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Best known as the composer of Singapore’s national anthem, Zubir Said was one of Singapore’s earliest Malay-language songwriters, penning over 1,000 tunes for Malay films during his stint with the movie studios Shaw Brothers and Cathay. His most famous work, Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore), was written in 1958 and first performed at Victoria Theatre. His other classic, Semoga Bahagia (May You Achieve Happiness), is fondly remembered by all across Singapore as the childhood tune sung on Children’s Day every year.
Remembered by history as the pipe-smoking grand old man of Malay music, Zubir Said grew up as the eldest surviving son of a village headman in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. Teaching himself to make and play the flute in primary school, and quickly picking up the guitar and drums as a teenager, Zubir was certain that he wanted to pursue a musical career from a young age. Against his father’s wishes, he left Indonesia at the age of 21 to join a bangsawan troupe in the metropolis of Singapore, then described by a friend as a place of “glittering lights, kopi susu (coffee with milk) and butter.”
Zubir’s early experiences in Singapore were not easy, as he struggled to find work as an itinerant photographer in between writing songs and arrangements. During the 1940s, he had to sell his books to pay for the education of his children. Zubir joined the Malay language newspaper Utusan Melayu as a part-time photographer in 1947. Two years later, he joined Shaw Brother’s Malay Film Production division, embarking on a prolific professional music career. In 1952, he left Shaw for Cathay-Keris’ Malay film arm.
Zubir’s lengthy period of work at the two institutions saw him write more than 1,000 songs and arrange some of the biggest hits in the early Malay film and popular music industry. Apart from the national anthem, his well-known works include music for the early horror flick, Sumpah Pontianak (Blood of Pontianak), music for the film Dang Anom (which would go on to win an award at the Ninth Asian Film Festival in Seoul), and music for Chuchu Datuk Merah (Grandchildren of Datuk Merah).
In 1958, Zubir was invited to compose a song for the City Council of Singapore called Majulah Singapura, which was to be the motto inscribed on the renovated Victoria Theatre. Majulah Singapura was performed at a concert celebrating the reopening of the Victoria Theatre on 6 Sep 1958, and grew in popularity thereafter. The following year, Singapore become a self-governed state. And realising the need for a national anthem, the Singapore government decided the popular Majulah Singapura would be the perfect choice. When Singapore gained full independence on 9 Aug 1965, the song was formally made the nation’s anthem.
Zubir’s national music legacy would also live on in Semoga Bahagia (May You Achieve Happiness), a song he wrote for primary school children. This song has come to be known as the Children’s Day song, and is fondly remembered by all Singapore school children who will have sung this song on the first day of October every year.
Known among his friends and fans as “Mr Mari Kita” and affectionately called "Pak Zubir", Zubir believed in a simple life and eschewed the attractions of big money in the entertainment world. While not exactly a rich man, he frequently helped support friends, family and adopted relatives with gifts of cash, medicine and other items at the expense of his own comfort. At his passing in 1987, Zubir had only $20,000 to his name and no family home. A keen history lover has since bought over his former residence in Joo Chiat Place, turning it into a private gallery of memorabilia and music scores from his life and work.
In recognition of his contributions to music, Zubir received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) and the Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour) in 1963. In 1971, he received the Jasawan Seni (Cultural Medallion) awarded by a group of Malay cultural institutions. He also went on to receive the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award in 1987, and was conferred a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore. On 8 May 2009, the address of the newly opened School of the Arts campus was announced to be “1 Zubir Said Drive”.
Today, besides his everlasting legacy as Mr Mari Kita, Zubir is remembered as the passionate soul who wrote his life values and culture into his music.
Born in Bukit tinggi, West Sumatra.
Left home to join a bangsawan troupe in Singapore.
Joined recording company HMV.
Married Javanese keroncong singer Tarminah Kario Wikromo.
Moved to Indonesia as World War II began.
Returned to Singapore.
Worked as an itinerant photographer taking photos for identity cards. Also worked part-time for Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu.
Orchestra conductor at Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Production studios.
Joined Cathay-Keris Film Productions as songwriter and arranger for Malay films.
Began giving music lessons.
First public performance of his songs at Victoria Theatre.
First public performance of Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore), which would become Singapore’s national anthem.
Wrote music for the movie Sumpah Pontianak (Blood of Pontianak).
Received award for his composition for the movie Dang Anom at the Ninth Asian Film Festival in Seoul.
Received the Sijil Kemuliaan (Certificate of Honour).
Wrote music for Cucu Datuk Merah (Grandchildren of Datuk Merah).
Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).
Retired from professional work. Continued to give private music lessons.
Received Jasawan Seni (Cultural Medallion) from eight Malay cultural organisations.
Received ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award.
Exhibition and book published on his life and works, Zubir Said: His Songs.
Posthumously conferred Lifetime Achievement Award by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS).
Address of the School of the Arts named “1 Zubir Said Drive".
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.