From The Archives: Ahmad Sarji, the keeper of the P. Ramlee flame

Through books and music heritage projects, the late Tun Ahmad Sarji worked to ensure that P. Ramlee's legacy was preserved for future generations. Photo: The Star/Filepic

Former chief secretary to the government Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid passed away aged 82 on Aug 28. In his illustrious public service career, he was also known as a champion of Malaysian arts, culture and heritage. In music, his passion was to ensure the legacy of his boyhood idol Tan Sri P. Ramlee was not forgotten.
In this 1999 story, then entertainment writer Daryl Goh interviewed Tun Ahmad Sarji about his P. Ramlee book Erti Yang Sakti.
This story originally appeared in StarLifestyle (then known as StarTwo) on Nov 30, 1999, and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid is a man on a proud mission. The former Chief Secretary to the Government has an undying passion for his boyhood idol P. Ramlee and that interest has hardly waned over the years.

As a true-blue fan, Ahmad Sarji, 61, who is Permodalan Nasional Berhad chairman, insists on sharing his devotion for his hero with as many people as possible. It would not be far from the truth to suggest that Ahmad Sarji practically has P. Ramlee flowing through his veins.

For starters, Ahmad Sarji isn't one to rest until he has seen and done everything within his capacity to ensure that P. Ramlee's legacy is preserved for future generations.

He has been one of the major reasons why the entertainment legend who died on May 29, 1973, and posthumously awarded the title of Tan Sri and made "Seniman Agung" (or "National Artiste") by the Government in 1990 is finally receiving a renewed wave of popularity.

In March this year, Ahmad Sarji was instrumental in helping Pos Malaysia select P. Ramlee stamp imprints and designs for an official first-day cover series which were issued in July.

When it comes to P. Ramlee-related activities, there's a good bet that you'll find Ahmad Sarji working behind the scenes too.

"P. Ramlee is timeless and every generation can connect and relate to the man's music, movies and personality," says Ahmad Sarji in an interview over tea at his PNB office in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, recently.

Ahmad Sarji is also the National Economic Consultative Council II chairman and heads various sports, welfare and conservation organisations.

The father of five also reckons that a passion should never be doused and research writing has been one of his career strong points.

He authored the well-received book, The Chief Secretary to the Government, Malaysia (1996), and he can also boast of a respectable collection of P. Ramlee books, records, movies and memorabilia in his Bukit Damansara home.

When it comes to pet projects, Ahmad Sarji takes immense pride in recalling the "labour of love", as he calls it, in getting the P. Ramlee encyclopaedia, Erti Yang Sakti, published.

The encyclopaedia is distributed by Pelanduk Publications and a first run of 2,000 copies has hit specialist book stores. It's Ahmad Sarji's modest attempt to document every morsel of fact related to P. Ramlee's entertainment career.

Datuk Ng Tieh Chuan, managing director of Pelanduk Publications, says the encyclopaedia received special treatment in the form of "high-end packaging".

"It's a real collector's item and each and every page has a varnish finish which makes it very unique," explains Ng.

For added tasteful gloss, the book title comes from a line in poet laureate A. Samad Said's poem, Lagu Bunga II, which honours P. Ramlee. Erti Yang Sakti means "The Truest Meaning."

"The amount of work Ahmad Sarji has put into the book is tremendous," says Ng.

Indeed, Ahmad Sarji spent hours and hours drafting and fact-finding missions in university libraries, Shaw Brothers archives and various previously published sources.

"I worked on the book alone and there are certain limitations to that. Some friends did help but I still had to make a lot of changes because new facts kept coming up along the way," he says.

Ahmad Sarji is open to any feedback towards Erti Yang Sakti, which he stresses is just an entry point level book to get a better idea of P. Ramlee's career.

He says that the reference book is based purely on facts and it was quite a task backtracking through archives and other sources to identify and confirm correct dates and information.

"The initial groundwork for Erti Yang Sakti started three years ago, but the momentum for the project really intensified during the course of the past year," he adds.

Ahmad Sarji's tribute to P. Ramlee doesn't stop at Erti Yang Sakti. With a broad smile, he reveals that he is currently co-authoring a P. Ramlee biography in English with British author Professor James Harding and chapters are being drafted and research is well on the way.

