“Majulah Singapura ”, our National Anthem

by Khush Chopra
Our National motto is “Majulah Singapura ” which is the title of our National Anthem.
Our National Anthem has been described as “a musical expression of Singapore’s identity as a nation”. It is a rousing and uplifting piece of sacred vocal music that has very special importance to us Singaporeans.
On Tuesday 3 December 2019, two renditions of the National Anthem were released on social media by the Government as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of our state symbols.
The first was described as an official fresh re-recording of the National Anthem, performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) which was played in public on the steps of the National Gallery Singapore and over the radio.
The new recording marks the second update to the National Anthem since the original National Anthem was recorded. The official re-recording was based on the rearrangement by composer Phoon Yew Tien in 2001 and not Zubair Said’s original arrangement.
The other music video was released on social media the same day featured veteran singer Ramli Sarip’s performance at the National Day Parade (NDP) this year.

These new renditions of our National Anthem have attracted some controversy and criticism.
On the other hand, others have praised these renditions. Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Secretary-General Dr Tan Cheng Bock for example welcomed the new rendition as a praiseworthy achievement.

It is certainly at one level a matter of taste and appreciation of effort.
I am therefore now writing with a view to present the issues that have arisen by the Government’s decision to re-record or otherwise allow changes to our National Anthem to put the matter into some perspective.

What changed?

Was the National Anthem changed by either of these renditions? What was the nature and extent to which the National Anthem was changed are important matters to discuss.
The official re-recorded version of Majulah Singapura retained Encik Zubir Said’s original lyrics and has been alleged to be only a “better sound quality to reflect the improvements in audio technology”.
However anyone listening to it would discern a significant quickening of the tempo in the music making it a rather different song from our National Anthem. Dr. Tan Cheng Bock noted that:

“This 2019 recording, has the same key and arrangement as the 2001 recording, with a slightly faster timing.”

As to the Sarip ethnic instrumentation rendition music video, the music was re-arranged by Dr Sydney Tan, who was also the music director for this year’s NDP.
According to main stream media, apart from Mr Ramli’s soulful and stirring voice, the Sarip ethnic instrumentation rendition stands “in stark contrast from the original” and is therefore different from the National Anthem in at least the following material respects:

  • The music arrangement “strips (the anthem) down to its essence”
  • “There is less instrumentation in this version compared to SSO’s version.”
  • The music arrangement featured traditional ethnic music instruments such as the erhu and tabla allegedly to make the anthem “more Singaporean”

To me, it was plain that the erhu a Chinese classical musical instrument featured prominently in what seemed to be a completely different song from our National Anthem that incorporated a composition and medley for these featured instruments that did not make the anthem “more Singaporean” but marked its sinicisation as it was “more Chinese” than anything else.
There is nothing particularly uplifting or triumphant about the musical arrangement of the Sarip ethnic instrumentation rendition though Sarip’s soulful singing of the lyrics delivered some salvation of an otherwise totally different song from our National Anthem.

A brief history of our national anthem

“Majulah Singapura” our National Anthem was composed in 1958 by the late Encik Zubir Said for the City Council to commemorate the newly renovated Victoria Theatre.
When Singapore attained self-government in 1959, the Government felt that a national anthem was needed to unite the different races in Singapore.
It was decided that the City Council’s song, which was already popular, would serve this purpose with minor adjustments. After some revisions were made to the song by Encik Zubir Said at Dr Toh Chin Chye’s request, it was adopted by the Legislative Assembly on 11 November 1959 to create the National Anthem that we sing today.
On 30 November 1959, the Singapore State Arms and Flag and National Anthem Ordinance 1959 was passed to regulate the use and display of the State Arms and State Flag and the performance of the National Anthem.
”Majulah Singapura” was performed on 3 December 1959 as Singapore’s National Anthem replacing the colonial anthem “God Save the Queen” at City Hall on the same day that Mr Yusof Ishak was sworn in as Singapore’s head of state.
The National Anthem has been re-arranged and re-recorded three times. First in 1989 (in the key of G), then on 19 January 2001 (in the lower key of F) and now again in December 2019.
These facts are essentially from the National Heritage Board’s website.

