The Odd History (Perhaps?) of the Malaysian National Anthem

On August 31, 1957, Malaysia became a sovereign nation, securing its independence from the United Kingdom. This did not come as a sudden surprise; British decolonization of Southeast Asia was in full swing and Malaysia, like many of its neighbors, used the preceding months and years to prepare for a peaceful transfer of power. Like any other new nation, Malaysia had to adopt a lot of symbols to represent their people and their country — a flag, for example, and for our purposes today, a national anthem. They held contests, formed committees, etc., and ultimately, Malaysia adopted a song called “Negaraku” as its anthem. 

You can listen to Negaraku here — and maybe, if you’re really old, the tune may be familiar to it. For example, if you happen to have been in the African archipelago of Seychelles in the late 1800s, you probably knew it well. And that’s a bit strange because as seen on this map, Malaysia is about 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles) from there. 

How does a popular tune from an isolated African archipelago make its way across the Indian Ocean and into Southeast Asian symbolism? Most likely, it makes a stop in England first and importantly, avoided some embarrassment along the way.

The details of the history of Negaraku are murky and somewhat debated, but there are a few things that are certain, so let’s start with those. At some point in the mid-to-late 1800s, a French song titled “La Rosalie” was popular in Seychelles. And as it turned out, a notable Malay spent a lot of time in Seychelles. In the late 1800s, most of Malaysia was under British rule and in November of 1874, the UK dispatched a British national named J. W. W. Birch to oversee the region known as Perak. The local leadership was not in favor of this foreign intervention and a year later, Birch was assassinated. The British responded by sending troops to Perak and overthrowing the local government, including Abdullah II, the sultan of Perak at the time. The British stripped Abdullah of his throne and exiled him to Seychelles, where he remained for most of his life. Abdullah II’s family, though, was allowed to return to Malaysia.

Fast forward a bit to 1901, and the new Sultan of Perak, Idris I, traveled to England upon the invitation of Queen Victoria, who had just celebrated her golden jubilee the year prior. (Some sources say this trip occurred in 1901, with the Sultan attending the coronation of King Edward VII, but either way, the rest of the story follows.) And like any state visit, particularly at the time, the ceremonies were filled with pomp and circumstance. And that proved to be a problem. As Focus Malaysia recounts, the British protocol aides asked their Malaysian counterparts for the sheet music to the Perak national anthem, and the Perak entourage didn’t have anything to provide, for a very good reason: Perak didn’t have a national anthem.

Not wanting his nation or the Sultan to suffer any embarrassment, Raja Mansur, one of Idris I’s aides-de-camp came up with a quick solution. He told the British officials that unfortunately, they hadn’t brought along any sheet music, but that was okay — he was more than willing to hum it for them. Mansur was the son of Abdullah II and, as a result, knew the tune of La Rosalie rather well.  So that’s what he hummed. The British performers wrote down the notes Mansur provided and, when Idris I entered the venue, played the song for everyone to hear. As far as anyone other than Mansur knew, it was the official anthem of Perak, after all.

When the Perak delegation returned home, it brought this song with them. The tune¬†ended up as the basis for the state anthem of Perka, turning Mansur’s ruse into the truth.¬†And about a half-century later, the tune — which went from France to Seychelles to England before landing in Malaysia — spread across Malaysia, becoming the melody for the national anthem in use today.

Bonus fact: In 2002, Malaysia outlawed the broadcast of a television commercial advertising Toyotas — because the ads starred Brad Pitt. As CNN reported, “Malaysian Deputy Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said the widespread use of Western faces in advertisements could create an inferiority complex among Asians,” as the blond-haired, blue-eyed Pitt was being held out as what the ideal person looks like. Per CNN, the Pitt ban was “part of a broader effort by the government to reduce the number of non-Malaysian faces used in local advertising” in hopes of reducing the importance of Western features in the nation.

From the Archives: Why There are Still Borders in Malaysia: And by “Borders,” I mean the bookstore.