Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal

Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s influential and colourful path in art

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 1.01.54 PM


Do we choose our destiny, or does destiny choose us? For 82-year-old Datuk Syed Ahmad bin Jamal Sahil, the statement holds true either way – he has chosen art and he is the chosen one to tread the path of art. And when things occur in this manner, there is no limit to what one can do and achieve. As for Syed Ahmad Jamal, his life has unfolded into a colourful journey, a story told through his paintings which are generally streaked with vibrant, energetic hues.

Growing Years

Born in Bandar Maharani, Muar, Johor on Sept 19, 1929, Syed Ahmad Jamal had a carefree childhood on the land owned by his grandfather Syed Sahil, a prominent businessman in Johor Bahru. At a young age, he had begun to develop a keen sense of appreciation for the countryside’s natural landscapes and spent a lot of time observing his surroundings. He was also inquisitive and eager to learn. While he enjoyed playing with his siblings, he also spent a lot of time on his own, thinking.

“We lived in a small community where rubber plantations were abundant. The surroundings were natural and nice. Before I started school, I spent hours sitting on the steps of my house looking at the changing clouds in the blue skies, and thinking that perhaps God was in the clouds,” he tells. As his father brought him around on his bicycle, Syed Ahmad often observed the moon which seemed to be always on their trail. “Why does the moon follow us?” he would ask his father.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 1.01.22 PM

It was these early discoveries and awareness that sharpened his sense of sight and hearing, which played a pivotal role in his artistic development later on in life. “If I were to grow up in KL city, I don’t think I would have that kind of sensitivity to my surroundings,” he notes. His father, Syed Jamal, was trained as an agriculture officer but worked as a journalist for a Malay language newspaper under UMNO founder Datuk Onn Jaafar. Sometimes, his father would take him to visit a close friend of the family fondly known as Uncle Robin. “I love to go to Uncle Robin’s house because of all the books and encyclopaedias he had in his library and enjoyed reading them with his kind approval” he reminisces. An incident in Syed Ahmad’s young life which impacted him much was the death of his grandfather – his first encounter with the harsh and unavoidable fact and reality of life. He began to ask his mother endless questions on life and death: “Why do people die? Will ‘emak’ (mom) and ‘bapa’ (dad) die as well? Will I die?”

School Days
Syed Ahmad first attended a Malay school, Sekolah Melayu Tambatan in Johor Bahru when he was six. It was the nearest boy school to his house. He learned to write Jawi in Standard One, an adapted Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language, in his early days in school. “I was given 12 lashes on my calf for not being able to read a sentence in Jawi. Upon returning home, my mother saw the lashes and reported it to my father who became very angry and reprimanded the teacher the following day.”

From then on, the teacher became hostile towards Syed Ahmad. He failed him in his Standard One examination, preventing him from moving to the next level. Nevertheless, Syed Ahmad managed to re-sit and pass the examination six months later and advanced to Standard Two. On hindsight , this unwarranted experience motivated him to work hard and excel academically and be competitive in class.

After three years in the Malay school, he attended an English primary school at age nine, where he had books with coloured pictures for the first time which he truly enjoyed reading. This he proudly says was the main reason he did exceptionally well in his studies and often achieved high scores in almost every subject.

It was during this time that he decided he wanted to become an artist. “Every day after coming back from school and finishing my homework, I would start drawing. There was no single incident that sparked my interest to become an artist. I just felt that I wanted to draw every day and was very happy doing it” he says. “Even before I started schooling, I used to sketch on the white wooden walls of my house with pencils. Fortunately for me, I was never scolded by both my parents. Instead, my father brought me crayons and watercolours and he had always encouraged me. This helped me develop my interest in becoming an artist and it started my journey in art.”

In 1941, during Syed Ahmad’s school holidays, World War II broke out in Malaya. Whenever there was an attack, his family would hide in a special shelter. “There was this incident where the house of an engineer was looted. Venturing to the site later, Syed Ahmad saw a lot of books scattered around the place.

“Among all the books, I saw one about art. I took it back home and couldn’t keep my eyes off it. From the book, I read about famous artists such as Turner, Constable, Corot, Rosseti, etc and marvelled at their paintings.” These artists, whom he never knew about before, from then on became his inspiration. Every day, he would go over and over this treasure he had found.

After the war, Syed Ahmad’s father became very ill and eventually died in January 1947. The state social welfare department then provided the family with 75 dollars a month. With the money, Syed Ahmad would buy rice and other foodstuff and carry them back home all the way from Johor Bahru town. “Some people would say that we lived in suffering, but to me, it was just part of life. We didn’t have a car, so we would walk three miles to school every day.” For years Syed Ahmad did just that until his teacher Mr Tan offered him his bicycle, which he took with gratitude. When he was in Standard Nine, he did very well in his school examinations and received four book awards for outstanding performance in English literature, art, history and geography. “Of course, there was one subject I didn’t like and didn’t do well, which was mathematics,” he shares.

From Architecture to Art
As the eldest of his family, with six younger brothers and sisters to look after, a higher education seemed out of reach to Syed Ahmad. But despite his predicament, he did so well in school that the Johor government awarded him the Yayasan Sultan Ibrahim Scholarship to study at the Birmingham School of Architecture, England on 1950. Once he was there, however, he realised that architecture just wasn’t his cup of tea. The time he looked forward to most was when his class went to sketch in the outdoors or visit art galleries. Syed Ahmad’s sketches would always turn out to be the best among all his classmates’, something his principle, Mr Jones took notice of. “Lucky for me, Mr Jones saw my talent in art. ‘You are too good an artist to be an architect,’ he told me.”

So Mr Jones wrote to the Johor government and said that I should discontinue my studies in architecture and enroll in art school instead. The first letter was rejected but Mr Jones persisted and wrote an appeal.” This time, the Johor government responded and Syed Ahmad was soon on his way to the Chelsea School of Art in London. His dream had finally come true. “At that time, it felt like a dream. If it’s not for Mr Jones, I probably won’t be an artist now.”

When he arrived in Chelsea, classes had already started. So, he worked extra hard to keep up with the other students. His efforts, coupled with his extraordinary talent, paid off. He did very well and soon won various competitions and awards. Studying in Chelsea for four years turned out to be one of the best times in his life. “I enjoyed myself immensely. Chelsea was to me, the world,” he says.”Almost every Saturday, be it winter, rain or shine, I would visit art galleries, be they public or private ones. On Sundays, it would be museums of various sorts, like the science museum, natural history museum, geological museum, etc. I would learn and absorb as much as I could, had my lunch alone, and continue doing so in the afternoon. To me, it was a part of education. I strived to make the best of my time in England, and to get the best the country could offer.” But life was not all work and no play. He would sometimes go to concerts and attend parties and dances. During the holidays, he also toured Europe and drew many landscapes and cityscapes as he travelled, especially in Spain and France.