Music and sports. You gotta love the possible permutations of controversy that emerge when the two meet. Last year, there was unprecedented media coverage of Janet Jackson’s lack of coverage at the Superbowl. This year, some of our MPs wanted to send popular singer Hattan to bed without any broth for allegedly ‘jazzing’ up the national anthem during the Malaysia Cup finals on October 1st.

For the record, I unfortunately did not have the pleasure of hearing Hattan’s rendition of the national anthem. But we all have Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim’s word that the “last modulation went a bit high”. Although our Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage himself wasn’t bothered by this over-achieving modulation, for some MPs, it is the equivalent of grabbing your crotch in church.

So, it isn’t okay to put in some individual style into the national anthem? After all, Negaraku has gone through at least three different arrangements since it was adopted as our national anthem – in 1957, 1995 and 2003. Gasp. No wait – these versions were all approved by the King, as required by the National Anthem Act 1968.

The thing is, it becomes a bit more difficult when ordinary Malaysians want to attempt individual interpretations of the song. ‘Cause like, you know, there’s 24 million of us. And some are proudly and certifiably tone deaf. But, as Rais calmly pointed out, he found nothing degrading in the manner Hattan – who is definitely not tone deaf – had sung the national anthem, despite the allegedly castrati-inspired ending.

The real problem, we were then told, was that commercial radio station ERA had allegedly raised speculations that the melody for Negaraku was adapted from a Hawaiian song, Mamula Moon. This time Rais was less forgiving, threatening to take legal action against ERA under the National Anthem Act 1968 if there was proof that ERA had “made a jest of Negaraku“.

As my friend’s Auntie Susila would exclaim, “Wah, so drama ah?” Maybe not. See, the first situation had to do with a personal interpretation of the text of Negaraku. And for a song like this, I use ‘text’ to mean both music and lyrics. Hattan may have tried to bathe the national anthem in a different light, but he did not take out a scalpel to give it breast augmentation. ERA’s actions, on the other hand, questioned the very origins of Negaraku. In the case of a national anthem, this is tantamount to questioning the very foundations of the nation. It’s like someone’s Milli Vanilli-ised Negaraku.

514 versions

In the formation of a nation, the line between the emergence of national sentiment on one hand, and the conscious propagation of a supposedly unifying rhetoric to sustain the narrative of the nation on the other hand, is often blurred. And this is where the use of terms like ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ becomes problematic. Is national sentiment expressed by the wearing of a sarong or a kilt, or is it expressed by the mass extermination of Eastern European Jews or Gujerati Muslims? Where is the line between patriotism and jingoism, between self­-determination and primordialism, between nationalism and genocide?

Perhaps there are clues scattered amidst the symbols that each nation has historically adopted to create its own sense of nationhood. In more than one instance, the status quo has seized on symbols that unify ‘us’ at the expense of purging ‘them’ from ‘our’ turf. For example, the post-1830 expansionist policy of France created a wave of Franco-phobic terror that swept through the Rhine valley. And we ain’t talking about your namby pamby Fear Factor escargot phobia. Nationalist passions were aroused in Germany, leading to the creation of such anthems as They Shall Not Take the Free German Rhine, The Watch of the Rhine, and Song of Germany, which later became Germany’s national anthem. And I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if the French also started composing their fair share of anti-Oktoberfest chansons.

Which brings me back to Negaraku. Negaraku was not born out of a surge of xenophobic panic and paranoia. In fact, when the independence of Malaya was just around the corner, Tunku Abdul Rahman set up a Committee solely for the purpose of choosing a National Anthem suitable for an independent Malaya. A worldwide competition was then launched and 514 entries from all over the world were received. Imagine that – 514 potential versions of our national anthem.

But the Committee felt that none of the entries were suitable. The Committee then decided to invite a formidable array of world-renowned composers to submit compositions for consideration by the panel. The composers chosen were Benjamin Britten, Sir William Walton, Carlo Menotti and Zubir Said (who later composed the national anthem of Singapore). The compositions submitted were stunning, and yet the Committee still felt that none were suitable as Malaya’s national anthem.

It was then that the Committee decided to look closer to home. After listening to the different states’ anthems, it finally settled on and adapted Perak’s, because of the traditional flavour of its melody. The lyrics for the national anthem were written by a select panel, led by the Tunku himself.

Now it is time to unfold the story of the Perak state anthem, and this is where it gets fuzzy. The origin of the Perak state anthem has been hotly and inconclusively debated in recent years, and this is just one version of it. Apparently, it was adapted from a tune popular with a French military band stationed in the Seychelles, precisely during the time when the former Sultan Abdullah of Perak was exiled there in 1876 – the Sultan had been accused of plotting to murder British Resident J.W.W. Birch and was thus banished (three more were accused, convicted and hung). It has been speculated that the melody could have been composed by a Frenchman, Pierre Jean de Beranger, 1780 -1857, whose songs were critical of the French monarchy and popular with the people. The tune was most probably introduced into an Indonesian bangsawan, which was also performed in Singapore. Apparently Abdullah liked the tune very much and could be heard whistling it to himself quite often. After his return to Perak, he retained his affection for the tune which accompanied him through his years in exile and homesickness.

