Fatimah Abu Bakar. Photo by Stacy Liu.

From young, I was so interested in performing. On kindergarten concert day, I would be the first to put up my hand. And my father would always be there.

My father [Abu Bakar Mohd Noor] was pretty much laid-back. He allowed me to do a lot of things that now looking back, I don’t think a lot of fathers would have let their daughters do. When we were in our teens, he would pray five times a day, and never missed his prayers. But never once did he tell me to do so.

Here I was, walking around the house like a hippie. Coming from that generation, you cannot run away from that. You know, the hippies, putting flowers in your hair. Not the free sex, not that. But the more liberal thinking.

My father was a hospital assistant, a male nurse working in the General Hospital in Penang. When were were transferred to Sungai Bakap, we would have a mobile ambulance where we would go into the real inlands, the ulu areas, where they couldn’t come out to get medication. I would join in, and they would call him ‘doctor’, because male nurses could prescribe medication. They don’t pay for medicine because it’s free. But we would get durians and rambutans and there’s no telling them not to, because at the moment we would come, they would put the baskets in the ambulance.

My father taught us, you have to treat everyone the same. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor or young. I would see the way my father treated older people, he loved them.

 

 I wasn’t aware of race for a long time. My mum is Chinese, my father is Bengali-Malay.

 

When I came to Kuala Lumpur to study [a Mass Communications degree at Universiti Teknologi MARA], I almost had a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t aware of race for a long time. My mum [Rohani Tan Mooi Gee] is Chinese, my father is Bengali-Malay. When I was growing up, I never was aware of such things such as Malay, Chinese, Indian. So when I came here, I was aware you either had to be Malay, Indian or Chinese. I was like, “How? I’m all three. I’m screwed!”

Once, one of my lecturers told me to announce something to the class. So I went up and said, “Okay everybody…”, and one voice from the back said, “Cakaplah bahasa bangsa”. I knew he meant ‘your mother tongue’. I said, “Sorry, my mother tongue is Hainanese, but since I can’t speak Hainanese, English will have to do.” After that, we became very close friends.

Fatimah Abu Bakar’s parents Abu Bakar Mohd Noor and Rohani Tan Mooi Gee, circa 1985.

When I was young, when people asked, “What would you like to do?”, I always said either a journalist or an archaeologist. I still have a fascination for anything old, anything with history or heritage.

I wrote a column in the New Straits Times some time back called “I Am Woman”. It came from the idea that I am a woman, a mother, daughter, friend, wife. It was about anything that moved me as a woman, a mother, a daughter. It also came from that Helen Reddy song. I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.

Whether it was ballet or some theatre, as long as my daughters were old enough not to disrupt the performance, we would bring them. It was not a conscious thing where I had to make my children cultured or whatever, no. It was like, “Let’s go watch it, it’s so interesting.”

Children are very innocent. They get all the prejudices and fears from us. And they get their cues from us too. We talked in a matter-of-fact way, which is what I always try to do. Whether right or wrong, I don’t know, they will get it and say “okay’” This is very neutral, and later on their own, when they revisit the situation and want to decide on their own, that’s up to them.

As parents, we mean well, but we can drive a child to suicide because we want to instill our own values.

A family gathering at Chinese New Year with four generations.

We did not open our eyes one morning and suddenly became Muslims. There was an evolution. Why are people so scared? We don’t need to rewrite history. I don’t know why people are so scared. People think that by rewriting history, you can erase where we came from, and that’s just so wrong. So wrong.

I don’t know what happened, but along the way, it is sad that mainstream media has lost its credibility so much. When we started, there was a great sense of pride. The Star, New Straits Times, some press conferences wouldn’t start if we were not there. Now, I blame politics for destroying a lot of very decent ethics. Even when we were there, we could see it. One of the reasons we left was because of that.

 

There’s this thing where if you speak in English, it feels like you are less of a Malay. I’ve always tried to break down that perception.

 

People like Tun Siti Hasmah, [Tan Sri] Jemilah Mahmood, even Yasmin [Ahmad], these are women who believed in change, and who were not afraid to continue doing what they felt was important. Never mind what other people thought about them. Like Jemilah, she took a bullet, she’s still going all over the world. One minute in Saudi Arabia, next minute in Europe. She’s always doing, doing, doing.

I did Akademi Fantasia because many of the contestants came from varied backgrounds, from really hard places. Because of that, their exposure to the outside world was limited. I always tried to let them know they can go further, and not to be afraid especially to speak in English.

There’s this thing where if you speak in English, it feels like you are less of a Malay. I’ve always tried to break down that perception.

We were very, very upset with what happened to Amani [Sharifah Amani, actor and one of Fatimah’s daughters, was derided in the media in 2006 for accepting an award by saying in public she would sound stupid if she were to speak in Malay]. You know what she meant, many people knew. Again, politics. One politician spurred on by other Malay reporters who did not understand. It was just an over-emotional twenty-year-old who said the wrong thing to the wrong audience.

