My favourite ad of all time: Petronas’ ‘Tan Hong Ming’ Merdeka Day film from 2007

The strength and simplicity of the idea makes the 'Tan Hong Ming' film for Petronas a worthy contender for favourite ad of all time, says Leo Burnett Sri Lanka's Janath Gamage

To choose my favourite ad of all time is no easy task. I could have gone with McCann’s ‘Fearless Girl’, W+K’s ‘Dream Crazy’ for Nike or Leo Burnett’s ‘Like A Girl’. 


All absolutely powerful behaviour-changing campaigns that were recognised by the entire world. However, one ad that really stuck with me, and quite possibly will stay with me is the television commercial ‘Tan Hong Ming’ by Leo Burnett Malaysia for Petronas.

The year was 2014. I was just another foreign university student in Malaysia, stuffed up in the multimedia lab late at night, frantically carrying out research for my videography project, as I was trying to meet a submission deadline.

My theme was ‘Racism’. It was then that I stumbled upon this gem that I fell in love with immediately. At the time, I barely knew anything about advertising. Now, I am finally capable of appreciating it for the true masterpiece that it is.

Here’s some cultural context: Merdeka Day is the day of Independence for Malaysia. The day they united for freedom as one nation. At present, Merdeka day for advertisers in Malaysia, is what the Super Bowl is to advertisers in the United States. 

All the big brands in the country put out beautiful commercials capturing every nuance they stumble upon, either using humour or some other emotion to portray what it truly means to be Malaysian. 

However, the bar was set by ‘Tan Hong Ming’. For me, what makes it stand out from the others is the fact that it tackles a problem, a very real and relatable problem- racism. In a country that celebrates its rich cultural diversity, racial tensions still do exist. They are quite real, and something I’ve witnessed firsthand.

For those of you who don’t know, the late Yasmin Ahmad was a film director, a writer, the executive creative director of Leo Burnett Malaysia, and most importantly one of the greatest storytellers in the world. 

Having read her autobiography a few months ago, I could feel the energy of the kind of spirit she was. This commercial was a true embodiment of the sort of person she was.

‘Tan Hong Ming’ was actually one of a series of three TV spots for Petronas, all following the theme of ‘our children are colourblind’. 

From all that I’ve gathered from her autobiography, to online blogs about her work to a few friends of mine from Malaysia; Yasmin normally went out of her way to personally cast the talent for her work. It was then that it happened. She was at a school with her art director and agency producer, camera rolling, asking completely unscripted questions from random kids.

As can be found in the book about her, ‘Yasmin, How You Know?’, she came upon this particular character of a kid named Tan Hong Ming. When she had asked who his best friend was, he replied saying his best friend was a boy who wears a ‘songkok’ (headgear worn by Malaysian Muslims). Even though she thought that she was done with that shot, Tan Hong Ming kept pestering her, pulling on her clothes and saying the silliest things. So she decided to humour the kid, while keeping the camera rolling and asked him, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and that was when it happened. Like magic – the confession, the shyness, the reactions – it was two children, in their purest form.


After that, all she needed was to do a bit of editing and Petronas was sold. And just like that, she walked away with one of the most iconic commercials to ever come out of Asia and apparently the commercial to bring the first Gold Cannes Lion for Film to Malaysia.

Two beautiful characteristics that captured my attention: how strong of an insight the film is based on, and the simplicity of the idea.

The insight that children are colourblind when it comes to race was so strong that she didn’t even need to do a full-on shoot with models and a set that’d probably cost a thumping budget, as is the case with many other Merdeka day commercials.

All she needed was a running camera and a bunch of kids in their own comfortable environment. With that, she broke away from the traditional Merdeka day ads of emotional storytelling, of various homely themes like families coming together to confront a real problem, and prove to the nation that the problem was something created and not something you are born with.

This commercial would go on to influence many generations to come. It is timeless.

I do not believe that it’s purely chance that got her that candid money-shot, but mostly the strength of the insight, as well as her bravery to trust an unscripted conversation with a little boy, her rock strong belief in the idea and maybe a tiny pinch of luck. And that’s why this is my favourite ad of all time.

And I end quoting her book: “As she said the Tuesday before she died: ‘Energy cannot be destroyed. It just takes on different forms.'” Keep inspiring.

Janath Gamage is art director at Leo Burnett Sri Lanka, based in Colombo


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