The challenge of appeasing your family while striving for your dream

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I sat with Dayang Noraini in her husband Lee Haji Wahid’s (aka Rafiqa Roslee) office in UMS. Dayang hails from Putatan, the youngest of seven siblings. No-one in her family sang except Dayang and her father.

“My late dad was very musical. He was not a singer but he used to recite the Quran and went to the state level for his recitals. He also loved to sing Japanese songs.”

Roslee explained, “My late father-in-law lived in Sabah during the Japanese occupation. He’s a very very religious man. He was the former director of Da’ wah, meaning he’s like a religious lecturer.”

Dayang was virtually born singing, although she didn’t realise this was anything special. “I started to sing when I started to talk. I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. But nobody in the family ever said nice things about my singing. I think they enjoyed it, but they didn’t want to encourage me to do it.”

Singing was not an approved activity in her family, and since Dayang’s full name is Dayang Noraini Datuk Haji Sahari, I asked her whether her family was important in some way which made it difficult for her to be a singer.

Roslee explained that his father-in-law was a Datuk. “Datuk is a respected position in Malaysia, but sometimes you are a Datuk because you are very successful, or very rich, or you know the right person. In my father-in-law’s case, he was never rich; he’s well-respected because he’s a learned man in terms of religious knowledge.”

Dayang concurred. “Everybody knew my dad as a very religious person. When I was nine years old, I went to Sekolah Melayu SK in Tanjung Aru in the morning and in the afternoon I went to a religious school. It was far away, I had to walk and I was always late. But still I managed to score first or second in the class every time.”

“I went to Sabah College, and I joined the school choir group. I didn’t need to hide that from my parents because I wasn’t the only one on stage, everyone else was there too!”

Since Dayang’s family did not approve of singing, Dayang was quite indifferent about what to do for a career, so her family chose it for her.

“I am a school teacher. I didn’t try to be a teacher, it was an accident. I didn’t have anything that I wanted to do, since everything I WANTED to do was a no-no for my family. One day my brother said, ‘Can you just sign this form for me?’ It was a form for an interview at the teacher’s training college. I just signed, and they filled it out for me! I went to the interview, passed and was accepted.”

While a teacher, Dayang and her girlfriends got the karaoke bug, travelling in a group to sing and enter competitions. Before long, Dayang was winning competitions. Her three brothers knew what she was doing, and often came to support her, but she didn’t tell her sisters, because they were all religious school teachers and could not possibly approve.

“I won RM1000 in one competition, another one was RM2500. Once I won money and the next day I changed all the tyres on my car! My mum said, ‘Where did you get all the money?’ I just smiled and pretended I didn’t hear her.”

Dayang’s mother understood Dayang’s love for singing, they were very close. But that didn’t mean she could openly support her daughter.

“My mum knew about the karaoke competitions but she couldn’t come out and say: Yay! Go for it. It was more like: Please God help her, but please don’t get me into trouble.”

1998 TV3 Sinaran Pasport Kegemilangan talent show

“Me and my friends, we heard about this competition, they were having auditions in Komplex Karamunsing. We had to bring our own minus 1, and during that time getting a karaoke minus 1 was not so easy like today! I got mine by taping onto a cassette from the karaoke, you know what the sound was like? So far away! Miles away! I chose Here We Are, by Gloria Estefan.

“So we all went to the audition, hundreds of people were there. Inside, the TV3 people had a camera pointed to the stage, and someone was watching with a whistle. If they like you, they let you sing. If you open your mouth and they don’t like you – BRRRP! Next! It made me very nervous. I went up, took a breath and was expecting them to go BRRRP at any time! But I sang the whole song without interruption. They said nothing except ‘Thank you, we’ll send you a letter’.

“I went back to my job and just got busy with everyday things. A month after that I received a letter from TV3. It came to my school. I did not open it in school because I was too nervous. At home, I went straight to my room and opened it. All alone, I read: I was going to the next round, with the date of my show and a reference number for my flight ticket.”

The competition would last about six months. Dayang had to keep making excuses to go the KL, so she told her parents she was doing teacher training courses, and had to be away some weekends.

“I really wanted to go. I was 24, and this was the first time in my life that I really wanted to do something! I really wanted this! I didn’t care!”

For the first of the weekly contests (the preliminaries), Dayang told her mum she was going to Kundasang for the weekend and would be back on Sunday evening.

