Orkestra Melayu Singapura (OMS)

Orkestra Melayu Singapura (OMS), Singapore’s first Malay orchestra, was set up by the People’s Association (PA) in September 1991.Formed to preserve and promote Malay music in Singapore, OMS is the only orchestra in Singapore to combine modern and traditional instruments in Malay music performance.2 The orchestra’s repertoire includes original compositions and traditional Malay pieces. It has held concerts such as Malam Rentak Dan Irama, Malam Gurindam Syawal, Dagang Nusantara and Gurindam Melayu Asli.3

The first decade
As part of its attempt to preserve and promote Malay music in Singapore, the PA began looking for musicians to join OMS in August 1991. Applicants had to be able to play a brass or woodwind instrument, and they were required to attend weekly training at the PA once selected.4

Following the first audition, OMS was formed in September 1991 with 23 members.5 The orchestra’s first conductor was Mohd Mokhtar Abdullah, a composer and musician. Its repertoire comprised original compositions and traditional Malay pieces.6

OMS held its debut performance at the World Trade Centre auditorium on 11 April 1992.7 The debut was followed by concerts at cultural and festive events, as well as performances held in collaboration with other local and regional orchestras.8

In April 1994, OMS held the concert Malam Gurindam Syawal (Night of Syawal Lyric Poetry) in conjunction with Hari Raya Puasa celebrations. There were 21 items in the concert programme, played by its 30-piece orchestra. The orchestra, however, was criticised for not using any traditional Malay instruments in its programme. At this, Mokhtar lamented the difficulty in enticing experienced Malay traditional musicians to join the orchestra. Most of its members were amateur musicians who attended practice sessions on a voluntary basis.9 The members consisted of, among others, school students, undergraduates and taxi drivers, ranging from their teens to late 40s.10 They were given an allowance for attending training sessions, while the orchestra received only a nominal sum as payment for its performances.11 In addition, invitations to perform were infrequent. On average, it received about four invitations to perform a year.12

In 1996, OMS adopted a new strategy to endear the young to asli (traditional music). In its annual concert Gurindam Melayu Asli (Traditional Malay Folk Songs) held in April that year, the orchestra fused the sounds of traditional and contemporary Western instruments. The arrangements boasted of traditional instruments such as the gong and different kinds of drums such as ketuk, boning and kenong, and Western instruments such as the violin, clarinet, saxophone, piano and guitar. In addition, two original compositions, “Jebat” and “Persimpangan”, were performed for the first time at the concert.13

OMS participated in the Festival of Asian Performing Arts in June 1997. It performed “Crossroads, a fusion piece made up of Chinese, Indian and Malay elements. The performance was a combined effort with musicians from the Singapore Indian Orchestra and Choir, as well as the PA’s Youth Chinese Orchestra. The conductor was L. Vaidyanathan, one of India’s leading composers and conductors.14 In 2002, Vaidyanathan was also the conductor for OMS’s fusion-piece concert, Sangamam, which combined Indian, Chinese, Malay and Western musical elements.15

In February 1999, OMS took part in the Cathay Pacific Chinese New Year Parade in Hong Kong, together with the PA’s Malay Dance Group. The combined group held a dance and musical performance called Kampung Celebrations, which told the story of a traditional circumcision ceremony for Malay boys.16

10th anniversary and beyond
OMS marked its 10th anniversary in April 2001 with a concert named Dance Gema Warisan (Echoes of Heritage), which was held at the Singapore Conference Hall. Led by conductor Mohd Jais Minsawi, the concert programme comprised mainly new compositions, as well as a few traditional pieces. The concert featured guest artists from Sumatra playing instruments such as talempong, sarunai, bangsi and saluang.17 The year 2001 also saw the formation of a specialised section called the Kombo Orkestra Melayu Singapura. This new offshoot of the OMS focuses on the fusion of modern and traditional Malay music.18

In June 2002, OMS participated in the People’s Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council19 (MESRA)’s musical, Gentarasa (Chimes of Expressions). The musical was a showcase blending various elements of the Malay performing arts. Performing arts groups, such as those for dance and silat, moved to traditional music played and sung live during the show. Gentarasa is now an annual event since the first concert was held in 2002.20

