It has been a quarter of a century since Datuk Sudirman Arshad died, but his music is still very much alive, courtesy of the digital age. Here’s an excerpt of an article The Star published on Feb 18, 2011.
Today, few artistes would dare attempt something as audacious as organise a giant concert in one of the major arteries of Kuala Lumpur’s busy thoroughfare. In fact, back in the 1980s, fewer would’ve fathomed staging an event of such magnitude in Chow Kit Road.
But Datuk Sudirman Arshad did, and successfully pulled off an iconic show on April 15, 1986. One of Malaysia’s greatest ever entertainers, the star was never restrained by convention. For a small man, he dared to dream big, and only the sky and his maker’s wishes were his limits.
Sudirman’s biggest supporter and ever-faithful sibling, Datin Rudiah Arshad, couldn’t have described him better by revealing his obliging nature. “When people asked, he would definitely help. It’s hard for me to say these things without sounding like his sister, but he really was a very caring person. If I wasn’t feeling too well, he’d quickly come up to me and massage me … or just chit-chat to keep me company,” she said
His humility was perhaps his greatest asset. After having the pleasure of working with him as his manager for nearly five years, Daniel Dharanee Kannan qualifies as an observer: “Sudirman did not see colour or religiousness. He was genuine, humble, and always warm and welcoming. His fans were Malays, Indians, Chinese and Sikhs, and came from all walks of life. They all just wanted to come and see this five-foot-odd performer perform – that’s all.”
And he practised what he preached by singing songs in not only the national language, but various Chinese dialects, Tamil, native Sabah and Sarawak dialects, Tagalog, Japanese, Korean and, of course, English.
His care and concern for his fans truly went the extra mile, too, especially since he would make sure (as far as possible) his concerts were sponsored events, so that fans could attend his shows for free. Signing autographs – even if he felt was a chore – was a responsibility he undertook willingly. “He would sign every autograph, never refuse anyone who wanted to take a picture with him, always have a warm welcoming smile and was always humble … to a fault, since people took advantage of him,” Dharanee shared.
Even as a tiny tot, Sudirman quickly earned a reputation for being a committed performer. Settling for second best would never do, and his creative drive took him to the top of the pile. As a child, he would sing, dance and play-act for his adoring family members and neighbours, naturally making him the livewire of any function or social event.
“He loved to entertain us. We’d deliberately sing out of pitch to annoy him and, naturally, he’d chide us for being out of tune,” Rudiah recalled with a hearty laugh. “But even at that age, I could tell that he always sang from his heart. Some singers sing to show their vocal ability, but Sudir did so to show his heart. His feel for his songs was just great.”
His star truly burned bright when, in 1983, he infiltrated the swankiest club in Kuala Lumpur at the time, Hilton Hotel’s The Paddock, which was privy to only foreign acts then. Being the ambassador for major companies such as Proton and Malaysian Airlines simply added more feathers to his cap.
At the height of his career in the 1980s, he peddled hit after hit with the likes of Merisik Khabar, Milik Siapakah Gadis Ini, Salam Terakhir, Balik Kampung, Basikal Tua and many more. His performances were always a delight to watch, not least because of his natty dressing, spectacular showmanship and slick dance moves. It’s an understatement to say Sudirman was a household name.
When 100,000 Malaysians jammed Chow Kit Road (now Jalan Chow Kit) in 1986, it confirmed Sudirman as a bona fide superstar of unprecedented proportions.
His most glorious moment would arrive in early 1989, in winning the Asian Music Awards. “Winning as Asia’s best performer was as if God had said to him: ‘Sudirman, this is your script, you would be the best in Asia and your spirit will live on forever,’ ” Dharanee related.
Despite his success stories, Sudirman remained a kampung boy at heart who enjoyed the simple things in life and basked in the love and joy his fans showered on him. All he wanted to do was entertain, and that he certainly did … and with aplomb, too.
Sudirman was also way ahead of his time. “He knew very early on that when people buy your products (CDs, cassettes, vinyl), especially music, then they would probably be potential live audiences for your shows. He understood that you have to be a visual performer and can’t just stand there and sing,” intimated Dharanee.
To this day, his death is shrouded in mystery, though the circumstances have been an open secret. While performing a show in Butterworth, Penang, he collapsed from an apparent stroke and never performed again through the months leading up to his end. The official cause of death is said to be cerebrovascular disease. But to ponder on his demise is missing the point.
Sudirman checked into this world on May 25, 1954, and checked out on Feb 22, 1992. All he had was 37 brief years, yet his legacy and love reverberates through every sinew of Malaysia’s modern entertainment culture, even if it doesn’t get the acknowledgement it should.
Some individuals simply defy words – entertainers like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Sudirman are in a league of their own. And fortunately for us all, they chose us to entertain, and the world has been a better place for it. Their presence is sorely missed and their absence, painfully felt, but the memory of the departed lives on.