From gritty rock ballads to ethnic pop tunes, we remember 56 Malaysian songs that have touched our hearts and stood the test of time.
MUSIC brings people together. Great music brings a whole nation together.
In conjunction with the upcoming 56th Merdeka, Star2 looks back at 56 Malaysian songs that have left an indelible mark on all of us.
Whether it’s gritty rock ballads, inspirational anthems or ethnic pop tunes, these are songs that have united Malaysians from all walks oflife.These are songs that cannot be washed away by the sands of time.
From first impressions to interesting back stories, Star2 speaks to composers, lyricists and singers to find out what it feels like to play a part in creating some of the greatest Malaysian songs. We've also come up with a two-part playlist for you, containing all the 56 tracks. Enjoy!
1. Balik Kampung by Sudirman
This endearing tune by the late Datuk Sudirman Arshad is sure to evoke nostalgic feelings among its listeners. Sudirman’s former manager Daniel Kannan says the singer was inspired to write something that most people could relate to at that time.
“He (Sudirman) noticed that a lot of people are coming (to KL) from kampung to work and eventually settle down in the city. He wanted to sing about the excitement, anticipation people felt about balik kampung,” says Daniel. The tune written and composed by Sudirman was recorded in 1984 for the album Lagu Dari Sebuah Bilik.
When Daniel first heard the tune, he became aware of its timeless accord.
“I remember telling Sudirman that they would play this song every year for Hari Raya and other festive occasions. Today, even after he’s long gone (Sudirman passed away in February 1992), you simply can’t miss this song.”
2. Standing In The Eyes Of The World by Ella
“My heart was pounding furiously, I even felt like crying,” Ella recalls the moment she sang Standing In The Eyes Of The World during the 1998 Commonwealth Games at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium. The rock singer says she will never forget that performance, especially when the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad praised her as she stepped off the stage.
Written in both English and Bahasa Malaysia by David Gates and Wah Idris respectively, Ella believes the Commonwealth Games theme song has touched Malaysians because we all face adversities in life: “No matter who you are – a leader of a country, an athlete, a student, a working adult, a physically-challenged individual – it gives us hope and confidence to succeed in whatever we do.
“When we fall, we rise up again – that’s what this song is about.”
3. Sinaran by Sheila Majid
Did you know that Datuk Sheila Majid’s most popular tune was originally composed as an entry for a Proton Saga theme song competition in the 1980s?
Adnan’s song didn’t win the competition but not long after, he submitted the composition to an international song festival. Owing to a tight deadline, Adnan used the same melody and roped in songwriter Johan Nawawi to rewrite the song – giving birth to Sinaran.
Adnan admits the song “doesn’t have the best lyrics in the world” as it was a rushed effort but the melody is strong. Regardless, balladeer Misha Omar says Sinaran kick-started her admiration for Sheila Majid and inspired her to sing.
“There is always that one singer that inspires you. She’s beautiful, humble and she carries herself well. I told myself, ‘One day, I want to be like her’,” Misha says.
4. Hijau by Zainal Abidin
“I’m a kampung boy from Johor Baru. A river ran through my backyard and we used to grow fruit trees there. When I moved to Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t have all these,” says former Headwind vocalist Zainal Abidin. The lack of greenery in the city inspired him to approach songwriter and composer Mukhlis Nor who then penned Hijau.
Zainal, who considers the song his proudest work yet, also shares the reason behind the refrain with the distinct Kelantanese dialect: “We also tried adapting it to Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil and Terengganu dialects actually. We wanted to target people from rural areas who do not understand the issues plaguing the environment.”
The message definitely came across. “That song was so original and the message of caring for the environment speaks to all Malaysians, rich or poor,” singer Aizat Amdan says. YouTube sensation Najwa Latif who practices recycling chimes in: “I first heard the song when I was 10. It taught me the importance of preserving our flora and fauna.”
5. Mentera Semerah Padi by M. Nasir
“This song is about a warrior who is trying to motivate himself by strengthening his spirituality before he goes to war,” Datuk M. Nasir explains the intrinsic meaning behind Mentera Semerah Padi.
Known for composing hits like Search’s Fantasia Bulan Madu and Wings’ Sejati, M. Nasir admits the song was a risk as it was unlike anything he had done. “There were so many pop songs and love songs at that time. I felt the need to introduce a patriotic song, but not like a marching song. It has elements of the past but with a modern twist,” he explains.
The veteran singer-songwriter believes this 1995 AIM Best Song is still remembered today because of its uplifting message and distinct traditional sounds, especially the use of the flute.
