Yasmin Ahmad’s legacy goes beyond advertising

-A +A

Colour blindness and racial unity were constant themes in acclaimed film-maker and director’s works

“Our children are colour-blind. Shouldn’t we keep them that way?” The words that appear at the end of the multi-award-winning Petronas television commercial “Tan Hong Ming in Love” reflect the heart of the late Yasmin Ahmad, who had a passion for telling and sharing with the world heartwarming stories that celebrated the human spirit.

“I always thought that children were much wiser and smarter than adults — they don’t care what race you’re from. The frustrating thing is that their learning discernment is from their parents; the very same people who are disdainful of the racial divide teach the same to their young,” said the executive creative director of Leo Burnett Malaysia and film director during a phone interview with The Edge Financial Daily in June last year.

Best remembered for her poignant Petronas TV commercials that highlight the racial unity of Malaysians, Yasmin said that people were “quite sick of the racial divide” and she decided to “show how possible and mutual it was to achieve (racial unity) in attitude”.

The internationally acclaimed film-maker said she never made ads with the intention of winning — evident in the fact that it was her husband Abdullah Tan Yew Leong who received the coveted Cannes gold Lion for “Tan Hong Ming” on her behalf in France in May last year. Yasmin was then busy shooting commercials and filming a movie in Malaysia.

In the Gunn Report 2008 released in November last year, “Tan Hong Ming” — an interview with a schoolboy professing his love for his best friend of a different race — was described as “one of the most charming declarations of love beyond racial discrimination”. The Gunn Report is an international independent compilation of winners’ lists from all major advertising awards contests around the world.

In the June interview, Yasmin was self-effacing, describing herself as “shallow” when asked about matters pertaining to the industry. “I wouldn’t be presumptuous and assume to be an industry expert... but I am inspired by people who do real good work; it motivates me to try harder, so maybe it’ll be likewise for others with this (Cannes) win,” she said.

Alliance Cosmetics managing director Tan Thiam Hock who worked closely with Yasmin on the Silky Girl TV commercials described her as a genuine person. “With Yasmin, it’s never about money. But she loved making movies, and as long as someone would finance her movies, she would make them,” he said.

Tan, who Yasmin fondly nicknamed “Ah Hock”, added that she was “totally impossible to work with as she worked on instinct and from her heart”.

“But one learns to trust her completely when you discover her heart is pure and full of compassion, her mind brimming with brilliant ideas always. Her ideals are a colour-blind, classless society and a non-racial Malaysia,” he said in an email interview yesterday.

He described her unselfish support for homegrown Malaysian brands such as British India and Silky Girl as “legendary”, adding that her passing was a huge loss for the nation.

“We owe so much to her and we miss her very much already. I really feel for Sharifah Amani, our SilkyGirl spokesperson, as she was very close to Yasmin. There will never be another Yasmin and it will be another lifetime before a similar talent comes along,” he said.

Amani, who shot to fame with a starring role in Yasmin’s film Sepet in 2004 and subsequently acted in Yasmin’s other works — Gubra, Mukhsin, Muallaf and most recently, Talentime — could not be reached for comment.Singer Jaclyn Victor, who acted with Amani in Talentime, said she would miss Yasmin for “all that she was and everything that she stood for”.  “She wanted unity, where there are no boundaries between people. She made us look into the mirror, look at our faults, insecurities, imperfections and made us laugh at ourselves,” she said.

Yasmin’s colleague, Leo Burnett Malaysia managing director Tan Kien Eng, concurred with Alliance Cosmetics’ Tan. “I’m definitely sad because I’ve known her since 1987. I’m sad for her family and her husband,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.

He added that Yasmin was a creative leader for the agency, always pushing for internal talent development. In an interview last year, Tan said most senior staff, including Yasmin and himself, mentored employees to ensure continuity of talent.

Yasmin’s demise will be sorely felt at Leo Burnett. Tan said he did not think the agency would be able to replace Yasmin as “no one would have the guts to take on her role”, but there were people running the accounts she worked on. Yasmin’s legacy, he said, was more than just winning awards.

”It’s not so much about her achievements; it’s how she touched the hearts of many Malaysians (through her work). It’s beyond advertising,” he said.

Or as Yasmin once said in response to the success of “Tan Hong Ming”: “What’s important is the public’s reaction —‘Tan Hong Ming’ was well-loved and that is enough a reward for me.”

Her most recent work included the “Funeral” and “Family” TV commercials for Singapore’s Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. The TVCs were to promote the importance of family ties.

Prior to her sudden demise, Yasmin was also working on pre-production of the film Go, Thaddeus! It was scheduled for release in Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea in August next year in conjunction with the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore.

The movie, which would have been Yasmin’s first to be filmed in Singapore, was to be based on the story of 17-year-old Singaporean triathlete Thaddeus Cheong, who died after finishing a SEA Games selection race in 2007.

Yasmin was also due to start shooting for a film in Japan titled Wasurenagusa (Forget Me Not) with a Japanese producer at the end of this year.

This article appeared on the Media & Marketing page, The Edge Financial Daily, July 28, 2009.