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National Songs Revisited

From Propaganda to Pop to Anti-cool Kitsch

Tan Shzr Ee


There was a time, when people said that one Singapore song was too many – but maybe they were wrong.

Lame attempt aside at parroting that famous opening line of our 1987 hit, We Are Singapore, what can be gleaned from rusty minds which have forgotten how to factorise quadratic equations but remember every word to Count On Me, is that something in those tunes must have clicked over all these years. Yes, I’m talking about Sing Singapore. Since 1985, no fewer than 16 national songs, in the spirit of discovering and promoting original melodies ‘written by Singaporeans for Singaporeans… cultivating a greater sense of togetherness among Singaporeans’, have been bombarding state television, radio and other media platforms in the run-up to annual National Day celebrations.[1] Remember One People One Nation (1990) and Home (1998), long before the likes of home-grown pop rock band Electrico pulled their Coldplay chops in indie-Ah Pek tee-shirts for last year’s What Do You See and ‘community tunes’ like Chan Mali Chan, Dayung Sampan, plus – gulp – that evergreen Tamil ditty with its inimitable ‘ethnic’ diphthong, Muneeru Valiba?

When I was growing up (to use that cliché ), these were the mantras they made us sing at assembly and other ‘community’ sessions, shortly before we were corrupted by the ‘angmoh’ evils of Tiffany, Madonna and GNR. Unbelievably – we weren’t even really coerced into these exercises of what must now be viewed through politically-incorrect terminology as propaganda. Such, indeed, was the glee then of getting to skive classes for the surely innocent activity of simply opening our mouths to make a noise Yes, I happily admit: I was part of several Sing Singapore campaigns. I even made it to minor TV fame (raving belligerently over my celluloid debut as a yellow speck in a two-second flash of panned Betacam footage) when my school – Raffles Girls’ Secondary – was shortlisted in 1989 as a finalists in a performance competition promoting these songs.

In those days, we sang the straightforward tunes of awe-inspiring nation-building schtick: Stand Up for Singapore (1985) Count On Me Singapore (1986), One People One Nation and of course, We Are Singapore. We held hands and wept tears of pride when we re-imagined good ol’ Clement Chow and the ‘effectively-bilingual’ Samuel Chong croon their hearts out for ‘no dream too bold … that we can’t try for’.

We kept our promises not to smile when singing the pledge, while strolling prefects with furrowed brows suppressed giggle outbreaks, and hordes of pre-pubescents in sweltering pinafores brimmed over with a curious mix of collective schoolgirl hysteria and induced patriotism as we mouthed word after word with our fists clenched to our bosoms. We memorised all the lyrics to Muneeru Valiba and Chan Mali Chan in the name of multicultural inclusion, but never bothered to find out what they meant. The Cultural Revolution (and its accompanying swarm of similarly communitarian propaganda tunes) was something that happened in a different country’s even more distant past. We did not care – or indeed know – that many of the songs we held so dear to ‘my country, my flag… my future, my life’ were penned on behalf of the Ministries of Defence and Culture by a Canadian music producer called Hugh Harrison (now apparently residing in Thailand).

Of course, there are more objective ways to take stock of all this, as has been attempted by myself and others.[2] The emotionally-rousing power of music psychologically reifies messages through accompanying lyrics. The socially-interactive event of mass singing further bonds group identity, generating energy and collective consciousness.

Conveniently extrapolating, such a setup suggests that any kind of singing activity might therefore be understood as an ultimate demonstration of private or public propaganda, given that any kind of music will also be driven by a motion separate to itself – be it an advertisement jingle, a love song or a church hymn. But there’s ‘art for art’s sake’ – you argue. And yet: even this engine functions on the basis of an aesthetic value and inherent message of sorts, deeply couched in any kind of manifested ‘absolute music’. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point out an obvious difference between Electrico doing its regular Love In A New Wave fare, and What Do You See for the National Day Parade.