“The show was live on Sunday, 10 o’clock. Not one soul in my family knew I was in KL.

“My mum told me later that they had just got back from the tamu, (Sunday market) where my mum used to sell kuih. She was in front of the tv and my dad was in the house doing something else. TV3 was on and my mum did a double take, saying ‘Huh? My daughter!’ The moment she saw me, she turned the tv off. Right away! She was afraid that my dad would come in and see. She never saw me sing.

“When I came home I went straight to my room. I was scared to death! I had done something so bad in the family! I had lied to them and I did the one thing my dad did NOT want me to do! Even if I sang over dinner, my dad would be like: Hmm! Quiet! So this was really, really 100 per cent wrong!

“The next day, before I went to work, my mum had already come to see me. She said, ‘You were doing this by yourself? Are you crazy? What are you doing? You’re getting ME into trouble!’ So I said, I’m sorry. Please let me go to work first, before you tell dad anything.”

“At work, everyone in my school was like: “Congratulations!” and very happy for me.

“Of course, when my dad went to work, it was the same for him too. My mum had not told him anything. Everyone was like: Wah, Haji! Congratulations! People came up to him and hugged him, congratulated him. And he was like: “Huh? What’s going on…?” So they told him there and he had to make a poker face then and there. I felt so sorry about that.

“When he reached home, he was really, really mad. He almost hit me. I ran into my car, locked myself in. He had this long stick of wood. He slammed it on the screen of my car, and my mum was crying.”

“Well, life had to go on. I went to work, I practically stopped talking to my dad. Every time I walked into a room in the house, and he was there, everybody went quiet. It was awkward. But he didn’t hit me or anything. He just threw his face away.”

Dayang was part of a choir competition between different government sectors. “One day we were practising in RTM, when I got a call on my cell phone from KL. The producer of the TV3 show said he had received a letter from my dad asking to take me out of the competition. To disqualify me so that I won’t be there anymore.

“I thought, this is war! I know he was mad at me, but I was mad too, when he did that. The producer said he had to confirm this was really my dad, and what did I want to do? You want to be in, or pull yourself out? I said: Keep me in.”

Dayang spoke with her mother. She was now into the semi-final, and was determined to go. But she still asked for her parents’ permission and their blessing.

Her mum was distraught. She said, “How? How am I going to do this. I love you, I love your dad.”

Dayang said: “Just let me do this, let me do the semi-finals. If I don’t go through to the finals, you won’t hear me sing again. That’s it. If I manage to go through to the finals, please let me go, lah. Let me try.”

Dayang went to the semi-finals.

“All my siblings watched the competition on tv in their own homes, but my mum didn’t watch. I didn’t have money to buy any clothes for the semi-finals, so I wore platform shoes which were funny-looking on tv, with black three-quarter pants and a black jacket. I sang Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. I got into the top eight to make the Final.”

She remembers thinking, “If I could win, at least I proved that I was not just playing.”

“For the final, everyone else had their closest family come to support, because we all were given two tickets for the front seats. Me? I brought my two good friends (laughs). But it was still fun. I managed to enjoy myself and forget about what was going on at home, and what was going to happen next.”

Dayang Noraini won the titles Champion and Best Performer.

The next day, I went home to KK as The Champion. Usually, you expect if you do something good, people will come and cheer you, pick you up at the airport, you know? But for me, nobody came. Friends came to my house, but my mum said: Please don’t say anything, don’t celebrate, please go home. So I came back to KK just like a normal person, lah. Nobody saw me or knew who I was. Just like that.

Dayang and her father lived in the same house without communicating. “We stopped talking for just over a year. I knew how mad he was, but I knew how much he loved me, at the same time. He didn’t pick any fights with me for no reason, we just went very cold.

“I started to pick him up from his office after I finished work. Almost every day. I would wait in the car, where he walks out of the building. He would get in but we wouldn’t say anything, and I would drive home. Sometimes during the Ramadan, he wanted to buy some food to break fast, I took him to the Ramadan bazaar, the market. I walked behind, I let him go wherever he wants. When he buys something, I take it from his hands, I carried all the things that he bought. I didn’t say anything, he didn’t say anything.”

Dayang began singing for an orchestra which was part of the Education Ministry and based in KL. The orchestra was made up mostly of music lecturers and teachers from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), along with some students. In 2002, they prepared for a performance at PWTC Putra World Trade Centre in KL, for the Agung. Roslee was the orchestra trombonist and one of the music arrangers, he worked at UPSI.

