Ismail News 2

Check it out people Ismail: The Last Days was in the papers on Sunday!! Oh my gosh and yeah even if my face is terribly small, the point is that I’m still in it. hehe..

Although I think the journalist got the show dates mixed up. We are suppose to run from 7th August till 31st August. There was a typo there at the end of article stating Ismail: The Last Days will run from 7th August till 13th August.. sigh typo typo. It happens…


Have a read on the article here :)

The stuff of heroes


The only Tun Dr Ismail that many Malaysians know is the ‘Taman’ that is a KL suburb. Yet, he was one of Malaysia’s greatest leaders who died too soon. An upcoming musical celebrates his life’s ideals.

FORMER Deputy Prime Minister the late Tun Ghafar Baba recalled that an Umno man once complained at a meeting that, despite Malay rights, the Malaysian contingent for the 1972 Munich Olympics was mostly Chinese.

Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who was Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister then (1970-73) answered: “Special rights are only in the field of economics, not sports…. Should we use strings to make Malays good at high jump?” (From The Reluctant Politician by Dr Ooi Kee Beng.)

This is the man who will be the focus of the musical-drama Ismail, the Last Days, produced by the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

Playwright U-En Ng tells this writer when we met recently, “Dr Ismail would even arrest his own mother if she broke the law. He exemplifies the kind of leader we need today.”

The citizens plead, ‘Ismail set us free! For a better Malaysia!’. But Tun Dr Ismail (centre, Malik Taufiq), typically, reminds them that in a democracy, everybody has to contribute. – Photos by VICTOR K.K. NG

(Ng’s last play was Sybil, about Malaysian WWII resistance fighter Sybil Karthigesu, which was staged last month.)

Actors Studio co-founder and Ismail’s director Joe Hasham, adds, “Tun Dr Ismail was a pivotal player in our nation’s history, yet younger Malaysians know more about Taman Tun (the housing area) than the man himself. He was … made of the stuff of heroes.”

Dr Ismail retired from politics back in 1967, suffering from neck cancer and faulty heart valves. But after the tumult of the racial riots of May 13, 1969, he was recalled to serve his country. It is these “last years” – until his premature death in 1973 – that the show focuses on.

“It’s not all song and dance, as there will also be some dialogue. It’s a serious musical with some comic moments,” says Hasham, who directed other local musicals such as Uda dan Dara (2002), Broken Bridges (2006), and Tunku (2007).

His spirit on stage

Ismail is inspired by The Reluctant Politician, a book on Dr Ismail’s life written by political scientist Dr Ooi Kee Beng (StarMag reviewed it in January last year).

The show’s team also took the initiative to meet up with various people in Dr Ismail’s life, including retired civil servants and, crucially, his son, Tawfik, to get a better “feel” for the man himself.

Playwright U-En Ng feels Dr Ismail exemplifies the kind of leader we need today.

Malik Taufiq, who plays the lead role, says, “I’ve had to restrain my own naturally melodramatic acting style. Dr Ismail was a man of few words. He did not believe in protocol or sucking up. He wanted political support not because he shook somebody’s hand, but because of his ideas.

“He promoted equality between the races and wanted the NEP (New Economic Policy) to be limited to 20 years so that Malays would step up to the plate,” says this “restaurant concepts” manager who has, over the past few years, appeared in Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, the dark and tortured 4:48 Psychosis, and the romping musical comedy cabaret, Kam In Your Face.

Tunku Alizakri Alias, a corporate communications manager who plays the role of (then Prime Minister) Tun Abdul Razak, tells this writer that he himself did not really know who Dr Ismail was.

“That’s the real tragedy of our History (education). It was only after reading up that I realised he was the conscience of this country,” says Tunku Alizakri, who was part of the ensemble in 2006’s M the Opera.

In the book, another former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Musa Hitam, remembers that Dr Ismail would not bow to pressure, even from relatives or friends.

Daud Ahmad, who once worked at the Home Affairs Ministry, recounts in the book that Dr Ismail’s office boy was once arrested for burning down a temple in Sentul, KL. When the boy’s state assemblyman asked him to release the boy, Dr Ismail replied:

“Look here! I am here not as a representative of Umno but as Minister of Home Affairs. Whatever I do is based on the rule of law. I am closer to this boy than any of you, but this must be done.”

