#3: Arts for the Soul
In this episode, we turn the spotlight on The Actors Studio's Datuk Faridah Merican. Every conversation with her is always a joy - unfiltered, witty and insightful. The grand dame of Malaysian Theatre took us through some significant milestones of her life in this very up, close and personal chat.
Picture this: Malaysia in the mid-60s. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, arrives in Kuala Lumpur for an official visit. After dinner, he takes to the dancefloor for a bit of a boogie, and opposite this prince is this lady.
FARIDAH: I was a dancer. Badan kesenian, it was called. My sister and I we were both dancing - Malay dance, lah. And it was wonderful - we were so like, oh!
AZURA: it sounded like really heavy times.
FARIDAH: Oh! Happiness! Many, many years after that Prince Phillip came to Malaysia, and I danced at the occasion. I danced with Prince Phillip. You wouldn't believe this.
AZURA: What did you dance with Prince Phillip?
FARIDAH: Joget, lah.
AZURA: Oh okay, was he a good mover? Did he know how to boogie?
FARIDAH: Oh of course! I mean, come on, he's a prince, surely!
AZURA: Was the Queen rather disapproving of you getting down with him?
FARIDAH: No, no, he came alone to Malaysia.
Brought to you by Mercedes-Benz and BFM, you're listening to Shift, Steer and Strive - the show that shines the spotlight on influential minds, and the inspiring, as well as sometimes the eccentric personalities behind them.
I'm Azura Rahman. On this episode: Datuk Faridah Merican.
As far as Malaysian performing arts goes, there's arguably nobody more prominent today than Faridah Merican. She has an unrivalled passion for the stage, and her devotion to the arts is undivided. In this day and age, she's what you'd call a multi-hyphenate: actor, theatre, playwright, and to many, a living legend.
Born in Penang in 1939, Faridah's foray into the stage began in primary school, at St George's Girls School. She's never looked back since, and some of her most notable roles were in Syed Alwi's Tok Perak and Alang Lentak Seribu, and Usman Awang's romance epic, Uda dan Dara.
Fast forward to today, her theatre company, The Actor's Studio, celebrated its 30th year of operations - a truly significant milestone for her and her husband Joe Hasham. We'll hear a bit more about him later.
Their shared endeavours in the Actor's Studio actually began the year they tied the knot. With her illustrious career spanning decades, I knew my conversation with Faridah will be filled with stories, and boy did we have them. Faridah's candid nature left no stone unturned - touching everything from family, work, politics, education, and of course, the love of her life, Joe Hasham.
Her career as a performer started in radio, but her body of work on stage is what defines her: Faridah, a.k.a., The First Lady of Malaysian Theatre.
AZURA: I tried to trace back that accolade - who first bestowed it upon you? I wasn't quite sure at which point..
FARIDAH: I'm sure it must've been either the newspapers or my very best friend Joseph Gonzales. I don't know who really did it but, maybe it was our marketing people, Ang Yue May.
AZURA: It wasn't Joe - wasn't your husband?
FARIDAH: Oh no - no, no, no. He didn't get the name "The First Man of Malaysian Theatre".
AZURA: Is that a sore point for him? [laughs]
FARIDAH: He jokes about a lot of things - he's cute in that sense. Cute in many senses.
AZURA: Well you must think he's cute, since you've been married for 30 years.
FARIDAH: I find him very cute.
AZURA: Aw. There's a collective aw in the room right now.
FARIDAH: And he finds me cute too. So, this year for instance is our 29th anniversary - the wedding, as well as The Actor's Studio. So we wish each other Happy Anniversary every day of the weeks and months so far.
AZURA: Every day? You wake up saying...
FARIDAH: You think we're mad right? We are mad [laughs]
AZURA: I think it's cute - I'll say that!
FARIDAH: Maybe we don't want to forget. Maybe because as you grow older, these things are very important to remember, lest we forget. It is his idea - not mine. I'm not that mad sometimes, although yes, I am quite mad, but yeah. We wish each other happy anniversary, "good morning, I love you," every day.
