(All pics below courtesy of Sheila Majid)
ONE of Malaysia’s most beloved singers, Datuk Sheila Majid has been wowing fans with her jazzy and R&B-flavoured brand of contemporary pop since the 1980s. From the release of her debut album Dimensi Baru in 1988 to the bestselling Legenda in honour of the late Tan Sri P Ramlee, she has continued to break records through the years.
She was the first Malaysian artiste to have success in Japan, and perform a sold-out concert at the Royal Theatre in London’s West End in 1996. She was also the first local artiste to perform at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.
She tells The Nut Graph about her childhood, and her thoughts about Malaysia past and present, in this interview in February 2010.
TNG: When and where were you born?
Sheila Majid: I was born in Kuala Lumpur, 45 years ago. I’m a born and bred KL city girl. I remember less traffic jams back then, and life being much [safer]. I could wake up in the morning, go out cycling and meet friends, go to the bookstores and read comics.
What are some of the childhood memories you hold dear?
My childhood was a lot of fun. My father worked in the forestry department, with the government. So we lived in a government house behind Bank Negara, near Swettenham Road. There was a lot of space to play for us eight siblings. Thank God we were in the hutan — we found many things to do.
I was the youngest, so had my fair share of being bullied! But it was a house full of laughter. We didn’t have to buy stuff. Nowadays kids want Toys”R”Us, but I remember my mother would come with this huge grocery box, and as soon as the things were taken out, we would tear that box apart. We’d sit on it and slide down the hill. I really miss those days. Somehow I feel my children don’t get to do that.
We were also in an area where there were many JKR (Public Works Department) people, so we played with the neighbourhood kids a lot, most of them Indian [Malaysians].
Sheila (right) with her sisterWhen I was young and in school, we never looked at other races as different. We felt that we were the same. Perhaps we had different colours, but we grew up with the same values: to do good, to be good to others.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where are your grandparents or ancestors from?
My father was Javanese, and my mother has always been from Kuala Lumpur. My mother’s great-great grandfather was actually a friend of Yap Ah Loy‘s. His name was Sutan Puasa, and is from the Mandailing clan, who are originally from Sumatera. The Mandailing are still around today; most of them are in Kajang. Sutan Puasa was the first of their settlers in KL, and most of the land was owned by him at the time. Later, he was involved in a clash with the Bugis. But the Mandailing lost because the British were behind the Bugis, and so they lost KL to Selangor.
The history books never highlighted this because, well, they obviously write more about the Bugis family. I know why Bukit Nenas is named as such, for example. At the time the Mandailing wanted to keep the Bugis out, so they built many pineapple trees as a foil against the enemies.
If my family meets any others from the Mandailing clan today, we say “Horas!”, which is like “Aloha” in the dialect, though we don’t know or speak it anymore lah.
On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was Javanese, who travelled to Mecca from Indonesia. They lived in Mecca for 10 years and were very religious. On his way back, my great-grandfather’s ship was shipwrecked, and he ended up on the shores of Peninsular Malaysia. He set up home here, and changed his Javanese name to Haji Salleh. Then there was my grandfather Haji Shahid, and later my father Haji Majid.
My father actually has a family tree that goes right up to the Majapahit warriors. My father’s lineage comes from Raden Hussein, who is the brother of Raden Hasan, the first Muslim sultan of Demak in Indonesia. Both were the sons of Probowo Wijoyo the Fifth of Majapahit, who was Hindu.
Did that rich ancestry feature in or influence your upbringing?
Well, my father studied in Oxford University, England, so he is very English oriented. When we grew up he emphasised education, being an academic person. Therefore when I wanted to become a singer, he freaked. My parents encouraged us to listen to all kinds of music and sent me for classical piano lessons, but he never thought I was going to be a singer. He thought it was fine as a hobby, but not as a career.
I’m glad to say, however, that before he passed away in 1996, he saw that I could make a living out of this, and that I was not in it for the wrong reasons. I love singing, I’m passionate about music, and am very much into my art. So I think when he passed away, he was quite assured that I’d be okay.
Our parents were very religious, and we had our spiritual foundation, but they also brought us up in a very open-minded kind of way. When we were young, we could wear shorts and things like that, they never asked us to cover up. It was a very balanced upbringing.
How do these stories affect you when it comes to your identity as a Malaysian? Especially in the current landscape of controversial racial and religious issues?
Performing in the 80s. Sheila’s dress says “Central Market KL” It’s all petty. None of us originated from here! I’m sure your ancestors came from China and they were probably merchants who came here. Same with the Indian [Malaysians]. Everybody was travelling the world to conduct business, and they decided to stay put in a certain area.
I think all the issues today are very petty because 30 years ago, we were doing very good together. Why is it all coming up today? It is all political. I’d say leave the people alone. If you want to play your politics, don’t get us involved. We were fine and well before, and we lived together in harmony. It’s all about power and money. I think so many have forgotten the fundamentals of life — being nice to each other.
The Malaysia then was more open and tolerant. From a musician’s perspective, for example, you have concerts and foreign artists coming in today, but people want to make a fuss over little things. We have a TV in our living room, and at the touch of a button our children can already see all those skimpy clothes if they want to. We are making an issue over little things, when there are other more important issues to be addressed.
Come on, do not insult our intelligence. Do you think they will go to a concert and suddenly want to be exactly like that? I may want to have a body like Beyonce (laughs), but, come on, I’m not going to be like her. I go and watch, learn and take what’s positive, and will not do whatever I feel is against my religion or culture. My parents brought us up in an environment which was very open-minded, and we could discuss a lot of things, and yet they made sure we had our religious values, too. We grew up okay!
And not less Malay.
I was brought up and exposed to Western culture, but it does not make me less Malay. I speak English because my father was an academic man, and he wanted us to speak the language well. Today I can converse in both Malay and English.
Why was the generation before more confident than the generation today? What happened along the way? For my children, we speak Malay and English at home, but I also send them to Chinese school. My eldest is 19 and speaks Mandarin, English and Malay. They will all know Mandarin. I think it’s an asset, and I think China is going to be a big economic powerhouse.
And say what you want, but English is an international language today. Malay [Malaysians] are beginning to have an inferiority complex because they cannot converse in English fluently. We are talking about, “Oh you must make sure you are Malay, and know your language.” Well, of course we will know the Malay language, it is our mother tongue! At the end of the day, we are just going to be katak bawah tempurung and jaguh kampung lah.
With husband Hasridz Murshim Hashim, better known as Acis, and her children
What are your hopes for Malaysia? What gives you hope?
Keep politics out of our music, keep it out of sports. When everyone wants to put their two cents’ worth when they don’t even know the subject, it is worrying.
Let us put it this way: there are two houses. One has a beautiful exterior, but the other is sturdy. If you ask a lay[person], of course he [or she] would pick the beautiful one; but ask an architect, and he [or she] would tell you that it does not have the right foundation or structure. Today people with no expertise whatsoever are giving opinions in whatever fields they like. Leave it to the experts!
I am not saying everything is negative in this country, but compared to 30 years ago, people’s priorities are so different. Today people are more into self gain, rather than what is good for the community, society and country. But my children give me hope. They are global in their outlook.
I always say you must not forget your roots, however modern you are. Hopefully they will grow up to be people who are compassionate and caring. I think it is important for it to start with parents and the schools, to bring all of this back. To not look at each other as Indian, Chinese or Malay. We are Malaysians, kan?