SINGAPORE: National Day songs. When done well, they leave lower lips quivering. When done not so well, social media becomes awash with music critic wannabes. The latest edition rolled off the conveyor belt earlier this week – to a mixed reception so far.
Which brings us to the question: Do we even need a National Day song every year? Maybe we don’t. There wasn’t one from 1991 to 1997. Then, the old-school 80s tunes were rerun and replayed until they were hardwired into our psyche.
And when 1998 came around, we produced a blockbuster in Home.
This was a National Day song like no other. It marked a departure from the usual rallying-cry anthems of the past. Gone were the exhortations to stand up, to be counted on, to serve. Home was a deft tearing up of the patriotic song playbook.
Kit Chan’s number was a true blue tear-jerker that made Singaporeans feel all warm and fuzzy with pride. Singaporeans abroad yearned for home so much that when they heard it, they ran weeping to the nearest restaurant to graze on choice comfort tucker like nasi lemak, laksa and C-grade chicken rice.
It’s been almost 20 years since Home debuted. In that time, there have been some duds and some near-hits – almost all of which are crafted in a ballad-y, must-try-and-please-all formula comprising hope, dreams and schmaltz.
We all have our go-to National Day songs and, Home apart, here are five of ours.
STAND UP FOR SINGAPORE (1984)
1984. Year zero. One day that year, all schools received a memo in the form of a song sheet. The contents of which had to be drilled into students’ hearts and minds – and voices.
National Day would, for the first time, come with a song and it had to be sung with proper gusto. No mucking about.
While schoolchildren were at the fore when it came to learning the lyrics and performing the song, Stand Up for Singapore was a rousing clarion call to all to build on the successes of 19 years of independence.
Unlike the popular folk songs of yore, Stand Up had a soaring, anthemic quality and a terrific melody. Hugh Harrison, the Canadian ad man commissioned to write and compose the song, made it simple to memorise and hum along to - all while encouraging people to be active citizens. We had to recognise we could play a part ... and do it all with a smile.
And boy did we lap it up in spades; its happy clappy vibe has endured through the decades.
COUNT ON ME SINGAPORE (1986)
Two years later, Harrison came up with another winner in Count on Me Singapore. This was very different from its upbeat predecessor; it was more introspective, a little maudlin and fair bit longer.
For some of us in school at that time, it was rather hard to take it all in. It was a bit of a potboiler that just kept going on and on.
But it touched a chord with many Singaporeans, calling on them to work together to become world beaters. It evoked a quiet determination and it also proved quite prophetic. We did build a better life and we did achieve. So, yay us.
It is still sung today – especially during National Day season – and it continues to charm us with its soothing, nostalgia-friendly tones.
WE ARE SINGAPORE (1987)
Ever wondered how the national pledge would sound as a song? Well, look no further. For the third time in succession, Singapore turned to lyricist and composer Harrison for its National Day song. Harrison turned not only to the pledge for inspiration, but also to one Lee Kuan Yew.
In 1966, the founding prime minister gave a speech to school principals in which he said: “This is my country, this is my flag; this is my president, this is my future. I am going to protect it.” These lines formed part of the first chorus of We Are Singapore.
The "this-is-my" bit suffused the verse with an indelible rhythm which invoked a sense of ownership and responsibility. The familiarity of the pledge meant the song’s second verse was instantly memorable – and thus belted out with aplomb by folks young and old each time it's been played in the decades since.
ONE PEOPLE, ONE NATION, ONE SINGAPORE (1990)
After a break of two years, the National Day song returned with homegrown Jeremy Monteiro composing a stirring rendition to accompany Jim Aitchison’s (another ad exec) lyrics.
It’s an uplifting, inspiring tune that starts off slow, evoking the hard times of the early years before rising into a crescendo of optimism.
Don’t let the overly cheery tune fool you; under all that vibrant ho-hum catchiness is a steely don’t-you-dare-test-us-or-we’ll-let-you-have-it posturing to the world.
But One People’s genius lies in its reminder that Singapore’s polyglot nature is where its true strength lies. A fitting silver jubilee song for the ages, if ever there was one.
WHAT DO YOU SEE? (2009)
After several years of vanilla tunes, the spotlight was pointed in a new direction and local rock band Electrico was commissioned to inspire the youth of a nation. And, dubious title apart, they delivered.
Sure it’s a little Coldplay-esque, but it was refreshing to see and hear rock music used as a genre to whip up emotions of national pride. With a zippy beat, exciting guitar flourishes and requisite dashes of jingoistic lyrics this was suitably invigorating in the run-up to National Day.
There was a simplicity in the music video too. Nothing overly produced or forced. Just a guy (lead singer Dave Tan) walking around town, brows furrowed, with the weight of a nation seemingly on his shoulders.
Will we squander all that we’ve achieved? Will there be stagflation? Will NODX dip in Q4? Surely, these things must be foremost on our protagonist’s mind as he saunters beneath the moon and the stars.
Also, he nearly got flattened by an SBS bus about a minute into the video. Oh man. What do you see? I see a bus about to run you over; hold up! hold up!