AZURA: I mean, I've always thought there was a double act aspect to your relationship with Joe. You guys are a quip a minute that you're together, he says something, you say something, he finishes your sentences. Is it something you've kind of honed and acted over the years, or has it always been that way with him? Has he always finishes your sentences, have you always, you know, had quips with each other?
FARIDAH: Yes, either I finish his sentences and he gets upset with me: he says 'I am talking. Let me finish'. Or he finishes my sentences and I don't say anything about it. But you know our, as you say, there is we do lead a kind of a double life. Our work is such that we have to manage and managing what we do in the arts is not really a very easy thing to do. So you must have moments of differences of opinion. You must because otherwise it will be so boring. If I'm gonna agree with him with everything he says or does, I would not be myself. I would not be true to myself and vice versa as well and Joe as well.
That's Joe Hasham, by the way. You know, the voice of BFM89.9.
AZURA: And he cooks every day?
FARIDAH: Not everyday. We don't eat at home everyday.
AZURA: That's what you call a keeper right? No wonder you find him…
FARIDAH: He loves it. He loves it. And it's just the two of us.
AZURA: I imagine you have a very public life as it is. You meet a lot of people and it's nice to kind of retreat back home, right?
FARIDAH: Oh yes. Oh god yes, yes, yes. And we say this to one another very often: "It's so nice to be having dinner together. It's so nice to be in the car together driving to Penang." And all those moments, when you are just the two of us.
AZURA: And just being quiet with each other. Are there quiet moments between each of you? I can't quite imagine it. I Imagine there isn't conversations.
FARIDAH: We talk we talk a lot. We argue a lot and we fight a lot. You know we fight we fight, you wouldn't believe it. But no you will you can believe it. You have to fight because if you don't fight, you adrenaline doesn't flow. So you must fight. You must find reason to fight. [laughs]
AZURA: And you still find him cute after all these years.
FARIDAH: I find him adorable, yes.
AZURA: Oh what was it like you know---
FARIDAH: You have to fight with your mate to grow [inaudible]
AZURA: I agree, I agree.
FARIDAH: Otherwise, what's the point of getting together?
AZURA: You need to be attracted to a mate.
FARIDAH: It is not necessarily physical attraction because have you seen his paunch?
AZURA: I don't know. People find different things attractive.
FARIDAH: But he is. He has a gorgeous voice. He has a twinkle in his eye. You know yes, you have to find them adorable.
AZURA: So let's go back to the time where you first found this love for the stage. What was the first play that you acted in?
FARIDAH: When I was in primary school…
AZURA: In primary school?
FARIDAH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was in primary school in Penang and this is the memory that is stuck in my head forever and ever. We would dress in black, and we were playing the children of Macbeth's witches.
AZURA: Wow. What kind of primary school did you go to? I just had malay dances, chinese dances and that's it.
FARIDAH: St George's Girls School!
AZURA: Wow, Shakespeare at that age!
FARIDAH: Because we were doing English literature and all that when I was in school. I am one of the very very lucky people in Malaysia who had that opportunity of doing poetry and, not poetry slam, poetry and debate and standing on the stage and talking.
AZURA: Speech and drama
FARIDAH: And generally making a nuisance of yourself and enjoying the accolade that you get because you are on stage and you have taken about. I tell you Azura there is nothing like that. So I grew older and older loving the stage. My next play in school was I believed when I was in secondary school already. And I did She Stoops To Conquer when I was in form 4. And then the next play that I did was when I was in Kota Bahru teacher's training college in 1957 and I did Shakespeare's Taming of The Shrew.
AZURA: And you played?
FARIDAH: I played Kate. And I had a wonderful opportunity to slap a man. How wonderful is that?
AZURA: Did you? How many times did you do it?
FARIDAH: When you are 17 years old you know. I can still remember the slap.
