Malay Personalities

Like traditional arts and crafts elsewhere, those in Malaysia have invariably depended for their survival considerably upon the initiative as well as energy of selected individuals. This is particularly the case with the Malay traditions of performing arts and literature. Many names come to mind, but due to the lack of proper documentation and research, the efforts of a few are recognized in this place. Profiles of others will be added from time to time.
Hamzah Bin Awang Amat was the best known wayang kulit siam puppeteer during the past thirty years or so. Similar positions were held respectively in mak yong by Khatijah Binti Awang and in Bangsawan by Aminah binti Nani, popularly known as Mak Minah. All three of them passed away within weeks of each other, leaving a major vacuum which will be impossible to fill. The fourth artist included here is Fadzil Ahmed, Malaysia’s leading gambus performer. In the area of literature two personalities seem to stand out, Abdullah Munshi, credited with founding modern Malay literature and Zaaba.


Fadzil Ahmed, affectionately known as the “King of Malaysian Ghazal”, was born on the 12th of June 1941 in Muar, Johore. His interest in music developed at a fairly early age, particularly as a result of watching bangsawan performances. His father, who was a musician, was also instrumental in developing this early interest in Fadzil. At the age of eighteen, Fadzil’s career as a singer and musician began when he joined the Setia Ghazal Party in his hometown. Muar is, in fact, the place principally associated with ghazal music in Malaysia. This is also the home of the more famous Seri Maharani Ghazal troupe, of which Fadzil became a member later on. Fadzil received training under four well-known gambus teachers. During the time that he was with the Seri Setia Ghazal Party and the Sri Maharani Ghazal, Fadzil’s fame as a musician spread far and wide. Seri Maharani Ghazal published 11 long-playing (LP) records, 14 extended-play (EP) records as well as numerous audio cassettes with Fadzil as gambus musician. These recordings confirmed Fadzil’s standing as Malaysia’s leading gambus player.
It is noteworthy that the instrumental repertoire for the Malaysian gambus does not derive from that of the original Arab or Middle Eastern gambus, but from the Malay asli music. These pieces are played in the ghazal style, using a range of north Indian as well as Western instruments. A typical orchestra would, for instance, consist of the harmonium, the tabla, a guitar, a gambus, a violin, as well as a mandolin. The gambus, however, serves as the lead instrument. The vocal accompaniment is in the Malay language.

Fadzil has visited forty countries, principally as a member of exchange troupes through the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, which he joined in 1976. Shifting from administration to teaching, he worked, until his recent retirement, as gambus instructor at the National Cultural Komplex (Kompleks Budaya Negara), under the same Ministry. These days, Fadzil teaches music on a part-time basis at the five-year-old National Arts Academy (Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) in Kuala Lumpur.

In addition to being a highly successful gambus musician, Fadzil has also done some acting and directing. He has built up a small collection of musical instruments of the oud family, acquiring these in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. His own preference is for the smaller and lighter Turkish gambus since a musician can play it while standing.


Khatijah Binti Awang, currently Malaysia’s leading and best-known performer of the ancient mak yong dance theatre, was born on 13th August 1941 in Pasir Mas Kelantan, the province principally associated with this genre. From an early age Khatijah developed an interest in singing, dancing and acting.
Khatijah Awang’s active involvement in the peforming arts saw her participation in activities organised by the regional Radio and Television station in Kota Bharu, as well as by the Kelantan State cultural Troupe, as a singer and dancer. Additionally she was involved in performances marking national events in Kuala Lumpur. In the mid -sixties Khatijah Awang joined the National cultural Complex under the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism as a dancer.

A dramatic turn of events in 1969 thrust her into the forefront of efforts to revive mak yong, the highly important music and dance theatre style then on the verge of extinction. Following a highly important international conference on the traditional music and theatre of South-East Asia, held in Kuala Lumpur in August that year, during which the plight of mak yong was highlighted, Khatijah Awang was persuaded to get involved in this genre.

Mak yong had always been folk theatre, with an attempt made in the early decades of the twentieth century to create a court version. The attempt in 1969 was intended to make the genre more visually attractive and possibly save it from extinction. The choice of Khatijah Awang was fortunate. On both sides of her own family, and even that of her husband, there have been notable performers of mak yong, main puteri shamanic dance, as well as silat, the Malay martial art form. It was only natural that she should inherit the mantle of mak yong.

Her decision to take up the challenge resulted in the creation of the Seri Temenggung Troupe of Kelantan, which Khatijah Awang has headed since its inception in 1970. The troupe in more than one way continued the attempts of the Kelantanese prince, Tengku Temenggung Abdul Ghaffar, to create a refined mak yong in the Kelantan palace in the years before the Second World War. Some of the musicians who joined Seri Temenggung had been active in the palace, and the patron of the troupe was none other that Tan Sri Nik Ahmed Kamil, a member of the Kelantan royal family. Khatijah Awang’s two teachers, Zainab binti Abdul Samad and Mak Mah Hussein Keronchong were also associated with the palace mak yong, Seri Temenggung has in fact become the country’s leading mak yong troupe, performing extensively within Malaysia as well as overseas, and has been at the forefront of promoting mak yong outside the province of Kelantan in association with various universities and cultural organisations.

