Know Your Icon: The Late Zubir Said

TO come to now about the things composer/lyricist, the late Zubir Said have achieved, contributed and most importantly preserved about Malay music is going to be a true wake up call for any Malaysian, especially the music enthusiasts.

Prior to the unveiling made by Universal Music Publishing of his “undiscovered” works of more than 1000 songs that was never published recently, Zubir is practically unknown to many.

Very few might have heard about him through his most known work, the national anthem of Singapore ‘Majulah Singapura’ which he wrote in 1959.

But that piece of information is nowhere near from even vaguely describing his importance to the development of Malay music.

Like how he contributed three songs for consideration for the national anthem of Malaya, which one we called ‘Pertame’, an acronym for Persekutuan Tanah Melayu.

Or how he wrote and scored for countless Cathay Keris movies like ‘Badang’ ‘Chinta’, ‘Tun Fatimah’ and ‘Dewi Murni’ as well as string of films for Shaw Brothers.

Or the fact that the late Tan Sri P Ramlee earlier repertoires when he first came to Singapore in 1948 were made of songs composed by him as can be heard in films like ‘Rachun Dunia’ and ‘Aloha’.

Or he was the composer for some of the classic Malay greats like ‘Sayang Di Sayang’, ‘Pulang Merantau’, ‘Chempaka Biru’ and ‘Asmara’.

“It is also true that a singer, arranger and the musicians work in tandem to give a song that extra edge. However, hardly any credit is given to the composer and the arranger. Composers are not even mentioned sometimes. Maybe it is time for composers and arrangers to get an equal share of the attention,” said Zubir’s daughter Puan Sri Datin Dr Rohana Zubir Hamid.

The third daughter of from late Zubir’s marriage to Tarminah Kario Wikromo, Rohana has been the custodian of her father’s unpublished songs since his passing on Nov 20, 1987 at age of 80.

Today, 20 years after her father’s passing, all these treasures will soon be given all the credits it long due with the signing of an exclusive publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG).

When asked what took her so long before she decided to come forward with her father’s vast collection of great works, Rohana gave an honest answer.

“Twenty years ago I was less concerned with the future, now I’m wiser and spiritually aware of life. I realised I have a legacy to pass on to my children and grandchildren and the present and future generation of people with artistic and musical talent who can and should benefit from my father’s work,” she said.

“I know Rohana from my wife’s family but I never really knew who her father was until two years ago. During a Hari Raya visit, she asked me about how the music business works.

“When I ask her why, she said because her father, Zubir Said, was a composer. I then asked her what are his famous songs and her response was ‘Majulah Singapura’ the national anthem of Singapore. My jaw just dropped at that point,” recalled Universal Music Malaysia managing director Sandy Monteiro.

Monteiro who was recently appointed as Universal Music South East Asia senior vice president added, at that point there was no way for him to not to get involved.

“I didn’t hear from Rohana until this year when she asked me to come over to her place as she wanted to show me something. Apparently she have spent the last two years documenting everything from the photographs, letters, newspaper cuttings to the manuscripts, everything. I can honestly say what I saw was basically the most complete and well-documented history of any classic Malay composer,” Monteiro said.

Among the revelation from the newly unearthed gems was out of the over a thousand songs that were written only 10 percent of it songs were registered.

“When we checked with Music Authors’ Copyright Protection (MACP) and Composers Association of Singapore (Compas), only 200 songs were registered,” Monteiro said.

“The other discoveries was though there are so many songs, Zubir’s family are only familiar with songs that were popularised like ‘Cempaka Biru’, ‘Asmara’ and ‘Sayang Di Sayang’. Bulk of the songs that have been written had not been heard by the family members or anybody else.

“The first things we want to do was to put these composition into a music form so you’d actually know what they sound like. Because we are sure that given his pedigree, reputation, there has to be something that is going to be magnificent.

“It is our promise to Rohana that Universal Music Publishing is going to administer her father’s works with respect and with the hope of breathing new life into it. I hope we can make some of these songs a hit.”

“We also hope this will prompt more composers to come forward and get their music. Hopefully we could connect these little dots and have a registered national musical heritage, which we currently do not have,” he added.


BORN in Minangkabau in Sumatra in 1907, Zubir ran away from home in 1928 to join a ‘bangsawan’ troupe in Singapore to his father’s dismay.

In 1938 he married Tarminah, a keroncong singer and the couple were blessed with five children – four daughters and a son.

Before music, Zubir earned his living from taking IC-size photos.

Then came the offer to become a songwriter by Cathay Keris Film Productions.

“That’s how people came to know about him – his songs in films,” recalled one of the pioneers of the local filming industry, Datuk L Krishnan.