“On the day of the concert, my parents were also in KL for the wedding of my cousin’s daughter.” Dayang drove them to their hotel. They had still not ever seen her sing.

Later, in the hotel room, Dayang’s father said to her mother, “Go and call Meng (Dayang’s nickname). Ask her to come here, to spend the night with us, here in this hotel.”

Dayang said, “I came to the hotel. We were all so happy. We didn’t celebrate or anything, but between the three of us we understood that the wall had come down! My dad finally accepted what I was doing.”

Dayang still had to perform that night at PWTC. “I asked them if they would like to come and see? I knew my dad was still not that happy about watching me sing. I explained that this is a real nice performance, not a street performance. It’s in a proper concert hall, and the Agung would be watching me sing!

“They came and I was so overwhelmed! At least my dad got to see me sing once, and as a real performer, not like the things he had been imagining. After that day, things slowly picked up.”

For the UPSI concert, Roslee was instructed to arrange the music for Dayang, as he had done a year earlier. “The first time we worked together, I was young and new”, Roslee said. “I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t watch TV. I was being a musician, studying, I knew the competition existed but never watched it. So when they told me my singer is DN [Dayang Noraini] it meant nothing to me.”

Roslee [usually the joker and a bit loud with his mates] became really shy and “professional” whenever he was with Dayang. She said, “I thought he was so stuck up and boring!” When he got a second chance a year later, Roslee plucked up courage to ask her to have some supper after rehearsals, and they started to listen to live bands together.

UPSI was sponsoring Roslee to do his Masters in Music in Newcastle, England. By the time he was ready to leave, he and Dayang were in love. One month after being in Newcastle, he flew back to marry Dayang and bring her to England.

“It was really the best time of our lives,” said Roslee. “It was like we were on honeymoon. We lived in a small room the size of this office…”

“It was so COLD!” added Dayang. “We arrived in November!”

But they were happy. Soon Roslee searched the free “street press” and, acting as Dayang’s manager, began getting gigs for her. “It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t have to do anything except let them meet her, then she can sing and the rest is done. They liked her voice, her diction, everything.”

The two of them got to work together in Soul Circus, a big band made up of local musicians. “They all had day jobs,” said Roslee. “They had their own instruments. I became trombone player, Dayang was third singer. We played in the Stadium of Light – Sunderland Football Club! We travelled around. It was a very good time.”

Dayang also got a regular jazz gig at Gershwin’s Restaurant, three nights a week. “Luckily we had YouTube by then,” said Roslee. “Both DN and me had to learn so many new songs.”

“We also had our very own parents in the UK,” said Dayang. Alan and Sheila Jones from Leeds sat next to Roslee on the plane when he was flying back to marry Dayang. They were on their way to Australia. By the time they all arrived at KLIA, the Jones wanted to meet Dayang and all the parents too! While living in Newcastle, Dayang and Roslee spent Christmas with the Jones, and several years later, the Jones stayed with them for a week in KL.

“Of course, I did go to see Man U play…” Roslee added quietly, with a smile.

After finishing his degree, the couple returned to KL. Roslee owed UPSI two more years of work, after the sponsorship, and they bought a house in KL. Dayang worked as a teacher and they had their first child.

They visited Sabah whenever possible. “I’m close to my family,” Roslee said. “But I always got so excited when we spent time with Dayang’s family. Her family is different, maybe Sabahan families are slightly different, I’m not sure. But they’re very close. When we celebrate our Hari Raya here in Sabah, we go in 5, 6 cars everywhere! We travel to Brunei. We go with one van and 2, 3 cars to the cinema, where all the children run around in the cinema so no one can really watch the movie. This kind of life, it’s very close.

“DN’s sisters and brothers all have children. At first we did not have, since we are the youngest. So her parents always sit with us in the car. So all four of us became very close. Long hours drive to Brunei, and this is where my father-in-law would sing the Koran, and sing Japanese songs. You can hear in his voice, the tone and the pitching was very good.”

When they were back in KL, Roslee suspected Dayang was lonely, and asked her whether she would like to moved back to Sabah. “I was shocked,” she said. “I had never said anything to make him think I wanted to go back. But when he asked, I said Yes!”