My point is, there are different species of musical propaganda, even as evolving ways of experiencing and appreciating these separate styles over time exist: Hence a conscious attempt to revisit the old chestnuts in an age where almost everything is available for downloading or listening pleasure, thanks to the miracles of YouTube and Google.

onepeople

Let’s All Consume Some State Ideology!

So what happens, then, when you start digging up those old turkeys? Perhaps it’s the proverbial generation gap at work, but recent dinnertime musings over these tunes with a group of Singaporeans led to a curious consensus that it was the 1980s hits which had really ‘stuck’, instead of those slickly-produced pop tunes of the 21st century.

Perhaps the older songs were too well-drummed into our systems through the carefully-orchestrated school campaigns, even as newer songs have not necessarily been foisted upon teenagers in state-wide competitions. Perhaps their distinctively slogan-like and cheesy choruses made individual pieces stand out all the more from the emerging soup of parallel Cantopop and Mandopop offerings, which newer tunes were struggling to emulate. As a good friend, R, pointed out: ‘At least those early songs didn’t pretend to be anything else’.

Indeed, straightforward musical propaganda was the early order of the day everyone from the Ministry of Defence to national newspapers celebrated what-would-now-be deemed as a somewhat distasteful marriage between art and politics. A 1987 report in the Business Times, for example, proclaimed:

Music is an exercise in harmony. Singing in chorus is more difficult than singing solo, because whereas in the latter the individual is his own master, in a chorus, an individual’s voice must be in total harmony with every other’s voice. A government is made up of people who bring exceptional qualities to their office, but it becomes a government only when these different people believe in, and find, the harmony of a common ground. When the Prime Minister and his parliamentary colleagues this week rehearsed songs for National day, they testified to existence of the bond between music and government: harmony. And when the rest of Singapore join them, full-throated, on National day, the picture will be complete: harmony, not just in song, not just among members of the government, but most important between a people and their government…[3]

The messages within the music – doubly reinforced by images of parades, military might, politicians at rallies and Singaporeans of the requisite Chinese, Malay, Indian and ‘Other’ ethnicities holding hands and beaming in front of an HDB block – were, in turn, clear and predictable. ‘Ethnic’ flourishes of the tabla or guzheng were inserted into individual tracks as token ‘cultural symbols’ in songs otherwise executed primarily in only English and Mandarin. We were reminded once again of how precariously Singapore teetered before the last generation strove to achieve today’s economic success that ‘young people now take for granted’. We were consciously creating new folk-songs for a post-1965 demographic that was as culturally-orphaned as it was merrily writing new scripts on a tabula rasa. We were in all honesty told that each new Singaporean song given to us was a piece of Singaporean propaganda, and henceforth cheerily encouraged to partake of it in the name of nation-building. So what went wrong – or better yet, what went right?

Associative Memories and Grassroots Reinscriptions

I’m pleased to tell you that many people actually bought – and continue to buy – into the literal nation-building ethos of Sing Singapore. This is was possibly as much tied up with the mass hysteria-fueled sentiment of watching a National Day Parade live, as with a longer-standing moral investment in the political promises of our trustworthy men-in-white. However, I know also that for many others (myself included), national songs have moved along a wider arc of changing taste: attitudes towards Sing Singapore began with happy compliance innocent school choral activities that swerved quickly into a phase of self-conscious embarrassment at one’s past co-option into a propaganda campaign, before re-emerging victorious in a warped but deeply-patriotic celebration of anti-hype-meets-self effacement-meets-trip down memory lane.

Allow me to explain. Over the years the very cringe-worthiness of many lyrics of national songs have kept me (among many other Singaporeans) from publicly or privately identifying with any notion of Singaporean nationalism. Yet, at the same time, I admit that I do retain fond memories of these songs, simply because they contain natural associations to memories of growing up during those early years; of skiving classes to sing in a quadrangle; of staying back after school to paint Sing Singapore banners. And thus, the evolving campaign agendas of Sing Singapore seem to have fostered a sense of personal-mini-historical identity.

