios with employees asking for higher wages
and better working conditions. In 1964 Ramlee moved to Kuala Lumpur, where he was to
be an integral part of the new Studio Merdeka. The loss of such an important star, and the
continuation of the labour disputes, led to the closing of the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film
Production studios in early 1965.Ramlee made 20 films for Studio Merdeka, but they never
reached the quality or popularity of his work in Singapore. By the early 1970s film production in
Malaysia and Singapore had almost come to a halt. Television had spread throughout
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The times they were a-changin (P. Ramlee)
Written by Dr Timothy P. Barnard
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 16:06 - Last Updated Sunday, 13 November 2011 13:08
Malaysia, while Hollywood, Hong Kong and Bollywood productions became the staple diet
at local cinemas. When Ramlee died in May 1973, much of the energy and charisma that he
had brought to Malay film production also passed on.

Ramlee's legacy as a multi-faceted artiste, however, continues to entertain countless people
throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. While we can laugh, cry and sing
along with the films and music of Ramlee, these forms of entertainment also reflect the changes
Malay society faced in the 1950s and '60s, thus providing a window into the past.

* Timothy P. Barnard is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the National
University of Singapore. He is the author of Raja Kecil dan Mitos Pengabsahannya and his
research focuses on Malay social and cultural history.Millennium Markers is a weekly series that
looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the
last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF -: Through the lenses of movie cameras, one man captured the turmoil and
excitement of a modernising Malay society in the 1950s and '60s. In this week's Millennium
Markers, TIMOTHY P. BARNARD looks at the socialogical aspects of the works of P. Ramlee.

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