It is like a scene in a love-themed movie. A loving couple has their moments alone. The lady is playing the piano. The gentleman walks up to her, humming along, and staying on to listen attentively. According to the posting in YouTube she is playing by memory, a popular Malay number, Rasa Sayang Eh and then a classic Neapolitan song, Torna a Surriento.

When she finishes, she looks up at him – and they both smile.

To Malaysians, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali embody not just a loving elderly couple but also a “cultured” couple who understands what arts and culture is all about. Tun Siti Hasmah is an accomplished violinist and pianist who has showcased her talent many times before. She isn’t showy yet not shy to be part of any event to showcase her musical capabilities.

It was at Grand Hyatt, Jakarta, on the morning of June 29, 2018, when the video was captured. Tun Mahathir and his wife were waiting to be taken to meet President Joko Widodo. The video clip posted online has been watched by some 50,000 people. The comments from Netizens, mostly the young, were pleasantly sweet. It proves a point: it is the love and the happiness that matter, not the age. They are amazed to see our 93-year old prime minister, the oldest head of state in the world today, showing the other side of him – as a loving husband and an appreciator of music.

According to reports, Torna a Surriento is one of Tun Mahathir’s favourite numbers. Not many people knew of the song composed by Italian musician Ernesto De Curtis sometime in 1905. It is, in fact, one of the most popular songs sung by world-class tenors including Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. The more popular version of the song was sung by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin, among others.

Surriento (or Sorrento) is a beautiful sea-side town overlooking the Bay of Naples in southern Italy. Legend has it that the mayor of the city, Guglielmo Tramontano, had requested his friend Giambattista De Curtis, a poet and painter, to write a song to welcome the Prime Minister of Italy in 1902.

Giambattista was able to convince his brother, Ernesto to compose a song based on his lyrics. Back then Surriento was an impoverished town. The mayor wanted the prime minister to help. The song, which means, “Come Back to Surriento” apparently did the trick. The prime minister did help.

If it is true Tun Mahathir counts Torna a Surriento as one of his favourites, it tells a lot about the man, his character and his appreciation of the arts. He has never really posited his preferences for his musical selections. We know he sings occasionally and, most noticeably, he enjoys singing My Way, which has become somewhat his “trademark”. People are reading My Way from many angles. After he successfully steered the nation from a potentially economic catastrophe in the late 1990s, My Way was interpreted as a victorious song for the occasion. Remember, being the contrarian that he is, he defied all odds to do it his way, to save Malaysian from the brink of financial collapse.

But it is in Tun Siti Hasmah that we see a woman with such elegant taste in music. We are not expecting her to be perfect when she played the song but she created the mood for Tun Mahathir to hum and to show his approval and recognisant of his wife’s talent.

Siti Hasmah

Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (second left) shaking hands with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Istana Bogor, Jakarta, on June 29, 2018. Looking on are their wives Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali (left) dan Iriana Widodo (right). Photo: Bernama

How we wish we can nurture a nation of enlightened populace in musical terms. Yes, our people love entertainment. Creative content industry is big. We have hugely popular stars. Our TV shows are full of entertainers and their songs. But many of us are merely consumers of music, theatre and films.

Sadly, culture and the arts are not on the list of our priorities. We are so confused as a nation that we don’t even have a ministry of culture and the arts. We lumped them together with tourism. Tourism and culture seldom mix, at least in Malaysia. (Read my piece in The Star, Keep Culture Apart From Tourism, June 11, 2018).

We have become a nation of buta budaya (literally, culturally blind). We assume that everything that entertains is culture. At the time when religiosity is rearing its ugly head, entertainment (music, theatre, films and such) is being frowned upon. Malay political leaders dare not even dance in public. One can easily be “blackmailed” for singing or dancing in public these days!

There are enough ustaz and ustazah who are labelling entertainment as haram. In many national schools, students are being told that music is un-Islamic. We are not nurturing musical talents in schools. Not to mention theatrical talents, too. We need to re-look at arts education in schools. Students must be exposed to music from a very young age. We need to create “cultured” individuals. The education system is supposed to provide the eco-system for students to excel in disciplines that they choose – not just academic but in sports and the arts too.

There is more to a nation than pembangunan (development) and economic growth – we are forgetting that, in our pursuit of a better nation. The new government must give culture a priority.

Tun Siti Hasmah is a contrarian in our society now. We want our young to emulate her taste, talent and inclination towards the arts. She is academically successful, too. She is iconic in more ways than one.

And as the video shows, she is a loving wife to a ferociously committed politician.


Johan Jaaffar has just published a book, Jejak Seni, about his incredible 50-year journey as an actor, playwright, director and chairman of the country’s largest media company. He was a journalist and a former Chairman of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP).