As the Eid al-Fitr beckons each year in mostly-Muslim Malaysia, street traders typically take it upon themselves to set the mood by playing a plethora of festive songs for the celebration, known simply in the country as “Hari Raya”.

At my usual Friday morning hangout at the Kampung Berjaya Flea Market, aside from evergreens like Sharifah Aini’s Suasana Hari Raya, M. Nasir’s Satu Hari Di Hari Raya and Wan Aishah’s Pulanglah, Sudirman Arshad’s 1984 ballad Balik Kampung is a clear favorite.

During our hour-long sojourn, my friend, a diehard Sudirman fan, claims that not even Malaysian silver screen legend P. Ramlee was as popular in Asia during his time as Sudirman was during his brief 16-year career.

“With 20 albums and 70 songs to his name, Sudirman received more accolades over a wider spectrum of musical genres than any other Malaysian artiste. Despite singing principally in Malay, he performed to audiences in Hawaii, Melbourne, Tokyo, Dubai, London and even Russia,” he adds proudly before putting me up to the challenge of finding out the two major setbacks that badly impacted Sudirman throughout his life.

Curiosity piqued, I headed straight for home after completing the rather extensive flea market circuit and impatiently began seeking out information about the five-foot odd diminutive dynamite’s glorious moments from among the rows of reading materials on the shelves in my study.

Although most of my references relate to Malayan matters well before Sudirman’s time, fortunately several Mastika issues and New Straits Times Annuals spanning more than a decade from the early 1980s allow me to amass a sizable pile to train sights on.

EARLY LIFE

Sudirman’s amazing story begins with his birth on May 25, 1954 in Temerloh, Pahang. He was the youngest of seven children born to Arshad Hassan and Ramlah Dahlan. Arshad, who was a businessman as well as vice chairperson of the Temerloh Town Council, thought highly of the Indonesian army general Soedirman and chose a near similar name for newly-born Sudirman with the hope that he’d grow up to be a great leader as well.

Ramlah, on the other hand, is best remembered as the first elected female representative in the 1955 Pahang State Assembly. As an extraordinary politician who had her electorates’ interests at heart, Ramlah contributed significantly to Malaya’s fight for independence which was led by Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Unfortunately, Ramlah passed away at a tender age of 32 on May 29, 1959, just four days after Sudirman celebrated his fifth birthday. During interviews later on in his life, Sudirman fondly retold the moment when his mother first taught him to pray at age three. He also admitted regret for not knowing his mother better and his inability to enjoy her guidance during his growing up years.

Looking at the text, it suddenly dawns upon me that this incident must be one of the two major disappointments that my friend was referring to earlier at the market. Losing his mother at such an early age must have made Sudirman feel unloved and had a constant need for reassurance throughout his life.

Spurred on by this revelation, I continue poring through the remaining literature with gusto, eager to know the reason behind the multi-talented singer’s next impediment.

OFF TO SCHOOL

After his mother’s demise, Sudirman found solace in singing, a passion that began at a very young age. As a child, he sang, danced and play-acted for his adoring family members and neighbors. He continued to become the livewire of any function or social event even after 1961 when he began his primary education at Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Temerloh.

Sudirman read widely during those early years and often sought refuge in Enid Blyton books while filling quiet afternoons or whenever he felt down. The exciting adventures of Moon-face, Saucepan Man and the rest of the folk living in the Magic Faraway Tree and mysteries solved by the Famous Five helped hone imaginative skills and played a role in influencing Sudirman’s natty dressing and spectacular showmanship later on in life.

Sudirman completed his secondary education in Sultan Abu Bakar School (SABS), Kuantan. While waiting for his Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) results, Sudirman had his first taste of working life. He worked as an office peon as well as a labourer before entering University Malaya in 1976 to study law.

Juggling between studies and tutorial classes, Sudirman found time to participate in a singing competition held in Melaka. Organized by public broadcaster Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), he came out tops as Johan Bintang RTM by winning his audience over with spontaneous humour and melodious singing on that historic Aug 11, 1976 evening.

That inaugural win launched Sudirman’s entertainment career. For the first time in his life, producers and recording company executives sat up and took notice of him. In 1978, Sudirman came up with his first album Aku Penghiburmu on vinyl.

Sudirman’s preoccupation with singing took a toll on his studies and he only managed to graduate with a third class honors law degree in 1980. He then began chambering at Messrs Abdul Aziz, Ong & Co two years later.

Just a year before he was called to the Bar in 1984, Sudirman successfully infiltrated Hilton Hotel’s The Paddock, which was the swankiest club in Kuala Lumpur and was privy to only foreign acts at that time.

Then on, Sudirman quickly made his mark and became a household name in the mid-1980s after churning out hit after hit, such as Merisik Khabar, Milik Siapakah Gadis Ini, Salam Terakhir, Balik Kampung, Basikal Tua and many others. His legions of fans loved his performances and his sold-out concerts were always a delight to watch.