Tunku Alizakri says, “People of that generation really worked for the good of the country. It’s like how Americans look back at (16th US President) Abraham Lincoln (who led the country through the Civil War) with such pride. In Dr Ismail, we also had a giant for a leader. I only hope we see more such people in our time.”

In other words, the musical Ismail will be attempting to fill enormous shoes. Hasham inserts a caveat that the show is not a 100% historical recreation, but rather “a factual representation of the spirit of Dr Ismail, what he stood for.”

At a press conference last week, the media is given a sneak preview of several scenes. In one, the people cry out, “Ismail set us free! For a better Malaysia!” And Dr Ismail responds by asking the people, is he really their saviour? Isn’t it everybody’s job to play a part? This writer could not help wincing when he scolds a newspaper reporter, “You keep your hands locked up, and just write what is jolly.”

In another scene that will surely resonate powerfully today, the lyrics go: “If we don’t kill this thing of race, race will kill us all for sure.”

The passionate man

Besides politics, the show also has some romantic “flashbacks”. Tisha Zarina Zainal plays Dr Ismail’s wife Neno (a nickname for Norashikin): “In a way, Dr Ismail was involved in a love triangle between Razak and Neno, between his love for the country and his wife,” she comments.

In one sombre scene, Razak tries to persuade Dr Ismail to become his deputy but later Neno reminds Dr Ismail of his promise to retire from politics due to his poor health. “Come home to me and leave politics to fools,” she sings.

In another scene, Dr Ismail is shown at a ballroom dance during his medical student days at Australia’s Melbourne University in the 1940s – where his schoolmates labelled him the “Tango King”!

Unlike nowadays, in the more open-minded 1960s, dancing was not yet a “political crime”, so much so that Dr Ismail and Neno were, according to Tawfik (in the book), “reputed in Kuala Lumpur for their flair and love for dancing”.

Dr Ismail also went hiking and camping with friends in the mountains for days, and wrote that “this open air life with plenty of exercise” made for a friendly society, “whereas in Malaya (people) loiter about towns, their idle minds thinking of mischief”.

Bumi and non-

The live music for Ismail is composed by Datuk Johari Salleh, who helmed the RTM Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s.

“At first, I thought it would be the typical RTM stuff,” says Ng. “But I was surprised that his music has an impish sense of humour. Sometimes it’s 1970s, and then suddenly, it becomes like Les Miserables.”

Another feature of the show is the incorporation of poems by the late National Literature Laureate, Datuk Usman Awang – who, like Dr Ismail, was also from Johor.

In a touching scene, Dr Ismail reminisces about pre-1969 Malaya with his Chinese friend Frederick, when “in our youth, we plucked the stars of the Universe”. And they lament that by their time (the early 1970s), politicians had begun to abuse the very institutions meant to protect democracy.

They despair at how people had been suddenly divided into bumiputra and non-bumiputra, singing, “How did we come to this? Where did we falter?”

The inspiration for this stirring segment comes from an equally touching poem entitled Sahabatku (My Friend), written by Usman for his doctor friend M.K. Rajakumar in 1979. The following is a translation:

“My friend

The united Merdeka people we dreamt of

Remains a distant truth

My anger becomes bitterness

When we are forced apart

The distance ever wider

Now that I am proclaimed ‘bumiputra’ and you not.

When can we extinguish

The racial differences that burn us

And the blazing petrol poured

By those who are two-faced?

When can all citizens get equal rights

Treatment and justice

And be known by one name

Bangsa Malaysia.”

Undoubtedly, Dr Ismail symbolises what Malaysia could have been. As former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas writes in the book’s foreword, “Had he not died prematurely, Malaysia would have been different, and the rule of law would not have suffered any reversal and would have continued to safeguard the freedom and liberty of all citizens….”

Ismail, the Last Days may yet ponder what we have truly lost.

‘Ismail, the Last Days’ is on from Aug 7 to 13 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, Sentul Park, KL). Showtimes are 8.30pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays; there are no shows on Monday. Tickets are priced from RM40 to RM80. Special family and weekday packages are available. For tickets/inquiries, call 03-4047 9000 / 03-2094 9400 or go to

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