SINGAPORE: He has been in the business for over 25 years. During that time, Najip Ali has entertained and no doubt provoked, from time to time.
His love of the arts burgeoned during his time in National Service when he joined the SAF Music and Drama Company and since then, his work has spanned television, theatre and music.
In 1992, he co-anchored Fuji Television’s Asia Bagus and for 10 years, where it became a training ground for him to learn from some of Japan’s best variety show producers. Since then, his body of work has travelled beyond Singapore to TV stations like ASTRO, Indosiar and TV3.
Together with his production company, Dua M, he is also helping define Malay entertainment and promoting Asian artistes overseas.
He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the arts, identity and culture, but first, why he decided this was what he wanted to do so many years ago.
Najip Ali: When I was starting out, we didn’t have many things. We didn’t have many channels to look into. So there was possibility – the idea of potential, the idea of possibility was vast. We didn’t have many theatre companies. There was only one Malay TV channel. That gave you the idea that you can do lots of things because there was great potential for development. It was the energy at that time in the 80s, early 90s. You wanted to connect yourself to the bigger world. The Internet was coming. So that idea of anticipating that things will be bigger than who you are and what you are and Singapore is going to be bigger than what it is, made you want to move in that direction. I wanted to do more. I wanted to try out many different things.
AN OPTIONS PARALYSIS
Bharati: How different would you say are things for budding entertainers today?
Najip: I don’t know whether it’s a problem but it’s certainly an issue of choices. When we have too many options, we are paralysed. It’s an options paralysis because what happens is that when we have too many options and don’t have the skills and knowledge to choose what’s good for us, we stop doing things. And I think that’s what’s happening now because the kids say to me: “Abang (Brother) Najib, I want to do this.” But they are not doing anything. They’re just talking about the options and choices they have, but they’re not choosing it because maybe they don’t know who they are, what they are good at in order to evolve with the craft that they want to do.
In the world of creativity, you have to do stuff. You have to carry on doing things to grow because there’s no revolution without personal evolution. You have to evolve yourself, personally with your work.
Bharati: Some might say the availability of more opportunities is actually an advantage. You took advantage of opportunities all those years ago. Why do you think it’s not panning out that way for the people you meet today?
Najip: I think there is a lot of fear. Fear and insecurity. They worry about things like how many “likes” do I have? How many “dislikes” on Facebook? The problem with people who are not confident is that they tend to compare themselves with other people rather than focus on who they are and what they are doing and do it well.
Also, they don’t have the time to do it, because everything is available at their fingertips. But sometimes, going slow can be a good thing. A very good example: When I was younger and if I did not know what the word “schizophrenia” meant; just looking at that word brought great imagination. While you’re waiting to look it up in the dictionary or encyclopedia, you have that sense of imagination. That became knowledge after you looked it up, but that moment of looking for the word created a huge imagination for me.
Right now, you would just Google it. So what does that do to you? I don’t know. Has that stunted your imagination? Or made you lazy? I know in my growing-up years, when I didn’t know something, I imagined. And this imagination led to my creativity, created possibilities of what I could do and what I wanted to do.
Bharati: So instant gratification and a fear of failure could be killing risk-taking and creativity. What do you think can be done about this?
Najip: The world of creativity is very subjective. What I think is good, you may think is bad. So the best thing to do is for all people who have ideas and knowledge to just do it. They need to do it. It’s about doing it and progressing with that and learning from that. By doing, you’re also taking risks. By doing, you’re also learning stuff. By doing, you also know your weakness – what you can do or can’t do. And I think that’s important in Singapore. Rather than being just over-educated and less experienced, they need to mould experience with knowledge.
A very good example is my Singaporean worker who says: “Let’s buy a new computer to edit stuff”, but in Indonesia, I realise that they use the same computer but they know so much about how to use it and take it beyond, because that’s all they have and they work themselves into learning that process, doing with the limitations that they have. That limitation propels them to become better than anyone else, whereas here, they just want to have the best thing, the latest stuff, but have you evolved with the machine? Have you evolved with the idea? Have you understood what is needed as a responsibility to your own craft?
