A love song for the nation

Sultan Abdullah of Perak heard it played at a public band concert on the island. The song was said to be adapted from a French melody that was originally composed by a popular songwriter of that time, Pierre Jean de Beranger (1780-1857), who was born and died in Paris.

Honeymah Dylyani, Malaysian Mirror 

RECENTLY a group of Indonesian students caused a minor diplomatic furor when they pelted the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta with rotten eggs.

It was the eve of our country’s 52nd National Day and the young Indonesians picked our national anthem, Negaraku as one of the reasons for their dissatisfaction with Malaysia.

The beautiful melody of the anthem was very much similar to a well-loved keroncong tune of the 1930s called Terang Bulan (Moon Light). It was an immensely popular love song at that time in both Indonesia and Malaya that continued to be sung, hummed and whistle to right through the 50s.

The airwaves in Malaya, however, stopped playing it as a mainstream family favourite after the just-independent nation adopted the music as its national anthem in August 1957. Any such use after that is proscribed by statute.

Borrowed from a 19th-century French tune

Indonesian nationalists have, in recent weeks, raised again their longtime claim that Malaysia's national anthem plagiarised “their” song, but have been dealt a blow by musicologists who say both countries had borrowed from a 19th-century French tune.

In the recent embassy ‘attack’ we do not know how attached the students were to the song. But they certainly took it as a great excuse to draw attention to several other upsetting issues between their country and Malaysia.

One bitter episode was the footage of the Balinese pendet dance that was shown by the Discovery Channel in a tourism promotion for Malaysia,

Malaysia has denied the advertisement was produced by any of its agencies and Discovery Channel has also written to the Indonesian tourism ministry to explain that the video clip was not produced by the Malaysian government.

indonesia-malaysia-baliness-dance.pngThe damage was, however, done. Indonesian Tourism Minister Jero Wacik slammed the advertisement and certain extreme quarters have resorted to burning Malaysia’s national flag and asking their government to declare ‘war’ against Malaysia.

The ‘rotten eggs’ incident was also reportedly triggered by Indonesian claims that Malaysian warships had entered the Ambalat area in the Sulawesi sea in early June and alleged brutalities by Malaysian employers against Indonesian maids and workers.

There were no casualties in that incident but it badly dented Malaysia’s nationalistic pride for, whether the Indonesians like it or not Negaruku is our national anthem, just as the Jalur Gemilang (which has a distant resemblance to the United States’ Stars and Stripes) is our flag.

Terang Bulan tune belonged to Indonesia?

Still, the pertinent question remains: Is it true that the Terang Bulan tune belonged to Indonesia?

A similar tune was heard by Sultan Abdullah of Perak when he was in Mahe in the Seychelles islands after he was deposed and sent to exile there in the aftermath of the assassination of British Resident JWW Birch in November 1875.

He heard it played at a public band concert on the island. The song was said to be adapted from a French melody that was originally composed by a popular songwriter of that time, Pierre Jean de Beranger (1780-1857), who was born and died in Paris.

During the installation of King Edward VII, Sultan Abdullah’s successor, Sultan Idris Murshidul’adzam Shah, represented the rulers of the Federated Malay States at the ceremony.

His delegation was asked for the notes of the state anthem so that it could be played when the Sultan attended all official functions.

But in 1888, Perak as yet had no state anthem. However, thinking that it would be undignified and embarrassing to say so, a protocol officer judiciously informed the King’s representative that he had not brought the note along but could hum the tune if someone could take down the notes.

The tune he hummed and whistled was none other than the popular tune that Sultan Abdullah reportedly heard in the Seychelles. Thus, the state anthem was born

Many people liked the tune and it spread across the Malay Archipelago, to the extent it was no longer sung as the state anthem of Perak.

An Indonesian bangsawan (Malay opera) troupe visiting Singapore, heard the tune and used it in their shows. New lyrics were given and it became the evergreen Terang Bulan.

The Indonesians then were the first to commercialise the tune, making it more popular than it ever was with the advent of the home radio.

No reference to the Mamula Moon

Largely played in the keroncong beat, which is similar to the Hawaiian rhythms, the song was also picked by a band leader from the islands and named Mamula Moon by Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders.

However, in the Malaysian archives pertaining to the history of the song, there was no reference to the Mamula Moon.

Down under in Australia, Paul Lombard and his orchestra reportedly recorded the tune around the year 1936 with Columbia Records in New South Wales.

