From Zero To Hero: Life Lessons From The Sea

Mar 30, 2018 1 Min Read
men laughing and smiling

Hailing from a small village in Kudat, Sabah, Syaiful, Sharif and Atu (real names are Mohammad Syaiful, Sharif Kadil and Sharif Kunal respectively) are the sons of a traditional fisherman, Sharif Doli.

They have seven siblings and had to survive on an income of just RM350 a month. That amount for nine people (including their mum)!

How much money do you ─ a single person ─ spend in a month? I bet it’s more than that.

Life was difficult for them as you can imagine. But their luck turned around when they saw a television advertisement for a reality comedy show, Maharaja Lawak Mega (MLM) by Astro in 2013.

They failed to make it to the finals, but tried again the following year. They were crowned champions for MLM 2014 and walked away with half a million ringgit!

Their life changed after that.

1. Necessary sacrifices

Syaiful, being the eldest, decided to drop out of school at the age of 13 to help supplement his father’s income.

In an interview with InTrend, he said: “Saya kasihan lihat bapak menyara keluarga seorang diri, sedangkan saya ada empat lagi adik yang masih bersekolah. Ya, saya keciciran dalam pelajaran, tetapi pengorbanan itu amat berbaloi.”

(I took pity on my dad who had to fend for the entire family, whilst there are four younger siblings who were still schooling. I dropped out, yes, but the sacrifice was worth it.)

He started off by working in a school canteen earning about RM82 monthly. From there, he went on to work as a fisherman for a short while before working at KFC Kudat.

It was there that he earned an income of RM400. Besides the better pay, working at KFC was deemed to be glamorous in Sabah. Syaiful later moved to the big city to work at KFC Kota Kinabalu.

Sharif, the second in the family, used to help his dad at the wet market. He would clean and weigh the fishes before selling them to wholesalers.

Atu, the youngest of the three, had been going to sea since he was six, he admitted. When he hit 13, he began work as a labourer for his uncle Faisal and earned about RM5–RM10 per hour.


The three brothers observed their father struggle as they were growing up and knew they had to do something to help.

While some of us (at least for the city folks) grew up doing basic household chores or even helping out a family member at a shop, these three brothers were out at sea (and elsewhere) from a young age, more so because they needed all the money they could get, even if it meant sacrificing school or play time.

To win some, you’ve got to lose some.

In the end, it comes down to our priorities. What is the sacrifice for and is it worth it? In Zero’s (name of their comedy group) case, I would say, yes.

2. Keep trying till you find ‘it’

The three brothers admit in an interview with Leaderonomics that they were a mischievous bunch from a young age.

They gave an example:

Atu: Setiap Isnin pada masa perhimpunan, saya ditugaskan untuk membaca ikrar di sekolah.

(Every Monday at school assembly, I was made to read the national pledge.)

Sharif: Biasanya mood akan jadi serious apabila ikrar dilafazkan. Tapi sebab dia yang baca, orang akan gelak.

(The mood is normally serious when the pledge is read out. But because it’s him reading it, people would laugh).

When asked why Atu was made to read the pledge, Atu says: Sebab saya nakal.

(It’s because I was a naughty student).

Aside from joking around with their friends, they also participated in all sorts of competitions at school such as nasyid (religious singing) and played the kompang (a traditional Malay musical instrument), the latter of which they still practise (Watch it here!) in their performances today.

Sharif, also known as Abang Botak (translated as bald-headed brother), shares that he used to loaf around a lot after completing his education.

“Biasanya, saya kerja kontrak (buruh binaan) untuk satu hari sahaja. Kalau saya tengok kerja itu macam tidak best, saya akan terus berhenti. Saya try tapi tidak akan tahan lama,” he says.

(Regarding construction jobs which I took, I would only work for a day. If I didn’t quite like it, I would quit. I did not stay long in my jobs previously, even though I tried.)

Some of his work experiences include working as a caddy at a golf club and washing dishes at a restaurant. From his exposure to performing arts in school, he realised there was something about being on stage and entertaining a crowd.

“Sebelum saya join Zero pun, saya dapat vibe yang lain setiap kali saya naik pentas. Saya rasa seperti orang suka persembahan saya.”

(Even before I was in Zero, every time I got up on stage, I would get a certain vibe. I could tell that people liked my performance.)

He knew then that he had the ability to entertain people.

Looking back at his fussy attitude prior to going into comedy full-time, Sharif advises graduates not to be picky when searching for jobs.

He recently met a Masters student selling vegetables in Kundasang, Sabah. The student couldn’t find a job as he is “overqualified” and employers would have to pay him more. Sharif advised him to stop being picky and just start from the bottom.

He says: “Apa pun bidang yang kita ceburi, kita kena buat bersungguh-sungguh.”

(Whichever field or job we go into, we must give it our all.)


In today’s world where we are spoilt for choice and come under societal pressure to have a good job, some may argue that it’s acceptable to be picky. After all, what’s so wrong in wanting a great job that provides us with growth opportunities, pays well and comes with good benefits?

Personally, regardless of one’s socio-economic status, I think everyone has the right to be picky. But, you are only allowed to be picky provided the circumstances are in your favour. Get me?

Otherwise, the best thing to do is to grab the opportunity in front of you and make the best of it. Who knows, you might just discover your lifelong purpose and the next employer may just come knocking on your door because he/she sees value in you.

3. The sky’s your limit

I never fully understood the saying above until I heard this story from the brothers.

Sharif tells us that his father became deaf and mute from chickenpox.

“Apa yang menakjubkan ialah dia pandai menghiburkan orang – dia boleh buat orang gelak. Dia juga boleh buat magic show. Kami pun hairan, dari mana dia belajar.”