The legal framework

Whether or not we like the new renditions of the National Anthem, it is important to consider whether these new renditions violate our laws.
I for one find Sarip’s articulation of the lyrics highly moving especially within the version he recorded for National Day 2019 even if I do not like the musical arrangement of the Sarip ethnic instrumentation rendition now in question at all.
It is after all not just a matter of taste but first and foremost a matter of law.
The Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act and Rules enacted thereunder regulates the use, display and performance of the Singapore Coat of Arms, Flag and National Anthem.
Rule 2 of the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules defines the “National Anthem’’ as meaning “the national anthem of Singapore, the music score for the official arrangement and the official lyrics of which are set out in the Third Schedule”.
Rule 13(1) provides that:

“Any person performing or singing the National Anthem shall perform or sing the National Anthem according to the official arrangement in the Third Schedule or any other arrangement permitted under paragraph (2).”

While Rule 13 (2) expressly provides that “(t)he National Anthem may be rearranged in any manner” this authority to rearrange it is clearly equally restricted by certain conditions including for such rearrangement to be “in keeping with the dignity due to the National Anthem” and for it to “accurately reflect the complete tune” and otherwise inter-alia subject to its prohibition from being “incorporated into any other composition or medley”.
For a Government that is usually entirely trigger happy to apply the letter of the law and otherwise regularly throws the rule book at all and sundry, they seem to be rather recalcitrant in applying the rules to themselves.
They seem to me to be rather cavalier about the application of the laws to uphold the sanctity of the National Anthem.
The question is why? What is the agenda behind this new found flexibility? There is simply nothing that they do that is without careful long term planning and good reason.

The issues

The questions that arise from the release of these two “modern” renditions of the National include the following:-
What is the true nature and scope of the changes made by these recordings?
Do any of these recordings amount to a rearrangement of the “official arrangement” of the National Anthem?
Were they “in keeping with the dignity due to the National Anthem” which include by definition “the music score for the official arrangement”?
Are these recordings of the National Anthem in accordance with the “the music score for the official arrangement” as they are by law supposed to be?
Do they accurately reflect the “complete tune” of the National Anthem?
Were they wrongfully “incorporated into any other composition or medley”?
Were the changes necessary?

Zubir Said’s daughter’s concerns

Dr Rohana Zubir the daughter of the composer of our National Anthem criticised the Sarip ethnic instrumentation rendition.
She shared her thoughts in an open letter that has been made public which included the following:

“Every anthem deserves to be sacred. It should not to be meddled with or experimented with to suit the whims of someone else’s musical inclinations. Sadly, the revised rendition of “Majulah Singapura” lacks the quality, the oomph, of a national anthem. It is rather tortuous to listen to.
Anthems of the world, such as “God Save the King/Queen”, have been around for centuries unchanged. They are considered sacred. Even Malaysia’s “Negara Ku” is untainted by change. The people of Singapore are wonderfully creative but this creativity should not extend to meddling with the musical score of the country’s national anthem. This is one area where there should not be change. It is also important for Singaporeans to be proud of their history and to respect individuals, such as my father, for their contribution to nation-building.”

It is my understanding that Dr Rohana Zubir was concerned about the changes made in both new renditions. She was clear on the crucial aspect as to the need for any change to the National Anthem.
What she said bears repetition:

“Every anthem deserves to be sacred. It should not to be meddled with or experimented with to suit the whims of someone else’s musical inclinations.”

It is therefore not just a matter of taste but rather clearly as explained a matter of sacred duty and respect according to Dr Rohana Zubir.


Nations rarely change their National Anthem. Why change ours? Why was it not good enough?
It is my view that it would be good to get a full official explanation as to the changes made and have the Government address the issues raised here.
We really should stop making unnecessary changes to our National Anthem.
This article was first published on Mr Khush Chopra’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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