HT’s Star Personality

Ramli Ibrahim at Borobudur, Java, December 2018, Photo by Kishore Sahoo


Born in Kajang, educated at Cochrane Road Secondary school, recruited into Royal Military College as a teenager and then moving on to the University of Western Australia where he graduated with a degree in engineering, no one – except perhaps Ramli himself – could have predicted the journey that he has taken to be where and what he is today.

Ramli Ibrahim at Angkor Wat, 2012, Photo by S. Magendran

In his words:

The past is the total sum of one’s experiences, which indelibly shapes ones present and future. It is impossible to recall all these in just a few words but the seemingly important occasions need not necessarily be the markers of one’s existence. It could be a simple train ride to the interaction one enjoys with one’s dancers during rehearsals, to the unexpected surprises life throws your way. This can be the most significant element in shaping one’s present, which goes on to form the future.


Today Ramli, dancer extraordinaire, artistic director of Sutra Dance Theatre and chairman of Sutra Foundation, has attained a deserving stature in the Malaysian and Asian world of dance that few can match. Described as “the most authentic, matured odissi dancer in the world”, his talent encompasses not only Indian but also ballet and modern dance. 


At the same time his deeds and impact have gone far beyond his performances on the stage. He has almost single handedly been responsible for transforming the dance scene in the country as artistic director of Sutra and through his evangelical commitment to the growth and development of Malaysian contemporary dance.  Especially noteworthy is his nurturing of our young multiracial talent and his introduction of them and the country’s artistic diversity to the international stage. 


His work and position in the national and international world of dance, art and culture have not come easy. As noted by eminent painter, writer and art historian Dinanath Pathy:


“I attribute it [his unique position in the international arena] to the result of his intense struggle to remain at the apex and his capacity to constantly reinvent and renew himself in the face of global challenges posed by other creative arts like those taking place in modern dance, theatre and film. However Ramli has remained in assured calmness and composure amidst the overwhelmingly bigoted forms the modern generation has thrown up around him in the country of his origin and the world over.” 


Ramli in his own words:

  • Since I came back to Malaysia in 1983, it has been an incredible journey covering many areas… not just dance but theatre, traditional works, contemporary works. I have a strong commitment to all arts, and not just commitment but interest… a kind of being possessed by one’s calling. My calling is as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher of the dance and I have presented, conceived of many, many works ranging from traditional indian classical dance to contemporary modern dance.


  • Trying to get young people to be committed is more difficult now. Because it’s the age where everyone wants instant gratification. Everyone wants quick results and the nature of the classical arts, whether it is music or dance, is that you need to do it slowly… it’s like cooking over slow fire. It’s not something that just happens fast.


  • I think Kuala Lumpur needs to have a festival. A strong cultural arts festival. We have pitched and gotten the KL International Festival in September this year — for the whole month of September. Sutra is one of the big curators of the dance and traditional component and we are responsible for over 14 productions plus some exhibition and lecture demonstrations and things like that. It’s the first. It has the title of “Diverse City” because KL, unlike the other South-east Asian cities, it has an incredible diverse population, just like George Town to a certain extent.


  • I am very concerned by the direction that Malaysia is heading, you know with the hudud and all, of course, I’m not… I’m for a much more universal law. I hate absolutism that happens in any form. And I feel that one has to be careful that Malaysia does not regress through this kind of medieval thinking and you know, I mean, one has to be very careful. Actually, people like myself who have seen it, find we are going towards a kind of conservatism that is not good for the country. I am very, very concerned.


  • I am not a political person but I am politically aware… I am aware of issues such as women’s rights, Orang Asli rights, but I do not belong to any political party. I think we should put in place people we trust to do their job well. You need to find people who are the right fit for the job. If you find people who are not completely interested, you have a situation where you have to keep justifying your work to scholars and bureaucrats. I need to be dancing – not spending more time justifying the meanings of my latest projects. Specifically, for an effective solution, we sometimes need to change the political wheel.

What Others Say About Him

Dato Seri Lim Chong Keat

As I have observed the adulation heaped on Ramli by his many friends and influential personalities, I wondered how he impacts them beyond dance, as indeed he has a special conscience within the uncomfortable context of Malaysian politics and social attitudes. Anyone knowing him privately would understand his deep concerns and crusader instincts, Here I would hint at my suggestive title: the importance of Ramli being totally Ramli

Lalit Verma

When one thinks of Malaysia, the two towering aspects which come to mind are, materially, the Petronas Twin Towers, among the tallest towers in the world, and culturally, none other than the great dancer and a greater human being, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra Foundation….

Hard working, meticulous, artistic, exacting and compassionate, one can learn much from him. Ramli has created a great institution in the form of Sutra Foundation which promotes excellence in dance, visual arts and music.

Johnni Wong

We often don’t pay attention to our own talents. Sometimes it takes foreigners to bestow honours to an extraordinarily gifted person like Ramli Ibrahim before the rest of us realize what others see in him ….Erudite, articulate and far-sighted, Ramli has raised the profile of Malaysia and Malaysian talents through his sheer determination to excel in the field of Indian classical dance. Others have attempted but never quite succeeded…. He is simply our National Living Treasure and don’t we ever forget it.”