But it’s not always that simple, of course. Even as national songs have been flooding our media channels and larger consciousnesses over the years, newer breeds of self-effacing and government-lampooning Singaporeans have risen to the challenge of re-inscribing the real ‘grass roots’ into top-down distributed musical ideology. Already back in the 1980s, way before the era of internet spoofs, Mr Brown, TalkingCock.com and piss-takes, alternative versions of anthems such as We Are Singapore and Count On Me Singapore were already floating around private chainmail networks. If the government was ready to spend money creating a piece of fake folksong, surely the onus was equally upon self-respecting, self-deprecating and happy-to-be-nannied heartlanders to re-fake the fake? Indeed, a well-known mutant version of Count On Me, whose anonymous vintage can be traced to the late 1980s (thus arguably authentically ‘of the people’), is reproduced as follows:

Count Money, Singapore

We have a revision of pay tomorrow
Just released, just released
We have a poorer Singapore
We won’t receive, we won’t receive__
You and me, we have to part
With our CPF for a start
We have to show the world that we take less money
We won’t receive, we won’t receive

There is nothing down the road that we can look for
We were told a dream that we could never try for

There’s a spirit in the air
That Seventh Month feeling we all share
We’re gonna build a better after-life for you and me
We were deceived, we were deceived

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my salary and more
Count money, Singapore

You and me
We’ll do our part, give our kidneys and our hearts
We’re gonna show the world how to GIRO our body
We can’t resist, we can’t resist

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my life and more
Count money, Singapore

Together Singapore, Singapore x 3

Anti-cool is the New ‘Cool’

But the fun only starts there. Even as anonymous mutant versions abound, publicly-authored ones with sharper satirical edges – including a well-known music-hall act by Dick Lee at the Esplanade (a cabaret rendition that has come to be a YouTube hit),[4] as well as numerous spoof posts by the likes of Mr Brown (aka Lee Kin Mun) and TalkingCock (Colin Goh) – have also surfaced.

In more recent years, the trend has u-turned into a celebration of retro-meets-anti-cool. Here, the entire farcical nature of consuming and being consumed by propaganda has become a whole performance of cheerful irony in itself. By this, I am referring to an increasing number of private and public National Day-themed parties where these songs are deliberately sung for their cheese factor, alongside an expression of genuine pride in Singaporean identity. The trick lies in learning to experience and re-create different layers of intentionality and meaning in the process of consuming these songs. Such cumulative layers of meaning are postmodern in nature, signifying a celebration of the uncool as the new ‘cool’. Here, active endorsement of the ruling government’s exhortations on nation-building becomes more than a patriotic act of will: It embodies the status quo of supporting the state mandate to the extent that such an act becomes ridiculous and laughable, and is thus truly worthy to be celebrated for its own sake. In other words: national songs have become ‘so bad they are actually good’.

In 2003, at a fund-raising dinner held by theatre company W!ld Rice attended by several important politicians, 1980s Sing Singapore songs re-appeared in the guise of lightweight and officially sanctioned political humour. Guests, dressed in flag colours of red and white, watched a comedic revue of hit propaganda tunes performed by celebrity thespians Glen Goei and Ivan Heng dressed in tokenistic costumes that had now taken on kink value. Stage gear – some of which was worn in drag – included the cheongsam, the sarong kebaya, the sari, school uniforms and army camouflage wear. Performances were delivered with over-the-top theatrics, and musical nationalism was championed in the name of kitsch and camp. Old turkey tunes from Stand Up For Singapore to Count On Me were delivered and sung along with violent applause and laughter, alongside the frantic and orchestrated waving of toy flags. A double-edged delivery of patriotism – understood by the superficial acceptance of state ideology, as well as simultaneous awareness of its contrivance in singers who were triumphantly performing in the face of politicians– was the name of this new, reclaimed game. Today, national song parties and Sing Singapore sessions continue to be consumed by ‘the people’ in an ever-expanding plethora of platforms: at increasingly Mardi Gras-styled Halloween festivals at reunions of overseas communities in chacha and line-dancing backing tracks recorded for shopping centre roadshows phone-videoed (and released unto the internet); finally, in happy-ironic National Day parties within and without Singapore every year.

