Negaraku: The Sonic Totem of the Nusantara (Part Two)

By Shazlin Hamzah

May 2023 FEATURE
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THE ATMOSPHERE WAS abuzz as the resonant “Merdeka” call rang in the newly built Stadium Merdeka. It was 1957. Malaya, the newly independent nation, needed not only visible totems to represent and serve as a distinctive mark of the community, but it was also imperative that this symbol be a sonic one.

After the Alliance coalition won the first federal elections in 1955, it was clear to Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was then chief minister of the Federation of Malaya, that the soon-to-be independent state required a national anthem. It would be written and composed by contenders, including international ones, with Radio Malaya serving as the federal government's representative. A competition was organised with the aid of the Information Services and the Foreign Ministry. Several committees and subcommittees were then formed with the sole purpose of managing the competition. Tunku himself served as the chairman of this committee, which also included the Keeper of the Rulers' Seal, Tuan Haji Mustapha Albakri, the Education Minister, Dato' Abdul Razak, the Director of Information Services, Yaacob Latiff, the Director of Music of the Federation Police Band, A.W. Crofts, the Director of Music of the Malay Regiment, Captain Edgar Lenthall and the Deputy Director of Broadcasting, A.T. Read.

Criteria for the national anthem included a patriotic melody incorporated with elements of traditional Malay music – the committee had specific requirements for this. The Royal Federation of Malaya Police Band orchestrated and performed a total of 514 compositions that were received for the committee to judge.

Nonetheless, up until June of 1957, none was approved.

Because of the forthcoming independence, by July that year, the necessity for a national anthem had grown especially urgent.

On June 27, Zubir Said, a Singaporean composer who would later compose Singapore’s national anthem, “Majulah Singapura”, received an invitation to write the song from the Department of Information. Zubir, who felt exceptionally honoured to have received the request, complied right away with not just one song rearrangement, but three!

He rearranged “Seri Mersing”, “Damak” and “Mas Merah” fervently. He even suggested abbreviating the song, if one was chosen to serve as the national anthem, as “Per-Ta-Me” (A First) – an acronym for Persekutuan Tanah Melayu. Zubir also paid close attention to incorporating Melayu Asli musical elements. By August 1957, however, he received a rejection letter stating that his compositions were “too delicate” and “melodious” to pass muster as a national anthem.

The Perak State Anthem: A Reprise

Tunku was ultimately compelled to make a decision in the crucial interest of time as none of the compositions performed by the “Band Polis” were to his liking – and that was to revisit the Perak state anthem.

This obligation fell on A.W. Crofts, who was present when the band performed all of the songs selected from the submitted entries. The band performed a number of pieces that had been practised during the day on the night Tunku selected the Perak anthem. “Negaraku” was then recorded, for the first time, at the police depot’s Cinema Hall (“Panggung Wayang”), an open space at the depot along Gurney Road, now known as Jalan Semarak.

This initial recording was difficult. On the first day, sounds of birds chirping, motor vehicles rumbling and children of police officers chattering were captured in the recording. On the second day, there were planes flying overhead. Eventually, children had to be kept out of the area, and planes were disallowed from flying over the air zone above the depot without Tunku’s specific instructions. In the end, the recording was accomplished at the Malayan Film Unit in Petaling Jaya to obtain acceptable sound quality.

“Negaraku” made its debut at the Padang Kelab Selangor (Dataran Merdeka) on the evening of 30 August 1957. The Federation of Malaya’s flag was raised as the Union Jack was lowered. During the final rendition of “God Save the Queen” by the band, the flag was carefully set on a silver tray. “Negaraku” was performed and it reverberated vociferously at the stroke of midnight on the large clock at the Sultan Abdul Samad building.

The police band resumed playing the song the next morning, after Tunku's famous "Merdeka!" declaration, which he repeated seven times during that crisp but drizzly morning.

On both occasions, an instrumental version of “Negaraku” was performed. For this reason, yet another committee was established, under the direction of Tunku himself; this time with the participation of the Education Minister, Tan Sri Mohd. Khir Johari, the Health Minister, Bahaman Shamsuddin, as well as the Director General of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Tun Syed Nasir Syed Ismail, to pen words for the existing melody.

Saiful Bahri, the lyricist for both the Melaka and Selangor state anthems, wrote the lyrics upon Tunku's invitation. As soon as Saiful finished, the lyrics were sent to the committee for the necessary editing. Here onwards, it was Radio Malaya's role and responsibility to coach members of society in the singing of this new anthem following the events at Stadium Merdeka.

The lyrics to the new national anthem were sung by Jamaluddin Alias, with Alfonso Soliano playing the piano in the background. “Negaraku” was thereafter aired at five o'clock every evening that year as part of Radio Malaya’s regular programme.



Tanah tumpahnya darahku

Rakyat hidup bersatu dan maju

Rahmat bahagia

Tuhan kurniakan

Raja kita

Selamat bertakhta


O Motherland

There bides my heart and soul

A place of peace

God bless this land

And shower us your bounty

God bless the King

Grant peace forever more

(Saiful Bahri, 1957)

Notwithstanding the long history of the anthem, “Negaraku” was always vulnerable, and not without persistent contestations; yet it is a narrative that has a collective root.

From when it began as “La Rosalie”, the French tune on the Seychelles Island circa 1800s, then to “Terang Bulan”, the Bangsawan love song popular in the Nusantara, all the way to being what Tunku decreed as the country’s national anthem, the poetry that is “Negaraku” has become our identity. It is inextricably linked to an intricate history of cultural borrowing and embedding, subsuming Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic thoughts shared across the Nusantara. In that important sense, “Negaraku” is an anthem appropriate for a society founded on the idea of integration.

Shazlin Hamzah

is a research fellow with the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA). She just wrote a book with the title Wajah Malaysia Dalam Gurindam Lagu-lagu that explores the notion of nation branding vis-à-vis the role of patriotic songs from the 1950s-60s.