Bharati: The thing about Singapore, and many artists have told me this, is that people think twice about going into the arts and entertainment industry, and this might happen in other parts of the world as well, but may be more pronounced here because we are so focused on making a living. A career in the arts is not as “safe” as some other careers. What made you take that risk all those years ago?
Najip: When I took those risks, I didn’t think of them as risks because I think when you’re an artist, it’s all about what you call passion. They say passion doesn’t pay but I think passion does pay if you are really passionate. If you do it well, the money will come. Other artists might encourage the young to join the arts and entertainment scene. I don’t discourage it, but I do think they should think twice. They should think twice in Singapore because arts and entertainment is a lot of work and it’s a very small market. In a very small market, you have to understand that small market and its limitations. That’s why if you’re a graphic designer, you also have to write something, blog for example. If you are writing about food, you have to try it yourself – cook, be a baker.
In Singapore, no matter how much you do, you will find the wall, the limitation and especially in the arts and entertainment scene. You have only so many theatres. You have only so many companies. How far do you go? If you’re in SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore), and you learn to be the best ballet dancer, where can you go to be a ballet dancer?
Bharati: You could always go overseas or market yourself to an overseas audience online. Even businesses are being urged to internationalise.
Najip: Yes, so you have to be very careful. You have to be very wise. You have to have the determination, extra tenacity, extra passion, extra wisdom to be in arts and entertainment.
And try out things.
SINGAPORE AS A STEPPING STONE
Bharati: You also work to promote and gain recognition for Asian talent beyond Singapore through your work as creative director for Dua M productions. Where are we in regard to propelling Asian talent?
Najip: I’ve been working in Indonesia and Malaysia and in those countries, they have a lot of support. So in order for any talent to really realise their potential, there must be a certain type of industry that’s doing it. An industry that says: “I pick you to be the next big thing”. Then resources will go to you and you will flourish. Do we have that in Singapore? I’m not so sure. I don’t think so because for example, we only have one Malay TV channel which is Suria. Where is the competition? In other countries, there might be five great channels or twenty great channels and they compete for talent. If I pick you to be the star, I will support you. You will speak for me and you will be the hero for the next three to five years.
Bharati: However, one could say that there is competition here too. It’s global competition, isn’t it? Singaporeans have online access to content from all over the world today.
Najip: This is why we need to think differently now. From the beginning, when I became a producer and a director, I told myself I’m not doing things for the 450,000 Singaporean Malays. I am doing things for the 350 million Malay-speaking audience around the world. I think the good thing about Malay Singaporeans is that they can be part of the bigger world. And people like Aaron Aziz have done this. But it’s always about sustaining and maintaining because the wheel of the industry is always looking for the fresh and the new. But Singapore is a good place especially for young people to try out a pilot programme or to do the one music single.
Bharati: So it’s a stepping stone?
Najip: It’s a great stepping stone and always keep yourself aware of what is going on. But I think because there are so many choices now, you have to be really, really good. Work on your craft. Singapore is a very good space where you can get seed money to do a pilot programme or even the film that you want to make. Not many other places have this. Here, you can go to the National Arts Council and even if you get only S$1,000, if you are really passionate about it, S$1,000 is enough to carry on with the ideas.
(Photo courtesy of Najip Ali)
WESTERN SENSIBILITIES AND ASIAN SENSITIVITIES
Bharati: How successfully would you say you have managed to reach out to the 350 million Malay-speaking members of the audience in the region?
Najip: I thought it was easy, but it’s tough. I can interpret an idea with a Singaporean sensibility into one with a Malaysian-ness but there needs to be an openness. Right now, I’m not so sure but there seems to be a nationalistic feeling in other countries. Language and religion are common, but the rest is still flexible. It’s malleable and that’s actually a good thing.
Bharati: So how do you hope to exploit that in the future? In order to get your work out there, influence more people.
Najip: This is the beauty of what today is all about. Technology has created this big monster. At the same time, it’s a good monster because it allows me to reach out. You have to think about who would care about what you have to say. Today, it’s not about reaching a mass audience all the time. For example, in Indonesia, there is different entertainment for the ibus (aunties) and different entertainment for the bapaks (uncles). You cannot pull them all into a variety show for the masses. It’s a variety show for a specific demographic. It’s very segmented, very targeted. And that in itself is a new mindset that I have to adopt. That is progression which I think is exciting.
