It’s mid 1950’s Malaya, and there is a sense of growing hope. Independence is approaching. The country is preparing for a big celebration, where British flags will be replaced with Malayan ones, where speeches by our new leaders will be immortalised in history. But one question remains – what anthem will be played on the day?
No independence celebration would be complete without a national anthem, and we didn’t have one. At the time, Malaya had only individual state anthems. But Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was then Chief Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, insisted that a national anthem be written and ready for Merdeka Day 1957.
Saidah Rastam, composer and music historian, has done extensive research on the search for our national anthem. In her book Rosalie, and Other Love Songs, she considers the issue that faced Tunku at the time: “Do you ask everyone to write their own version of the ideal anthem, and pick the best? Do you ask the most celebrated composers of the day to craft one for you? Do you choose a song embedded in everyone’s consciousness and ‘anthemise’ it?”
According to Saidah, we did all three. As the story goes, Tunku decided to make a worldwide competition of it, inviting basically anyone from professionals to amateurs all over the world to enter. A committee was formed, led by Tunku himself, to sort through the candidates and submissions. The winning prize was set at an eye-watering 50,000 Malayan dollars, at a time when a headteacher would typically earn just over 1000 dollars per month.
The competition process continued over several months and rounds of submissions. By the end, over 500 entries came in. The entries came from known composers and amateurs from Malaya, Indonesia, America, India, France, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Hungary, and Egypt. The renowned British composer Benjamin Britten was invited to compose a melody too.
But none of these entries impressed the panel enough to qualify as Malaya’s national anthem. It seems that not even the celebrated P. Ramlee could hit the right note. As Saidah explains, “Dato Johari Salleh [composer] in his memoirs says P. Ramlee wrote something for the competition. As to where his entry, and all the other hundreds of entries are now? Or if they even exist still? Heaven knows. I have not been able to locate them.”
Over 500 entries came in. But none of these entries impressed the panel enough to qualify as Malaya’s national anthem.
Finally, Tunku decided to choose an anthem which already existed: the Perak state anthem. But this anthem in itself has a rather unexpected story behind it. The tune was already well liked in popular music as the Indonesian song “Terang Bulan”. So how did a popular love song become Perak’s state anthem in the first place?
In an excerpt from Rosalie, Saidah writes: “While bathing in a river in Pasir Salak, the British resident J. W. W. Birch was killed. In reprisal, Dato’ Maharaja Lela and other accomplices were hanged. Sultan Abdullah, the 26th Sultan of Perak, was exiled to the Seychelles.”
In 1883 Raja Chulan, Sultan Abdullah’s second son, visited his father in Mahé in the Seychelles. A French band performed weekly in a band stand near their family home, and
it was here where he heard, and fell in love with the tune – which was then known as “Rosalie”.
According to historian Tan Sri Dato’ Mubin Sheppard, it was Raja Mansur, Sultan Abdullah’s eldest son, who sealed the song’s fate. In 1888, while in England, he had to submit an anthem to be played during a ceremonial welcome for the Sultan’s official party. Embarrassed that Perak did not have an anthem at the time, he remembered the tune that his brother liked. He hummed it for the band to play. That’s how “Rosalie” became Perak’s anthem.
This melody adapted over time and arrived in Malaya through popular music, given the name “Terang Bulan”. “It was a song played at places you wouldn’t bring your daughter”, says Saidah with a laugh. It was a love song played at cabarets and bars, so popular that when the folk singer William Clauson came to Malaya in July 1957, he covered the song as part of his repertoire.
When Tunku and his committee of judges decided to choose Perak’s anthem, the Straits Times published an article: “Terang Bulan Recommended for Anthem”. However, the newspaper did not go so far as to say the anthem was “Terang Bulan”, only that the anthem “resembles Terang Bulan”.
In any case, Malaya was one step closer to finding a national anthem. AW Crofts, who was the Director of the Federation of Malaya’s police band, was tasked with arranging the tune to give it a more stately feel. Then the music was recorded with the police band – twice, because the first recording was found to have too much background noise in the form of birds and other ambient sounds.
Finally, the big moment came. It was 30 August 1957, Merdeka eve. At midnight, the Union Jack was lowered to the music of Britain’s anthem “God Save The Queen”, and the Federation’s flag took its place above Merdeka Square while “Negaraku” flooded the air through horn speakers hung from trees. Malaya had finally found its anthem – a song that would continue to ring through the decades, even as the country changed its own name and formation.
But what about the words to Negaraku? Saidah has also noted that nobody knows who wrote the lyrics. “Our lyricist – well, we are still in the dark. There are various accounts,” Saidah told BFM in a radio interview. There are various theories – could the words have been written by a committee, by Tunku himself or by Sumatran composer Saiful Bahri?
The first recordings of the anthem with lyrics came from the Merdeka Choir. The choir was overseen by Ahmad Merican, who was working with Radio Malaya at the time. Teacher Tony Fonseka was appointed as the conductor, and was tasked with finding and training a group of multi-racial choir singers. In the end, many of the young singers came from several school and church choirs around Kuala Lumpur. The choir was also joined by Tony’s own son Robert Fonseka, only a young teenager at the time.
“The symbolism of the Merdeka Choir was very strong,” explains Saidah. “When Tunku decided to create a repertoire of new national songs for this new nation, the choir which was formed to sing it came from all faiths, all creeds, all colours.”
So now, our new nation had its anthem. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because the song was already popular as “Terang Bulan”, certain individuals and groups wanted a ban on previous and future versions of the tune.
An article from The Straits Times in 1958 reports that Singapore State UMNO wanted any tune similar to the anthem to be banned from being played “for public entertainment” . In fact, just a few days after Merdeka Day, Indonesia placed an official ban on Terang Bulan” because of its similarity to “Negaraku”. The reason given was “deference to Malayan national sentiments.”
Decades later, in an ongoing dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia over rights to (and origins of) shared cultural heritage, the anthem has become controversial again. The Jakarta Globe reported in 2009 that an executive from a state recording company based in Solo had claimed Malaysia was violating intellectual property rights as “Terang Bulan” was originally recorded in Indonesia by Indonesian musicians.
Despite these controversies, it seems apt that Malaysia’s national anthem should have an origin story that crosses countries and cultures. The well-loved melody was chosen partly for its wide appeal, leading to an anthem that would be memorable and uplifting for many.
As Saidah writes in her book, “This music represents much more than a musical fanfare to launch the Federation of Malaya. […] The imagined togetherness with unknown others who share our homeland, our myths, values and memories across a continuum. These are what this music represents.”
Listen to a BFM Radio podcast about the story behind Negaraku:
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