Tony Hadley, a radio quiz, one syllable – and a $10,000 riddle

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Muhammad Shalehan

When a Singaporean quizzer lost a huge cash prize – because a radio station said he mispronounced Tony Hadley’s name – he asked an unlikely source for help…

Ten thousand dollars wouldn’t change Muhammad Shalehan’s life, but it would make things much easier.

Muhammad, 32, works on Singapore’s underground railway, and lives in public housing in the north of the island.

He is married with three children – aged 12, three and two – and has another one, a boy, due in August.

He gets by, but he has loans to repay. So when a Singapore radio station offered a $10,000 prize (£5,760; US$7,060), he listened carefully.

“10k is a lot to a normal person like me,” he tells the BBC. “That is why I put in enormous effort.”

The Celebrity Name Drop on Gold 905 is hard, and it’s supposed to be.

The “name drop” is 14 celebrities, each saying one word of this phrase: “Gold 9-0-5, the station that sounds good, and makes you feel good.”

To identify all 14, first time round, is impossible. You would need a terrifying knowledge of celebrity voices to get even three or four.

But if you’re an avid Gold 905 listener – and clearly, the station wants you to be – it’s possible, over many weeks, to piece the puzzle together.

By listening to other people’s answers, and noting their score, you can work out the sequence. Essentially, it is a game of trial and error, crowd-sourced.

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Getty Images

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The lead singer of Spandau Ballet – the English band that enjoyed huge success in the 1980s – would play a large part in Muhammad’s story

The latest Name Drop began on 16 March, and Muhammad’s father-in-law encouraged him and his wife to follow it.

Before long, Muhammad was hooked, listening from 7am until 6pm on some days. He would even tune in at work, when possible.

At certain points in the day, the station took an answer on air. No-one got it right, but with every wrong answer, Muhammad got closer to the magic 14.

He called the station hundreds of times – and got through twice – but fell short each time (there were only local charges if the call connected). By 21 April, he knew every answer, except number 11.

“My wife was so adamant it was Stevie Wonder, we decided to give it a try,” he says. “It was a leap of faith, but I was confident. As the saying goes, the wife is always correct.”

So Muhammad called again, and, against the odds, was put on air. “I think I’m going to win it this time round,” he told Chris Ho, the DJ.

After hearing the clip a final time – as if he needed to – Muhammad read out his answer.

Tony Hadley. Madonna. Maggie Wheeler. Ellen DeGeneres. Jim Carrey. George Clooney. David Bowie. Belinda Carlisle. Julie Andrews. Lionel Richie. Stevie Wonder. Meryl Streep. Michael Buble. Rebecca Lim.

And then he waited. “Let’s check with the judge now,” said DJ Chris, as Muhammad’s heart beat faster. “Hey Shalehan, you got 13 correct names. Not bad. Keep working on it.”

“Thank you so much,” said Muhammad, and he put the phone down. My wife must have been wrong, he thought. It can’t have been Stevie Wonder.

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Muhammad Shalehan

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Muhammad and his wife, Siti Masuri Ayu

In the next two weeks, number 11 remained elusive. If it wasn’t Stevie Wonder, then who was it? The contestants, says Muhammad, were “going around headlessly, guessing any name”.

And then, on 6 May – after heavy clues from the DJs – a man called Jerome Tan gave his answer.

Tony Hadley. Madonna. Maggie Wheeler. Ellen DeGeneres. Jim Carrey. George Clooney. David Bowie. Belinda Carlisle. Julie Andrews. Lionel Richie. Stevie Wonder. Meryl Streep. Michael Buble. Rebecca Lim.

“Congratulations!” said the DJ. Finally – after almost two months – someone had got all 14 names. Jerome had won.

Or had he? On Facebook, listeners pointed out that Muhammad gave the same answer on 21 April.

“The rules of the game requires callers to pronounce the celebrities’ name accurately,” the station replied. “In the case of Shalehan, he mispronounced Tony Hadley. We hope this clarifies!”

Muhammad was astonished. Mispronounced? His “Hadley” was – possibly – more like “Hedley” (see clip below). But he has an accent. Doesn’t everyone?

He felt wronged, so he emailed the station. Two days later, they replied.

“We have reviewed the relevant audio clip of your call and our decision remains final,” they said. “The name ‘Tony Hadley’ had been mispronounced by you.”

Muhammad was sure they were wrong and so – prompted by his wife – he decided to ask the only man who really knew.

He emailed Tony Hadley.

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Gold 905’s reply after announcing Jerome Tan as the winner

The email – actually to Matt Glover, Hadley’s manager, who Muhammad found on Google – was entitled: “A normal citizen from Singapore needs your dear help Mr Tony Hadley”.

“I wasn’t expecting at all for him to reply,” says Muhammad. “I would have thought Tony Hadley had better things to do than reply to me.”

But then, on the evening of 10 May, he checked his email. To Muhammad’s amazement, Hadley had not only replied, he had sent a video.

“Hi Muhammad,” said Hadley. “I’ve listened back to the tape, and as far as I’m concerned, you pronounced my name absolutely correctly.

“You might have had a slight accent, but as far as I’m concerned, you said my name correctly, so you should be entitled to whatever the prize was.”

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Media captionTony Hadley recorded a message to support Muhammad

Tony Hadley has spent the lockdown at his home in Buckinghamshire, England. He still tours, but the virus means his summer diary is empty.

When he got Muhammad’s email, he tells the BBC, he thought it might be a hoax. But then he listened to the clips.

“I did listen to it several times, just to be really, really sure,” he says. “And I thought – hold on, this guy is really genuine, it’s a lot of money, he’s done incredibly well to get to that point.”

After deciding Muhammad had won “fair and square”, he decided to send the video.

“To penalise him on a… well it wasn’t even a mispronunciation. So that’s why I said in my video – I’m going to back this guy.”

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Gold 905 is not some small, start-up station. It is part of Mediacorp – Singapore’s mighty media empire – and is heard across the country.

After Jerome won the prize, the controversy was covered by local site Hype and Stuff. When Hadley got involved, other Singaporean media picked it up. But the station did not budge.

On 13 May, after seeing the Hadley video, the station emailed Muhammad. “We understand your disappointment,” they said. “But please be assured that all entries are reviewed fairly and objectively.”

On the day the BBC contacted Mediacorp, their position shifted – slightly. They were adamant that Muhammad’s pronunciation was wrong, but they offered a “goodwill gesture”.

“We have reached out to Mr Shalehan with a token of appreciation for his exceptional commitment to the contest and loyal support for Gold 905,” they said.

Neither side has confirmed the amount publicly, but the BBC understands it was $5,000.

When Mediacorp announced the “goodwill gesture” on Facebook, they included a video of Muhammad’s pronunciation, alongside Jerome’s, and Tony Hadley’s (see above). Most commenters were not persuaded.

“Give me a break,” said one. “It is clear that both people who called into the contest said the same name, but with different accents.”

For now, Muhammad is unsure whether to accept Mediacorp’s offer. He needs the money – but, he says, there are bigger issues at stake.

“I don’t want myself to be ‘oh he gets a bit of money, he shuts up’. I don’t want that. I’m not after the money. I’m after the fairness, the equality, the justice of the game.

“You are not going to fool a Singaporean man. We are all human. We all play the game fairly.”

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