Last Night of the Proms in Singapore

Scott Anthony and Lynelle Tan

In 1983, Richard Tan, a research officer at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, was captivated by the Last Night of the Proms on television. ‘It was quite a joyful time,’ he remembers, ‘the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and all the audience, the young audience, with their flags and banners.’ Three years later, Tan was made deputy director of the newly formed Psychological Defence Division at the Ministry of Communications and Information. Singapore’s political leadership was concerned that the nation’s economic success was breeding an unhealthy ‘Western’ individualism. Tan thought the Last Night of the Proms might offer a model of how to use music to help bring about a greater sense of national belonging. ‘If I want to reach the heart,’ he told himself, ‘I have to follow the British.’

For help in devising modern Singaporean equivalents to ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, Tan turned to the Canadian songwriter Hugh Harrison at the advertising agency McCann-Erickson. In 1985, to celebrate 20 years of independence from Malaysia, the Ministry of Defence had released a song entitled ‘Stand Up for Singapore’. Tan and Harrison wrote ‘Count on Me Singapore’ as a reply on behalf of the public. To hide its origins as a government initiative, the soft drinks manufacturer Fraser & Neave was persuaded to sponsor the video as ‘a gift to the nation’. The supermarket Cold Storage presented Tan and Harrison’s follow up, ‘We Are Singapore’.

Aside from the Last Night of the Proms, Tan took inspiration from the use of patriotic songs in Taiwan and China, as well as from touring Eastern European choirs. But ‘we succeeded,’ Tan says, ‘because of the patriotic songs I learned in the UK. I have to give credit to the British.’

To contemporary ears, the songs sound more of a piece with 1980s charity records like ‘We are the World’ than Elgar and Benson. It must also be said that to contemporary non-Singaporean ears, while the songs can be difficult to get out of your head, they aren’t very good: ‘This is our country/this is my flag/this is my future/this is my life/This is my family/this is my friends/we are Singapore/Singaporeans.’

The songs’ success was truly astounding. In 1988 they became the centrepieces of a televised singing competition, Sing Singapore. Tan estimates that cassettes of the show outsold Michael Jackson by a factor of more than 25. In 1991, Sing Singapore was transferred from the Psychological Defence Division to the new National Arts Council, and its purpose changed from the group singing of communal songs to the identification and promotion of individual talent.

Sing Singapore is no more but the tradition of National Day Songs continues, with the early songs overseen by Tan remaining among the most popular. A new version of ‘We Are Singapore’, which ‘doesn’t sugarcoat differences’ and features a rap, was recorded this year.

‘Of course people respond to the songs in a variety of ways but when I was at school they were just a little bit of fun,’ the ethnomusicologist Shzr Ee Tan says. ‘Now they’ve been swept up in this kind of kitsch, self-deprecating embrace.’

There was no social media in the 1980s but parodies of the songs’ lyrics passed around offices by fax. ‘Count on Me Singapore’ became ‘Count the Money Singapore’; the lyrics of ‘We are Singapore’ were changed to refer to a drive to increase organ donation and the Central Provident Fund (a kind of national insurance). ‘This is my country/this is my flag,’ the parodies went, ‘this is my kidney/this is my CPF.’

‘Even the anti-establishment in Singapore,’ Shzr Ee Tan says, ‘found a way to rather campily embrace the softcore propaganda.’