Rocker Ella, who couldn’t resist singing a line from the chorus when contacted, says: “I love this song because it reminds us that Malaysia is where we belong and we should be proud of it.”
6. Kau Ilhamku by Manbai
When songwriter Asmin Mudin first approached Manbai with Kau Ilhamku, the ex-Gersang vocalist knew his career was up for a breakthrough. True enough, this evergreen number has taken him places, from entertaining the crowd at Datuk Lee Chong Wei’s wedding to a special invitation to perform before the Raja Permaisuri Agong.
Directly translated as “you’re my inspiration”, Kau Ilhamku is a credit to God as Manbai's inspiration, he says. “Without God, I am nothing.”
“Whatever we plan to achieve in life, whether we succeed or fail, it’s important to give thanks to Him.” Manbai adds the song is also about showing respect and appreciation to those in our lives who have inspired us such as our parents and teachers.
7. Cindai by Siti Nurhaliza
Since its release in 1997, the rumour mill has been buzzing that supernatural sightings occur whenever Cindai is sung at night. Cindai is an expensive, intricate fabric but the word is also believed to mean pontianak (banshee).
Composer Datuk Suhaimi Mohd Zain (or Pak Ngah Suhaimi) says there are no double entendres to the song: “That meaning (pontianak) has nothing to do with the song. Cindai is a beautiful, exquisite cloth that also serves as a useful weapon. When one is struck by a parang, the cloth is so durable it can be used as a shield. It’s a metaphor for a woman who can be lovely and graceful but strong and powerful at the same time.”
Singer Datuk Siti Nurhaliza also confirms there have been no mysterious happenings whenever she performs the song. However, the pop darling did feel anxious about recording it at first. “I have recorded two pop albums before this. I was worried that my traditional singing style will not be as strong and warmly accepted by fans,” says Siti.
8. Mulanya Di Sini by Freedom
Who would have thought that a song composed on an airplane would later become a jingle for an airline? The melody to Mulanya Di Sini came to composer Royston Sta Maria (of Roy & Fran) when he flew from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney, Australia. “He was on a flight where he spotted a beautiful air stewardess and immediately fell in love with her,” says Freedom lead vocalist Shuib Shaari who adds that the name of the air stewardess was Carol.
The experience led Royston to create the chirpy tune. Shuib believes the song was such a hit because there weren’t many pop songs when it was released in 1987. “The rock scene was so big at the time, it was controlling everything. In fact, pop was dying. But we knew there was something different about this song from the other pop numbers,” he says.
Malaysia Airlines later incorporated the song as part of its promotional videos. And what became of Carol? Before Royston got off the flight, he tried to pursue her but the flight attendant revealed she was already attached.
9. Belaian Jiwa by Carefree/Innuendo
This classic love ballad was originally written in English and titled Heart Of My Soul. Simon Justin Leo of popular 1970s group Carefree says he wrote and composed the song based on his personal experience.
“When we were recording our second album, the label realised there was no original composition by band members. So I played this song, and everyone loved it,” he says, adding the band’s saxophonist Nana Pawan Chik translated the song into Bahasa Malaysia.
He believes the song was a hit because Carefree was one of very few local groups who sang harmonies then, which gives listeners a nostalgic feeling. Belaian Jiwa became popular again in the 1990s when R&B group Innuendo covered the song.
“It was fantastic! They did a great job. It suited the new generation, it sounded more contemporary and R&B,” he says.
10. Awallah Dondang by Noraniza Idris
It’s a mystery to some why the melody of Awallah Dondang was credited to an unknown composer, Anak Sarawak. Ala Dondang, the album containing the Noraniza Idris smash hit, was produced by Pak Ngah Suhaimi. “After recording the album, we felt it still needed a killer song. I suggested Awallah Dondang and everyone loved it,” he says. “The melody of the song is actually based on a popular traditional zapin tune from Sarawak.”
Hairul Anuar Harun was enlisted to write the lyrics to the melody. Pak Ngah says he tried to find its composer so due credit could be given but to no avail. As such, we credited the melody of the song as Anak Sarawak (child of Sarawak). “Whatever royalty we get, we donate them to the orphanage because we know it’s not our song,” he reveals.
Pak Ngah opines Awallah Dondang became a hit because it was the first time a traditional Malaysian tune was successfully made contemporary. “Back then, the music industry had become stagnant, there was nothing interesting. So when this song came out, it was something new and uniquely Malaysian. Something that could represent our country,” he shares.
