By Richard Wan
In a recent exclusive ST interview [Link
] which was published on 31 Jan, former President S R Nathan repeatedly refused to be drawn into commenting about the various aspects of the Elected Presidency, which the Government wants to review.
However, he did note that Singapore practises a system akin to the UK’s, where the Queen is the head of state but has little power.
“So I often get asked why I keep quiet when everybody is singing Majulah Singapura on National Day,” he quipped. “I reply, ‘Yes, they are singing to me. I’m standing there! This is symbolic of the country. I don’t expect to sing to myself!'”
Are the citizens really singing to their President or head of state when they are singing their national anthem?
To find out, it is useful to learn about the singing of national anthem in other countries with a longer history than Singapore’s. In this instance, we look at the US.
The Star-Spangled Banner
The American national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, actually originated during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans.
On 3 Sep 1814, following the Burning of Washington and the Raid on Alexandria, American lawyer Francis Key and Colonel John Skinner set sail from Baltimore to negotiate the exchange of prisoners with the British [Link
Both men boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on 7 Sep and spoke with British Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner with regard to the exchange of prisoners. However, during the dinner, the British officers accidentally let out about an impending attack on Baltimore. Fearing that Key and Skinner would go back to Baltimore to warn their people, both were detained on board until after the battle. They were held captive first aboard HMS Surprise and later on HMS Minden.
On the night of 13 Sep, the British fleet sailed to Baltimore Harbor and bombarded the American forces at Fort McHenry in what is to be known as the Battle of Baltimore [Link
]. The British attacked the Americans with numerous rockets and mortar shells. After nearly 2,000 rounds were launched at the fort, on the next morning of 14 Sep, a large American flag was seen raised over the fort replacing the previous tattered flag which had flown during battle. The American forces had held out against the mighty British fleet.
Key witnessed the whole battle on board the British ship. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying triumphantly above the fort, he immediately penned down a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. On 16 Sep, after he and Skinner were released back to Baltimore, he completed the poem and titled it “Defence of Fort M’Henry”:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there; O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? …
Key later gave the poem to his brother-in-law, who noted that the words fit the melody to the then popular drinking song, “The Anacreontic Song”. Key’s brother-in-law took the poem to a printer, who made copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the poem with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.” Later, the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as “The Star-Spangled Banner”. [Link
Song gaining popularity
The song gained popularity over the course of the nineteenth century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations. Decades later in 1889, the Secretary of the Navy made it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.
When America entered World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. After the war, the song continued to be played at baseball games. Eventually, congress passed a resolution in 1931 officially making the Star-Spangled Banner their national anthem after 117 years it was written by Key.
As one can see, the Americans sing their Star-Spangled Banner out of patriotism and expressing their loyalty and love for their country. It was not sung to any Presidents or anyone.
So, returning back to Mr Nathan’s comment and even considering he was symbolic to Singapore, would one’s mind be thinking of him when one is singing the Majulah Singapura?
Might Mr Nathan be a bit too presumptuous to say that Singaporeans were singing to him during National Day?
What do you think?