AZURA: What were the rehearsals like? Was it like a gentle smack or did you like did you reserve it for the actual day?
FARIDAH: I can't remember the process but I certainly remembered the performance slap.
AZURA: What was it like then? What was the slap?
FARIDAH: It was satisfying. I hope the person is still around and alive and can listen to this interview on BFM and tell me…
AZURA: Can still feel the smarting on his cheek.
FARIDAH: I'm sure it hurt him!
AZURA: But you know, it sounds as though that you put a bit of yourself as well on the stage. I mean is it always acting? Is it also me Faridah wanted to slap a man?
FARIDAH: I acted for a long long time. When I came to Kuala Lumpur after I left college in 1959, I came to KL in 1960. And I continue with the pleasure of acting with some wonderful people who were in Kuala Lumpur. They were the who's who and they were the knowledgeable people that I had the pleasure of meeting.
Moving from Penang to KL, Faridah was an untrained actor doing theatre gigs alongside her main job at Radio Malaysia. It was here that she learned and refined her skills - working alongside theatre luminaries such as K. Dass, Rahim Razali, Krishen Jit, Joe Machado and the aforementioned Syed Alwi and Usman Awang, amongst others.
The theatre scene was a cosy one - everyone knew each other, and hung out with each other. Respected directors and young and the new sat at the same table, but there are some truths to the adage that one should not meet your idols.
AZURA: Were you cognisant of that? Did you realise, "oh I'm around some greats here. They're gonna be big people." Did you feel that? -- not I'm around some craze here.
FARIDAH: Yeah, I'm about 10 years younger than them. But they made you comfortable. You of course held them in awe. You, I was also being directed by Syed Alwi because he was besides being in radio as a program director, he was also a stage person. He directed. He wrote.
AZURA: You were in Alang Rentak Seribu?
FARIDAH: Yeap and also Tok Perak and all that. He wrote and he directed and he was not a very nice director. He was mean and he would get angry with his actors and all that and I. We had a falling out because of the personality differences. But that's ok because we ended up being good friends anyway until his very last day. And so you meet these people, you take them for what they are. You learn from them. You squeeze them dry. Yeah, you will only benefit. And I think I benefited a lot and unfortunately a lot of them had all gone to the big theatre in the sky.
AZURA: You know you mentioned these names, I imagined they are role models. And I can see people growing up thinking I wanna be like Faridah Merican. This is the person I wanna be when I grow up. Did you feel that way that point then? I wanna to be like Usman Awang. I want to be like Syed Alwi?
FARIDAH: Yeah, I want to as smart as them. Yes, I want to be as clever as them. But then I also noticed that I do not want to direct like Syed Alwi directed because his style of directing was not my cup of tea. So it's ok - you can take the good and the bad. You can be critical of the people you worked with. Because if you are not critical, you can never learn. So with Usman Awang, of course we cannot be like an Usman Awang. Usman Awang was just a one person. He was just God's gift to us Malaysian poetry or malay poetry and also God's gift to women. He just such a charmer. K. Dass was a great great writer and a great friend and also an actor. And Rahim you know until today still doing it. Wonderful, he is my age and he's still doing shoots. I think doing shoots is doubly difficult. Much more difficult than going on stage. Anyway so yes, people do come to me and say I want to be like you. And I say to them it's a long road baby.
Faridah's theatrical pursuits and contributions to the arts scene have been well documented. There really is little that hasn't been said about her role as the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre. But there are those who believe you that at the core of every true artist is a deep sense of struggle. It's what gives their work soul. And this was Faridah's struggle.
AZURA: One of the things that struck me as well, was of course, the fact that 1969, you were a single mum. And being a single working mother at any point in time is onerous - let's be very frank about it, but what was it like at that time, being a mum having to raise your son by yourself?
