Headlines, Lifelines

Zubir Said: The man behind the music

BY Serene Lim

HE WAS a loving father but was also a strict disciplinarian who wanted the best for his family.

His daughter, now an associate professor in the University of Malaya, recalled how he sold some of his precious books in 1948 to pay for her English tuition.

... Mr Zubir (Said), who is believed to have written about 1,000 songs, is best known as the composer of Majulah Singapura, the national anthem and Semoga Bahagia, the theme song for Children's Day and the Singapore Youth Festival.

Born in Minangkabau in Sumatra in 1907, Mr Zubir, the eldest surviving son of a village chieftain, ran away from home in 1928 to join a bangsawan troupe here because his father, a very religious man, believed music to be against religion.

He had heard about Singapore from a sailor friend, who described it as a place of "glittering lights, kopi susu (coffee with milk) and butter".

His third daughter, Associate Professor Puan Sri Datin Dr Rohana Zubir-Hamid, 50, who is with UM's Faculty of Education, said: "He had very high expectations of all of us. He wanted me to get the highest education possible. He tried to keep us away from the world of the arts, because he felt it was a hard life."

In 1938, Mr Zubir married Tarminah Kario Wikromo, a keroncong singer, and went back to Indonesia shortly after World War II broke out. They returned to Singapore with Dr Rohana in 1947.

Although Pak Zubir, as he was called in later years, was short-tempered and impatient, he was also a loving father, Dr Rohana recalled. He had five children -- four daughters and a son.

"My father had very little luxury himself, but he made a lot of sacrifices for us. He spent a lot of his time ekeing out a living," she said.

"I was nine when we came to Singapore. I didn't know a word of English, and it was too late to enter school. My father sold some of his precious books for $15 to pay for my English tuition."

To earn a living, Mr Zubir became a photographer, "going from village to village to take IC-size photos for the villagers", said Dr Rohana. Identity cards had become a requirement by then.

Later, Mr Zubir was employed by Cathay Keris Film Productions as a songwriter for their Malay films. He also gave music lessons until his death.

"In terms of money and luxury, he didn't have much," she said. "Still, he was a happy man."

Of the book, Dr Rohana said: "My father did not expect any kind of public accolade. He was genuinely a man of the arts.

"As a citizen, he would have been very happy to know he has contributed to Singapore, and that he was leaving something behind for posterity."

(Mr Zubir Said, who died in 1987, was honoured in March 1990 with the launch of a two-week exhibition of his life and works. A book, Zubir Said: His Songs, was also launched, the result of a three-year project sponsored by Berita Harian.)

First published in the Straits Times, March 9, 1990.

Some sing but don't what the words say. Others think it's time we change the lyrics.

Singaporeans discuss Majulah Singapura, our national anthem.



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