Is P. Ramlee’s Relevance Just an Extension of Our Creative Bankruptcy?
To truly honor the legend that was P. Ramlee, we must move on from his legacies.
This article is co-written with Nur Shifa Asri.
Let me begin by making it clear that the late P. Ramlee was indeed a talented and legendary figure in the history of Malaysian entertainment. He acted, sang, and directed. It was rare to find that kind of talent in one person. That’s why he is still remembered today, so many years after his death. Indeed, it is most unfortunate that he was taken away from us at such a young age. We will remember you always, P. Ramlee.
Even so, I cannot help but to feel that his relevance in today’s society has been exaggerated by the powers that be. His name is continually brought up as an example to this day of how we should develop our art scene in Malaysia. The circumstances are different now and the specific type of entertainment may not be what the people want or need. It’s a disgrace to the man’s memory to try and hold him up as some kind of ideal, something that everyone should strive for no matter what. P. Ramlee had his own creative limitations, like everyone else. Ignoring this is to do a great disservice not only to him, but to the arts industry in Malaysia as well.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against P. Ramlee or his craft; what I’m trying to get across is that he should not be used as some sort of universal yardstick by which to measure art. He was a great man and I am forever grateful for all the joy that he brought into my life, and the lives of all Malaysians. But he shouldn’t be held up above other artists in some kind of ‘pantheon of greatness’. We tend to do that with our artists anyway, when we need to be doing a better job of encouraging everyone, regardless of talent.
Having said that, I would like to present my case against P. Ramlee’s relevance in today’s society.
Creative bankruptcy is a phrase that we, as a society, are all too familiar with. It is what happens when a person is out of original ideas and has to resort to repeating themselves over and over again to keep up an illusion of productivity. It is the state of being where one can no longer create something that is meaningful or new, instead relying on the past to continue earning a living. It is what the music industry calls ‘a has been’. It is what we call a cliché.
But creative bankruptcy can also be applied to a nation’s culture as well. We can fall into the same patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking as other nations. The problem with this is that it stops us from progressing as a society and can sometimes even make us more stagnant than we already are. Let me explain.
When P. Ramlee was in his prime, there was no internet, and the only entertainment that the average Malaysian could access was the cinema and radio. These two media were enough to keep the public’s attention and they couldn’t get enough of it. Most of these films were targeted towards families and children, relying on humour and basic themes that would appeal to a wide demographic audience. He was a maverick when it comes to Malaysian standards. He broke boundaries and pushed the envelop when it comes to what is considered acceptable. There was no film industry as we know it today, so Ramlee had almost complete creative freedom. It was a great time to be alive, artistically speaking.
But then, times change.
The themes and styles that P. Ramlee used are now cliche. They’ve been done to death in every other Malaysian film ever since his death. It’s not even a case of bad imitation; it’s almost like we’ve run out of ideas. The directors, scriptwriters and producers are all doing the same thing over and over again, and the public is beginning to realise it. Malaysian cinema has become stale and uninteresting, except for a few innovative works here and there. Even the quality of acting hasn’t been as good since the Golden Age of Malaysian cinema, and it doesn’t help that technology has made things easier for everyone.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bring everyone down. P. Ramlee was a great man and his contributions to this society are invaluable. I’m saying, it’s time to move on. As a nation, we need to be better than this. We need to start making daring works of art. Try new things. Break new ground. Be creative and innovative.
Let us compare our nation’s art to that of another Asian country: Korea. At one point, Korean music was stuck in a rut. Many of their songs were generic pop tunes with little to no artistic value. Then, artists like Psy came along and changed the landscape of the music industry forever. They brought a new sound, a new style and a new attitude to the forefront of popular music. Their song ‘Gangnam Style’ has been viewed over 2 billion times on YouTube, and it’s not hard to see why.
But Malaysia lacks an artist like that. Someone who can pull off something daring and innovative, influencing people’s views on art in the process. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any talented musicians in Malaysia, but their music is kept hidden from the internet because our audience isn’t interested in it. What we consider to be quality music is limited to the same old songs about love, separation and heartbreak. The same goes to our film industry.
Malaysia needs a change in its artistic culture. We need artists that are willing to take risks, so that the general public will be willing to take those risks as well. We need to inspire people to be more than what they are. Sometimes, all it takes is the right person at the right time saying the right thing. Until then, we’ll have to keep trudging along with our creative bankruptcies.
What we can learn from P. Ramlee is that the artist needs to be a visionary. He saw potential in something that nobody else did and used it to his advantage. He had the creative freedom to do as he pleased. He understood that the artist’s role in society is not to just create pretty things, but to push boundaries and challenge conventional beliefs.
But we must honour him while at the same time moving on. There is so much potential in our nation, but we lack the creative vision to see it through. I hope that one day, an artist greater than P. Ramlee will come along and be able to channel Malaysia’s boundless creative energy.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Malaysia, let’s try new things. Let’s break new ground. Let’s be creative and innovative. Let’s give the world something new to admire. Let’s inspire people to be greater than what they are. And who knows? Maybe one day, we might even create a work of art so great, it can stand the test of time.
And maybe, just maybe, that will be something worth writing about.