BEHIND many a talented artiste or group is Ahmad Izham Omar. Names such as Too Phat, OAG, Poetic Ammo, Ruffedge, VE and Innuendo were under the Positive Tone label, which he founded and became managing director of in 1994.
In recent years, he’s unearthed more local talent through Malaysian Idol, So You Think You Can Dance Malaysia, One in a Million and Project Runway Malaysia on 8TV, a television station under the Media Prima Bhd group targeting the urban market. Izham was appointed chief operating officer of 8TV in 2003 and the station went on air in January 2004.
Besides being 8TV’s chief executive officer (CEO), Ahmad Izham wears many other hats. He is Media Prima’s head of radio which manages the Fly FM and Hot FM stations, and CEO of the group’s Alt Media which oversees the online and new media operations of Media Prima. He is also director of Monkey Bone Records, a label which counts Faizal Tahir as its most famous artist to date.
What drives the multi award-winning music producer, arranger, songwriter and musician is simply a love for music and the desire to share it with people. The Nut Graph discovers from an interview with Ahmad Izham on 22 June 2009, how the pursuit of that ambition, and the power of pop culture, are able to unite people in a way no political slogan can.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Ahmad Izham Omar: I was born in Petaling Jaya at a time when people were being given the opportunity to move from the kampung to start working in the towns. My dad came from Malacca and my mum from Seremban. Mum had a very colonial, very English upbringing in a convent school. My parents settled in PJ and worked in KL. They met at Institut Teknologi Mara PJ in Jalan Othman. I was born in December of 1969, lived in Section 12 first, and then in Section 22 near the Sri Aman school.
Tell us about your childhood in PJ.
When my parents settled in PJ near the Sri Aman school, at that time in the early 70s, there were people of all races living there. Everybody spoke English. My friends and I were born and bred in the city and were city boys who enjoyed watching Magnum PI and The Incredible Hulk. Only when I went to boarding school for my secondary education, did I have the chance to grow up with people who were not from that kind of environment.
My childhood best friend was a Chinese [Malaysian] boy in my neighbourhood. His name was Daniel Lum. He’s my age, and we [took] the same bus together to school. Every day without fail I would cycle to his house or he to my house, and we’d go exploring on our bikes. I don’t think he had the concept that he was Chinese nor that I was Malay, except for the fact that every Hari Raya he came to our house and every Chinese New Year we went to their house. Sometimes, I would kick [a] ball in his house and it would accidentally hit the tempat sembahyang, and he would stand in front of it putting his hands together like this (puts palms together and does praying motion).
When did you begin to realise the concept of race and how did that happen?
Probably when I was Form One, when I went to boarding school, because it was 90% Malay [Malaysian].
After boarding school I went to PJ Community College which was 80% Chinese [Malaysian]. It opened a different world to me because the mannerisms, behaviour, and social norms were very different. Not that one is better than the other, it’s just different. After a year-and-a-half, I went to the United States to a music school. There were not a lot of Malaysians, let alone Malays. Then I did my Masters in another school in Boston with no Malaysians at all. So my friends were from the Dominican Republic, from Paraguay, Mexico, and Japan.
I think it was when I came back here in 1994 and started a record company, Positive Tone, where I wanted to sell music to the people I grew up with; the kind of people who listened to Boy George, Wham! and Iron Maiden. That’s when I realised the race thing. Back then, 90% or 95% of the music industry was only doing mass Malay market products. They were all doing a similar kind of sound. Now — I’m not being elitist — I thought that we could have a different kinds of music for Malaysians as well. We released a group called OAG, where there was one Malay [Malaysian], two Chinese [Malaysian] boys, one half-Chinese, a half-Malay boy, who all sang English songs. We didn’t talk about race.
Now, this is the clincher. When I went to the shop with album, the owner said, “Izham, mana saya mau letak ini?” He had a Malay rack, a Chinese rack, and an International selection/English rack. So we had this OAG group comprising of Malaysians who were half-Chinese, half-Malay, singing English songs, and he didn’t know where to put the album in his shop. It ended up near the cashier which was good for me. And the album sold. It was triple-platinum but again, not many people wrote about it because the Bahasa Malaysia press was writing about Malay [Malaysian] artistes, the English press were writing about international artistes and the Chinese press was writing about Chinese artistes.
I realised then, that maybe the media has been polarising us, or maybe it’s the marketers. Yeah, it’s these marketers who have over-segmentised what they think the market needs. Because in marketing the trick is to focus your target market, you give your target market some characteristics and then you sell to them. Which means divide and conquer. But the problem with market segmentation is that the magic of the melting pot disappears. (Cups hands around mouth and bends down to tape recorder) I blame marketers! Because of them, all the content creators have to make products that fit that market.
When 8TV started, half the programmes were for Chinese [Malaysians]. For the other half, I decided to target the urban crowd. And I thought Malaysian Idol was perfect for this. And Malaysian Idol was won, not by design, first place by an Indian [Malaysian], second place by a Malay [Malaysian], third place by a Chinese [Malaysian]. And the crowd that night, it was a badminton crowd, the kind of crowd I saw when I was a kid at games. All races, all ages.
What is your motivation to create content that everybody likes? Do you do that with national unity at the back of your mind?
No, I think it’s a marketing problem. All I want to do is make music that I love for the kind of people that I grew up with, whom I know will love it. And they were all racially blind. With urban guys, you don’t need to talk about race because they don’t even see it. But we’re talking about progressive urban mindsets.
