To Change Or Not To Change The Language Of Singapore’s National Anthem — A Response To Mr. Lin Rong Xiang

Mr. Lin Rong Xiang, thank you for your response to the issue at hand regarding whether it’s time to change our National Anthem from Malay to English. In a word, I cannot disagree more with the counterpoints you raised. Allow me to refute them after this friendly cautionary note: since we’re on our esteemed Prime Minister’s Fb page, let’s be mindful of our Ps and Qs, stay on point, and abstain from any name-calling or gratuitous sardonicism. No, I am not currently nor have ever been a Communist! And no, neither do I feel particularly disposed to go out of my way to assimilate yet another language; thank you but no thank you to your suggested tri-lingual imposition:-)

If there was one item that our founding fathers would redo if given the druthers, it would probably be setting the National Anthem in English instead of Malay which was adopted out of political expediency at that time. It remains an issue today and I suspect it would be revisited in the future — otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it just now, would we?

Ex-Deputy PM S. Rajaratnam once opined that the Anthem’s lyrics in Malay were so simple, and was quoted as saying, “anyone over the age of 5, unless mentally retarded, had no difficulty singing the anthem.” He was right in that one regard. But comprehending and remembering what the lyrics meant, is a challenge and has turned out to be the perennial problem. Whenever I come upon new private tutees, among the first few things I’m keen to find out is how well they comprehend the Anthem’s meaning. Thus far, they have failed execrably bar none. And I can empathize with those non-Malay speaking students, their indifference to learn and memorize bits of a third-language rendition, ever leery of cluttering their already overtaxed mind. Take for example this tutee of mine from Maris Stella. His morning opening ritual at school comprises these 5 items: the Anthem, Pledge, his school motto, the school pledge, and the school’s spiritual affirmation. Little wonder he is impervious to absorbing the linguistic niceties of another tongue.

Yes, the Anthem consists of merely 8 simple different lines. But the litmus test is on how well — after 50 years of conditioning and listening to it — its signification is being understood by Singaporeans. I think I know the answer. But I’m spoiling for a challenge with those in charge… I shall be nothing loath to foot the bill for an independently commissioned survey, say a random sampling of 100, should even only 50% canvassed pass the test on the Anthem’s meaning of those 8 lines, setting just a low threshold of 4 correct lines out of the 8 as a pass.

Now, over to your first point posed as a question: ‘can we rewrite historical evidences?’ You have confused adopting an overdue, meaningful, intelligible linguistic makeover for the Anthem with historical revisionism. Your second point being, that it’s alright by you to keep the mumbo jumbo (which I reckon is what it sounds like to most Singaporeans) as some ‘blind faith’ like the upholding of sacred tradition in religion. Again, you are wrong on that count. Even the 21st Ecumenical Council of the world’s largest religious organization, better known as the Second Vatican Council, had decided in 1965 that it was high time to do away with its arcane Catholic Mass celebration in Latin and replace it with respective local vernacular (common) languages of the masses. And on your final third point, you are inconveniently confusing preference for using our first language for the national anthem — so that ALL Singaporeans could understand and not pretend what they sing about their Anthem — and confusing it with your personal affinity for exotic drill jargons done in Malay in certain profession such as the Army.

In summary, if someday a Joseph Schooling or a Feng Tianwei is seen on a medal podium, tearing up while singing our National Anthem as it is being played in the background, I know then the Anthem has got it made. But with its current opaque lyrics in place, thus far I have not seen nor could I envisage any athletes, feeling however proud or patriotic of their podium moment, move to tears singing what must sound like total gobbledegook to them.


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