As a composer and lyricist, Zubir is best known for one thing – a purist who treasured the importance of quality and most importantly Malay roots.

“It’s true that my father was a purist. In a letter to a fan dated March 16, 1967 he wrote, ‘my principle in regards to music is against imported rhythm which are not suitable for our people and their art’,” Rohana said.

“My father have seven tips on how to become a good singer and it’s is a pleasure for me to share two of it.

“First was ‘Jangan selalu meniru bunyi suara penyanyi lain dan gaya patah lagu orang lain. Cari keaslian dalam bunyi suara dan patah lagu sendiri (Never imitate other singers’ voices or their phrasings. Try to find your own).

“The next one would be, ‘Jangan suka menyanyikan lagu-lagu yang rendah mutu dan lagu-lagu yang tidak mempunyai makna ataupun lagu-lagu yang tidak menarik perhatian. Pilihlah lagu-lagu yang berfaedah pada masyarakat sebab menyanyi itu ertinya bercerita kepada orang yang mendengar (Never sing songs that lacked quality, have no meanings behind it and have no appeal. Also choose songs that will benefit the society as singing is actually about telling stories to those who are listening).

The words may not come from Zubir himself but the weight and meaning it carries did give this writer a goose bump.

The fact that Zubir being a purist may also be one of the reasons why his work was never really within the commercial radar. Still, that’s far from denying him the respect, especially from his peers and understudy.

“I was P Ramlee’s understudy and I once asked him how he felt about being bigger than Pak Zubir despite starting out by singing his songs. His response was, “Pak Zubir adalah seorang pencipta lagu yang berperikebadian, aku kacau marba (Pak Zubir is a composer with character, me, anything goes).

“What P Ramlee meant was he writes all sorts of songs whereas Pak Zubir is a purist. Where else can we find songs that have the Malay melodies of the same standards as ‘Sayang Di Sayang’? These are songs that have a very strong Malay identities,” said film historian, music activist and lyricist Yusnor Ef.

Zubir’s strict quality control was also echoed by Krishnan.

“With Zubir, you cannot tell him that you want a song within 30 days or 60 days. You’ll get the song, when the song comes to him,” he said.

As a teacher and mentor to a lot of other music greats, Zubir, according to Rohana have a unique style of teaching.

“My father had a unique teaching method. He believes in tapping the individual’s creativity. He will teach them the melody and grill them in understanding the chords and then allow them freedom to juxtapose the two. This is why the students can read and apply musical notes,” she recalled.


ON mainstream scale, the highlight of Zubir’s career as a composer was when his song Majulah Singapura was chosen as the national anthem of Singapore in Sept 1959.

But prior to this and perhaps unknown to many, he was invited by then director of Federation of Malaya information services, Encik Yaakob Latif of the Federation of Malaya to submit his composition for the selection of national anthem of Malaya’s independence day on Aug 31, 1957.

“Yaakob explained in his letter that a few hundred entered the competition but none was chosen. Naturally, it was an honour for him and he submitted three songs with some clear conditions that, one, he did not wish to be part of the competition; two, he has no wish to be paid any prize money should the song be selected; and three, he also stressed that no part of his songs will be changed either in its melody, style and lyrics without his permission.

“As you know, his songs were not chosen. He did receive a token of RM500 which he donated to charity,” Rohana said.

Despite not being selected, the spirit of 1957 independence floats powerfully in him as he continued to participate in national events.

“Let me share with you his patriotic spirits in one of his fan mail replies. ‘Kembangkanlah dan amalkanlah lagu-lagu nasional kita dengan jiwa yang bersemangat dan hasrat yang berkobar-kobar agar dengan sendirinya jiwa rakyat dan bangsa bertambah semangat dan berjiwa nasional. Lagu-lagu nasional adalah pakaian bagi pemuda-pemudi bangsa yang berjiwa nasional (Spread and practice patriotic songs with pride so that the people’s soul will be filled with flaming nationalistic spirit. National songs are the uniform for youth with nationalistic soul).

“Now that Malaysia is celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence I feel proud that historically Papa had been a part of that nationalism.”

“I think papa would approved of this adventure we are about to embark with UMPG. I however am not sure if he would approve if his works were to be changed too drastically.

She added by doing so will protect her father’s works from irresponsible and an unscrupulous individuals who would exploit his work.

“My brother in Zurich called me the other day saying how Papa’s song was being used by somebody’s name in Singapore,” Rohana said.

* Originally published in The Weekend Mail in 2008By the way, It has been more than two years, and we yet to see anything feasible to come out of it. Whaddup Universal Music?