FARIDAH: It was tough. I think, tough for me but I managed it because I was already an adult. And I therefore knew what to do with the life of being a single mother - some right and some not so right. But the sad thing is for my son of course. Because he was growing up as a single child with his mother, who is mad and crazy and working all her life and long long hours. And my son had to fend for himself a lot of the time. Of course, the relationship between him and myself as a single mother, was not the very best of relationships. But that's all I could do. There's nothing else I could do. I, maybe there is a selfish streak in me wanting to do, as much as I can.
AZURA: For yourself?
FARIDAH: For myself and for my son because I want to send him to further education and so on so forth which we did. I wanted to manja him, I would not have the wherewithal to do that. I could… He was a very very difficult person to manage.
AZURA: In what sense?
FARIDAH: He wouldn't listen to you.He wouldn't listen to mommy. I mean mommy is a load of rubbish you know.
AZURA: But did he seek your approval at the same time? Because obviously you have this wealth of knowledge. You have all these experiences.
FARIDAH: Ahh yeah, but as you say, you know when it comes to your own children, it's a different thing altogether. You were never trained to be a mother. You've got to be a mother by instinct or maybe through learning from them. But I was not the mother like my mother was. Or maybe my son thought I was - because of the nagging. But well, we got through. We got through, but unfortunately not without a price.
AZURA: Which was?
FARIDAH: Yeah because he got into bad habits. Yes, he had some good friends but the good friends also got into bad habits. The funny thing is, even though he never lived with his father, he's got the traits of his father. The wonderful habits that his father had.
AZURA: What were some of these habits?
FARIDAH: Drinking. And that was not good. Because it took Leslie's life. And it also took his life.
AZURA: The thing about being a mother, and I'm a mother now myself as well, you remember your children from the very first day that they come into this world. And I think that they will be fresh to you right up till the very end. What was it like for you then having to bury your own child, having seen how he was from when the first day he was with you and how he had evolved, um, did you feel that things could have been different? Do you feel that it didn't have to end this way?
FARIDAH: Well, it's not an easy question to answer if things could have been different right from the day he was born. I was still married to Leslie and it was already written in the stars I think. Then because he was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate. And that caused Leslie to be even more upset with the fact that he didn't have a good looking stunning child like as handsome as he is. So it didn't help the marriage. But of course, it was not Feroz's fault. It was.. that's how it was, you know. So from being a baby, already he did not have the love of his father. And after that his father left and so it was just him and me and we had to - for good or for bad - find the love for each other with each other as best as we could. And I don't think either of us did a terribly good job of it. But then you see you cannot live with regrets. And I am a person who, I tell myself that I will not live with regrets because if I do, it is not going to help me for the future. So you have to accept it and and wished he is of course in a better place.
At this juncture, I asked Faridah if she'd be up for a change of scenery. We got into the back seat of a car in search of a cup of tea. And do you know what? It was a good call - it certainly lifted the mood a few notches up.
FARIDAH: Oh my goodness! This is fun! [laughs] Wow!
AZURA: So when you had your Mercedes, were you driving or being driven?
FARIDAH: I was driving. I am still driving. I am being driven by Joe, because…
AZURA: Is he the better driver or are you the better driver?
FARIDAH: I think I'm a better driver, don't you think you're a better driver?
AZURA: I certainly am, but I can't put up with the backseat driving from my husband. So I just let him take the wheel in that sense.
FARIDAH: I am a backseat driver, because I'm very concerned that he may not pay attention, and I always say to him, "Joe, you must take care because there are really idiot drivers on the road!" You know, to make him feel better.
AZURA: Not you but other drivers! [laughs]
FARIDAH: Yeah! Because you cannot tell them that they are bad drivers, so you must say that… it's true, there are idiot drivers.
I kid you not, driving around with Faridah Merican is like going down memory lane with a real-life encyclopedia. It was all so personal and insightful - the anecdotes ranged from a little bit of history.
AZURA: When did you come to Kuala Lumpur?
FARIDAH: In December 1959.