Bharati: You don’t just do Malay entertainment though. You also do English programming and a variety of other things. What are the challenges there considering the competition? With greater accessibility, again, it’s global.
Najip: I think it’s worse in the English department. Your competition is not TV3. It’s not ASTRO. It’s the whole English-speaking world. The people who compare you are the English- educated who are more exposed and they will say: “I don’t like that. It’s a copy.” So it’s hard. But in the Malay world, you still have some of the Malaysians in rural areas who are not exposed. So if a person for example, copies the Jimmy Fallon show, they won’t know it’s a copy and they’ll think he’s a genius.
Bharati: But why fall into copying to begin with?
Najip: Good question. Because it’s easy to copy and get away with murder. It’s easy to do it. Some people say why reinvent the wheel? I always believe in the culture of interpretation rather than the culture of imitation. For example, I started with a program called “Kopi O, Teh Tarik”, my own talk show that has run for many years. I thought there’s Jimmy Fallon, there’s David Letterman, Jay Leno, so how do I do Najip Ali without calling it “The Najip Ali Show”? So “Kopi O, Teh Tarik” is an interpretation of an idea because every Malay guy, when they want to talk about something, they can’t go to clubs. So where to they go? To the coffeeshop, hence “Kopi O, Teh Tarik”.
Over teh tarik, we have great conversations. So that’s my idea of interpretation rather than imitation. I keep challenging myself in interpreting these ideas. So I think that’s why I’m still around. It’s because I may have Western sensibilities, but I have Asian sensitivities. And when they clash, it becomes a new idea and that has become my principle or my philosophy.
Bharati: You once said the Chinese have Kung Fu, the Indians have Bollywood, what do the Malays have to show to the world? Have you found the answer to that?
Najip: I did a talk when I was invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go to four cities in America to talk about this. So what do the Malays have? So I said ketupat. I was making fun of the idea of the ketupat because if you look at some of the designers now, you’ll notice they make handbags that look like the ketupat leaves. So I started with that. I’ve noticed that the people in America or even in London where I’ve spoken before, don’t know what Malay actually is. The idea of us being a new breed in the eye of the world is exciting for me.
So if you say “Chinese”, people think Kung Fu. If you say “Indian”, it’s Bollywood. It’s almost become a caricature of the race, but if you think of the Malay, they’re not yet a character in the eye of the world. What can we project into the world before we are being caricatured by the world? That is something we have to think about.
Bharati: While Kung Fu and Bollywood might be a reflection of good branding, the stereotyping isn’t ideal, is it?
Najip: I used to think I wanted the branding, but maybe not.
Bharati: So what do you want to project in terms of identity and branding?
Najip: The ability of this race to progress by interpreting things because most of our work, whether it’s Joget, whether it’s Ghazal, there’s no real originality. It could be Arabic influence or Indonesian influence. Our folk dancing is actually an interpretation, a hybrid, an evolution of the things that came to this part of the world and we took it and mashed it up.
Bharati: So you want to be known as a culture that is able improvise and evolve?
Najip: We have been doing that for many, many years. It’s dynamic. Not only are we able to do that, we are able to embrace it without complaints. We embrace it with great humility also. We are able to say that this comes from another world and we are able to say: “Hey, let’s enjoy this together.” Let’s not be worried about what other people think about it. Sometimes it’s the idea of some people labelling you that is the problem.
(Photo courtesy of Najip Ali)
OVERCOMING PERSONAL INSECURITIES
Bharati: What went into developing your own unique style over the years?
Najip: Well, if you ask me why I wear funny glasses and before, even hats, it’s because I hated my hair and it’s because I’m blind.
Bharati: Well, it looks like you like your hair more now because you’re not wearing a hat today.
Najip: As you get older, you begin to accept yourself more.
Bharati: What has made you more secure about yourself today?
