The making-of our Merdeka video

It started with a phone message from Grace Chiam of BrandCulture PR MarCom which said, “We are planning to do a simple three-minute Merdeka video on behalf of our client, Zenith Lifestyle Centre, and would like to ask for your help.”


Zenith Lifestyle Centre, entrance from Jalan Trus

Our message exchange closed with an appointment for a video meeting where Grace and her team shared with me, the concept and job brief for a video to commemorate National Day 2021, dubbed #BangsaJohorUntukMalaysia or #JohoreansforMalaysia.


It was encouraging to hear their exciting ideas for a video that will feature a compilation of positive messages from some 20 Johoreans dedicated to Malaysians, aimed to encourage each other to stay strong and hopeful as we commemorate Hari Merdeka.


Independence Day, also known as National Day or Hari Kebangsaan and Hari Merdeka in Malay, is observed on August 31 to commemorate the Malayan Declaration of Independence from British colonial administration that took place on 31 August 1957.


Zenith Lifestyle Centre, entrance from
Jalan Wong Ah Fook

National Day celebrations at state and national level were often planned throughout the month of August but due to the global pandemic and resulting lockdowns, these celebrations have been toned down to avoid the spread of infections.


Every August, our National Month, flying the Jalur Gemilang or National Flag was a fun and patriotic activity for homes and business premises but recently, the sad situation in the community had spiraled down to such dire despair that the needy had to resort to flying White Flags to indicate their desperate need for help.


The sad fact is that the nationwide lockdowns since March 2020 and the aggressive spread of Covid19 infections had caused unspeakable sadness to affected families, many with the loss of lives, jobs and income.


When I considered the economic, social and political turmoil happening around us, I agreed with BrandCulture that it was timely to do something positive to lift the spirit of our nation through these dark days.


As Grace explained how this video will feature the beauty and harmony of our multi-cultural community through traditional dancers who represented the Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, each shot to a backdrop of interesting sites within the Zenith Lifestyle Centre, along with encouraging messages from Johoreans, the idea of a video to commemorate Merdeka 2021 sounded more and more meaningful.

In short, I was more than happy to work with BrandCulture to produce this Merdeka video in collaboration with Zenith Lifestyle Centre.


Archive photo of Rex cinema

My relationship with BrandCulture goes back a while, back to when Grace first arrived in Johor Baru for a job appointment in her professional career. (I also inadvertently earned the moniker as her #ffijb.)


While I was working on the manuscript for Book Three of My Johor Stories, Grace, who is the PR Manager for My Johor Stories, was discussing with me about creating short videos from my collection of Johor Stories, using text and images, music and animation.


Grace and I were excited about sharing such valuable content that covered Johor culture and heritage, Johor food, Johor destinations, Johor personalities and organizations, memories of the Johor I know and of course, my grandfather stories.


Archive photo of Lido cinema

To do this, I needed a jingle or signature tune, unique to My Johor Stories that matched with my brand identity.


My go-to-person for music composition must be cousin, Karen Ng, who is based in Kuala Lumpur for her business at First Tempo Music, The Popular Music Store.


A graduate from Universiti Putra Malaysia who majored in Percussion Performance with a minor in Jazz Piano, Karen has performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MYPO) and National Symphony Orchestra, and led live bands for corporate event shows.


Her versatility as a percussionist, drummer and keyboardist has enabled Karen to venture into an array of opportunities as a performer as well as in pursuing her passion as a music educator.


When I gave her the job brief for a signature tune that reflected the image of My Johor Stories, I was sure that Karen, a professional musician and composer, knew what I was after.


Having read my two books, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage and My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, Karen had no difficulty in grasping the concept for the music that I had in mind.


Zenith Lifestyle Centre, Amari
Johor Baru and Suasana Suites
are built on the site of the
former Rex and Lido cinemas

From the vintage to multi-ethnic, from traditional to modern musical instruments, we agreed that this tune should showcase the rich culture-heritage and grandeur which reflected the unique heart of Johor.


I felt confident that Karen would compose something simply special for My Johor Stories and could hardly wait for it … but I had to bide my time and patiently waited while her creative juices flowed…


A few days later, Karen sent me her original composition for the Intro and reminded me to listen to it with earphones. With eyes shut, I held my breath and carefully listened:


The opening strains of gamelan in “announcing the arrival” had the feel of Nusantara – a melting pot of cultures in the Malay Archipelago – along with claps of Indian tabla, the Chinese gong and the first phrase ended with the sound of the Western timpani (plural for timpano drum).


The music moved into a tune that featured strings, the horn and the flute/seruling that reflected the stability, peace and harmony in Johor state, rising to a crescendo that showcases the wealth of the multi-ethnic cultures here.


The Intro music then gently tapered off with the sounds of the sitar and di zi, a Chinese flute.


When I congratulated Karen for accurately capturing my sentiments in an artful blend of the Johor identity in this Intro piece, Karen and I unanimously agreed that this piece of music just gave us a further sense of pride as Johoreans.


The wall mural painted by local artist, Mulo

Karen assured me that the Outro music was already in the works and when she sent it to me, I again listened intently. At its closing notes, I could only gasp, “Wow!”


She explained that the wind chimes were reminiscent of the breezes blowing in from the Johor Straits, while the gamelan, pipa, sitar and accordion, entered in sequence to reflect the various cultures who live in harmony in this Southern state.


