How and Why National Day Songs are Created, Explained.

As a young student in Britain in the 1970s, Richard Tan (who would later go on to pioneer the creation of National Day songs) saw how singing could be used as a political tool to drum up nationalism. Every year, the BBC would hold the Proms, a series of concerts that lasted over several days, with the last hurrah – or the “Last Night at the Proms” – being broadcasted live from the Royal Albert Hall. On one of those nights, Tan watched the audience belt out patriotic songs while waving their flags and banners like their lives depended on it. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have this sort of singing at our own National Day Parades?” Tan recalls telling a childhood friend.

Things have changed since those days.

Last year, the Proms was wedged in the middle of a large debate about jingoism and the country’s colonial history. Rule, Britannia! and The Land of Hope and Glory, both of which had been traditionally sung every year, were called out on their “themes of superiority, domination and ownership of black people”. These themes felt more jarring in wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. On one end, there were pleas to scrap the songs on the final night. On the other, the songs were seen as a powerful “unifying force for the nation” that was an indispensable part of history. “Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.”, tweeted Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. Both songs were eventually kept in.

Meanwhile, in early July this year, Singapore released its 31st National Day song: The Road Ahead. While past songs have failed to gain approval from Singaporeans, the song went on to buck the trend with astoundingly positive reactions from the public.

But how did we get here?

The Prime Minister

On the eve of May Day 1980, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew attended a campfire organised by the National Trade Union Congress at a field in South Buona Vista Road. The speech he gave painted a picture of success and progress. Gone was the “spartan, puritanical air of thrift and poverty” and in was a “gay festive atmosphere” that reflected a confident and assured people.

But for all the triumphant rhetoric, the truth was a bit more complicated. In the late 1970s, Singapore was undergoing massive structural changes, one of which included the forced eviction of citizens from their Kampongs to Housing Development Board (HDB) buildings. The difference in lifestyle in a high rise flat and in an attap house was a huge gulf. Almost suddenly, people had to live with strangers in close proximity. They were like fishes out of water, uncomfortable and anxious at the change.

Then came the 1980s, which caused more trouble. In 1985, Singapore experienced its first post-independence recession. The country’s economy registered a negative growth rate of -3.5% in the third quarter of the year, with close to 20,000 workers retrenched. Factories were closed and people were laid off. It wouldn’t have been such an agonizing situation if not for the Prime Minister’s unrelenting stance on welfare. Individual responsibility was paramount and welfare was inefficiency.

“We have studiously avoided the practices of the welfare state. We saw how a great people (the British) reduced themselves to mediocrity by levelling down. The less enterprising and less hardworking cannot be made equal simply by cutting down the achievements of the enterprising and the striving,” he said in a speech that same year.

While this quiet cynicism didn’t take the form of theatrical strikes or protests, it manifested itself in the more intricate matters. Things like a less than enthusiastic crowd on National Day Parades (NDPs), where a 1983 Straits Times article describes the parade as being watched “in near-total silence, apart from a ripple of polite applause at the end”, or teenage boys grumbling about the need to serve National Service (NS).

Back at the May Day Campfire, the Prime Minister seemed to have observed the symptoms of this problem. Reports indicated that Lee was privately “perturbed” that there was no one singing at the campfire, except for a single participant. The event which he publicly called “festive” was in fact dull and had little sense of rapport.

The Civil Servant

Richard Tan observed these changes first hand. In 1981, the young civil servant began his career at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as a research analyst. Part of his job revolved around gauging public sentiment and understanding the national security implications that these sentiments might have.

Richard Tan at the launch of Sing Singapore 

To him, it was clear that Singapore wasn’t quite a home to Singaporeans. “From all the grumbling and unhappiness that I was hearing, and the number of applications for NS and Reservist deferment, I was able to discern that there was a lack of commitment to Singapore and a lack of confidence,” he said.

On 11 March 1983, these sentiments made their way to parliament, where several parliamentarians questioned the effectiveness of MINDEF’s outreach program. In response, then Minister of State (Defence), Yeo Ning Hong unveiled that work was underway on a five-pronged Total Defence program. Tan had become heavily involved in the creation of the program, becoming in charge of Total Defence & National Education by April 1984.

