ROZZ, or Feroz Ridzman, is very clear about who he is. The resident singer at Bagan Bar and Restaurant in Penang says even though he grew up in Australia and studied and worked in the US, he came back.
Rozz, who is in his thirties, has not only performed in Broadway musicals; he was also asked by Palladium nightclub owner Peter Gatien to headline his own show in the New York City nightclub. In those heady days, he was known as Alliana, his alter-ego.
But Rozz stresses on the connection he feels with Malaysia despite having left an exciting entertainer’s career behind, having performed in musical productions such as The Fantasticks and Beauty and the Beast in New York. He returned to Malaysia because of family and a scholarship bond.
“I didn’t just return. I chose to stay on in Malaysia, because there is so much that is positive and possible, especially in Penang,” he says.
In a 9 Jan 2009 interview, Rozz didn’t just share his stories, he also dressed up and sang for The Nut Graph in the 1970s-style bungalow restaurant that is Bagan.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Rozz: In General Hospital, Penang. [I grew up] in Scoresby (Victoria), Australia with my paternal grandparents. I lived with them for nine years between the age of three and 12.
I returned to Malaysia when I was 13 and studied in Penang Free School (PFS) until I was 17. I then went to PPPITM (Pusat Persediaan Pelajar Institut Teknologi Mara, now Universiti Teknologi Mara or UiTM) in Shah Alam for a pre-American university degree programme.
After that, I headed off to the US, where I graduated with two degrees from Yale University — one in theatre studies and one in international relations. So, I spent six years in the US: four years studying and two years working.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?
My mum is fourth-generation Chinese Malaysian, my father is third-generation Ceylonese Malaysian.
My paternal grandparents moved to Australia in the late 1960s because my grandfather was offered a job with the Australian government.
My mum’s father was with the Prison’s Department, so they travelled around a lot. She met my father in Kuala Lumpur, but they moved to Penang because my dad got a job here. My mum’s surname is Cheung and her ancestry can be traced back to Thailand.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
In Australia, I liked coming home from school and sitting in front of the TV, drinking Coke and having a sandwich. I was so happy and had no worries. And I would look forward to going out and playing with my friends from the neighbourhood. My best friend then was Darren Eccles (chuckles). I can still remember his name. He was red-haired and freckled.
In Malaysia, my fondest memory was being involved in theatre. The King and I musical was the first play I directed [in PFS], and it was then that I realised, “Oh, my God! I’m actually good at this!” I was only 16 then. It was such a good feeling and I was able to show my family, “Hey, look at what I can do!”
I believe that God sends you signs about what to do with your life, and theatre and music have come very easily to me. It was never difficult for me.
But it was also at this point that my father said, “Study law or engineering.” I knew I didn’t want to do engineering or law. I wanted to study theatre. I doubted whether I could make a living, but I wanted to be in theatre. But my father said, “What would people think of us?”
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents/grandparents/uncles?
My grandmother was a headmistress in Australia and she used to tell me: “There’s no reason people cannot succeed if they just work hard.” That has always stuck with me. When she looked at my report card, she would say, “Do you know why you got the grades you did? Some people are going to have to work harder than others but you’re lucky because you don’t have to study that hard.”
She didn’t believe in intelligence, even though I was a member of Mensa when I was 15, after my SRP. That was what probably helped me get into Yale, as well (chuckles)
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
If I’m a bumiputera in this country, I don’t have to work harder [than non-bumiputera]. Some bumiputera have it easier in this country. But if we stick to my grandmother’s advice, “There’s nobody who can’t succeed if they work hard”, then what we have in this country is not fair. Of course it’s not.
I believe we all have a right to be in Malaysia. If you’re Malaysian, you’re Malaysian. We have to get out of the racial categorisations of being Chinese, Indian, Malay. We are Malaysians, first and foremost.
In Australia, it was never like that — race didn’t come into play. And in Australia, the aborigines needed protection, but in Malaysia, the bumiputera don’t need it. I mean, if it’s a native culture or economy that is being eradicated, then yes, it needs protection.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
The fact that I was born a Muslim. But I was never raised a Muslim because my paternal grandparents were Catholics.
Muslims in Indonesia don’t face the same situation. The rules we have here are not enforced there.
So why are we so frightened? Our biggest fear as Muslims in Malaysia is the fear of something new. The religion is used to oppress people.
This is where I was born. I shouldn’t have to feel frightened to eat in public during puasa. It’s not because I’m lazy or anti-Islam. I have a mind. I know what I choose for myself and it’s not hurting anyone. In a democracy, it should be allowed.
I want to learn about everything and see what is best for me.
I think my parents’ greatest gift to me was that they didn’t impose any religious belief on me.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I enjoy the colours. Multicoloured Malaysia. But I want a Malaysia with no colour, where everybody is just Malaysian.
These racial categorisations are ridiculous and artificial. What are we protecting? Those who want to continue the NEP (New Economic Policy) are afraid 13 May will recur. But 13 May happened for a reason. People who revolted were unhappy because their needs were not being met by the government. But they revolted against innocent people, instead of the government! What did that solve?
We have great minds who don’t think we need the NEP anymore. It’s time to rely on our intellects and hard work to push the country forward. The country is not going anywhere if the people at the helm believe in the status quo.
When I was in PFS, I never felt like I needed to belong to a race. There was no issue of race. I want Malaysia to be like that.
Would you ever consider leaving Malaysia?
Yes, but it would be to develop my career. And it wouldn’t mean that I did not like Malaysia. I love Malaysia. Will always make it my base, and mind you, I’ve lived in New York!