Monday, December 23, 2013


Ooi Eow Jin. (Photo: Stacy Liu)
I just read an article 'Malaysia’s Forgotten Music Man' posted on Facebook about one of Malaysia's pioneers in the local music industry - Ooi Eow Jin, 75. It is an excellent piece written by Jon Chew, with photos by Stacy Liu.

The name Ooi Eow Jin may not ring a bell to young Malaysians. But to the older generation, there was a time when Ooi Eow Jin's name was synonymous with Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) Orchestra. He was one of the founders.

From the 1970s through to the 19980s, whenever there was a variety show or concert on TV featuring singers backed by the RTM orchestra, you would be sure to see Ooi in the background conducting the orchestra. Those were the days when he was a well-known name in entertainment circles, and his expertise in music arrangement and composition was much sought after by local artistes, including the legendary P. Ramlee and the late Sudirman Arshad.

After his retirement from RTM in 1999, Ooi seemed to have disappeared from the public eye. Apparently, he went into teaching music. He was a lecturer at various music schools including the International College of Music (ICOM). A Google search turned up very little about Ooi and his achievements.

Now, thanks to the article by Jon Chew, Ooi is back in the limelight. If you want to catch up with the man and his music, drop by at Hotel Majestic. Come to think of it, it is the perfect setting for Ooi to carry on his passion for playing music and for entertaining. Both are classy, belong to the same era and have great stories to tell of their former glory days. Hotel Majestic is going through a rebirth. Who knows the same may be said of Ooi now that he is back in the media spotlight again.

This is where you can catch Ooi every afternoon at 3pm, except Mondays

Here are some extracts from Jon Chew's article. To read the full article, please click here.

"At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.

He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the Louis Armstrong classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.

For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile."
P Ramlee with Ooi Eow Jin, early 1960′s. Photo: Hotel Majestic
"It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.

Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks."


"But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”

"It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra."


"But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music."

Piano man Ooi at Hotel Majestic - "I will play until I cannot play." (Photo: Stacy Liu)

"When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you know what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”

His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.


Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.”

Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent."


It is really sad when former greats are forgotten with the passage of time. Even sadder when the country does not acknowledge their achievements during their heyday, whether in music, sports or science. Ooi Eow Jin certainly deserves to be given due recognition. A title perhaps?

It's not too late.


Unknown said...

In my youth I remember seeing the name of this legendary music composer and conductor in TV credits all the time; but then that was such a long time ago. Dear Uncle Ooi please don't stop the music but keep it going. Even though the nation has callously forsaken your enormous contribution to the local music scene, there are many old timers like myself who still hold you in high esteem and remember you.

seniorsaloud said...

In reading Jon's article, one can almost feel the deep disappointment in Ooi. Old-timers like him who have dedicated the better part of their lives to the service of the country deserve to be honored and their contributions given due acknowledgement. I look forward to hearing Ooi tinker on the piano again one of these afternoons at Hotel Majestic.

Unknown said...

RTM ... please do your part for this music legend.
..he deserves recognition or life pension from the government...