AZURA: Right, wow, you remember the exact moment.
Now, if you've been around Penang or KL long enough, chances are you've heard the family name Merican pop up. In the long line of Mericans throughout Malaysian history, there were doctors, teachers, sportsmen, and of course, Faridah - the thespian. Quick historical fact: the first Mericans settled on Pitt Street, now known as the vicinity of Masjid Kapitan Keling. Faridah graciously took me through the branches of the Merican family tree.
FARIDAH: The Mericans are nice people.
AZURA: Are they? [laugh] You would say that too - but there is a long history of Mericans in this country from Penang.
FARIDAH: Yes, very long - the Masjid Kapitan Keling is a testimony of what we have done in Penang as merchants who came first to Penang and then started a living. The Masjid Kapitan Keling is a testimony for them.
AZURA: Which is a crazy amount of history to stand on your shoulders in that sense - did you feel the need to live up to that?
FARIDAH: A crazy amount of history, but also a wonderful clan that is made up of truly some wonderful people. Not everybody is wonderful. [laughs] But there are some very wonderful people, and then there's my father in Penang, who I think also helped to produce some wonderful children.
There were 7 of us. But the oldest one of us remaining alive is Ahmad Merican. And we're very proud of Ahmad Merican. He is the son of my father's elder brother from Penang, so his family is also wonderful, and his children is wonderful. There's Yasmin Merican, Zam Merican, and many, many others. But you see … can I hear your name again?
FARIDAH: You see, the greatest thing that we have done is to keep our Merican surname. That is the best thing we have ever done.
AZURA: To be able to trace the lineage.
FARIDAH: To be able to know who's who and where you are, and…
FARIDAH: Even then, as I speak, there are some who refused to be called Mericans. Kononnya, don't want to be attached to the mamak thing lah.
AZURA: Oh really?
FARIDAH: Oh God, I thought to myself: you are mad!
AZURA: Why is that so?
FARIDAH: Because they don't want to be embarrassed, lah.
Speaking of which, my parents had a neighbour who shared the Merican surname, so naturally, I connected the dots.
AZURA: And I had a Merican who lived next to my mum's house for the longest time: Siddiq Merican. Arwah.
FARIDAH: Oh - really! Yes, that's my cousin.
AZURA: Yes! I would think so!
FARIDAH: Oh no - he's not my cousin. He's my nephew.
AZURA: Oh he's your nephew - so he passed away about 10 years ago. He was a sprinter, right?
FARIDAH: Oh that Siddiq -- that Siddiq is my cousin. There are other Siddiq's as well.
And suddenly, we could even be family.
FARIDAH: I have relatives in Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar.
AZURA: Oh do you now? I still have relatives there as well by the Masjid. It's a lovely area.
FARIDAH: My god! We're related, probably!
At the grand old age of 80, it was clear that there was a lot of fire left in Faridah Merican. And she is leading the charge by example. Faridah is still on the stage, playing her role, saying her lines and turning up the style on every shownight.
FARIDAH: I love acting. But the other… at the back of my head, I know that... I have to negotiate with the people I work with, about, "Guys, let's not lose money. Let's not spend money unwisely". I have to negotiate. And of course, they don't like this face that comes along every time I negotiate, for heaven's sake. Can we not pay our actors more money, can we not… No we can't, unless there is the money, then you can. You just have to be sensible.
AZURA: And I suppose it's that love for acting that's driving you and trying to find ways to keep this alive?
FARIDAH: It's not just love for acting - it's just love for the arts. And also, Joe and I have a reason - this is our calling. We're doing this because we thoroughly believe in it and because we want to develop the people of Malaysia to be artists. To be good artists - not just performing artists, also visual artists and anything else - to be great writers.
AZURA: I feel like you're not going to give up so easily. I mean you're turning 80 this year - you say you're not going to stop until there's a theatre on every street corner. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately. Will you finally retire at some point? Do you think that you know what...
