“Sekarang, radio ada gambar,” bellowed Tunku Abdul Rahman, and with that mind-boggling claim, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister despatched (Tan Sri) Ahmad Merican, along with a team of producers from Radio Malaya, to the United States, Canada and Britain to learn network planning, TV production and management in 1962.
Bapa Malaysia was certain he had nominated the ideal candidate, seeing as Ahmad was successful in outlining the radio programme content in the week leading up to the country’s independence.
“I was in the control room, below the royal box, working on the sound during his speech,” the 90-year-old revealed of that momentous occasion when Tunku ushered a new and independent Malaya with his proclamation of “Merdeka!” at Stadium Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957.
He laughs at the suggestion that he was the “soundman” for that watershed moment in the nation’s history. “There were so many others who played more important roles on that special day. I was just happy that I had some skills which were useful enough at the event,” he says.
The months leading up to the nation’s independence were some of the busiest of his professional career working for national broadcaster Radio Malaya, when he was the new supervisor of a three-man music department. With a dearth of nationalistic songs for a country on the cusp of independence, Tunku commissioned the national broadcaster to undertake a nationwide search between late 1956 and early 1957 to discover Malaya’s best and brightest composers and songwriters.
These arduous journeys meant traversing up and down the peninsula in a Radio Malaya van, along with a small technical crew. The team recorded and brought back the compositions for review and selection.
“There was no inventory of local musicians then. I had my close musician friends like Alfonso Soliano, who was already the bandleader at Radio Malaya, and Jimmy Boyle in Penang. But the rest I had to find from across the country. I went to meet them to listen to their songs, as well as to brief them on our needs. As musicians, we spoke a common language, so that helped to move things along quickly,” he says.
With the deadline fast looming, urgency was imperative. “Tunku realised that as a new country, we didn’t have any patriotic songs. So, he wanted these songs to be written as fast as possible … in time for Aug 31.”
According to him, Malaya Tanah Airku, Kemegahan Negaraku, Tanah Melayu Permai, Bendera Malaya and Tanah, Bangsa Dan Daulat all came from this frenzy of songwriting, with contributions coming from Soliano, Boyle, Johar Bahar, Dol Bahrin, Zubir Said, Ahmad Salihin, Zainal Abu, Tony Fonseka (who formed the Merdeka Choir) and others.
Although Ahmad was a musician (he played the guitar) when he joined Radio Malaya, his new role just before Merdeka was as a music supervisor and administrator. His job of identifying and documenting songs by home-grown composers may have completely filled his plate, yet he found time to write one of the all-time classic Malaysian patriotic pieces, the majestic Tanah Pusaka.
“Tanah Pusaka came after Merdeka, when we continued with the search for patriotic songs. I thought, why not contribute a national song from the Radio Malaya music unit? I composed the melody, and the lyrics were penned by my music assistant, Wan Ahmad Kamal,” says Ahmad.
The song was born from the post-Merdeka songwriting competition, which Ahmad was tasked to oversee. “Like all other national songs, we did not know which song or songs would become popular or famous in the future. We received so many entries, and Tanah Pusaka was just another tune to add to the long list.”
With many of the songs composed by musicians not able to read or write music, Soliano, with his excellent talent in transcribing, was the guiding light for Radio Malaya in collating and documenting all the music.
“That was how the country’s national songs were developed and preserved to this day, and that is owed to the diligence of both Soliano and (Tan Sri) Dol Ramli, who, as head of department, supported the music unit in everything we did, not just during those early years, but also when he later became the first Malaysian director-general of Broadcasting,” says Ahmad.
Tanah Pusaka was one of only three tunes Ahmad composed, the other two being an early stab at a love song, Kasih Hilang Sekejap in the early 1940s, and Taman Bunga, which describes the scenic botanical gardens in Penang.
Shortly after Independence, Ahmad made great use of his six-month study and observation tour of the United States, when he and Dol were sent by Tunku to understand the workings of the new music and broadcast industries.
“On this trip with Dol in 1958, I brought with me the musical scores and tapes of Malay music (traditional and new songs composed specifically for Merdeka), not really expecting interest from the foreign institutions. But the chance to work and learn at the international broadcasting networks and music institutions changed the way I thought as a music administrator in the future,” he says.
But what truly was an eye-opener was his stint at Boston’s renowned Berklee School of Music (now Berklee College of Music), where, on his first trip to the United States, Ahmad was assigned to study music direction, programming and orchestration.
While there, he applied himself and quickly earned the respect of the school, opening the doors for future Malaysian musicians and Radio Malaysia conductors such as Datuk Johari Salleh, Datuk Ahmad Dasillah and Datuk Mokhzani Ismail.
He also initiated a future exchange of musical expertise between the two countries, inviting bandleader Herb Pomeroy and saxophonist Charlie Mariano to work in Malaysia with Soliano and the Radio Malaya orchestra.
“I met music greats like Duke Ellington and George Shearing there. I played guitar with Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, legendary Turkish producer and arranger Arif Mardin and Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi at a jazz presentation. We played songs like Sweet Sue, Just You, Diana and How High The Moon,” says Ahmad.
The Americans were so fascinated by Malayan music that in November 1958, Ahmad was invited to host and narrate the first global broadcast of traditional Malayan music on the programme Music USA from the John Hancock Hall via the Voice of America.
