Quiz time: When was “Majulah Singapura” first performed? 6 September 1958 at the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall during it’s official re-opening. 7 years on, that song would become the symbol of Singapore’s independence. “Majulah Singapura” was composed by Zubir Said. Summing up his philosophy when composing the song, he said, “You should hold up the sky of the land where you live”. That’s based on a Malay proverb, “Di manabumidipijak, di situ langitdijunjung”. Today we celebrate what would be the 107th birthday of one of our most iconic musicians.
At 21 years old, Zubir sailed off to Singapore to try making a living as a musician. A friend had told him that the island was a place of “glittering lights, kopi susu, and butter”, so he left his home in Indonesia’s Minangkabau island – because that’s what food and shiny lights do to a man. He was hired by a bangsawan or Malay opera troupe, and 8 years on, was signed up recording company, His Master’s Voice, or HMV (or for our younger friends, that music company with the confused white dog staring down a gramophone).
MAN OF ALL TRADES
After he married in 1938, Zubir had to earn a living to support his family (no more lepaklah, bro). One of his first few conventional jobs – a photographer, going from village to village taking photos for identity cards. ICs had become mandatory by then. Throughout the years, Zubir took on many jobs, sometimes concurrently. The list runs long: photographer, composer, singer, performer… even orchestra conductor (this was a man from the village who picked up music by himself, and probably by chance!)
Zubir was short-tempered and impatient but he was also a loving father, as his children recall. He was never driven by money. He believed that money was essential for his survival and to look after his family, but not more than that. He valued honesty and sincerity in his work and placed importance on purity and originality. And he was generous. He helped his own family in Sumatra and families in Singapore he had “adopted”, sending them medicine and other items with what little he could afford, even though his own family was not well off at the time.
Zubir died with $20,000 to his name.
Pak Zubir wrote songs about life, and about culture and heritage – traditional and patriotic songs. If there’s one we should remember, besides our national anthem, this is it – what it means to be Singaporean. Times change. It’s a new era. Still, good, principled traditional values live on. They must.
(By Zubir Said, translated by AlfianSaat)
If you are born, a true Singaporean,
Your heart must be kind, filled with courtesy and grace.
You must be hardy and endure, and work hard,
With proper manners, respectful of elders.
Then others will be in awe, respectful of us,
Then we deserve the name: Singaporean.
When you work, don’t be half-hearted,
Be responsible, don’t shirk from duty.
Be loyal and faithful, to the country,
And also not forgetting, to one’s faith.
That is our life, living together,
Then only are we a nation: of true Singaporeans.
Kalausudahjadi, orang Singapura,
Cukuptatatertib, hormat orang tua.
Barulah orang segan, hormatdengankita,
Bolehlahdinamakan: orang Singapura.
Dan begitu pula, pada agama.
Barulahkitabangsa: orang Singapura.