Najip: Because people are talking more about my work rather than who I am. I’ve realised that my work goes beyond who I am. My work speaks for itself. I’ve been in this industry for about 25 years and good enough to say I’ve contributed something. I’m in this industry not to be a role model or an icon. It’s just to know I’m part of the fabric of popular culture that kids can identify with and use as a form of inspiration. So I think that’s important.
VIEWERS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT
Bharati: Who or what has influenced you over the years?
Najip: What keeps giving me the energy and has inspired me through the years is the people, the audience, the viewers. I don’t drive, so I take the MRT, the bus, and I love sitting at nasi padang stalls. The taxi drivers there are the ones who say: “Najip, I want to see a show about 70s songs” or “You know ah, there are so many problems at this moment with our kids, what can we do?”
So all these conversations, real conversations with the viewers who watch the programmes – this perks me up. These people give me the ideas to do what I want to do next. So if you ask how I stay relevant, I would say I’m only relevant because they tell me what they want to see, because I’m sensitive to the consumers, because I’m sensitive to the people who have supported me. And they are always right. The viewers are always right.
Bharati: How are you dealing with new media platforms?
Najip: Even with new platforms, you have to go back to the idea of your craft. The craft is so important. That’s the thing that will make the difference – the quality of your craft. The rest is packaging. On the online platforms, people say you shouldn’t have long-form programmes, but 25 minutes or 2 minutes is just a different mindset, how to look at it. At the end of the day, it’s about telling a story and the authenticity of that storyteller that matters.
Bharati: What have been your biggest challenges?
Najip: I think the biggest challenge in Singapore is that you always have to challenge yourself to be relevant, fresh. And that is the challenge because the agendas change. The brief given by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) always keeps changing and sometimes you don’t know where your starting point is. So the challenge is always to move forward and do the things they want you to do because they pay the bills, because the government sponsors the show. But at the same time, you have to have a sense of who you are and put that into what you’re doing.
(Photo courtesy of Najip Ali)
Bharati: Speaking of IMDA, you’ve talked about censorship in previous interviews. How do you deal with it?
Najip: The two things that we cannot talk about which I really accept as part of being an artist or a creator are religion and being rude to the elderly. These two things are ingrained. But the rest, I think you can work around. I actually like the limitations because it makes me sit down with my guys and say: “Guys, we can’t do this. How do we go around it?”
So the idea of sitting down and starting to change or challenge our mindset pushes me to be more creative. We say: “Eh, we can’t do this because the censor says we can’t but we have to get this done. We have to talk about this issue but how do we do it without breaking the rules?” I think it’s healthy. It pushes creativity.
Bharati: Do you wish sometimes that you didn’t have to deal with restrictions on some issues that some people feel you should be talking about, even issues like religion?
Najip: Yeah, but again, I go back to the idea of who I am. What is my responsibility? At the end of they day, I am an entertainer. What does an entertainer do? Entertains, right? How deeply should I go into something? So I stick to the parameters of who I am as an entertainer and how much I can do as an entertainer in Singapore.
Bharati: But difficult issues are sometimes best talked about via entertainment.
Najip: Correct, and I’ve done that a few times in TV shows. One programme that I’m very proud of is about early marriages and divorces within the community. When the ministry approached me we did a programme and for the first time, I brought in an ustaz, a religious leader. I also brought a sharia expert and someone from the entertainment industry and we sat on a panel and talked. We did this in an entertainment belt. That was an achievement for me. We staged a re-enactment of something very serious but at the same time made it a bit fun. So there is a way of doing it in terms of making it entertaining and putting it on a platform that is palatable to people. I want to make them realise there is an issue and maybe they can do something about it. So I want to give them the seed of intention.
Bharati: You clearly have experience tackling heavy issues, so why is it that you accept that you can’t talk about other potentially difficult issues such as religion?
Najip: Maybe I’m a coward. I like to be liked. I like to be frivolous more than tackling this sort of complicated, complex idea. Whenever I go to that side, I get bogged down.
Bharati: But you have ideas to get people to understand difficult issues better. This is one of them, right?
Najip: So I choose. I’m too fearful to fail on that particular thing.
Bharati: Because if you miscommunicate, it’s worse than not communicating at all?
