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Majulah Singapura

The story of a song, documented by Prof Bernard Tan


Published: 4 Aug 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

Did you know that an earlier version of Singapore’s national anthem exists, one which was longer and sounded significantly different from the current Majulah Singapura

In 2015, the Singapore composer, Professor Bernard Tan, set out on a search for the original manuscript of the national anthem. We break down his findings, documented in the 2019 essay The Hunt for Majulah Singapura published in the Cultural Connections journal.

Singapore is 55 this year, but few know that its national anthem is older than that. The story of this song that most Singaporeans grew up with began in the mid-1950s when the City Council of Singapore renovated the Victoria Theatre. It was decided that the grand finale of the opening performance should be a new song based on the City Council’s motto “Majulah Singapura” and Zubir Said was officially invited to compose it on 10 Jul 1958. 

On 6 Sep 1958, Victoria Theatre reopened with a concert that had Majulah Singapura as its first item. This was also the first public performance of the song and the choir and orchestra of the Singapore Chamber Ensemble performed it stirringly. It was publicly performed a second time at the Padang on 23 Feb 1959 for the visit of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The new song quickly found favour with virtually everyone who listened to it. Zubir Said had written what is arguably his best song ever, and it immediately caught the hearts of people of all races.

Bernard Tan

After attaining self-governance on 3 June 1959, Singapore was in need of its own flag, crest and anthem. Then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye was reminded of the song Majulah Singapura which was an excellent fit for a national anthem. He readily agreed to use this song but requested that it be shortened so that when singing it, citizens would not have to stand still for too long. 

Zubir Said then shortened the song himself by removing bars 7 to 14 and modified the second half of bar 6. This was adopted as the new national anthem at the session of the Legislative Assembly on 11 Nov 1959.

Majulah Singapura Original Version

<em>Majulah Singapura</em>, verse original version. Image courtesy of Bernard Tan.

Majulah Singapura Official Version

<em>Majulah Singapura</em>, verse official version. Image courtesy of Bernard Tan.

The words and music of the new anthem were then printed on half a million souvenir cards and distributed to school children and the general public. A service that allowed the song to be heard over the telephone by dialling 2 or 3 was also introduced. 

Souvenir card, back and front. Image courtesy of Bernard Tan.

Souvenir card, inside. Image courtesy of Bernard Tan.

On 3 Dec 1959, Majulah Singapura was heard for the first time as the national anthem at the installation ceremony of the new Head of State, Yusof Ishak. The ceremony took place on the steps of City Hall in front of a huge crowd at the Padang and God Save the Queen was played together with Singapore’s national anthem.

In 1978, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was founded and they performed the original version of Majulah Singapura, which was eight bars longer than the official national anthem in its inaugural concert in Jan 1979. The Straits Times reported the next day that the orchestra “played a spirited version of the national anthem with a variation and in a manner few Singaporeans had heard before”.

In 2000, it was decided that there should be a new orchestration of the national anthem and Singaporean composers were invited to create new orchestral arrangements. It was at this point that Prof Tan took the opportunity to propose that the new arrangements of the national anthem for orchestra and instrumentations be shifted down from G major to F major, so that it would be easier to sing. Interestingly, there was an earlier version of Majulah Singapura in number notation which indicates that it should be sung in the lower key of F.

<em>Majulah Singapura</em>, number notation score. Image courtesy of Puan Sri Datin Dr Rohana Zubir.

In 2015, the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) celebrated the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence by concluding its concert with a performance of the original extended version followed by the official national anthem with a massive choir and orchestra. This original version of Majulah Singapura arranged by Prof Tan was heard for the first time by a new generation of Singaporeans and posted on YouTube where it has been viewed more than 50,000 times. 

Read Prof Bernard Tan’s essay, The Hunt for Majulah Singapura, here. This essay was first published in Cultural Connections Volume 4, July 2019, by Culture Academy Singapore.

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Red Dot August 2022

From homegrown musicians to Singapore films, dive into what makes the little red dot home throughout the month of August.

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