During the interview, Ahmad Sarji shares some heart-warming memories and future plans about his dream of pushing P. Ramlee's profile a few notches up in terms of national pride, critical recognition and wider public appreciation.

It seems quite inevitable that you would be the right person to write a P. Ramlee biography. Did the encyclopaedia point you towards that direction?

"I wanted to start something meaningful to honour P. Ramlee and I derived great satisfaction in personally seeing through the work on Erti Yang Sakti. But it was just a beginning and the biography I'm co-authoring (with Harding) will present a more personal and in-depth study on P. Ramlee's life and career.

"The human side of the legend will be reflected upon in the biography and we'll probably discover all this as we interview people who were close to P. Ramlee when we start writing the chapters."

How did Professor James Harding (who wrote biographies on Ivor Novello, the legendary British film star/playwright/director, and French screen legend Maurice Chevalier) come into the picture?

"James makes Malaysia his holiday destination and he has a keen interest in the culture and arts here. His interest for P. Ramlee began during one of those visits. He visited the P. Ramlee Memorial and National Archives to learn more about the man.

"That's when he picked up a book written by Johari Salleh and me which celebrated the lyrics and musical notes of P. Ramlee. Being a pianist, he was interested to find out more and wanted to meet me, since he found out I was an enthusiast of P. Ramlee."

What's the progress of the P. Ramlee biography and when do you think it will see the light of day?

"The book is probably due sometime next year. James has been to Malaysia twice to conduct interviews with the people close to P. Ramlee and he has used my encyclopaedia as a reference source. We are making progress but I don't think we are concerned about release dates and publishers at this point.

"The emphasis is to come up with a book that will give the masses a better understanding of who P. Ramlee was and what he stood for.

"There are many other Malay books on P. Ramlee, notably the one written by Datuk Abdullah Hussein. But in writing an English biography, I feel it would be a useful edition in knowing this great man better."

The primary differences between Erti Yang Sakti and the upcoming biography seem as distinct as chalk and cheese. Has that been really the case when it comes to your understanding of P. Ramlee?

"Erti Yang Sakti was meant to be an encyclopaedia. I used magazines, books, newspaper cuttings and watched P. Ramlee's movies all over again to gather the facts.

"I did not set out to write a biography about P. Ramlee, I refrained from interviewing his peers, relatives and friends. But these people would be very significant sources for the biography, which I feel will benefit a whole more from the experience I gathered in trying to grasp P. Ramlee's career and vision in life."

Are you disappointed with the fact that there is a lack of literary works on Malaysians who have made a big impression in the fabric of our society?

"I wish more books will appear in the market; we have great people in this country. Our leaders, those in the arts, there are many Malaysians who are great.

"I feel that recognition is due, we have to get to know our heritage and give the important few some credit. It's very rare to find a person like P. Ramlee, he was a genius in his field and his contributions to our country should be remembered."

Do you think the public really need to look beyond the screen and music star to discover the real P. Ramlee?

"I hope it (the biography) makes interesting reading. There have been many proposed chapters dedicated to the man's troubled times. He had his triumphs but P. Ramlee did face a lot of trauma in his life towards the end of his career.

"There was the PERSAMA (film union) issue, he was a natural leader but many people misunderstood his intentions.

"His personal side, the movie industry, his leadership will be treated in the biography. P. Ramlee did not have an easy time after his golden years and as a director/actor he did have to finish his later films with meagre budgets and in quick time.

"It was a far cry from being adulated and to handle depression in the later period of a career. But these things happened in the course of his life. Nevertheless, P. Ramlee's contributions remain."

What are your earliest memories of P. Ramlee?

"As a young boy, I started out with many idols. I used to like John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the whole thing about Westerns.

"But P. Ramlee was always special since I caught his first movie (Chinta) in 1948. I grew up in Tapah (Perak) and there were always big crowds whenever a P. Ramlee movie opened. His shows were always crowd-pullers and one day, he came to Tapah to sing at my school. I was totally hooked and as schoolboys, we made our way to the hotel he was staying to get an autograph.

"I remember that he signed, 'love yourself and the world will love you' in my book. These words have stuck in my memory through the years..."

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