In the same year, MINDEF engaged J. Walter Thompson, an American advertising agency, to create a jingle for the Total Defence campaign. The song, which was called There’s a Part for Everyone, marked the modern beginnings of the political use of songs in Singapore. While there had been song writing competitions in the 1960s and 1970s, they were seen to be ineffective due to the inexperience of those writing, and the lack of finesse in the government’s instructions. Expectations of patriotic lyrics meant that the songs were “strained and made banal by the obvious need to indicate patriotism”. One judge also remarked that the patriotism in these songs were “so insistent” that they were “a parody of patriotism”. There’s a Part for Everyone was the first time that a song had been clinically engineered together with industry experts to meet policy end goals.

To Tan, the launch of the song also meant something personally. A passing comment he made to his friend a decade ago had taken on a life of its own.

The Songwriter

Sometime in 1981, a young Hugh Harrison watched Mad Max 2: Road Warrior. The movie, which features Mel Gibson driving through the post-apocalyptic highways of Australia, seemed to have an instantaneous impact on Harrison.

In less than a day, Harrison cleaned up his 1971 BMW 750 bike, brought it down to the docks and sent it over to Australia. Reunited with his bike a few months later, the thirty year old drove all over the outback. Eventually, after running out of money because of his road trip, the man decided to fly to Singapore to find work.

While Harrison had experience working in film production, direction and music composition, Singapore in the early 1980s had little room for these skills. “(Advertising agencies) seemed to be the only thing going on in Singapore at that time, so I started knocking on doors,” he said in a recent Today interview. Eventually, he found a job at the advertising company McCann Erickson, where he started working as a creative producer, crafting television content and jingles.

In 1984, the Ministry of Culture was tasked with the planning and organising of the celebrations for Singapore’s 25th anniversary of self-governance. The team at the ministry decided to get advertising and public relations agencies on board to look at how to market the celebrations. So, the ministry put out a tender.

Wanting to get involved, McCann Erickson’s Managing Director Brian Watson, told Harrison to write a song. Over the weekend, Harrison came up with the idea for Stand up for Singapore, a song which “was about looking at the past with pride and the future with confidence”. After completing the rest of the song and editing stitching archival footage to create a video for it, McCann Erickson placed its tender.

At this point, there was no talk of Stand up for Singapore being a National Song. It was merely part of a commercial about nation-building. “The song was liked more than I ever understood or realised, and it was pushed into the public domain and everybody was singing it and it carried on until National Day,” Harrison later remarked. Tan concurred with this, stating it had never been a goal to get people to sing. Rather, it was a habit that had grown organically.

The Trilogy

By 1986, Tan had been roped in by the MCI to propagate psychological defence, one of the pillars of Total Defence. As the Assistant Director of the division, he was to think of ways to “defend the hearts and minds of Singaporeans”.

Following Stand up for Singapore’s success, Tan decided to enlist Harrison’s help for another song. The brief was a simple one: since Stand Up for Singapore was a call to action from the government, the next song had to contain the people’s response to that call.

Count on Me Singapore

The result was a song named that ran into trouble even before being released. A song named We have a Dream Singapore had been previewed by senior government officials, and media editors were consulted on how the public would respond. All parties came back cautioning that the mandarin word for dream (梦想) was associated with wishful thinking and hence had to be changed.

Leadership also had concerns about lyrics that contained a grammatically incorrect phrase “you and me”, and Tan was instructed to amend it with “you and I”.

Eventually, the name We have a Dream Singapore was replaced, giving rise to the title of Singapore’s second National Song, Count on Me Singapore. Tan, however, relented on the grammatically incorrect line, believing that he could sneak it through without his bosses noticing.

The problems facing the song didn’t stop there. Since the song was meant to be the people’s response to the government’s earlier call to action, it was decided that it would only be appropriate if it came from the people. As such, Fraser & Neave (F&N) was approached to sponsor the song, along with other corporations to fund, for the first time, the 1986 NDP. F&N had decided that they would promote the song as a “gift to the nation”.

Never had Singapore included non-governmental corporations in its National Day Celebrations. Thus, Tan was instructed to call off the song and corporate sponsorship though they had already launched. That very same day, Tan tendered his resignation from the civil service. Ultimately, both the song and the parade got the green light to proceed.

We are Singapore

In 1987, Harrison had been brought back by Tan to write his third National Song. While the first two songs were about building confidence in the country, this one was supposed to be a proclamation of the people’s commitment to the nation.

“We thought that it’d be good for Singaporeans to come together and say who we are, what we have, and what stake we have in the country,” said Tan. That proclamation had to come in song form that was ‘anthemic’ and easy to sing.

