National anthem is not Mari Kita

From ‘Understanding Majulah Singapura’, 4 July 2012, ST Forum

(Grace Zhang): MONDAY’S article (‘Sung with national pride’) about the significance of national anthems – or their irrelevance – spurred my thoughts about our National Anthem. In all honesty, I almost forgot its title when I tried to recall it; assuming it was Mari Kita (Let Us) because these are the first words, before I remembered that it is Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore).

Sadly, beyond the title, I have no clue what the rest of the anthem means, despite having sung it every single day from primary school to junior college.

My second problem is that the anthem is in Malay. If the purpose of a national anthem is to forge national identity and rally citizens towards a common vision or goal, why choose a language that four-fifths of Singaporeans today neither speak nor understand?

Should our National Anthem be updated? The view that doing so would open a Pandora’s box of unwelcome controversy framed along sensitive racial lines misses the point. The problem is not that most Singaporeans do not understand Malay, but that we do not understand what our National Anthem means.

More effort must be made in schools to teach the anthem to students. I remember being cursorily taught its meaning in primary school, with its translation tucked away in an obscure page of a social studies text. If efforts are not made to impress the meaning and significance of the National Anthem, then generations of students will continue to sing Majulah Singapura every morning without understanding its importance or worth.

Our national anthem has been affectionately known as ‘Mari Kita’ since the eighties, and during my time no effort was made by music teachers to decipher the lyrics for us. Even if you were grilled into appreciating the gist of the song,  if you’re not a native Malay speaker you’re highly likely to mistake your bersatu’s for your berseru’s, and not knowing what either word means. Perhaps it’s not so much we don’t get the lyrics DESPITE singing it every day in school, but rather BECAUSE of it. Whether translated into English, Chinese of Tamil, if you make a chore out of singing Majulah Singapura, it loses its meaning and hence any sense of patriotic fervour whatsoever. When Majulah’s composer Zubir Said died in 1987, the ST headlines read ‘Mr Marikita: Shy, humble and well loved’ (17 November 1987), which translates into the nonsensical Mr ‘Let Us’.  It’s also unfortunate considering ‘Marikita’ has also been abused as a euphemism for an erection, by association with flag-RAISING ceremonies and standing at attention.

Maybe it’s not so much the content or language of the anthem that matters, but the emotions, history and familiarity that its melody and mood stir within every true blue Singaporean who has ever sung it loud and proud during assembly, NDP, or a medal ceremony at the Olympics. Language is irrelevant when you have a homegrown athlete beating others on the world stage, shedding a tear on the podium when the instrumental anthem is played. In fact, ‘Onward Singapore’ doesn’t do justice to the pride and glory that swells inside us when a fellow Singaporean, not some Chinese import, achieves the unthinkable. What matters is how much heart and soul you put into it, nevermind how bad your Malay is.

It’s also hard to come up with anything catchier than our national anthem; the opening drumroll, the empathic horns, the goosebump-raising crescendoes. No composer in the history of Singaporean music has produced a more immortal tune that ranks amongst greats like ‘Chan Mali Chan’, the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Yankie Doodle’. You don’t have to understand English to know that ‘Yesterday’ is a melancholy ballad about lost love, or that ‘Yankie Doodle’ is about musket-carrying soldiers marching and tooting in victory. Chan Mali Chan just sounds like a happy song. Some have lauded Majulah as short, simple and understandable. In fact, the late S Rajaratnam believed that ‘the Malay lyrics were so simple that anyone above the age of 5, unless MENTALLY RETARDED‘ should be able to sing it (Thanks for the link, ‘Matthew’), which makes those of us adults who commit the bersatu-berseru blooper complete idiots.  ‘Majulah’ is a timeless, chest-beating classic that transcends mere words, which, as with all anthems, are ultimately banal drivel without a rousing, effective tune making it come alive. According to Wikipedia’s English translation, two thirds of the anthem consist of the following refrain:

Come, let us unite
In a new spirit
Together we proclaim
Onward Singapore
Onward Singapore

Which doesn’t make me sing Majulah with any more gusto and ‘feeling’ than if I didn’t know what it meant. Anthem aside, not many Singaporeans I know could easily rattle off what the 5 stars of the National Flag symbolise either.  We can’t even remember 5 things in English, let alone an entire song in Malay.

Postscript: A silly rumour has been floating around in the Twitterverse that the suggestion to change the anthem to Chinese was raised by President Tony Tan. No official sources of such a remark have been cited.

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2 Responses

  1. Our anthem was written at a time when the ability to speak Malay was analogous to being Singaporean. It wasn’t an issue before 1979. In fact, our anthem has only 30+ words.

    PS You should read this: http://ourstory.asia1.com.sg/independence/ref/zanthem.html

  2. And even the great songs have inauspicious beginnings. “Yesterday”‘s working title was “Scrambled Eggs”, ie “Scrambled eggs, la la la la la la scrambled eggs”. etc.

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