FARIDAH: No, no, no. I won't retire.
AZURA: You won't go gently into the night? [laughs]
FARIDAH: I don't know what God has in store for me, but I certainly will not retire. I will do what I have to do and want to do until the end of my day.
AZURA: Now, um, bringing it back to where we are now: almost 30 years of The Actor's Studio, of your partnership with Joe. So it's a bit of a momentous year -- you're turning 80 as a matter of fact, which is a big number. Was there any point in time in your career where you envisioned yourself being you are today - the theatre activist or you know, the First Lady of Malaysian Theatre. You're still acting today because you're involved in three different productions as we speak now. Did you see that you were going to be this career theatre person, as how you'd like to call yourself?
FARIDAH: Yeah, well, as we moved along and as we grew stronger and stronger, in my interviews or little whatevers, I always said that I would not rest until I can see a theatre at every street corner. Whether it's the street corner of the country of the street corner of Kuala Lumpur, I do not know, but I would like to see a theatre on every street corner. Because in my travel sometimes, I see little spaces in shopping complexes and so on that were theatre spaces. And if they can do it, then I don't see why we cannot do it. And another reason is this: Malaysia does a lot of training for the performing arts. A lot of students go to Universities and all that and come out trained. So what are they going to do?
AZURA: Not having the outlet to do what they've been trained to do.
FARIDAH: Yeah, we do not have spaces for you to start your own theatre outfit. You must do that, because you cannot depend on the government outfits, because they will use their outfits for their own purposes. And we have so many talented young people, and these young people must be given an opportunity to do something.
AZURA: But what is it about theatre that really makes… that turns into a cause for you? You will not stop, rest until there's a theatre on every street corner. What is it about theatre that's so important in our everyday lives that you think everyone needs to be touched by it?
FARIDAH: Because the arts is a very important component to everybody's being. It is your, you know how they say your left brain and your right brain and so on. And you have to develop both, otherwise you're not a total person. But the arts is good for the soul. SO I think that it is civilisation with a heart. And you cannot teach this - you have to experience it. You have got to see something, and like you go to the art gallery, and you look at the paintings, and you can't understand a lot of the paintings. It doesn't matter - it does something to you.
AZURA: You feel something.
FARIDAH: Yes, it touches you. And then maybe you can start to imagine what is this painter or artist trying to say? So these are the things that you have to bring it out from the young of our people. Yes, you can go to Universities and read books, but you have experience it. You have to do it. You have to perform. You have to write the script. You have to direct a play. You have to direct a film.
AZURA: Or if not, at least, just watch it.
FARIDAH: If not just become a member of the audience - which is of course, developing audiences is also another big task that we have to do.
AZURA: Everyone wants free tickets?
FARIDAH: You hit the nail on the head. Yeah. Free tickets and they come is ok, but free tickets and they don't come is another story, right?
AZURA: Right, so I've never seen your eyes roll back that much, Faridah. The mention of free tickets.
FARIDAH: This is the reason why we don't make money too: because our tickets are so cheap! And you know why our tickets are cheap? It's for the rakyat, it's for the people. We want them to be able to afford to come and watch theatre. So we make them affordable. Tu pun sometimes kena kritik.
AZURA: Because it's too cheap.
FARIDAH: I don't know. No -- because it's not cheap enough.
AZURA: Would that be your parting words for today? Pay for your tickets for those…
FARIDAH: Oh, yes! Please, stop having this bad, ugly, awful, habit of expecting a free ticket.
That brings us to the end of the third episode of Shift, Steer and Strive - a production of BFM and Mercedes-Benz. I'm your host Azura Rahman, and this was written, edited and produced by Ali Johan. With additional sound mixing by Lawrence Graham. Additional research and coordination by myself and Ariff Roose, with executive producer Ezra Zaid.
To listen to more episodes from this series, including an upcoming interview with MDEC CEO Surina Shukri, check out bfm.my/strive, or stream it on the BFM app.