Together with these instructions, Harrison was also shown a speech that Prime Minister Lee had given to school teachers in 1966. In it, he talks about creating a country that feels together. “You know, on certain things (the country) responds together: this is my country, this is my flag; this is my President; this is my future. I am going to protect it,” he goes on to say. These lines were tweaked slightly and placed in the chorus.

1966 was also the year that kick-started the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in schools. In the same speech, Lee expressed doubt in the effectiveness of a pledge to create a bonded community.

“You know, the boys take the oath. I myself have read the oath… But I thought to myself, in the English and even in the Chinese which I read, it is a bit too long for a primary school boy of six or seven. The idea is right. But it can be improved on, and it must be improved on,” commented Lee.

“But at the same time, some teachers think it is all a joke. It depends on the teachers. If the teacher thinks it is funny, and just goes through, recites it, the boys will think it is just a waste of three minutes time, just mumble, mumble, mumble and it is over,”.

In 1987, the public also questioned the need to recite the Pledge daily at school assemblies. There were concerns if this mandate would “make it counterproductive in inculcating a sense of patriotism among students”.

In response, the brief to Harrison also contained instructions to weave the pledge in the song. Harrison and music producer Jeremy Moneteiro were therefore told to record two versions of the song: one with the pledge, and one without. A decision was also made to start the song off with instruments from different ethnicities to embody the diversity of Singaporeans, which was what the song was essentially about.

The product was a song that encompassed “shared elements that made people feel bound to each other as Singaporeans”, We Are Singapore. This time, following the allowance of corporate sponsorship the previous year, there was no issue when Cold Storage funded the song.

The Present

Back in the 1980s, the process of creating the songs was relatively simpler. Tan’s team was the one who decided the direction of songs and saw them through. Over the years, the process has become more stringent.

For a song to materialize, it has to first pass through several stages, as arranged in ascending order: Creative Director, NDP Executive Committee, National Day Celebration Committee, and sometimes even the Cabinet. This process constitutes a series of back-and-forths, drafting and rewriting, until everyone involved is on the same page.

These days, the NDP Executive Committee will first appoint a Creative Director to conceptualize the theme of the parade. These people, who apparently are only a small handful, include the likes of household names like Dick Lee and Ivan Heng.

To get elected as a Creative Director, interested applicants have to first pitch their ideas to the NDP Executive Committee and go through the many stages of approval.

These Creative Directors have control over the year’s National Day Song. They pick the musicians involved and give them the general directions that they have to take the song in. To be even on the radar of the Creative Director, artists themselves need to first have ample grist in the mill. Handpicked artists would be given a brief and are told to pitch their songs to the Creative Director, who would then appoint the songwriter for that year.

Singer-songwriter of this year’s NDP song The Road Ahead, Linying, was given the brief over WhatsApp, with instructions to write a song with the theme of ‘a renewed spirit’. “We were given words that described the image of a man at the sea, looking over an island with a string of lights,” recalls Linying. She was also told that this year’s song should take on a more uplifting tune – nothing sombre like last year’s.


Linying’s The Road Ahead, was selected to be this year’s NDP Song.

According to Linying, NDP songs barely have any room for experimentation. This was simply because of the many objectives that a song should fulfil. To her, the lack of experimentation was not due to the multiple layers of bureaucracy, but rather, from a grounded understanding of what an NDP song should or should not be like.

“We have to consider that NDP songs are kind of separate from general music, because it really is a genre of its own,” muses Linying. “It needs to be sung by the masses, and it also has to embody a message that is appropriate,”.

When composing, she recounts that she wasn’t told what very specific themes to write about, or what she could or couldn’t say. She had not felt that her creativity was stifled. Even if it did, she reckons that it only stemmed from herself. While she admits that her feelings for Singapore weren’t all positive, she understood that that portion wouldn’t be appropriate for an NDP song. Linying points out that “…as much as this song doesn’t encapsulate the full spectrum of my feelings towards this country, it doesn’t mean that it’s dishonest or untrue”.

In the process of writing The Road Ahead, there were moments when she was given feedback (by who, she wasn’t sure, as it all came offhandedly from Dr Sydney Tan). According to Linying, they were nothing oppressive; mostly suggestions that helped to sharpen the clarity of the concept or “musical things like how to make the payoff more prominent”. One example of this would be a change to the song’s chorus. While it now reads “see this island, every grain of sand, hear this anthem, it’s the voices of our friends”, she had originally penned it to be “see this island, in every grain of sand, hear this anthem, in the voices of our friends”.

