12 Jan 2015

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Kungfu, Bollywood and...

It was too simple a plot that propelled this man to regional stardom.


It was too simple a plot that propelled this man to regional stardom.

He was dancing at Zouk and was spotted by the Japanese who were looking for someone to host a talent show on TV. They asked him who his favourite designer was and if he would like to stay in Japan. Right after those two questions, he was whisked off to Japan and soon became a regional star, recognised as the zany host of Asia Bagus.

When the wildly popular show ended in 2001 after a 10-year run, he could have remained in Japan to cash in on his popularity. But he chose to return home."I could have stayed in Japan and made loads of money. I love the Japanese and they are exciting people. But I wasn't as excited as them because I felt I was just a novelty to them," said Singapore Buzz speaker, Najip Ali, who recounted his experience to a Singaporean audience in Pittsburgh, Boston and Washington, D.C.


"I was entertaining, I was different but I wasn't making any difference. So when the opportunity came to go back to Singapore and to set up something for the television world, that became a big challenge for me. Because of my experiences in Japan, I felt that I could do more back home than just being a novelty. I wanted to find something more meaningful, something more purposeful."

MediaCorp’s TV channel, Suria, invited him to be the face and icon of the channel and he seized the opportunity, in the hope of making a difference to the local entertainment industry. This, he could do, with a secret he distilled from the Japanese while working with them.

"The Japanese have taught me the culture of interpretation rather than imitation. They are good at interpreting things that come to them from the West and making sense of these influences for their own good whether in fashion, music or television," said the Creative Director of Dua M Pte Ltd, the TV production company he helms.

Keeping in mind what he learnt from the Japanese, he knew that if he wanted to be a trailblazer and make a difference to the Malay entertainment industry, he had to go in search of an identity the Malays could call their own and crystallise that.

"This question has always been in my head. If the Chinese has kung fu to be proud of, to be celebrated and enjoyed, if the Indians have Bollywood movies to enjoy and consume, what do the Malays have?"

 And so the journey of experimentation and exploration began. In every step of his creative journey, he tried tearing down bastions of conventions to come up with something fresh for the Malay audience. Once, he tread thinly on the line of controversy when he invited an uztaz, an Islamic religious leader, to make guest appearances on Kpak Bing Bing, an entertaining talk show that involved singing and dancing. But the audience eagerly lapped it up. He then went on to stamp his brand of creativity on travel shows and even started producing enrichment programmes for Malay children in primary and secondary schools so they can celebrate and discover their culture and heritage. It has only been four years that Mini Monsters -- the educational outreach arm of DUA M --came into existence but it has gone from reaching out to five schools to 50 within the short span of time.

During the question-and-answer sessions, many interesting questions were posed. One OS asked Najip if Singapore was ready for multi-cultural shows and he gave an insightful reply: “I think there's a lot more to do...I think it's not just about being understanding and tolerant of other races. More so, one idea that is missing is curiosity. We're missing the idea of curiosity in our community. We're not curious about what the Malays are doing. We're not curious about Thaipusam. We're no more curious about who tua pek kong is (Chinese deity)...This curiosity needs to (be raised) up again before we can have a multi-cultural show because we need to know what we want to show. It cannot just be a hotchpotch of satay. It cannot be rojak. It has to be organic. It is one thing we need to nurture in school, and which hopefully by then, we can come up with something organic rather than something hotchpotch or rojak."     

Other questions fielded included those about Malay culture and heritage, censorship and exercising creativity in Singapore. The evening ended the way the attention-seeking star probably loved -- fans crowding around him for photos.  

Overseas Singaporeans in Washington, D.C. with Najip Ali

By Yee Wei Zhen 


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.