P. Ramlee: from Malay to Malaysian

Even though he died more than four decades ago, P. Ramlee, the multi-talented star, singer, composer, musician, screenwriter and director, still occupies a significant place in Malaysian life. His films appear regularly on television, he is the subject of countless newspaper articles and he even has a popular stage musical devoted to him, P.Ramlee: The Musical, which for a week in 2014, performed to sell-out crowds at Istana Budaya.

Even in the last few months, P. Ramlee has been in the news. On 25 November it was reported that ASWARA, the National Arts, Culture and Heritage Academy, would soon be granted full university status. It’s new name? Universiti P. Ramlee. But why is a film star who died 43 years ago still considered so important?

To some extent, P. Ramlee continues to be popular for the reasons he was always popular. With the increased access people now have to his films and music, on television and online, modern audiences can return again and again to enjoy his charismatic and talented performances. At the same time, he has also changed over the years. We need to consider these changes in order to understand his enduring appeal.

An idea that is central to “Star Studies”, one of the subjects taught at Monash Malaysia, is that stars are media constructs – aside from the relatively small number of people who will get to know them in real life, what we know about stars comes entirely from how they are presented in their films and in other media (film reviews, newspaper and magazine articles, documentaries, biographies, websites etc.). 

Back in the days of the Hollywood studio system, stars would be under the guidance of teams of people who would control their appearance, casting and promotional materials. Even when stars are not subject to such control, the media’s coverage of them will still contribute to the creation of their public image – the “star persona”.

When P. Ramlee was with the Shaw Brothers Studio, his star persona was created through his films and the studio’s marketing. The Shaw Brothers owned their own film fan magazine, Majallah Filem, which discussed P. Ramlee at length.

Since his death, his persona has largely been created through the press, but also the Malaysian government, which has organised events and exhibitions to celebrate P. Ramlee as part of the nation’s cultural heritage. In the years following his death in 1973, he began to slide into obscurity, until in 1983, to mark the ten year anniversary of his passing, a “P. Ramlee week” was organised to commemorate his life and career, and to raise money for a new P. Ramlee memorial library.

P. Ramlee was also honoured by the government with posthumous titles. During his lifetime, he was given the title of Ahli Mangku Negara, but since then he has been promoted to Tan Sri P. Ramlee. He is also still discussed extensively in the nation’s newspapers, possibly even more than he was when he was alive, all of which constructs a modern day version of who P. Ramlee was.

A key change in P. Ramlee’s contemporary star persona centres on the way in which he represents his Malay ethnic identity. The films he made were part of the Malay cinema, which was aimed at a predominantly Malay audience, in the Malay language, focusing on Malay life and culture, and featuring an almost exclusively Malay cast.

It has been argued by academics Timothy Barnard and Joel S. Kahn that his films capture the period’s tensions between traditional kampung life and an emerging modernity, represented through a rapidly changing Singapore. It has also been suggested that this is one of the reasons for P. Ramlee’s declining popularity in the late 1960s. With the emergence of the 1960s’ new musical culture, such as “Pop Yeah Yeah”, P. Ramlee was no longer seen as encapsulating the period’s zeitgeist and thus became out of touch, less relevant and less popular. 

Since then, though, this identity has gone through some changes. While there are Islamic sentiments in some of his films of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Semerah Padi (1956), a morality picture centred on the theme of adultery, P. Ramlee’s persona at this time was quite liberal, and not particularly pious.

In his films he would frequently play hedonistic womanisers, which we see in Madu Tiga (1965), a polygamy-themed comedy, and Anak Bapak (1968), about an aging bachelor. His off-screen life was not entirely free of scandal either. For instance, when he divorced his second wife, Norizan, she was quick to tell reporters that he neglected her by spending too much time working and too much time at nightclubs (in his response the next day he defended himself by stating that he quit drinking alcohol for her).

In the present day, these aspects of his persona are minimised or erased altogether. Instead, contemporary discussion focuses more on his talents – there is now a recurring discourse on his ‘genius’ and how this wasn’t fully appreciated in his lifetime, making him similar to other neglected artists, such as the painter Vincent Van Gogh. Where his love life is mentioned, he is presented in more romantic terms, with emphasis being placed on the sentiments behind such songs as Getaran Jiwa or Azizah.

During Hari Raya, P. Ramlee is often mentioned in the press in relation to his Raya songs, such as Selamat Hari Raya or Dendang Perantau. To some extent this shift is about showing respect for the deceased, but it also makes P. Ramlee’s star persona more compatible with contemporary Malaysia, which since the 1970s has become increasingly religiously conservative.

P. Ramlee’s contemporary star persona is also more nationalistic than it once was. One issue here is that he could legitimately be claimed by two nations (or even three if we take into account his Indonesian ancestry) – Singapore, where he made his most celebrated films and spent most of his career (albeit before it became a nation), and Malaysia, where he was born (when it was Malaya), finished his career and died. 

Most books on Singaporean cinema will mention P. Ramlee and in April 1999 there was a film festival there devoted to him entitled “A Tribute to P. Ramlee: Celebrating Singapore’s Pioneer Film-Maker”. However, his fame in Singapore has decreased over the years, to the point where he is now largely forgotten. In Malaysia, where he has become a national icon, it is a different story.

During his career there were already instances of P. Ramlee being put forth as a representative of the newly emerged nation of Malaya (and later Malaysia). For instance, Sarjan Hassan, a film about the Second World War made in 1958, after the independence of Malaya, includes the following speech: “Our nation is still young and weak. That does not bother me. My only hope is that we unite as a nation.” In addition, the films he made when he moved to Kuala Lumpur to work for Merdeka Studios, have discernible Malaysian elements, particularly Sesudah suboh (1967) and Gerimis (1968), which focus on interracial love stories, the former between a Malay man and Chinese woman and the latter between a Malay man and an Indian woman.

Since his death, there has been an even greater emphasis on P. Ramlee as a Malaysian star. The government initiatives mentioned above (honours, events, exhibitions) have been central to this, linking him with the national heritage. In newspaper articles too, he is frequently referred to as a Malaysian icon, with pictures depicting him against a Malaysian flag. Referring to the few multicultural aspects of his films, articles often will refer to him as a star who has appeal beyond the Malay community. While there is certainly some truth to this, especially in recent times, P. Ramlee’s position as a national icon makes appeals to multicultural inclusion, while defining Malaysia from a predominantly Malay perspective.

P. Ramlee’s persona, then, has gone through a number of transformations. Although he was initially a star who catered to a predominantly Malay audience, he has now been developed into a national icon, who has been put forth as a representative of the country as a whole, even though he is only able to do so in a partial and Malay-centred way. He continues to be important, then, not only because of the enduring appeal of his films and songs, but also because his star persona continues to be relevant to a changing Malaysian society.

By Dr Jonathan Driskell, Senior Lecturer, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia. 
- The Sun Daily, 26 January 2016