Honest Propaganda?

Richard Tan agrees that National Day Songs are clinically engineered. As someone who oversaw the creation of Singapore’s most iconic National songs, he doesn’t see it as right or wrong. It is simply a matter of fact. “(The songs are) all manufactured with a purpose. Nothing is left to be organic and left to work on its own,” he said.

“National songs are all part and parcel of the process of nation building, (to build) a nation in the hearts and minds of the citizens,” he shrugged. “It’s done in many countries throughout history,”.

Some wouldn’t agree with Tan’s assessment of the programme’s success. National Day Songs have been criticised as far back as the 1980s for being too blatantly nationalistic and jingoistic. According to a 1987 Straits Times article, many people – particularly adults – had felt “suffocated” at the incessant broadcasting of songs. They had also thought that “the lyrics were too repetitive and sentimental”.

The rise of social media has made Singaporeans particularly inordinate with their criticisms. 2013’s One Singapore was probably one that took the hardest hit, with netizens slamming it for sounding like a grating kid’s song. Even 2020’s Everything I Am sung by Nathan Hartono had failed to gain broad appeal, as citizens complained about its melancholic tune.

Some have found the main problem to be frequently rehashed themes, which makes the songs vapid and repetitive. Others have even found them cringy with ‘saccharine, diabetes-inducing lyrics’, making the songs sound disingenuous and inauthentic. It was almost as if songwriters had a blueprint they would follow, culling and welding their work until it looked like a replica.

Honesty is The Best Policy

As a millennial herself, Linying seems to understand where that doubt has surfaced from. She agrees that some of the past songs could come across as insincere, especially when they used trite metaphors and overused phrases like ‘weathering storms’.

“Sometimes I can understand why our generation feels so frustrated at NDP songs, you know, because we’re just painting such a pretty picture,” empathizes Linying.

“And it’s not”.

Having done some introspection, she wonders if she was forgetting the importance of propaganda at a time where Singapore was still growing, where unity was fundamental to a developing nation. As the nation matures, the song’s purposes have changed along with it.

For The Road Ahead, Linying had simply wanted the song to be an outstretched hand to anyone, a hand that is even more important in the pandemic. “I’m not trying to be instructive or pedantic, I don’t think that’s the purpose of a song. I will write an academic paper, if that’s what I wanted to do,” she joked.

Despite a rather consistent distaste for NDP songs, this year’s The Road Ahead seems to strike a chord with citizens. The song was praised for its authenticity as it spoke of the “silent strength” of Singaporeans, which is not surprising considering that honesty was the true north for Linying in her songwriting process

“I wanted to kind of convey the importance of us recognising that we share this home with so many other people that we might not realize we do,” explained Linying. “We have to have that sense of civic responsibility… which is why I wanted to humanize this aspect of the collective,”.

Even as the songs have evolved, she observes that the one thing that people have always appreciated was the writer’s personal touch and honesty in songs. While composing, her objective was simply to be as honest as she could whilst maintaining a level of universality for all Singaporeans.

Dick Lee, composer of Home, equally stands by being genuine in his prose. In an interview with Mothership, he claims that the key to a good NDP song is to not try too hard. “I don’t have to try to be Singaporean, I just have to be me, and I think that will come about,” said Lee.

The Future

The reason why new songs are still pumped out every year is because the NDP Executive Committee feels that these songs can drum up excitement for the parade. On the contrary, Tan does not think that a yearly NDP song is necessary. Even Dick Lee expressed skepticism that a new one was needed every year, drawing comparisons with Christmas carols.

“Do we need a new one every year?” questions Lee.

Instead of yearly releases, Tan encourages younger composers to craft their art not revolving around larger than life themes. Instead, he urges them to have their songs focused on the slices of life. As the country evolves, there might be no need to make grandiose proclamations and pledges. The seemingly dull things that we see everyday could make equally great, or even better stories – much like The Road Ahead has done. Harrison did get inspiration for We Are Singapore by meandering through the streets of Singapore, after all.

“And one day, like Dick Lee, we will hit another winner,” promises Tan, smiling widely.

This year, it seems like we might have.


Author

Gracia Koh

Contributor

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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