11. Apa Dah Jadi by SM Salim
Who can forget Tan Sri SM Salim’s hilarious but honest Apa Dah Jadi? The song talks about a single man who is advancing in age and unable to find love. Pak Ngah Suhaimi who has worked with the veteran singer on a few occasions comments: “The beauty of this song lies in its direct and straightforward lyrics. There are no metaphors, no flowery words. The point of Apa Dah Jadi is just for the singer to bercerita (tell a story).”
However, Pak Ngah warns that the song isn’t as simple to sing as it seems. “SM Salim is using an old school technique that not many can actually pull off. He has a way to make it sound bersahaja (effortless) that is difficult to master,” he explains.
Singer Aizat feels inspired by SM Salim’s individuality. “Apa Dah Jadi is something very different and original. It’s incredible to see him make the song his own. For the new generation of artistes, this inspires us to carve our own legacy,” he says.
12. Getaran Jiwa by P. Ramlee
The evergreen song made its first appearance in the late Tan Sri P. Ramlee’s film Antara Dua Darjat. Released in 1960, the much-loved smooth jazzy number has been covered by numerous musicians including American singer-songwriter Lobo. In 1995, he released Whispers In The Wind, an English song that samples the melody of Getaran Jiwa.
Most recently, Mandopop star Wang Leehom performed this song at his concert in Kuala Lumpur with Najwa Latif.
Najwa says the song’s enduring quality lies in “its faultless lyrics and melody”. Alleycats vocalist Datuk David Arumugam says “no one could replicate the way P. Ramlee carries the tune”.
“It’s simply effortless,” says David.
13. Apo Nak Dikato by Blues Gang
Blues Gang frontman Ito Mohd says this song was written in 1982 during the band’s three-month stint touring Australia.
Some of his band member’s first reaction to the song was “lagu apa ni? (what kind of song is this?)”. Apo Nak Dikato was sung entirely in Ito’s Negri Sembilan dialect. The lyrics of the song is Ito’s observation of the social and environmental changes in his hometown.
“The song has the line ‘air laut bertambah masin’ and it’s about how I feel about the beaches in Port Dickson, not looking as gorgeous as they used to back in the 1960s.”
He expresses genuine surprise when told the song has found itself a place in Star2’s memorable Malaysian song list.
“I honestly thought people have forgotten about the song!”
14. Sampaikan Salam by Alleycats
“I think this song’s appeal lies in its universal message. It’s about sending a greeting and it can be for anyone. I never get sick of performing this song for our fans. I believe it has become sort of like their anthem. No Alleycats show would be complete without this song.”
15. 60s TV by OAG
Fikri Fadzil, founder of local music platform The Wknd, hails lead singer Radhi as one of this generation’s best pop songwriters.
“His songs are always full of insanely catchy hooks and melodies. 60s TV, specifically, has all those elements and more.”
He also credits the charismatic performer with paving the way for a new generation of singer-songwriters to make their mark in the local music scene.
“The song came out at the right time (mid 1990s) and was possibly one of the songs that led the way for more Malaysian-English songs to hit the airwaves.”
As a testament to the song’s longevity, Fikri remembers the crowd relentlessly screaming for OAG to play the song at a live showcase in Rockaway Festival last year.
“I remember it was already at the end of their set and the band had already walked back into the dressing room. But kids were still screaming for an encore, knowing full well that they hadn’t played that song.”
He adds: “Radhi was hesitant at first, but eventually came back on stage because no one had moved an inch. When his band members strummed the distinctive opening chords – everyone just lost it.”
16. Suci Dalam Debu by Iklim
Released in 1990, rock ballad Suci Dalam Debu became an instant hit thanks to its haunting lyrics and soulful delivery by lead singer Saleem. Blues Gang frontman Ito Mohd recalls watching Iklim perform in Terengganu before the band hit it big.
“I told a friend from a record label that it will be a big mistake if no one signs this band up,” Ito remembers.
Iklim gave a memorable performance of the song in the 1990 edition of Anugerah Juara Lagu where they also won third place for Best Performance and second place in Best Song. In 1992, a film inspired by the song was released thus extending its popularity and longevity in the Malaysian entertainment scene.
17. Kekasih Awal Dan Akhir by Jamal Abdillah
According to former RTM announcer Sazali Said, this 1991 song by Jamal Abdillah struck a chord with listeners because of its message.
“A lot of listeners could relate to this song’s message about devotion and eternal love. Some believe it has a religious message and that it’s essentially a song about God,” says Sazali.
He adds that Jamal Abdillah’s distinctive voice and harrowing delivery made it even more memorable for listeners.
