Wednesday, February 22, 2012

20 Years After his death: Sudir still throbs and inspires

Sudir still throbs and inspires

20 years after his death, the quintessential Malaysian performer continues to grip Malaysian entertainment
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 14:41
by Errol de Cruz
MAMMOTH: The Chow Kit Road ground-breaking concert. Pics courtesy of SUDIRMAN PRODUCTIONS
IT was a really hot night in mid-1985; hot in more ways than one. First, the weather was its usual balmy self, and to make that really trying, the "powers-that-be" at Universiti Kebangsaan Bangi (UKM) were making things impossible for Malaysian performer Sudirman Arshad.

The story goes that a quarter comprising ultras and Muslim fundamentalists, representatives of the student unions and academic staff , including the Dean of the Islamic faculty, were dead against his performing at the university.

For several days, Malaysian dailies were full of stories, some carrying threats that “if he dared to turn up, he would have acid thrown in his face”.

The concert that rocked UKM
The issue was eventually and firmly resolved by the then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad who “didn’t want any fundamentalists derailing Malaysia’s modernisation programmes in any way”.

In the afternoon, the day before the controversial concert, I had spoken with iconic Malaysian promoter and Sudirman’s manager, Mike Bernie Chin, about the affair.

“The show will start on time,” Chin said. “If you want to know who Mike Bernie Chin is, be there.”

"Why? What are you planning for tomorrow?" I had asked. “I can’t tell you. You’ll print it!”

Well ahead of time, we turned up at UKM Bangi, accompanied by pixmen, and were quite shocked at what we saw.

Grouped near the entrance were a score or more hunched ‘Sudir lookalikes’, all in his by-then famous attire — dark trench coats, black fedoras and and jet-black shades. At a silent signal, they spread out and we wondered who the protesters would fling the promised acid at. Nice one, Mr Chin.

Minutes later, two police patrol cars sped in, lights flashing, sirens at full blast. The crowd rushed to catch Sudir emerge. But, ha-ha-ha, it was another decoy. The back seat was empty!

Remembering that the show would start sharp on time, we went into the hall to watch the band set up when, at the appointed time, the opening song began with Sudir in full voice — just oh-so-naturally leaving a seat in the audience (!) and swaggering on stage. The hall went wild.

In true daring, flamboyant fashion, sensational Malaysian singing lawyer Sudirman Arshad had taken fans by storm.

The entertainer, 31 at the time, was supported by thousands at this "UKM showdown" but did not exploit the issue and was careful not to provoke the much-chagrined ultras, choosing judiciously to dress himself in the Malaysian fl ag and sing “mainly Malaysian and folksy songs”.


Sudirman Arshad, born on May 25, 1954, was a first in many ways.

He was the first Malaysian to perform at the prestigious Paddock supper club at the old Hilton Hotel, the first to bag the Bintang RTM grand prize with an uptempo Broadway-styled cover of Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret/Hey Big Spender in 1973, the fi rst to have traffic-congested Chow Kit Road in KL closed for a mammoth concert in April 1986 and the first Malaysian to win the Asia Music Awards at famed Royal Albert Hall in London with One Thousand Million Smiles, composed by Michael Veerapen and Paul Ponnudorai, in 1989.


It all began in 1973, when Malaysians who were used to the usual gamut of instrumentalists, duos, trios, various other ensembles and wonderfully-voiced balladeers do their thing on the three-year-old Bintang RTM.

The nationwide competition had unearthed several talents, including Razak Rahman, Shagul Hamid, the Silhouttes, the HEW, Strange Brew, Suhaili Shamsuddin, the Nettos and Brian Jeremiah, when out of the blue this pint-sized lawyer turned up in top hat, tie and tails and blew viewers away with a super duper cover of the Minnelli medley, high-kicking choreography and all.

I’m sure that when they announced Sudirman the grand winner, many aspiring stars would have muttered: “Goodness! Now, we’ll all have to change our act!”

“But, that’s what Sudir was all about,” said Daniel Dharanee Kannan who took over the star’s management responsibilities from Mike Bernie.

“One of his last wishes was for a Malaysian talent platform like American Idol to be set up.”

“He thought ahead and planned for local talents to be discovered at a young age and groomed into international brands,” Kannan added.

Unfortunately, the singer died at the age of 39 before seeing such dreams come true. Sudirman was the quintessential Malaysian performer.

While many of his English covers were awesome, his rendition of local staples like Merisik Khabar, Milik Siapakah Gadis Ini and Salam Terakhir proved that this budak kampung from Temerloh, Pahang, was proud of his roots.


In August, 2008, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, wife of the Malaysian prime minister paid him what would be the highest accolade ever when she said that the late singer could well be a 1Malaysia icon for his eff orts to popularise patriotic songs.