The recordings featured Joan Wilton in an English version of the song, re-titled Malayan Moon. She also sang the Malay version in a duet with fellow Australian Geotti Brooke.

At that time records were played on gramophone turntables, running at a speed of 78rpm (revolutions per minute), with one song per side (thus, called singles).

The significance of the recording was that it retained the Malay musical background, providing an original and authentic Malayan flavour to the tune.

tunku-abd-rahman-3.jpgAt the time of Malaya’s independence from colonial rule in 1957, nine of the eleven states in the federation had their own anthem (except the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca, which used Britain’s God Save the Queen anthem).

There was no anthem for the newborn nation.

Tunku played a key role 

Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (who was also Home Minister) organised and presided over a committee to look for a suitable national anthem and a worldwide competition was launched. None of the 514 entries received were deemed suitable.

Next, the committee decided to invite selected composers of international repute to submit their compositions for consideration.

The composers chosen were Benjamin Britten, Sir William Walton, who had earlier composed the march for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, American opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti and Zubir Said, who later composed Majulah Singapura, the national anthem of Singapore. They were all turned down too.

The committee then heard four songs played by the Royal Police band at an event at the police depot in Kuala Lumpur, and it was there on Aug 5, 1957 that the Perak anthem, Allah Lanjutkan Usia Sultan was chosen to be Malaya’s national anthem.

The proposal was submitted to the Royal Council, which gave its approval. New lyrics were written by a panel, in which the Tunku played a key role. And Negaraku came into being. In 1963, it was also adopted as the national anthem for the newly-formed Federation of Malaysia.

The music, it was felt, captured the essence of the people’s national identity and unity in diversity.

For many years, the original score was considered one of the most beautiful and inspiring anthems in the world, at par with Britain's God Save the Queen and The United States’ Star Spangled Banner.

It begins with a short drum roll, which beckons the audience to stand to attention and heralds a stately pace. The lyrics pledge loyalty to the nation and the King and expressed unity among the multi-ethnic population and gratitude to God for His blessings.

And as the music repeats the coda section, praying for the safety of our enthroned King, there comes a stirring crescendo of drum rolls and cymbals, which culminates in a poignantly dignified ending.

However, in 1992, the Government decided it was not keeping with the rapid pace of development that the country was going through and commissioned for it to be revised at a faster and more vibrant tempo.

There was a public outcry over the change as it was felt that the rearranged music had veered away from values cherished by society.

Critics said the altered tempo to a quick march beat resembled circus music and it was 11 years later that it was reverted to a more somber mood, with new arrangements by renowned musician Wah Idris.

The reformed Negaraku, which was warmly welcomed by the people, made its debut at the 2003 National Day celebrations that was being held for the first time in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya.

negaraku.pngHowever, after the general election of 2004, national sensitiveness began to wane and in 2007, when anti-government sentiments were gaining momentum, a Malaysian student studying in Taiwan recorded a satirical rap version of the national anthem in a self-made video clip.

Wee Meng Chee re-titled the Chinese-language song Negarakuku and the video had the Jalur Gemilang flying in the background, with lyrics criticising the government and pejoratively speaking about the Malays in Malaysia.

The controversial video caused outrage among most Cabinet members but Wee was just given a verbal reprimand when he apologised to then MCA president Ong Ka Ting and then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Pass down through the generations

In most countries, the national anthem as well as the national flag and various monuments to depict national dignity and pride, are respected as national treasures.

For the Negaraku, it cannot just be brushed aside as another movie theme song that changes with each sequel but should pass down through the generations for conservation and not desecration.

Wee gave the excuse that he was just interested in making music but artists do not repaint Mona Lisa's smile nor do composers rearrange Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Wee had the same attitude as many leaders of our nation who have a tendency to believe that new things are better than older ones.

Everyone wants to do something or to bring in new concepts during their time of fame.

They constantly discard time tested concepts and ideas to embrace new ones without first assessing whether it is more superior or whether there is a need for it. This attitude clearly exhibits our lack of appreciation for originality and function.

The national anthem has been in the hearts of Malaysians from all walks of life for many generations.

Negaraku belongs to the whole nation, it will always invoke a special meaning in each individual. The anthem's unifying appeal should never be taken for granted and it should be the music that unifies the nation under our glorious Jalur Gemilang.

The national anthem went into its low ebb in 1992 and then went lower in 2007. It is not surprising that only few came in defence of the Negaraku when the Indonesians revived their claim to the music on the eve of our National Day.