A Reply to the Ampas Man

I hate N’Sync

To begin with, lets get something straight – P. Ramlee should not have wallowed in poverty or died penniless. However, the Ampas Man seems to have forgotten that such tragedies are still happening everyday to famous artists all around the world. The author seems to have conveniently forgotten that P. Ramlee signed contracts with Shaw Brothers who produced his films and any royalty from his body of work would have been subjected to the original terms. Recording companies own the right for most of his songs, and till this day, that’s how the way music royalties work. Isaac Hayes, Goo Goo Dolls, TLC, Toni Braxton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Marvin Gaye, Run DMC are but some notable examples of multiplatinum artists who have declared bankruptcy or was in financial trouble.

The great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died penniless and left beind a huge debt too.

Some may have rightly noted that the fortunes of our stars (and their profligacy, where applicable) should not be guaranteed by the government, especially since it is also your money as well (if you are a tax payer like myself). However, to insinuate that P. Ramlee made a wrong move to leave Singapore and blame all his subsequent box office failures on the Malaysian government (and the lack of local expertise and “talent”) speak volumes of the author’s lack of knowledge, understanding and misguided imagination about the history of modern cinema in Malaysia. The Ampas Man must have forgotten how the Malay cinema, or cinema in the Malayan region operated at that time.

During the studio era (1947 – 1977), Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris “virtually controlled the whole industry” and “the distributive/ exhibition sector in Malaysia largely remained monopolistic because the same companies distributed local and imported films and also owned the cinema chains throughout the country” (William Van der Heide, 2002, p. 117). Kahn (2001) pointed out that “Shaw Brothers prevented the productions of other companies from showing in peninsular cinemas which they effectively monopolised” (p. 101). Van der Heide (2002) even went as far as to claim that “the success of these films, was undoubtedly the result of Shaw Brother’s stranglehold on the exhibition sector that they had bought up before the war” (p. 133). It was pure business when Shaw Brothers crippled Seruan Merdeka at the box office. In the 1950s, the typical pattern was “for films to be produced by Chinese capital (Shaw Brothers), directed by Indians, with ‘Malay-ised’ versions of Indian and Chinese plots, and acted by Malaysia speaking in Malay” (Kahn, 2001). P. Ramlee was aboard MFB (Malay Film Productions) during this period (1948 – 1955) and rode on its formulaic popularity.

It was not until P. Ramlee’s arrival in his directorial debut (Penarik Becha, 1956) that truly marked the beginning of the rise of “Malay creative control” (Van der Heide, 2002). This happened within the studio system. Merdeka studio came into being in the early 1960s and is the first production company headed by mostly Malay Malaysians. To say that it had no talent is an insult to the likes of L. Krishnan, who was with Shaw Brothers and directed the first film P. Ramlee starred in. L. Krishnan was also with Cathay-Keris before joining Merdeka Studio in KL. To quote Wikipedia, “It had a meagre beginning, but once the top stars started their exodus from the two Singapore studios, its growth surged dramatically. …The Shaw Brothers dispatched some of their Singapore film directors, among them L. Krishnan, P. Ramlee and Salleh Ghani, Jamil Sulong, Omer Rojik, S. Kadarisman, Sudarmaji, Naz Achnas, M. Amin and Datuk Jins Shamsudin, to make films at Merdeka”.

What really killed the studio business was the increase in production cost (including colour films), regional competition (Indonesian, Indian and Hongkong) and the influx of foreign films, not to mention the advent of the idiot box (television). Shaw Brothers actually took over Merdeka Studio itself in 1966, but local films have already lost its competitiveness by then. Shaw Brothers would close its studies in 1968 and Cathay-Keris did the same in 1972, as the local Malay film scene shifted to Kuala Lumpur into the hands of independent (Bumiputera) filmakers. Please, it wasn’t a Singapore-based or Malayan-based problem. Raj Kapoor would soon make a storm with Bobby in 1973, and together with Bruce Lee in the Big Boss, 1971, they all but wiped out the demand for local films who already have trouble keeping up. The Malaysian government bought the Merdeka studio in 1985 to house FINAS.

Rather than harping on the past and making non-existent connections, we should look carefully at what has been happening to the local film industry. Recently, local films started to make money because the audience and demand grew. However, most of the quality is uneven because it is still a relatively risky investment (unless you have strong financial backing). The late Yasmin Ahmad has shown us that with the Orked trilogy (Sepet, Gubra and Mukhsin) that we have many capable filmakers (or dabblers, as she used to say) with beautiful stories to tell. Today, independent Malaysian filmakers are making a comeback against the rising tide of box-office driven spiel made by some local production houses that, to borrow Hishamuddin Rais’s expression, “bonsified” the Malaysian audience. If the Ampas Man read anything about the current FINAS board controversy, he would realize the problem that P. Ramlee faced back then is still around today, which is financing films and struggling for creative control – a norm of the industry worldwide (Hollywood included). It is true that P. Ramlee’s films after 1964 with Merdeka Studio was not as big as his past successes, but times change and he did enjoyed a good run. P. Ramlee’s creative successes was with comedies and melodramas, and perhaps it wasn’t easy to find financial commitment to bankroll his subsequent films. One thing we DO know is that after Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris closed shop, Singapore’s local filmaking industry did not really quite recover (please don’t give me Jack Neo’s films as examples).

