Entertainer extraordinaire Sudirman Arshad.
Sudirman with his award in London. On the right is Daniel.

This year marks the 25th death anniversary of the nation’s beloved singer, Sudirman Arshad. Dennis Chua looks back on the artiste’s many achievements

ON Feb 22, 1992, sadness descended on the country as Malaysians mourned the untimely death of the nation’s top entertainer, Datuk Sudirman Arshad, who succumbed to illness at age 38.

A phenomenal entertainer who stamped Malaysian music on the world map, Sudirman rocketed to fame after winning talent search show, Bintang RTM, in 1976. His illustrious musical career lasted 16 years, during which he also became a composer, lyricist, actor, writer, cartoonist and entrepreneur.

Born on May 25, 1954 in Temerloh, Pahang, the youngest of seven children of Arshad Hassan and Ramlah Dahlan, Sudirman’s passion for singing began during his pre-teen years when he sang for his siblings and neighbours. He then read law and received his degree from the University of Malaya.

On April 14, 1986, the “singing lawyer” held an open-air concert in Chow Kit Road; the street concert drew a record 100,000-strong crowd.

The peak of his popularity came in 1989 when he won Best Performer at the Asia Music Awards 1989 held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. His former manager Daniel Dharanee Kannan recalled: “He was the clear winner from the start, and even regional musical giants such as Anita Sarawak and the late Leslie Cheung were no match for him and his beautiful anthem of One Thousand Million Smiles.”

Daniel revealed that in that concert, Sudirman met future American Idol judge Simon Cowell, who told him that he was a fantastic singer, “the whole package”. “Simon was a good friend of one of the awards judges, singer Sinitta. She, too, told me that Sudirman was a winner from the start,” said Daniel.

One of the late legend’s favourite entertainers was Freddie Mercury of Queen. They almost met in Auckland, New Zealand in 1984 when he was entertaining guests at a Tourism Malaysia event. “Sudirman was invited to meet Mercury backstage at his band’s concert in the same city. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t materialise as Mercury was taken ill.”

Sudirman, Daniel said, planned to create a platform for Malaysian talents to go global, and he wanted to see world-class Malaysian superstars outshine him. “He often told me that while Malaysia has made it to Royal Albert Hall, we must grow our talents and make it to Carnegie Hall, New York!”

Sudirman’s nephew, Razman Azrai Zainuddin, or Atai, 44, said the singing legend taught him many of life’s important lessons — to work hard to achieve one’s dreams, to be focused in life, and also, passionate about one’s craft.

“He was learning new things every day, and while I wasn’t into entertainment at first, he insisted that I join him, because entertaining others would be character-building,” said Atai, who learnt the ups and downs of showbusiness from Sudirman.

While he is happy that Malaysia has honoured his uncle by playing his songs on television and radio, Atai feels there is a “lot more to be done” to keep Sudirman’s legacy alive.

“His vision was to see a united, colour-blind Malaysia and he aimed to make Malaysian music world-class. The music industry owes him a lot, and if we pay heed to what he said, we’ll have world-class entertainers.”

As a writer, Sudirman penned a children’s book titled Taming Si Budak Pintar. He also starred in a film called Kami which was released in 1982. It was about two orphans who find each other amidst KL street life. This film spawned a hit song, Pelangi Petang.

As a businessman, Sudirman was Malaysia’s first successful singer-entrepreneur to launch his own carbonated drink, Sudi.

After his death, he was posthumously awarded an Anugerah Industri Muzik award, and a street in his hometown was named after him, Jalan Sudirman.

In 2014, Malaysia’s 57th National Day’s theme Di Sini Lahirnya Sebuah Cinta paid tribute to his song Warisan. The theme refers to the first line of Warisan, and the song is played throughout August and September on TV and radio.

Sudirman, who has 14 albums to his credit, was awarded a posthumous Datukship from Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang in 2009. He received the Darjah Indera Mahkota Pahang.

In 2013, Istana Budaya Kuala Lumpur staged a musical tribute to Sudirman titled Chow Kit Road! Chow Kit Road! after his hit song. It was loosely based on My Fair Lady and starred Anding Zaini and Adibah Noor. The same year also saw Hoore! Hoore! Malaysia’s first musical movie about accepting oneself, directed by Saw Teong Hin. It starred Akim Ahmad, Kilafairy and Adibah Noor.

Last year, seven singers performed some of Sudirman’s greatest hits in One Thousand Million Smiles, a tribute concert at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, Sentul Park, Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur. The performers included Atai, Dasha Logan and Tria Aziz.

The concert also saw the launch of the Sudirman Scholarship Fund created by KLPaC for performing arts practitioners.