Music teacher, broadcaster, songwriter, author
A generation of schoolchildren grew up listening to her radio programmes and singing the songs she wrote. Aisha Akbar was a music teacher who in the 1950s was approached to become a radio presenter and took to it with gusto, producing children’s music programmes and eventually supervising the children’s programmes unit. She was also a composer and songwriter, conductor, compiler of folk songs, author, and businesswoman.
Aisha’s passion and talent for music was apparent at an early age. When Aisha was about four years old, her older sister’s piano teacher was astonished to find the child playing by ear the pieces her sister had been practicing. The music teacher told Aisha’s parents they should immediately get her started on music lessons to develop her talent.
The youngest of six children, Aisha’s parents were both educators. Several of her siblings also became teachers, and teaching seemed the natural thing to do for Aisha to do after she left school. But when she was 20 years old and a second-year student at the Teacher Training College, she won a scholarship to go to the Trinity College of Music in England to learn how to teach music in schools. Aisha was the first person in Singapore to be awarded a music scholarship without having already qualified as a music teacher.
Returning to Singapore in 1953, Aisha became a roving music teacher. Most schools then did not have a music teacher on the staff, so Aisha moved between various schools. She sometimes had as many as 200 students in a class. Outside of her school work, she dabbled in conducting with the Singapore Musical Society Choir and Orchestra and the Singapore Chamber Ensemble.
After several years as a music teacher, Aisha was seconded from the Education Service to Radio Singapore. The English lady who produced programmes such as Song Time, Songs to Sing, and Music and Movement was leaving, and Aisha was asked to take over. She found producing these programmes to be almost effortless, so turned her hand to writing music and songs for the programmes. She also started a choir, the Suara Singapura Singers, and decided to publish a book of Malay folk songs.
Concerned that traditional Malay folk songs would get lost in the wash of time, Aisha spent three years researching them, listening to various versions of the lyrics and tunes of favourites such as ‘Rasa Sayang’ and ‘Dayun Sampan’. In 1966 her book Thirty-six best loved songs of Malaysia and Singapore was published. She considered this her proudest achievement as these folk songs had never been properly documented.
The many children’s songs that Aisha wrote or localised, such as ‘The Satay Man’ and ‘The Ting Ting Man’, were published in a series of books entitled ‘Malaya Sings’. In the foreword to one of these books, the then Culture Minister S Rajaratnam said her songs, with images and sounds drawn from the local environment, was “a praiseworthy contribution towards helping to develop in our children a Malayan imagination based on everyday experience”.
Retiring from Radio Singapore in 1971, Aisha moved to England where she taught music at a prestigious school for several years and wrote a book - Aishabee at War: A Very Frank Memoir – about her childhood in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation. She also wrote stories for a popular BBC children’s TV series called Jackanory, and was involved in choirs that performed at various places including the Royal Albert Hall. She did of all of this while running a property business.
In later life, she developed a strong interest in painting and jewellery making, and volunteered at an ethnic centre where she spent time with the elderly who were lonely and could not speak much English. Aisha died in 2015 aged 84.
"Keep going, never give up. If you really set your sights on your goal you will get there because, as Emerson says, the longing of the soul is the prophecy of its fulfilment."