That is why I am on this mission to get people to speak English, not because we want to speak like a Mat Salleh, no. But with that, you are open to more, your understanding is wider. If more of them understood what she meant, they would have know it was a figure of speech. They actually thought she meant the language was stupid.

A Raya family gathering with mother, husband Syed Zainal Rashid, daughters (Sharifah Aleya, Sharifah Amani, Sharifah Aleysha and Sharifah Aryana) and granddaughters.

I never liked the word “tolerate”. The word “tolerate” has a shelf life. We tolerate somebody, but if I am not in the mood, I don’t tolerate you anymore. It’s about understanding, an appreciation of different cultures, different races, different religions.

My daughters and I have had to turn down many scripts that just showed the women as victims. A bit susah. Sometimes you cannot help it lah, after a while, they have to get a living. Even Amani has turned down many. But if the scripts are the same kind of roles, the same kind of victim, victim, victim, tak boleh lah. There must be a variety.

 

My daughters and I have had to turn down many scripts that just showed the women as victims.

 

There is a lot of talent that is not well used. I sense a lot of their frustration, and it’s growing. Especially the younger ones. Many of them, I see they are very good performers. But when you see the finished product, it’s like “oh my God.” The director doesn’t know what he is doing. So everybody blames the actor, very few blame the director. The actor has not been allowed the space to roam.

I like films that touch me. You know, films like Dead Poets Society, Steel Magnolias, Kami, starring Sudirman, his first movie. Layar Lara I love. Gubra, Muallaf. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, that one, the relationship between mother and daughter was very strong. These kind of movies, they have to have heart.

We are an emotionally volatile family. We have fights where if you were our neighbour, you’d be convinced we’ve killed ourselves.

Yasmin Ahmad would call Amani our daughter. This is Yasmin: whenever she was very proud or upset with Amani over something, she would message me: our daughter is at it again, our daughter is this, this, this. Which was something I really, really miss a lot. It’s very rare. That is why when she passed away, Amani… there were very few interviews after… it was really hard. [cries for a bit].

Whatever happened in Sepet is what happened to Yasmin. She was the Malay girl in a baju kurung who went into the char siew shop, but as long as she’s not eating char siew, okay wat. But a lot of people were upset.

I suppose there was an affiliation with me and Yasmin because our childhoods were so similar. A lot of things she portrayed in her movies, stories of her family, were the same as mine. My late father was as loony as hers. So that is why, maybe we were kindred spirits. I thank God we all had her, that God loaned her to us for a while.

I don’t count myself as the perfect Muslim. But I’d just like to go down to the basics, to just be a good person. To me, my understanding of Islam is, you live as much as you can that is stated in the Book. You do not look down or fight with other religions, because I believe there is one God, and he made all of us… I may not understand everything, but I believe it is not for me to judge.

Why pick on the negatives? Why pick on the hell and brimstone, and not the love and caring? This is what I don’t understand. Why must Islam be seen as punitive? Or why, for that matter, must any religion be seen as punitive? You don’t do this, you go to hell. Why not see the God who forgives, the God who loves? That is why lah, I am not clever, I don’t baca pandai-pandai. But because I tak pandai, I go to the basics lah.

When my children went to school, they were scolded by the ustazah. “Why your mother pakai tudung, you tak tudung?”

People may say I am wrong, but I mean it with all sincerity: if you do something you are not forced to do, it lasts so much longer. Like my eldest daughter [30-year-old radio DJ, TV host and actor Sharifah Aleya]. She started wearing the tudung, it’s been more than a year, and she’s happy. She’s found it, and I never forced her to. Like my father never forced me. Like my friends who wore tudung never preached to me. I found my reason. I remember asking my husband many years ago, “I feel like macam pakai tudung.” He said, “Aiyo Fati, you pakai, tak pakai, I know inside, you will still be the same.”

Sometimes, I wonder what it is that I am going to leave for my children. I would just be happy in the basic, normal, good common sense: just to be good, to be respectful. Kalau boleh, never to hurt people’s feelings purposely. I really don’t see the need to hurt people. We all have that in us, it’s just a little bit of pulling back. Every time I say that, it’s a reminder to myself.

Interview by Jon Chew. Photographs by Stacy Liu and courtesy of Fatimah Abu Bakar.

Fatimah Abu Bakar is an actor and an acting coach, and well known as a trainer for the Astro Ria reality show Akademi Fantasia. She is a former journalist, and helped set up Salt Media Consultancy,  a company specialising in editorial services. She is the mother of Sharifah Aleya, Sharifah Amani, Sharifah Aleysha and Sharifah Aryana.