Spurred on by further successes of becoming ambassadors for major companies such as Proton, Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Development Corporation, Sudirman, after practicing law briefly, made the decision to fully dedicate his life to the entertainment industry.

FAILED MARRIAGE

In the years that followed, many fans speculated the drastic step taken by Sudirman to leave his life as a lawyer behind was partly due to the heartbreak brought about by divorce proceedings with his wife, Kamariah Jamaluddin in 1984.

Pausing momentarily, it becomes obvious that I’d stumbled upon the second blow that left Sudirman’s personal life in shambles. Like the loss of his mother, Sudirman never actually recovered from the devastating impact delivered by the failed marriage to his childhood sweetheart.

With my friend’s challenge surmounted, I continue reading, eager to uncover more interesting nuggets of information that can help to shed light on the Malaysian legend’s uncanny ability to transcend racial and religious barriers while dealing with demons within himself.

Despite all his fame and fortune, Sudirman had to constantly battle with emotional emptiness. To him, all the glitz and glamour was just a facade for the enormous psychological struggle that he had to face constantly. To soothe an aching heart, the entertainer poured his heart and soul to his work and vowed never to settle for second best.

Thanks to the Malaysian icon’s unstoppable drive for perfection, success came in quick succession in the form of two Best Performer awards in 1985. The accomplishments spurred Sudirman to dream big and test the upper limit of his growing popularity a year later by organizing an audacious giant concert right in the middle of Jalan Chow Kit.

CHOW KIT CONCERT

The presence of more than 100,000 Malaysians from all walks of life on that major Kuala Lumpur thoroughfare on April 15, 1986 confirmed Sudirman as a bona fide superstar of unprecedented proportions and one of Malaysia’s greatest entertainers that had ever lived.

That evening, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, which bordered Jalan Chow Kit, was chock-a-block with people. Those hoping to get a bird’s eye view of the performance looked out from the windows on the upper floors of nearby buildings while others were willing to dice with death by watching from tree branches and rooftops!

Truly in his element, Sudirman made the show extra special by making his grand entrance via a tower crane which lowered him gently onto the back of the stage amidst cries of concern from adoring crowds.

Fans who’d gathered as early as 5pm to claim choice positions cheered raucously as soon as Sudirman emerged with a medley of some of his popular hits. Within minutes, he had everyone present singing along in unison. People were clearly in the mood for celebration.

To this day, Sudirman’s Jalan Chow Kit spectacle has never been replicated nor has a similar concert been organised. Soon after the memorable feat, the lawyer, television host, writer, cartoonist, actor, and entrepreneur extraordinaire – most remembered for his dazzling stage performances and innate musical talent – began extending his reach beyond Malaysian shores.

SUCCESS IN LONDON

The multi-talented performer became the first Asian artist ever to record an English single at the illustrious Abbey Road Studios in London. It was also in the British capital that Sudirman had his most glorious moment when he was crowned best singer at the inaugural Asian Popular Music Awards.

During that hotly contested competition, Sudirman bested his more famous contemporaries and performing heavyweights such as Hong Kong’s Leslie Cheung, Las Vegas-based Anita Sarawak of Singapore and Filipino Kuh Ledesma when they pitted their skills at London’s Royal Albert Hall in March 1989.

Unknown to many, the Malaysian superstar’s success at the concert venue, located on the northern edge of South Kensington, nearly didn’t become a reality. His song, the Paul Ponnudurai-penned and Michael Veerapen-composed A Thousand Million Smiles, was only submitted to the orchestra just days before the actual event!

Everyone thought that the ensemble wouldn’t have had sufficient time to perfect the score in time for Sudirman’s performance. The performer gave his best and despite getting less than half of the choreographed strategy executed, the night belonged to no one else but him.

As Malaysians united in celebration of his historic success, a visibly jubilant Sudirman dedicated the win to his country and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was then serving the first half of his unprecedented two-time premiership career.

Sudirman was greeted by adoring fans upon his return to Malaysia. Many of those present at Subang International Airport (now Sultan Abdul Aziz Airport) that day were convinced that he was a man touched by a higher force. They were grateful to him for his gift of music and for bringing enormous prestige to the nation.

END OF AN ERA

These were the very fans that went on to grieve bitterly when Sudirman passed away unexpectedly three years later, on Feb 22, 1992. Many were in a state of shock after learning that he collapsed from an apparent stroke while performing in Butterworth. That Penang show was Sudirman’s final curtain call and the official cause of death was said to be cerebrovascular disease.

Almost single-handedly, he changed the Malaysian entertainment industry with his never before seen quirky fashion sense and charismatic on-stage performance. Meanwhile, proof of his enduring legacy are plenty. To this day, Malaysians who were born long after Sudirman’s demise still emulate him by draping themselves in the Malaysian flag come each National Day.

For many more Hari Raya to come, Malaysians from all walks of life can count their blessings that a lifetime ago Sudirman chose to entertain and, although his presence is sorely missed, his musical legacy like Balik Kampung will continue to live on in all of us.

  • Alan Teh Leam Seng @ New Straits Times

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