I recently attended a race relations forum, where someone said that it’s the middle to upper urban class who can “afford” racial unity, because they are financially secure enough to not have to compete to protect their ethnic turf. What do you think of that statement?
No. Some of my friends are really poor and downtrodden and they’re from all races. It depends on your upbringing. Whether your dad whispers to you, be friends with more Malays, or something like that. Fortunately, my parents had friends from all races. I think it really depends on upbringing. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether people can afford it or not. Everybody is a human being, and should be seen as such. But I do understand what the government is doing because sometimes economic inequality might lead to civil unrest which is dangerous for everybody.
What are the values or stories your parents have imparted to you?
My dad is an entrepreneur, he develops property. My mum was also an entrepreneur. She loved The Beatles, wore hotpants when she was younger. My dad loves keroncong and asli music. My dad comes from Malacca and his dad was a sailor. My grand-dad was an interesting character.
When my dad was four-years old, he went down to Singapore with his dad. And he saw a ship. People from Malacca, especially from Serkam where my dad’s family is from, are known to be sailors. So my granddad took one look at my dad, who was four, and said, I’m going on the ship. You’re going back with your aunt. So he went on the ship, just like that. The funny thing is, my dad kept contact with his dad’s brother through letters. They worked as hard labourers on the ship, and travelled the world.
My dad found that my grandfather went to live in Liverpool 1950s. When my dad got a scholarship to study in London in 1966, he went to visit my grandfather. Stayed there overnight, and said he would come back for Christmas. My dad was 24, so it had been 20 years without seeing his father. One week before Christmas he got a call from Liverpool that his father had died. So he went there and buried my grandfather. Later, he forgot the location of the grave. So he asked me to look for it. I was in London last year. I actually Googled stories about Malay seafarers all over the world, and found out that Malays who were in Liverpool who died in the 60s were buried in Anfield Cemetery. I wrote more about this in my blog under “The Grave in Liverpool“.
So I went to Anfield Cemetery and there were 150,000 grave stones. I only had two hours in Liverpool. So I Googled more and found out about a woman who walks her dog everyday at the cemetery and takes pictures and the names of all the inscriptions on the tombstones. She’s done about 110,000 already and put them on her website. And then I saw the “Muslim section”, and I felt, oh my God! There were 15 names. And one of the names were “Pada yang meninggal dunia Othman Haji Alias”. Oh, my bulu went up. Next thing I did was to find it on GPS and I went straight to the grave.
In the late 70s, my father received a letter from a woman in Sri Lanka. She wrote, “I am your half sister. My father is Othman Alias. He came here, found my mum, got married, and when I was four years old, he left me too.” My dad’s half sister had a picture of my dad, my brother when he was a baby, and my mum, and on the back of the photo is the address of a kampung, but it was the wrong kampung because it was the one next to my dad’s in Malacca.
She came to Malaysia because her son, my half-cousin, had studied Food & Beverage, worked in a hotel in Dubai, transferred to the KL Hilton, and was about to marry. So on the plane, my dad’s half sister asked a [flight attendant] about the kampung address on the back of the photo, and the [attendant] knew it. So my half-aunt took a car to that place, found the first sundry shop there and showed the owner the photo. The guy took a look at it and said, yes, that’s my cousin, and straight away he called my father.
What about your mother’s side, how did she receive such an English upbringing?
Because she went to a convent school in Seremban. She learnt to speak English [well], minded her Ps and Qs. She combined good English manners with Malay courteousness and respect in our upbringing. She taught us to speak English [well] and introduced me to the Beano and Dandy comics, and the Famous Five which became my reading staple for a long time. And she loved to sing The Beatles so she bought me a book of their songs from 1963 and sent me to learn piano so I could play and she could sing along. Every year, she would upgrade me to another book of Beatles songs.
How has all this contributed to your sense of being Malaysian?
I love the fact that this country has allowed me to meet all sorts of people, and I’ve lived in countries where it’s either all white, or all Japanese. It’s nice, but you get stuck in a certain way of thinking. The things that Malaysians can do, none of the world can ever hope to ever copy. Only problem is, we don’t package it in a way that the global taste would like. For example with Too Phat, the first album was truly hip-hop. In the second album we had some asli songs which we combined with hip-hop. Snoop Dogg can’t do this.
How do you feel about the current state of race relations in Malaysia?
I think there is unity, and I think marketers must be blamed for over-segmentising everybody. But I think people are smart enough to know that life is actually ok. Anybody who tries to play along racial lines, the smart guys can see through that. My worry is about people who are not so well-versed or well-educated who may get caught up in this dumb rhetoric. So to me, education and exposure to different things, are very, very important. No matter what any fool tells you, you can see right through it, and you’ll know that it’s either a marketing campaign or public relations, or a political campaign.
What kind of Malaysia do you want for your kids and for the future?
A Malaysia where, if you have a great idea, it gives you the foundation to jump off into world domination! Haha! A structure that helps to nurture great ideas, whether it’s in paleontology, gardening or medicine or music. That if you have a great idea, you’ll have the chance to tell the world about it. And with a Malaysian flavour in it, because nobody in the world can compete with us when it comes to that.
Right now, the structure is not strong as it should be. We’re good at building shells, but we’re not good on building the content inside. We must make content first and everything will fall nicely. We have to feed our soul first and everything else will follow.