Malay Film Production Studios
Text by Kelly Koh
Together with Cathay Keris studios, the Malay Film Production studios at Jalan Ampas created an era of timeless Malay cinema.
In 1937 the Shaw brothers built their first film studio in Singapore. The studio made 10 Malay films before it was confiscated during the Japanese Occupation.
After the Japanese left Singapore, the Shaw brothers rebuilt the studio facilities, and named it Malay Film Productions (MFP). At the time, everyone involved in the film production was in the full-time employ of the Shaws, and the company used their own sets, laboratories, and recording and editing facilities. Their first production was Singapura Di Waktu Malam (Singapore by Night), released in 1947. The comedy drama film was directed by Balden Singh Rajhans, who went on to discover P. Ramlee at a performance in Penang.
P. Ramlee was indisputably the most valuable artiste at the Malay Film Productions, and was highly regarded, even favoured, by the Shaws. Starting out as a singer, his talents slowly extended to songwriting, acting, scriptwriting and directing. At the Malay Film Productions, he acted in 42 films and directed 16, before leaving in 1964 to Join Merdeka Film Productions, coinciding with the beginning of his career’s decline.
Kampong Seniman - The community that developed around the studios became in itself a driving force for the Malay film industry, with actors and crew staying within walking distance of one another at the studio and Boon Teck Road. Everyone was exposed to the entire film production process, to the extent that sometimes cast members had to help out with other production duties.
A period of strife foreshadowed the eventual dissolution of the studio, beginning with a fire in 1951, when an explosion caused destroyed many reels in the film archive. Then in 1957, employees started a strike during the shooting of Pancha Delima. Another strike and fire occurred in 1964, and by 1965 the Shaws were determined to shut down the loss-making operation. After producing a prolific 159 films, the studio released its last film Raja Bersiong in 1968, directed by Jamil Sulong.
While the loss of P. Ramlee greatly diminished Singapore’s role in filmmaking, it was the arrival and pervasion of the television that diverted the focus of locals away from local productions. Colour films from all over the world also began taking over our screens, and the black and white films of the MFP soon lost their shine.
Today, most of the buildings on the 8 Jalan Ampas site remain, with only the large studio having been removed due to its state of disrepair. The other buildings that made up the MFP village have been either sold or rented out. Uncle Joe, the caretaker there for 3 years, resides in an old meeting room, while Malay film buffs and ex-staff of the company drop by occasionally to reminisce about “The Golden Age of Malay Cinema” in Singapore.