If history of filmaking in Malaysia has anything to offer, it is the lesson that we need to groom local talent to produce quality films. Some movies sell better than others, but performance at the box-office is not the one-all indicator of success. You want a thriving, vibrant and inclusive local film industry, you need to invest in it. P. Ramlee, like Sudirman after him, are all great Malaysians beloved by many. Stop abusing our memory of him to further narrow and parochial political games. He could have been a politician, true, but luckily he remained true to his art and profession. Instead of taking the opportunity to shine the spotlight on the local filmaking and music industry in Malaysia, the Ampas Man unfortunately decided to make P. Ramlee a case study to disparage the Malaysian government over the recently launched Talent Corporation. Whether it is for brain gain or brain circulation, please leave P. Ramlee out of this, thank you. With Malaysians (or ex-Malaysians?) like these, who need enemies?

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 3:12 pm

    The writer’s criticism of Ampas Man’s use of P Ramlee in “Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti? Answer: Not in Malaysia” seems fair.

    One looks at Ampas Man’s context. Here Ampas Man wants to make a point of political coloration. It is directed against the UMNO government. In not so many words, Ampas Man scoffs at Najib’s intention to bring back Malaysian talent by launching Talent Corporation. Which is an objective squarely contradicted by NEP policies upheld by UMNO that are said to drive away Malaysian talent. Now it is not only Non Malay talent driven away in droves but likely Malay talents as well. When Singapore separated from Malaysia, P Ramlee came back in 1964. He didn’t get the kind of help here in movie making. The studio was bad, cameras old, production crew not experienced (compared to Singapore). The legend was turned away not just by the banks by govt controlled RTM! Ampas Man makes his point: against a backdrop of perceived dearth of Malay icons, here we have a true Malay icon in music and film industry not appreciated or helped in Malaysia and who died a broken man and pauper with his wife Saloma needing to borrow RM3000 for his funeral expenses. What a heart wrenching tragedy – and stupidity on part of the establishment. No point of giving posthumous awards (Tan Sri etc) – appreciate him when he was alive and develop his talents instead of short changing him. If a talent like him could be shortchanged why not every other Malaysian talent asked to come back? If they are stupid enough to do so they would end up same fate – broken and destitute. That’s Ampas Man’s political point. Which is of course making a point based on facts that DON’T connect with the conclusion.

    The facts are: when P. Ramlee died in 1973, the NEP ala TDM’s style was not even in full swing, much less its debilitative effect of chasing away Malaysian Talent. No one could prove that had Ramlee stayed back in Singapore he would have fared better. P Ramlee maximized his talent in 1950s when the film industry in Singapore boomed in part due to dynamism of Shaw Brothers and Cathay Studios. Then from early 1960s onwards the Market changed. Technology (TV) came into the scene. TV showcased Hollywood movies in colour and captivated Singapore audiences who turned away from Malay language films. Sure, S’pore Singapore had superior film production infrastructure, talent, and experience but even then Shaw Brothers closed down in Singapore Malay Film Productions. Eventually even here, cinemas buildings like (say) Odeon in KL were converted to shopping arcades because of TVs Cartridges VCD and then DVDs!) Over here in the 1960s banks thought Malay language film production was risky. RTM itself was featuring “the Saint”. This hiatus of Malay language film production ended with revival only in mid 1990s on both sides of Cause Way. Before then had a Malaysian Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone tried to make good, chances are that they would also have failed.

    Changes in market tastes and industry due to technological innovation made a major impact on the Malaysian icon’s fortunes especially in a place like Malaysia less developed than S’pore in film infrastructure. So what is the political point that Ampas Man is making here about “Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti? Answer: Not in Malaysia”, using P Ramlee’s name when the whole present day issue of UMNO’s or TDM’s NEP driving away local talent was not an issue at the time of P Ramlee’s death in 1973??? I don’t blame the writer here (I hate N’Sync) who is an obvious P Ramlee’s fan for being riled at Ampas Man’s discourse on his idol.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 3:58 pm

    In passing, it must be said that many people simply read politics into situations in which politics was not involved.

    Now what has P. Ramlee leaving Singapore got to do with him believing ‘Ketuanan’ Melayu’ preached by Malay ultras here or for that matter Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 when P Ramlee left earlier in 1964???

    P Ramlee left for KL in 1964 because Malay film production in S’pore commenced winding down and was relocating to KL due to market forces – ie growing competition from television and also the loss of the Indonesian market due to the Sukarno’s “Konfrontasi”!

    Obviously when Malay movie industry moved to Kuala Lumpur, it was not easy here to revive its glory days when Malaysia lacked film making infrastructure existing in Singapore.

    Now why would anyone suppose Malay movie industry in Malaysia could triumph over market shifts to help P Ramlee to be successful here when in Singapore, in spite of her superior film making infrastructure and talent, Malay movie industry was winding down with Cathay Keris retrenching staff in 1966 and Shaw Brothers closing down Malay Film Productions in 1967?

    The argument that Lee Kuan Yew’s S’pore with Chinese majority did not appreciate a local Malay talent like P Ramlee – and appreciate more Western films and talents – is another unwarranted racially skewed political comment with no basis.

    You take a walk today through Singapore National Museum at 93 Stamford Road, go to the Gallery for Films and Performing Arts and you’d see 3 big screens in front of you showing Malay movies in those bygone days – featuring shows from Pontianaks to P Ramlee – honoured as an intrinsic part of S’pore’s cultural heritage.

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