“His patriotism is evident as it often involves the presentation of a multiracial Malaysian society and religion,” Rosmah had said.

“Sudirman had started to create the spirit of 1Malaysia way back then,” she added at the TV3 screening of One Thousand Million Smiles in conjunction with that year’s Merdeka celebrations.

The recording had been done in Malacca on March 9, 1991, by Sudirman’s close friend and financier Virender Singh, whose family-owned Project Advisory and Management Services was behind the production of the carbonated canned drink Sudi, in Merlimau, Malacca.

Marketing executive Richie Ramesh remembers the early ‘90s well.
“We could sell Sudir’s shows for anything between RM10,000 and RM30,000 per show, and we sold up to five shows, every month,” he said, adding that a corporation called Sunrider that had featured Michael Jackson at one of its annual dinners, paid for Sudirman to perform in Hawaii not long before his untimely death.


“The last three years before he died were his heyday,” Ramesh said. “People would come to Merlimau with cash and cheques and carry away cartons of the canned drink.”

The same could be said for his eponymous line of apparel, a venture sponsored by businessman Albert Ong, an entire range of which was once purchased by Prince Sufri Bolkiah of Brunei.

The famous carbonated drink Sudi was much-written about in business magazines and TV programmes from Australia to Hong Kong.

Within six months, Sudi captured five per cent of the carbonated drink market, no mean feat competing against other famous colas. Later, Sudirman opened a franchise of Sudi Shoppe apparel and a Sudi restaurant.

Sudirman was also well known for his charity work and would invite veteran artistes to his shows and privately make them generous donations.

He donated to mosques, adopted an Indian boy from a poor family and was active in charity work via Papita, the Malaysian Singers Association.

At a press conference announcing his ground-breaking Chow Kit Road concert, he had said: “This show is for the unfortunate who have made the alleys of Chow Kit their home. Otherwise, they could never afford to catch my performances.”


His performances were the stuff of legend.
Joanne Ng (pic), his longest-reigning dance partner, said that there would be fi ve-hour rehearsals, five days a week, and Sudirman would always be there to encourage them.

“My fondest memories are the many hours in the dance studio, choreographing, because that’s when he was most relaxed and he loved to joke,” Ng said.

“He loved to challenge us to do things diff erently and we appreciated that we were regarded as more than just back-up dancers ... we were an integrated act and would often feature with him at photo shoots and television productions.”

The outfit in toto was called Glue (the backing band), Girls (the dancers) and Giggles (the backup singers).

“Sudir always gave more than 100% in the way he crafted his shows because he respected his audience and believed that they always deserved the best from him,” she added.

“Over and above all his local and international successes, Sudir never forgot that he was a budak kampung and ensured that his repertoire would cater to every segment of his audience,” she said.

“He sang from his heart and his sincerity was tangible. His show concepts and song choices often surprised us. His ideas and wit overfl owed. Putting together a new routine was when it was just us ... two dancers and the choreographer, no one else around ... lots of laughter, bouncing ideas off each other and enjoying little chats during breathers.”

“It was during one of these rehearsals (1985 or 86) he told me that an astrologer had predicted that he would be stricken with a very serious illness at the age of 36 or 37 which may prove to be a very tough hurdle and I remember not taking him very seriously, until I heard of his illness and death in 1992.”

Among his many awards was a datukhip by Pahang sultan Sultan Ahmad Shah in June 1999.

On July 17, 1991, Sudirman was admitted to the intensive care unit of KL’s Tawakkal Specialist Centre for four days, after collapsing at a concert in Butterworth.

He died at 4am on Feb 22, 1992, aged 37, at the home of his sister, Datin Rudiah, after a seven-month bout with pneumonia. He is buried near the graves of his parents -Arshad Hassan and Ramlah Dahlan (the first stateswoman in Pahang during the 1950s) — in Temerloh, Pahang.
Rest in Peace.


• Sudirman had 20 albums and 70 songs over a 16-year career. Not even silver screen legend P. Ramlee was as popular in Asia in his time as Sudirman was in his.

• In 1989, Sudirman was crowned best singer at the inaugural Asian Popular Music Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, beating more famous contemporaries Leslie Cheung (Hong Kong), Anita Sarawak (Singapore) and Kuh Ledesma (Philippines)

• His 1987 song Merisik Khabar topped the charts in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei for two months.

• He recorded an album with successful British songwriters and producers Stock, Altken & Waterman.

• He was referred to by Wham manager Simon Napier-Bell, as an “institution of the Malaysian music industry”.

• His Chow Kit Road concert, 100,000-attendance, has never been replicated nor has a similar concert been organised since.