Over the years, Khatijah Awang has become a valuable resource person, assisting in research efforts, as well as in efforts to preserve and document traditional Kelantanese performing arts, in particular the music and dance of the mak yong dance theatre. For her efforts in promoting mak yong Khatijah Awang has received numerous local awards, as well as the ASEAN Cultural Award. Presently she teaches mak yong at the National Arts Academy (Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) in Kuala Lumpur.

Note: Since the writing of this article, Khatijah Awang has passed away. She died in September 3000 following a brief illness. See obituary.


Hamzah Bin Awang Amat, Malaysia’ leading shadow play puppeteer, was born in Kelantan in 1940. From an early age he developed an intense interest in the wayang kulit siam, the most important of Malaysia’s four styles of shadow play, which is associated principally with the state of Kelantan. Hamzah received his early training as a puppeteer (dalang) from his father, and at the age of 11 created his own experimental wayang kulit siam troupe with a few friends.
Hamzah Awang Amat later studied wayang kulit siam with Pak Awang Lah, the most famous of Kelantanese puppeteers. After initial lack of success, Hamzah managed to impress an international audience of scholars during the l969 Conference on the traditional music and theatre of South-East Asia, held in Kuala Lumpur. The exposure at the conference opened doors for Hamzah Bin Awang Amat to travel beyond Malaysian shores. A group, known as the Seri Setia Wayang Kulit Troupe, was established and this troupe, with Hamzah as leader, visited ten European countries in 1971 under the sponsorship of UNESCO and the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, giving performances in 31 cities. In 1973 Hamzah performed in Russia and Turkey and in 1974 visited Europe again as well as the United States. Closer to home Hamzah and his troupe have performed in several Asian countries.

During the past few years Hamzah has, expanded his range of activities. He has established himself as a puppet maker, a craftsman of traditional musical instruments, a shaman, as well as a mak yong musician.

Both as performer and teacher, Hamzah has established a local as well as an international reputation for authenticity of style and quality of performances. He is one of the very few surviving puppteers (dalang) in Malaysia who continue to perform wayang kulit siam in the classical manner, and he is the only performer who has managed to preserve the musical repertoire of the genre.

Hamzah bin Awang Amat has been a valuable resource person both for music and theatre researchers. For his active involvement in wayang kulit siam, he has received several local awards, as well as the ASEAN Cultural Award. He is currently attached to the National Academy of Arts (Akademi Seni Kebangsaan) in Kuala Lumpur. In 2000 Hamzah also received the Fukuoka Award for Culture.

Note: Since the writing of this article, Pak Hamzah has passed away. He succumbed to a heart attack on January 1 2001, at the age of 60.


Aminah Binti Nani, popularly known as Mak Minah was one of the greatest of all Bangsawan artists in Malaysia during the past half a century, and the last bangsawan performer in Penang following the death of her husband Pak Alias Abdul Manan.
Aminah binti Nani became involved in Bangsawan at the tender age of 8. Lacking formal education, she however, improved herself through self- study, learning to read and to write principally for the purpose of transcribing lyrics of songs and bangsawan scripts so that she would be better able to memorise them and then to perform them. She was a major source of information on bangsawan history and performance.

From the age of 15 she was given the opportunity of playing the principal female lead (seri panggung) by Pak Hassan Temberang and Husein Serani due both to her abilities and her looks. By the age of 23 she was recognised as one of the leading actresses in bangsawan, following her performance in Panji Semirang, one of the pays based upon the mediaeval Javanese legends of Raden Inu Kertapati. In addition she was recognized as a performer of classical Javanese dance forms including Serimpi and Bedaya. Her performances toured Java and later on she toured much of the Malay world.

In 1976 Pak Alias and Mak Minah were invited to teach bangsawan at Universiti Sains Malaysia, through a project initiated by Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof for the revival of wayang kulit, mak yong and bangsawan. Several important productions of this genre of theatre resulted—Laksmana Bentan, Mahsuri, Tengku Sulong Mati Digantung and others. Also for the first time, scripts of more than a dozen bangsawan plays were transcribed.

Through efforts made by the Penang office of the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, Mak Minah was involved in various capacities as dance instructor, artist and facilitator of workshops.

Mak Minah passed away in the year 2000 at the age of 79.


Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, popularly known as Munshi Abdullah, played an important role in the development of Malay literature, and has indeed been referred to as the progenitor of modern Malay literature.
Abdullah, who was of mixed Arab (Yemeni) and South Indian Tamil parentage, was born in Malacca in 1796, and died in Jeddah in present- day Saudi Arabia. He grew up in Malacca and spent most of his life interpreting Malay society to Westerners, and vice versa. In recognition for his teaching Malay to Indian soldiers, and later to British and American officials, missionaries, and businessmen, he was styled Munshi or teacher.

Abdullah served as copyist and scribe to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, translated the Gospels and other texts into the Malay language for the London Missionary Society in Malacca and later served as printer to the press of the American Board of Missions in Singagpore.

Abdullah’s biography, Hikayat Abdullah (The Story of Abdullah) was completed in 1843 and was first published in 1849. It has been translated into English and other languages. The work gives a vivid picture of Abdullah’s life and times as well as of developments in The Straits Settlements. The significance of the work, however, goes beyond this by virtue of the fact that it marks a radical departure from traditional Malay literary genres and style. In contrast to the largely court literature of the past, Hikayat Abdullah provides a lively and colloquial account of events and people with an immediacy and freshness hitherto unknown in Malay literature. Hence the acknowledgement of Abdullah Munshi as the “father” of modern Malay literature.