(What’s amazing is that my dad is able to entertain people – he can make them laugh. He can also do magic tricks and we wonder where he learnt it all.)

Sharif says that despite his dad’s condition and small income, he managed to take care of his family.

“Bapak saya potong gajinya dan bagi saya duit harian supaya saya boleh pergi jual ikan di tempat lain.

“Kenapa orang yang begitu boleh menyara keluarga, tapi kita ini yang ada degree, yang ada semua keupayaan, masih lagi complain?” he says.

(In fact, my dad used to give a portion of his salary to me so that I have some pocket money to go and sell fish at the market.

If someone like him can take care of his family, why can’t we – the ones who have paper qualifications and physical abilities – do the same without complaining?)

On Oct 21, 2012, their father passed away in his sleep. When he received the news, Atu was packing to fly to Africa for a Fear Factor programme he was a part of.

By the time he flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kudat, his father’s body was already buried. Atu never got to say goodbye to his father.


What I learnt from this is that you are the one limiting yourself. Not the people around you, not your circumstances and not your parents, or bosses either (This is a humble reminder to myself).

There are people out there with different abilities who have braved through all sorts of challenges to come out as achievers.

In life, it’s easy to blame the things around us for our lack of progress or failure, but Zero’s father proves that it’s just not a valid excuse.

He is proof that anyone can do anything.

4. Know what your consumers want

Sharif says: “Sebelum ini, sebelum masuk mana-mana pertandingan, kami memang rasa yang kumpulan kami ni tidak cukup bagus. Sebab satu, kami punya dialek lain sikit. Kedua, kadang-kadang orang tidak faham idea kami.”

(Before this, when we participated in any competition, we would sometimes feel as though we were not good enough. One; our dialect is different and two; some people don’t understand our ideas.)

The brothers failed to make it past the fifth week for the first MLM competition they participated in 2013. That didn’t hold them back.

Instead, the brothers took whatever feedback which came their way, assessed their strengths and weaknesses and changed their strategy.

They tried incorporating numerous elements into their comedy sketches to make it more versatile such as lion dancing (Click here to watch), acrobatic movements and singing.

When they tried their luck again in 2014, they won first place.

It was through exposure and experience that they learnt the target audience’s preferences.

In 2017, they emerged fourth place in the MLM competition.

When asked who is the funniest among the three, Sharif claims that the star of their show is usually Syaiful.

In fact, Syaiful was given a nickname Mawar (which means rose) because of the feminine roles he takes up (which I must say is hilarious! You can watch one of their videos here).

When asked what their job schedule is like for the year, Sharif says: “Kami punya weekend dari bulan tiga sampai bulan lapan dah penuh.”

(Our weekends from March until August are full.)

On a sidenote, Syaiful is also starring in an upcoming local film, Tangisan Akinabalu, a movie based on a true story of the Sabah earthquake in 2015.


Just like the three brothers, we all have great ideas. However, sometimes what we think is good, may not be perceived the same way by others.

Testing your idea with the market (friends, family, and public) is the best way to determine whether there’s a demand for it.

From here, you will get an idea of what’s good and bad about the idea and work your way from there to improve it. The same concept applies to a product for businesses.

5. Stay humble no matter what

I’ve saved the best for last because when I sat down with the Zero brothers, they were incredibly nice and down-to-earth and even tried to speak English with me to break the ice and make me feel comfortable.

I was quite moved when one of the brothers, Atu (I think), gave me a bottle of water prior to starting the interview.

When I asked them how their lives have changed since they won the MLM competitions and made a name for themselves in the local comedy scene, they tell me this:

Atu: Kami punya kehidupan dari dulu sampai sekarang tidak jauh berbeza. Kami masih maintain cara yang lama.

(Our lives haven’t changed much since then. We still maintain our old ways.)

Sharif: Yang berbeza, Alhamdullilah, cuma pendapatan kita.

(What’s different is our income.)

Atu: Dengan pendapatan itu, kami ada membantu keluarga kami dan orang kampung. Sebab orang kampung pun ada juga yang susah. Ini bukan sebab kita cari populariti. Ini semua sebenarnya hasil daripada sokongan mereka.

(With that income, we help our family and village friends because there are some who do not have it easy. We do this not for fame. In fact, what we have now is a result of all their support.)

Syaiful: Dulu memang susah. Nak kerja sini, kerja sana. Gaji sikit. Sekarang ni, okay lah.

(Back then it was hard. Had to work here and there and the income was small. Now, it’s okay.)

When Skim Latihan 1Malaysia secretariat head, Norashikin Ismail piped in excitedly and said Syaiful had just bought a car (in cash), he denied her claims shyly.


Renowned author and speaker, John Maxwell once wrote that leaders who are humble are those “who feel no need to draw attention to themselves or their status”.

We have seen many celebrities and public figures rise up the ladder of fame and forget their roots and their values because they were swept away by the sudden stream of power, money and influence.

I think it’s important to remind ourselves that these are just temporary materials things in the world. At the end of the day, we ought to be thankful of what we have, remain open to growth, accept that you don’t know everything, and that people make mistakes. And I think the Zero brothers do this well.

Bringing it all together

Everyone has a story to tell. Yet some stories tug at your heartstrings more than others because they tell you something you have never experienced or they teach you something valuable.

It is stories like these where storytellers like me search high and low for, because we want to share the joy and sorrows of these incredible individuals with our readers.

Zero is one of them. An opportunity came knocking on their door in the form of an advertisement and they took it. They worked hard and they found success.

Now, the three brothers are happily married with successful careers and are able to provide for their families and friends financially.

I hope their story has impacted you the way it did for me.

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Tags: Character

Prethiba is passionate about impacting people through the written word. She believes that our lives are solely written by us, and thus the power to change for the better lies with us.

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