Blessed with a distinctive voice and endearing style, Sudirman Haji Arshad transcended class and race.
In 1986, Chow Kit was an underprivileged inner-city area of Kuala Lumpur. That year, it became the venue of a much-remembered free concert where Sudirman Haji Arshad, then Malaysia's premier entertainer and singer, delighted a crowd of over 100,000.
Footage from the time shows throngs of people packed tightly, many cheering from rooftops, one or two even perched on trees to catch a glimpse of Sudirman, just a little over five feet in height, performing on a specially made platform.
Singing Chow Kit Road, his rousing ode to the area, Sudirman's performance that night planted him firmly in the hearts of ordinary folk, marking him as an entertainer for the common people.
Sudirman was the consummate performer on stage. His concerts also were joyful occasions during which his banter with fans won many hearts. With a word or a gesture, he could make people see a little bit of themselves in him. To many fans, he was simply “Abang Sudir”, the adored older sibling.
He sang with assurance about everyday life. With easily relatable lyrics and upbeat tunes, songs such as Basikal Tua (Old Bicycle), Pulang Dari Kilang (Back From The Factory) and Punch Card helped him transcend class and race.
It also helped that he was the small-town boy made good. Born in 1954, he grew up as part of a family of seven children in an unfashionable part of Malaysia, the town of Temerloh, about 100 kilometres east of Kuala Lumpur. Success at school brought him to the capital to study law at the University of Malaya in 1976.
The same year, he entered and won the Bintang RTM singing contest, at the time the principal talent show in the country. In inimitable style, Sudirman sang a Malay classic, Seruling Bambu (Bamboo Flute), and Big Spender from the musical Sweet Charity to win the contest, which launched his career as a singer. “And from that day, I began to realise that I was meant to work hard to entertain them (the fans),” he later wrote in his autobiography, Dari Dalam … Sudirman (From Within … Sudirman).
A successful recording contract soon followed, with numerous appearances on national TV alongside a series of hits. He held concerts all over the country. Growing in stature and confidence, he gamely sang songs in Cantonese and Tamil in an effort to bring the multiethnic nation together. He became a star in the Malay-speaking world with chart-toppers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei with Merisik Khabar (Seeking News Of You) Milik Siapakah Gadis Ini? (Who Does This Girl Belong To?) and Salam Terakhir (Final Goodbye).
At the height of his powers, he represented the country at a new competition held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1989, the Salem Asian Music Awards. He won the best performance award that night, eclipsing superstars Hong Kong’s Leslie Cheung and Singapore's Anita Sarawak. He briefly ventured into acting and released a book on the early part of his life, illustrated by drawings from his own hand. He qualified as a lawyer but entertaining was his abiding love.
He kept a busy schedule but by mid-1991, his health had begun to fail. The full details of his illness have never been disclosed but he was admitted to hospital for months, later moving to his sister's home in Kuala Lumpur. On 22 February 1992, it emerged that Sudirman had died from pneumonia. He was 37.
Sudirman had a distinct tenor and the ability to imbue his songs with deeply affecting emotion. Till today on the festival of Eid, Malaysians return to their hometowns with the familiar strains of Balik Kampung (Going Home) on the radio, testifying to the enduring appeal of his songs throughout the years.