OMS was also part of a Singapore-Malaysia-Indonesia ensemble called Perahu – Breaking the Waves. The ensemble performed in October 2002 during the month-long festival that marked the opening of Singapore’s Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.21 OMS celebrated its 20th Anniversary together with 50 of its members by performing in a concert at the Esplanade concert hall on 16th October 2011.22

Apr 1992: Malam Rentak Dan Irama23
Apr 1994: Malam Gurindam Syawal24
1995: Dagang Nusantara25
Apr 1996: Gurindam Melayu Asli26
Jun 1997: “Crossroads”27
Feb 1999: Kampung Celebrations28
Apr 2001: Dance Gema Warisan29
Jun 2002–: Gentarasa30
Oct 2002: Perahu  Breaking the Waves31

Nureza Ahmad

1. “Latar Belakang Orkestra,” Berita Harian, 21 January 1992, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Orkestra Melayu Nasional Dibentuk,” Berita Harian, 31 July 1991, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Filzah Hadi, “Show of Support for Malay Orchestra,” Straits Times, 18 April 1994, 11; “Persembahan Sulung Orkestra,” Berita Harian, 30 March 1992, 14; Junaidah Dahlan, Novel Way to Introduce Young to Traditional Music,” Straits Times, 30 April 1996, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Talent for Malay Orchestra,” Straits Times, 2 August 1991, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Latar Belakang Orkestra.”
6. “Latar Belakang Orkestra”; “Orkestra Melayu Nasional Dibentuk.”
7. “Persembahan Sulung Orkestra.”
8. “Latar Belakang Orkestra.”
9. Hadi, “Show of Support for Malay Orchestra.”
10. Hanim Mohd Salleh, “Orkestra Melayu Buat Pendekatan Baru,” Berita Harian, 2 May 1996, 6; Dahlan, “Introduce Young to Traditional Music.”
11. “Talent for Malay Orchestra”; Hadi, “Show of Support for Malay Orchestra.”
12. Hadi, “Show of Support for Malay Orchestra.”
13. Dahlan, “Introduce Young to Traditional Music.”
14. Shawn Er, “Indian Maestro for Classical Pieces,” Straits Times, 21 June 1997, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Tan Shrz Ee, “Experiment Gone Very Wrong,” Straits Times, 17 June 2002, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Horse Play Heads for HK,” Straits Times, 15 February 1999, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Joyce Teo, “Big Band, Malay Style,” Straits Times, 4 September 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Page L2 Miscellaneous Column 1: Music,” Straits Times, 7 June 2001, L2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Malay Activity Executive Committees Council,” People’s Association, accessed 22 January 2018.
20. “Malay Cultural Feast at Arts Fest,” Straits Times, 21 May 2002, 7; Chairul Fahmy Hussaini, “Usaha Baiki Persembahan Budaya Melayu,” Berita Harian, 26 April 2002, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. C. Bianpoen, “Esplanade Theatres on the Bay Opens Festival,” Jakarta Post, 11 October 2002 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Stephanie Burridge, “A Festival of Hybrid Entertainment,” Business Times, 1 November 2002, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Hanim Mohd Saleh, “Orkestra Melayu Rai Ulang Tahun,” Berita Harian, 10 October 2011, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Dahlan, “Introduce Young to Traditional Music.”
24. Hadi, “Show of Support for Malay Orchestra.”
25. Salleh, “Orkestra Melayu Buat Pendekatan Baru.”
26. Dahlan, “Introduce Young to Traditional Music.”
27. Er, “Indian Maestro for Classical Pieces.”
28. “Horse Play Heads for HK.”
29. Teo, “Big Band, Malay Style.”
30. Hussaini, “Usaha Baiki Persembahan Budaya Melayu.”
31. Bianpoen, “Esplanade Theatres on the Bay.”

The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Malay music
Heritage and Culture
Performing arts--Singapore
Malay music history
Orchestral music