On The National Anthem, A Response To Mr. Lin

Mr. Lin, thank you for your response to the issue being broached regarding the language relevance of our National Anthem today. In a word, I cannot disagree more with your counterpoints; allow me to refute them later. But first a timely word of advice is in order here I think: since we’re on our esteemed PM’s blog, 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 now nor have ever been a Communist! And no, neither do I feel particularly disposed to assimilating yet a fourth language; thank you but no thank you for the suggested unnecessary 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 in 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 who once opined that the Anthem’s Malay lyrics were so simple, was remembered as saying, “anyone over the age of 5, unless mentally retarded, had no difficulty singing the anthem.” He is right in that one regard. But understanding and remembering what they all meant, that is the nub of the problem. Whenever I come upon new private tutees, among the first few items I’m keen on testing them with is how well they comprehend the Anthem’s meaning. Thus far, they have failed execrably on such a test, bar none. And I can empathize with those non-Malay speaking students, their nonchalance to learn and memorize bits of a third language and its 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 gun-shy of having the urge to explore more about the intricacy of another language.

Yes, the Anthem consists of just 8 simple different lines. But the litmus test is how well, after 50 years of practicing and listening to it, have the citizens mastered it? 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 of an independently commissioned survey, say a random sampling of 100, should even only 50% canvassed pass the test on the Anthem’s translation of those 8 lines, setting just a low bar 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 overdue, meaningful, intelligible translation with historical revisionism. Your second point being, it’s OK by you with the mumbo jumbo in keeping the charade like some ‘blind faith’ as practiced by adherents of religious faith. You are wrong on that count. The 21st Ecumenical Council of the world’s largest religious organization, better known as the Second Vatican Council, decided in 1965 that it was high time to translate its arcane Latin Mass into respective vernacular languages of its faithful. And on your final third point, you are inconveniently confusing the need for an across-the-board lingua franca of the national anthem for ALL Singaporeans with your personal affinity for exotic professional jargons within your own profession.

In summary, if someday a Joseph Schooling or a Feng Tianwei is seen on a medal podium, tears streaming down their cheeks while mouthing our National Anthem as it is being played in the background, I know then the Anthem has got it made. But as of now with its opaque lyrics, so far I have not seen nor could I envisage any athlete, feeling however proud and/or patriotic of their podium moment, be moved to tears singing something sounding like gobbledegook to them.

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