Najip: And also because of the idea that I’ve built my reputation, and in one day you could destroy your reputation. I’ll choose my battles. When it comes to religion, I think in a multicultural, multiracial society is important. Yes, you can talk about trust. Yes, you can talk about understanding and openness, but I think curiosity is important. My parents taught me to be curious about using chopsticks for example; ask why Muslims cannot touch dogs; find out about why there are stereotypes and if they are true. This idea of curiosity is so important in a diverse society. Curiosity is an ongoing thing. Trust is a long-term thing. Understanding is a long-term thing. I think we need to learn how to teach curiosity again. It’s the best way to understand difficult issues. It’s the best way to become good at something.
NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO HAVE AN ECONOMIC BENEFIT
Bharati: You have an education business as well. It’s called Mini Monsters. You aim to make the learning of Malay language fun. What have been the challenges in doing this?
Najip: It’s become more of an issue for us, the Malays, because we used to take it for granted that we speak Malay at home. But right now, that’s not the case. Many don’t speak it at home. So that is a big challenge. But for me, one of the main issues is IMDA’s guidelines that we have to be very proper in our delivery in the media. So the biggest issue for me is not being able to use the kind of slang, the kind of patois that the young people use in the real world. They use English and Malay together.
Bharati: But if you only reflected street-speak, wouldn’t the learning of the language in its essence be further affected?
Najip: Yeah, there are pros and cons. I’m in the world of popular culture and I like pop culture. I think pop culture does something to young people, does something to us. We have to document it because every generation creates their own tradition and that is interesting for me. But I also believe in making the future better by developing the past. If we want to make the future better, we have to understand the past and develop it. For example, if you want to combine house music with rongeng and make “rongeng house”, you need to understand rongeng first. So when it comes to language, we have to be proper in mainstream media, but nothing’s stopping us from using street-speak online. But the two worlds have to meet.
Bharati: Do people in the community question the need for learning their mother tongue?
Najip: Yes, some of them say: “Eh, why do we need to learn Malay? By learning Malay, can become rich, ah? Can I become Bill Gates by learning Malay?”
Of course you can’t become Bill Gates or Elon Musk by learning Malay, but you need to be proud of something that you are born with. Malay language is just part of you because your name is Mohammad Najip Bin Mohammad Ali. You are not Alexander the Great. You are Malay. The language is important because it’s part of you, not because the language makes you rich.
Bharati: Not everything is about utility, right?
Najip: Exactly, and that’s what sometimes this country is about. It makes you feel that everything has to have an economic benefit. So we need to work hard on that side of philosophy, the soft things. We also need to understand and rethink the definition of success. Let’s explore that in every school, in everything that we do. What is success to you? What is success on TV? What is success for a teacher? What is success for a doctor? What is that definition of success? I think we have to re-think this. We have to consider values too.
Bharati: Over the years, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
Najip: That you can’t do things on your own. You cannot. No matter how good you are and no matter how much you have a vision of changing the world, you can’t do it alone. So I want to find people. Finding these like-minded people is always a problem. How you get to these people, how you seduce them to your idea – that is another work in progress for me.
Bharati: Tell me about your low points.
Najip: The world works in very surprising ways. Last year, I realised that health is so important. It was a low point in my life because I was sick. I had an intestinal inflammation and I couldn’t work for two to three months because I had an issue with my energy level.
Now, I eat well. I have a good psychologist, a good doctor and I meditate.
Bharati: What do you consider a high point in your career so far?
Najip: I think as Madonna says, the most provocative thing I’ve done in this world is to be here, to be able to do what I’m doing at this moment, to be able to create, to be able to think creatively, to be able to work and influence people and to plant the seed of creativity. To show people that there is a skill, value and soul in it. And when you have soul and spirit in it, you will touch people. That’s what keeps me doing what I’m doing. I want to do this for the rest of my life because I love what I do and that is so precious.
Bharati: What do you want to be most remembered for?
Najip: I want to be remembered as a funny and kind person to everyone. Also everything comes back to the family. I have little nephews and grand-nephews. I want to be the funny kind uncle. It would be nice to be remembered that way.