Between Home, Britpop, the Olympics and Truly Asia?

If the Sing Singapore ball was now bouncing so firmly in the ‘people’s court’, one might wonder here: what was the state doing all this while?

Ironically, from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, national songs began to move away from outright propaganda. Enter instead soft-sell, feel-good fare reminiscent of Mandopop and Cantopop genres prevalent in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, glossed over with an inspirational church song twist. Local TV stars such as Evelyn Tan and Gurmit Singh, as well as pop personalities Tanya Chua, Mavis Hee, Stefanie Sun, Kit Chan and Singapore idol winner Hady Mirza were all roped into the campaign, delivering melodies such as Together, Shine, Shine On Me, We Will Get There and My Island Home. Jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro was called in to re-interpret the oldies with a swing beat. Prominent business personalities such as Jennie Chua, alongside overseas-based but Singapore-born soprano Yee Ee-ping, were invited to guest different segments in updated and pop-ified versions of 1980s tunes.[5] As Singapore rode into the internet age, the campaign also developed virtual fronts, spawning official and unofficial sites and postings where visuals, lyrics and mp3s of new and remixed songs could be downloaded.

The original turning point, as many tell, came in 1998, when Dick Lee was hired to write the nostalgic Home, voiced by Kit Chan. Lee’s tune – which many hail for its fine craftsmanship and subtle lyrics that speak of personally-rooted ‘belongings’ rather than publicly-mediated communitarianism, bypassed the usual musico-textual rigmarole of ‘striving’ for some nebulous notion of loud, national achievement. Ironically, it marked the glorious start of a campaign that seemed to fade into the more generic struggle for style and substance alongside mainstream genres already dominating consumer and pop markets in Singapore. While Home marked a distinctive change in the identity of national songs and continues to be celebrated among many as ‘the best of the lot’, it also set a standard that would prove to be hard to meet.

Paradoxically, the more ambiguously signified meanings of national songs after Home seemed to be faulted by its target audiences for not being ‘propagandistic’ enough. This was a case for both sides of the pro-campaign and anti-campaign divide. 2007’s There’s No Place I’d Rather Be, for example, was faulted in The Straits Times for not mentioning the word ‘Singapore’ at all.[6] At the same time, its coy message of luring overseas-migrated Singaporeans home through soft-sell was tut-tutted by the sly and knowing for being less than ‘transparent’. To recall my dinner partner R’s words: ‘If you’re going to give us propaganda, you should just give it straight and not pretend that it’s something else’.

Singaporeans, it seemed, wanted the lines between artistic creativity and political signification more clearly drawn. These emerging mindsets, evolving in the course of one-and-a-half decades of the state steadily churning out culturally-engineered musics, were no doubt also developing alongside the relaxing of social mores that ironically called for more clearly-defined political, religious and social-censorship classifications and differentiated markers. In many ways, the earlier, overtly-political songs were easier and bigger targets for sociopolitical reinscription (through alternative lyrics, ironic ‘takes’, anti-cool performances or otherwise). In comparison, the newer, more generic pop tunes were simply not blatant enough to be effectively satirised, transformed or reclaimed, even as they appeared unable to penetrate the Singaporean consciousness as fully in the wake of more competitive Mandopop and Cantopop parallels.

whatdoyousee

National songs are once again moving onto yet another paradigm. In 2009, local band Electrico – a church-originated indie act that has since achieved cult status in Singapore – was made the face of the new National Day Parade theme song. Its Britpop-inspired, ’emo’ and slightly ambient sound in What Do You See marked yet another new identity. This gear-switch from soft pop to a more alternative sound received equal amounts of praise and criticism from Singaporean listeners, who correspondingly argued that the tune came across as a tribute/rip-off of British alternative rocker Keane. While What Do You See appears not to have packed in the blatant punch of early hits such as Stand Up For Singapore, it has generated enough media interest for the sake of its novelty value alone, as seen in numerous blogs, FaceBook and YouTube comments that have flooded its multi-mediated existence alongside traditional media platforms.