The background of cosmic vocals spoke of the great future envisioned for the state and the piece ended with the grand sounds of brass and horns in military percussion that symbolized the unique sovereignty of Johor through the ages.


I could only repeat, “Wow!” Because Karen had certainly exceeded my expectations.


Malay cultural dance performed
by Shahrul Othman

By this time, I had already shared with BrandCulture, this original composition by cousin Karen, as the signature music for the series of My Johor Stories videos.


Back to our chat about the proposed Merdeka video; Grace explained that while her team was brainstorming for ideas, they agreed that this signature tune for My Johor Stories was not only impressive but aptly reflected a special unity and strength in our multi-cultural Bangsa Johor identity.


So they proposed that this original composition for My Johor Stories made its debut through the Merdeka video because they thought this music ideally matches with the concept for their video in the theme #BangsaJohorUntukMalaysia or #JohoreansforMalaysia.


It was simply a capital idea!


True-blue Johoreans will know that the Zenith Lifestyle Centre, a building linked to the Amari Johor Baru and Suasana Suites Johor Baru, has the distinct heritage of being built on the site of two landmark cinemas in Johor Baru, named Rex and Lido.


Indian traditional dance 
by Mishalini Ganesan

In my published stories that featured Rex and Lido, I recalled movies we enjoyed in these stand-alone movie theatres, entertainment that were very much part of our lives in a bygone era before cable television and live-streaming became popular.


It was a wonderful time when going to the movies was the most affordable form of entertainment and these fond memories were also shared in, Escape to the Movies, published in my 2017 Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


The legacy of Rex and Lido in Johor Baru was not only documented in My Johor Stories but thoughtfully preserved in two function halls named, Rex and Lido, in the Amari Johor Baru.


Meanwhile the good people at Amari Johor Baru agreed with me that people liked to stay in a place with a story. And have placed my two books, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage and My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People* in their better rooms and suites for guests' reading pleasure.


Just as Rex and Lido were accessible from Jalan Wong Ah Fook and Jalan Trus back then, now the Zenith Lifestyle Centre remains conveniently accessible from these two roads and offers dining and entertainment experiences in International and locally renowned restaurant chains, specialty stores and convenience stores, all in one place.


Chinese culture in the art of the
24 Festive Drums by
Lim Wue Teik

At its Jalan Trus entrance, the legacy of these landmark cinemas is also tastefully preserved in a gigantic wall mural, a precious piece of artwork by local artist, Mulo.


Rendered in sepia tones for a touch of nostalgia, this attractive mural portrays the façade of Rex cinema, complete with Akan Datang or Coming movie attractions posted on billboards and features two human figures inspired by popular Malay artistes, P. Ramlee and Saloma.


Meanwhile, the BrandCulture team got down to working on the project which kicked off with video shoots of the three cultural dancers, each arranged at separate time slots to limit the number of people present and ensure safe physical distancing at all times.


To represent Indian culture, Mishalini Ganesan presented the classic grace and expressions of the Bharata Natyam. Dressed in a beautiful trouser costume made of silk and satin, complete with flowers in her hair, she made music with every step from her ankle bells or sallangai.


The Malay traditional dance by Shahrul Othman combined movements from Johor zapin, joget and inang dances in polished choreography that symbolizes the Malay cultural identity of gentleness, grace and precision.


Chinese culture was represented by drummer Lim Wue Teik, who performed a routine in the art of the 24 Festive Drums, a dramatic art of drumming proudly born in Johor and now embraced by multi-racial communities both local and abroad.


My books are placed in the rooms
and suites of Amari Johor Baru for
the guests' reading pleasure

National Day 2021 will be very different for Malaysians, especially for people personally affected by the Covid19 pandemic, with the loss of lives and livelihoods.


We are truly living in an unprecedented time in history where every nation is battling with and trying to cope with the Covid19 pandemic and its consequences.


Malaysia, however, has the added challenge of dealing with political upheavals, a situation which was unheard of since this nation’s Independence 64 years ago.


Even as uncertainties loom ahead, we can hold firmly onto a proud history of strength and resilience in our multi-cultural community who emerged from hardship and worked together since Independence to build a strong and successful nation.


A nation is made up of its people. And we are the community of people who will make a difference to our nation in the coming days and for generations to come.


These landmark cinemas are featured in my
2017 bestseller, My Johor Stories: True
Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage
This Merdeka video, produced by BrandCulture PR and MarCom for Zenith Lifestyle Centre in collaboration with My Johor Stories, will be posted in the Zenith Lifestyle Centre website as well as on Instagram and Facebook on 31 August 2021.


To view video #BangsaJohorUntukMalaysia or #JohoreansforMalaysia, go to Instagram and and Website:

Take time to read the positive messages from Johoreans posted in this video that encourages fellow Malaysians to anticipate a better tomorrow for us and the nation.


Selamat Hari Kebangsaan and Selamat Hari Merdeka from Johor to fellow Malaysians: May we stay strong and resilient as we rise up and rebuild our nation together.


Zenith Lifestyle Centre is located at No. 82C Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Baru with convenient access via Jalan Trus and Jalan Wong Ah Fook.


For more info on First Tempo Music, visit website:


*My books, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage and My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People, are available from MPH bookstores nationwide and online from 

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