“Back then, Jamal was in a league of his own because of his ‘suara kejantanan’ (manly voice). I can honestly tell you that – till today – there are no other male singers like him,” says Sazali.
As per the trend back then, the song also inspired a film of the same name. In 1993, Jamal starred alongside Sofea Jane in Kekasih Awal Dan Akhir, a film about a pair of lovers whose relationship is tested by their different social status.
18. Sejati by Wings
In 1990, M. Nasir penned this tune for rock band Wings. The song propelled Wings to the top of the charts and their third studio album Teori Domino achieved quadruple platinum sales.
“I remember listeners loved its powerful melody and heartfelt delivery. To most listeners, the song is about experiencing what was true love and then having to let it go. It’s like a coming-of-age song,” says former RTM announcer Sazali Said.
The veteran radio announcer laughed when we asked if this song is meant for those “frust menonggeng” (emotionally wrecked) types.
“Not necessarily! I mean, everyone else can probably relate to it as well (laughs).”
With over 200,000 units of the album sold, Wings also earned critical success with Sejati. The song won third place at Anugerah Juara Lagu in 1990. Vocalist Awie and his band also walked away with the top prize for Best Performance.
19. Bila Larut Malam by Saloma
Singer-songwriter Atilia can’t seem to get enough of screen legend Saloma’s memorable pop yeh yeh hit Bila Larut Malam.
“The line ‘ta ra ku cha cha’ is just so infectious! Somehow it makes me feel that people just want to get together and dance,” says Atilia.
In 2007, Atilia played P. Ramlee’s first wife Junaidah in a musical. While preparing for her role, she learned a lot about Saloma.
“(Husband and wife) P. Ramlee and Saloma was the ultimate dream team back then. He’d write songs for her to sing and she carries it so well.
“The song’s upbeat tune made me forget that it’s actually a sad song about loneliness,” says Atilia.
20. Isabella by Search
For Search bassist Nasir, coming up with Isabella was no easy feat.
“We were in the midst of recording our fifth studio album Fenomena in Jakarta, Indonesia when we realised that we still don’t have a killer song,” remembers Nasir.
The band then roped in M. Nasir to help out in the creative process. “We came up with a melody for a song and our producer M. Nasir got songwriter Bob Lokman to help come up with a story for the song.”
M. Nasir also suggested that the band come up with a killer guitar solo.
“The guitar solo was designed to sound like a couple having a conversation. Whenever guitarist Kid performs the solo, vocalist Amy will take on a sullen, sad expression like listening to a lover say goodbye,” says Nasir.
Isabella won the best song award at the 1989 Anugerah Juara Lagu. The popularity of this single helped Search sell over a million copies of the album in Indonesia, a first for a Malaysian act.
“It was so huge for us we realised it was difficult to come up with another tune that can match the success and musical greatness that is Isabella.
Here’s a list of the rest of the 36 memorable Malaysian songs:
21. Gerimis Mengundang by Search
22. Anak Ayam by Too Phat
23. Awas! by KRU
24. Menaruh Harapan by Zaiton Sameon
25. Untukmu by Feminin
26. Jejaka Idaman by Raja Ema
27. Mata by Noorkumalasari
28. Pergilah Sayang by Korie & Ella
29. Bunga-Bunga Cinta by Misha Omar
30. Madah Berhelah by Ziana Zain
31. Luka Dilukai by Shima
32. Pasti by Ning Baizura
33. Di Persimpangan Dilema by Nora
34. C.I.N.T.A. by XPDC
35. Kau Kunci Hatiku by Ramlah Ram
36. Itik Gembo-Gembo by A to Z
37. Puji-Pujian by Raihan
38. Fiona by 4U2C
39. Syair Laila Majnun by Ramli Sarip
40. Manisnya Senyumanmu by Elite
41. Tragedi Oktober by Awie
42. Ikhlas Tapi Jauh by Sheila Majid, Zainal Abidin
43. Sekadar Di Pinggiran by Francissca Peter
44. Suraya by Headwind
45. Farra by Bagaikan Putri
46. Akhirnya Kini Pasti by Anita Sarawak
47. Cinta Kristal by Rahim Maarof
48. Siapa Dia Sebelum Daku by Roy and Fran
49. Teratai Layu Di Tasik Madu by Fauziah Latif
50. Kuda Hitam by Juliza Adzlizan
51. Untukmu Ibu by Exist
52. Janji Manismu by Aishah
53. Suratan Takdir by Gersang
54. Tiada Lagi Kidungmu by Lefthanded
55. Semakin Rindu Semakin Asyik by Amelina
56. Monay Monay by Poetic Ammo