What next for the National Song as a genre, then? Interestingly, the employment in recent years of well-known gay theatre practitioners as directors of the annual National Day Parade (even as homosexuality is technically still illegal in Singapore), has led many to believe that ideological, practical and creative tussles between art, politics and prevailing social mores (read state-mandated?) continue to be actively re-negotiated. Meanwhile, 2010’s national song lineup has re-entered the internet age proper, acquiring the front of a virtual music contest. This time around, as a joint project with the upcoming Youth Olympics in August, the larger extravaganza will be masterminded by no less than last year’s celebrated National Parade Director, Ivan Heng of W!ld Rice. As part of yet another revamped inspirational song competition , it is now not only Singaporeans but also ‘songwriters and music lovers from around the world’ who have been called to contribute, via the internet, original tunes embodying musical expressions of the Olympic spirit: ‘striving for excellence, fostering friendships, exercising respect, inspiring young minds’.[7]

Wherefore the national song today, in a world of emerging new media platforms allowing instant revisiting and reclaiming of Sing Singapore’s musical past via endless YouTube videos, alongside old-school TV screens found in coffeeshops and HDB sitting-rooms? How do they speak for an evolving sense of Singaporean identity co-constructed by the state and the nannied-but-not-disempowered people, and by everyone else in between? Indeed, national songs have been loved, hated, re-lyricised, re-recorded, re-mixed, re-voiced, re-learnt, re-consumed and created afresh over dynamic as well as tiny increments of time and space. If they have not exactly come to be ethnically-coded as Singaporean for lack of any identifiable pan-ethnic musical value to be found in the island’s culturally-orphaned scene itself – then they have been transformed into a rojak plethora of random multicultural offerings. These have included everything from propaganda kitsch to Mandopop, opera, new church song, chacha, line-dancing fodder and classical music essentialised (as seen in Chan Mali Chan delivered by a visiting Vienna Boys’ Choir complete with thinly-vibrato-ed ‘hoi hoi’ some years ago) and, finally, emo-rock. Indeed, the next frontier to be knowingly crossed in 2010 might well be rooted in the possibility of such new songs being voiced and created outside the national framework of Singapore itself: could our national songs – like Britain’s Jerusalem or Australia’s Waltzing Matilda – become internationally known and sung in time to come, in congruence with the original aims of this propaganda drive as a ‘new folksong’ campaign, even as they might be penned by foreigners? Trusty old R, who never tires of interesting suggestions, plays the devil’s advocate once more as he puts forward an old-school glam queen as his unlikely candidate: ‘We should get Anita Sarawak to front it next. But better check she’s not Malaysian… sekali Truly Asia!’.


Notes

[1] National Arts Council, 2002. Sing Singapore press release.

[2] Tan, Shzr Ee. 2005. ‘Manufacturing and Consuming Culture: Fakesong in Singapore’. Ethnomusicology Forum 14.1, 83-106.

[3] The Business Times, August 1 1987. ‘There’s a Sing in Singapore’.

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eSQhXiAZvw

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr85UFtdo0U

[6] Chee, Frankie. 2007. ‘Why no Singapore? The Sunday Times Aug 12 2007, L2.

[7] http://www.singapore2010.sg/public/sg2010/en/en_newsletter/en_happenings/en_20091126_16_hp03_sing_singapore2010.html

Tan Shzr Ee is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, currently researching musical activities on new media platforms in the Chinese diaspora as well as folksong of Taiwan’s aborigines. Her research touches on phenomena ranging from viral videos to politico-musical activism on the internet. Shzr Ee is also an active musician in London, playing the piano, accordion and other lutes and fiddles in classical, jazz tango, Balkan Chinese and Okinawan bands.


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