His close relationship with the music institution of international repute got him appointed to its International Advisory Committee from the 1960s to the 1970s, a remarkable feat for a self-taught musician.
With the knowledge gleaned in music direction and orchestration, Ahmad’s return would see the acceleration of numerous musical projects for Radio Malaya, the most significant being the formation of the Radio Malaya Orchestra, with the support of his boss Dol Ramli, who was then director-general of Broadcasting, and Soliano as conductor and orchestra leader.
Ambition ran high at this point, and this was the orchestra – a 45-piece ensemble – which presented Malam Irama Melayu at Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1959. The widely acclaimed concerts, featuring Malay music scored for symphony orchestra, and led by Soliano and Alias Arshad, had artistes singing traditional and modern songs. Emphasis was later placed on Malaysian music, when the concerts evolved to become Malam Irama Malaysia, all of which were produced by Ahmad.
What began as weekend performances in the cramped auditorium on the seventh floor of the Federal House by Radio Malaya’s small studio band, eventually made way for this sprawling musical extravaganza.
“In showcasing this music in grand style, Malam Irama Malaysia celebrated everything that Dol, Alfonso, Jimmy, Ahmad (Nawab), Gus (Steyn), Zainal (Abu), Wan (Ahmad Kamal), Daud (Hamzah), Samad (Haroun) and all of us involved in music at Radio Malaya had tried to achieve since the days before and soon after Merdeka, a passion which successors like Johari (Salleh), Ahmad (Dasillah) and Mokhzani (Ismail) ably carried through,” says Ahmad.
With the dawn of television beckoning, Ahmad (still head of the music division), together with six colleagues at Radio Malaya from different divisions, were appointed as the pioneering production officers of Malaya’s new Department of Television.
Television would operate under a different banner, Sistem Talivishen Malaysia Berhad (STMB), from Malaysia’s free-to-air network in Dec 28, 1963, before merging with Radio Malaya to become Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in October 1969, coming under the purview of the Information Ministry.
A whole new ball game
“As Tunku hit the button that switched on the large TV in the small studio at Jalan Ampang to unveil the new Malaysia Televisyen logo in 1963, I knew that my career would take a different direction as TV was a different ball game altogether. Radio was fine for music, but when you start adding pictures, there is so much more to think about. But it was still music which drove my TV productions in the future,” says Ahmad.
The building blocks were laid for dynamic and exciting programme content, leaning more towards music which showcased the nation’s various cultures. Arts and culture couldn’t have been distilled through a better set of hands than his. “It would be beautiful if they could have more of such shows today … that’s how we did it back then.”
Nurturing young talents and building the skills to support his shows behind the scenes was imperative to him. He always believed artistes should be given a platform to exhibit their abilities, convinced that only concentrated and sustained exposure would yield results in breaking them.
“Today’s musicians will supersede what we had before. Back then, I had to really look for them. My role in TV was to offer as many platforms as possible for them,” said the man responsible for talent search programmes of yesteryear like Juara Kugiran, Bakat TV, Bintang RTM and Muzik Muzik.
To lead by example, he had to be hands-on. His family recollects a picture of the man they call “bapak” with a stopwatch at the end of a pink lanyard and checklist in hand, issuing instructions to floor managers, set designers, cameramen, make-up artists and technicians from one show to the next, sometimes back to back, to provide enough local content for the new TV station.
If there was a caption to accompany the picture, it would read: “Just do this and everything will be fine.” It’s reassuring to know that our national broadcaster came from the very roots of artistic appreciation and hard graft.
Ahmad would be instrumental in the development of television in Malaysia from then on, pioneering black and white TV at Malaysia Televisyen, and later RTM, and television in general with TV3, MetroVision, ntv7, TV8 and TV9, among other things, earning him the tag Grand Old Man of Broadcasting. His career practically evolved with the history of radio and television in Malaysia.
From the days of playing Hawaiian music as a young guitarist with close family friend Abdul Majid Mohd Yusoff (bandleader for the Hawaiian Quins and later, Malaysian Secretary General of Information) and the renowned Zainal Alam family in Penang, his music pursuit would see him crossing paths on the island with some of the Pearl Of The Orient’s musical jewels, such as Boyle, Soliano, Datuk Ooi Eow Jin and Datuk Dr Ahmad Nawab, too, most of whom would work with him for long and distinguished careers.
In typical, self-effacing fashion, though, he insists it was all a team effort, as opposed to a single man’s crusade, singling out friendship as the most important ingredient in his life story.
“If you’re going to write about me, then you should also mention Alfonso (Soliano), Jimmy (Boyle), Tony (Fonseca), Dol (Ramli), Raja Iskandar and so many others who were very instrumental in what we achieved as a nation,” he insists.
There were no guides or manuals back then; caution was regularly thrown to the wind. The success of a task came down to riding on a wing and a prayer. The initiatives Ahmad was part of come from a time when everything was done for the greater good. People back then, it seems, did what they thought would contribute positively to society. For us, the wireless and hashtag generation, that is almost utopian.
Even with the magnitude of his achievements clearly documented as part of our history, Ahmad insists he’s just an ordinary man. Maybe, but he did extraordinary things in his lifetime, all spurred by his sincere and unequivocal love for the arts, his friends and this great country. They just don’t make them like they used to. Long may he run.