They both applied for transfers, and Dayang’s came through first. She now teaches at SK Inanam 2.

Roslee transfered to UMS six months later. They have been living here every since, now with three kids.

I remembered listening to Dayang and Roslee talk about their daily lives during the launch of Dayang’s Hari Raya joget CD. At the time, she described her schedule like this:

“I usually do my rehearsal between midnight or 1am to 3am,” said Dayang. “By 6.30am I wake up and take care of the three little monkeys [smiles]. Sometimes, when Agung Beat are rehearsing in the evening, I might go and record them on my hand phone, and then go home to take care of the family. Roslee will come and wake me up again at about 1am, when the house is quiet, and I will listen to the recording and start practising myself then.”

Then, I thought they were such a modern couple, sharing the responsibilities of caring for the children, taking shifts to accomodate each other. Yet they seemed also quite traditional, in many of their customs. Now I know that Dayang’s desire to be a singer was a test on many levels: religious conviction, love of the family, and her belief in herself.

Excerpts from related stories
Agung Beat featuring Dayang Noraini 5th Kk Jazz Festival

AGUNG BEAT greeted us with an original song by Musical Director Lee Haji Wahid (Rafiqa Roslee), a happy, lilting Calypso. These mostly UMS students were in cultural dress, and were a visual delight. The gamelan instruments themselves are carved works of indigenous art. Gorgeous. People were swaying to the Calypso groove, either in their seats, or while they milled about under the expanse of canopy beneath a perfect, Sabah night sky.

5th KK Jazz Festival kota kinabalu Sabah agung beat gamelan instrument band

Then the mood changed. Guitarist Safri played solo; a simple haunting melody. Singer DAYANG NORAINI walked on stage, and their voices entwined in a duet of long, spiritual, beautiful notes. Guitar and voice – their notes hung in the night air, clear and hypnotic. It was completely magical. Dayang was a feast for the eyes; her small, perfectly shaped body embraced in a close fitting dress of Earthy Red. Shimmering cymbals and percussion lifted their song like a magic carpet, carrying it across the harbour and out to sea like a Sabahan prayer. It was absolutely exquisite. I was honoured to hear it.

Agung Beat took us out of that lightly, gently, and then a harder edge entered their music. A rock edge. The two guitarists took up a rock stance, gamelan instruments rang out bold and proud, the two percussionists wore faces intense with passion, and Dayang’s voice was suddenly a powerful crescendo, a command to listen. She was a red, Rock Goddess now, framed by glorious lights, surrounded by little angels in gilded costumes and painted faces, who played unique sounds from our Land of Borneo. It was an ultimate fusion of music and culture. Sayang Kinabalu was among a few more songs to show us that the multi-dimensional heart of Sabah really beats in this very special 20-piece band, Agung Beat. I loved them!

“We work so hard for it, especially the students. We hope you will appreciate our compositions, even though a few songs we are playing are covers, but they’ve been rearranged in the Agung Beat manner, as 16 of us play the gamelan, so it’s totally different from the original song. The name Agung comes from the instruments, gamelan instruments consists of a lot of gongs. ‘Beat’ means we try to integrate as many interesting rhythms as possible into our performance.” Lee Haji Wahid (Rafiqa Roslee)

UMS Big Band featuring Dayang Noraini 4th KK Jazz Festival
Special performing artist, Dayang Noraini joined the band next. She sang a lovely collection of songs, beginning with, “How High The Moon”. Dayang sang with the confidence and style of one who has performed overseas for many years.

To celebrate being in Sabah, she slipped in a verse of “Sayang Kinabalu” into her melody as well.

She then sang a beautiful ballad, “Diulang Tahun Mu”, taken from her debut album. She said the song was written by UMS trombonist Rafiqa Roslee, lyrics by Roslee and Dayang. At the side of the stage Mr. Poninting and two other UMS musicians made up a trio of supporting voices! Fabulous!

Dayang wrapped up her set with Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, with a UMS solo trombone opening and a rare performance of the actual verse (so often with jazz songs, you never hear the opening verse). Dayang sashayed across the stage with aplomb, showing us who’s in charge, and why she remains a force in the music industry.

Read more about Dayang Noraini and her work on her website.



  1. Superb. Getting better n better. Go n fly Dayang….talent itu anugerah Illahi. Jgn disia2 kan….Bravo to bro Lee too……!

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