Music and Meaning in the Independence-Era Malaysian Films of P. Ramlee | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 20, Issue 1
  • ISSN: 1059-440X
  • E-ISSN: 2049-6710



Independence-era Malaysia boasted a robust film industry that produced hundreds of films per year between the late 1950s and early 1960s. The multiinstrumentalist, singer, composer, actor, and director P. Ramlee was the most productive and popular figure in this scene. Today Ramlee is lauded as one of Malaysia's and Singapore's most important cultural figures. In this article we argue that Ramee's film music served to score the topography of ethnic relations in independence-era Malaysia. In Ramlee's films, which featured almost exclusively Malay casts and cultural contexts, inter-ethnic relations were heard more often than seen. Ramlee's music stood in a complex if sometimes contradictory relationship to the representation of modern Malay culture and class in his films. While upper class Westernized Malay characters were inevitably portrayed as betraying traditional values, Westernized Malay music (and vice versa) served as the soundtrack for modern, working class Malaysians rooted in traditional cultural mores.


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  • Article Type: Article
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