The story goes that he was subsequently a member of the Perak delegation to London to celebrate the coronation of King Edward. Apparently he was curious as to why people stood up when God Save the King was played, and was told that it was the national anthem. The British official whom Abdullah had queried then asked if Perak had an anthem. Abdullah said there was none. The official then asked Abdullah if perhaps he knew of a tune that could inspire the creation of an anthem for Perak. And you don’t need to be hit on the head with my great-aunt’s rolling pin to know which tune Abdullah chose.

Now, apparently, this tune had also become extremely popular in the bangsawan circuit, and was eventually given the title Terang Bulan. Terang Bulan was a love song and it became a hit during the 1920s and 1930s – in Mawi-esque proportions. Thus, apart from being the Perak state anthem, the tune became a popular standard and was performed at parties and cabaret shows, and was sung by almost everybody. Probably the Tunku was also a fan of Terang Bulan and immediately saw the appeal of adapting it as Malaya’s national anthem. However, it is impossible to compare Terang Bulan with Negaraku today, because all performances of Terang Bulan are now banned in Malaysia.

At the moment, however, nothing explains how Negaraku is associated with Mamula Moon. It is safe to say the version played by ERA is likely the one popularised by Felix Mendelssohn and His Hawaiian Serenaders, with the composition credited to musical theatre lyricist Phil Park in 1946, long after the existence of Terang Bulan.

Sheer Force

Call me crazy, but if this story of Negaraku is true, then I think it is really touching that a popular hit with such a colourful history was chosen to capture the ideals and dreams – and God help us, the sense of humour – of a newborn nation. I mean, on one hand, the fact that Sultan Abdullah retained his love for this song long after the end of his exile suggests that a significant cargo of memories was carried into his decision to use it as the Perak national anthem. On the other hand, Terang Bulan was a bona fide popular hit, which means that this version too held a special and yet accessible meaning to the public during this time. Our national anthem has its roots in a piece of music that is nostalgic, profound, timeless and – heaven forbid – fun!

Compare this with the state-driven directive in June this year that Negaraku be played in movie theatres before the beginning of every movie. Same song, but observe the contrast. In the former case, the music was allowed to capture the hopes of the nation through the sheer force of its beauty. In the latter case, it is hoped that by capturing the people using sheer force they will finally appreciate the beauty of the music.

It is this that I find baffling. How on one hand, ordinary citizens are expected to know and love the national anthem. How national unity is expected to bloom from the routine blaring of Negaraku from the insides of a cinema hall. And yet, on the other hand, to even contemplate the origins of this piece of music that carries our nation’s DNA is tantamount to sacrilege.

Perhaps it is that plaintive cry of the post-colonial condition – the need to look into the mirror and want to be so different from the race that plundered our soul and rendered our features unrecognizable. And then suddenly, to look into the mirror and recognize a hairline, a curl of the lip, a twinkle of the eye that has most definitely been passed down to us by the colonial oppressor. How then to build a sense of self, a sense of nationhood that is self-sustaining? How to acknowledge the truth of the past when the past is full of wounds? How to create a unified nation of Malaysians when so many of us trace our cultural and religious roots to nations so far away from these shores?

And so it goes that on one hand, people are urged to beat their chests with patriotism and pride – to stand up and belt Negaraku at the drop of a hat, to wave the Malaysian flag giddily, to immortalise the Petronas Twin Towers in our digital cameras, to make the world’s largest roti canai. These are symbols we are told to swallow to sustain our legitimacy as a nation. And there would be nothing wrong with them if they weren’t accompanied by, say, the banning of Terang Bulan, or the threat of legal action against ERA for allegedly “making a jest out of Negaraku‘ by suggesting that the national anthem was once preceded by Mamula Moon. How fragile do people think the national narrative is, that it needs to be sustained by the use of such coercive state mechanisms?

Perhaps these questions can also be framed within a quote from the former prime minister of Piedmont, Massimo d’Azeglio, who said, in reference to the conflict between northern and southern Italy: “We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians.” D’Azeglio was aware that just because the national state had achieved political unification, it did not necessarily mean that a nation had emerged.

It is a loaded thought, for sure. Because how would this work in Malaysia? How do we ‘make Malaysians’? By imposing the religious will of the majority of Malaysians upon the remainder of Malaysians? Do we impose the language of the majority? The culture of the majority? Form a Negaraku police squad to ensure that people demonstrate solemn and humourless respect for the national anthem at all times?

So pening, kan, these questions? And to think I started off this piece by drawing attention to Janet Jackson’s marginally concealed areola. But there is a thing to be said about concealing a taboo subject. It makes people want to take a peek.

OK, bad analogy. All I’m saying is that, dudes, I’ve kept up with the Negaraku controversy and I haven’t keeled over yet, you know what I’m saying? In fact, I like the fact that I know more about the national anthem – my national anthem. And I really do think the various stories of its origins – apocryphal or not – enrich my identity and experience as a Malaysian. But that’s just me expressing an opinion that represents 1/23,953,136 of the country, so don’t shoot me. I mean, it’s not like I’ve modulated too high. Hattan, sorry brader.


Shanon Shah once won a Malaysian patriotic songwriting competition for his song titled “Kisahmu Belum Berakhir”. He recently released his debut album, titled Dilanda Cinta.

First Published: 17.11.2005 on Kakiseni

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