The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

How to make your National Day songs work

Last year, around the period of Singapore’s National Day, I wrote a piece on how Singaporeans are liking each successive new National Day song less. Well National Day is coming up again and predictably, there is yet another new song.

Whether or not the locals liked it can be easily summed up in the following parody video.

For those who can’t read the subtitles to the part at the back of the video, I provide a more accurate and closer translation:

“Oh-oh-oh” your mum’s head! Are you done already? I’ve already told you I can’t, yet you still go “Oh-oh-oh-oh.” You completely disregard whether people can stand it or not. You “oh” one more time, I’ll kill you!

Needless to say this year’s song is not well-received.

Singapore is one of the few countries where nationalism is strung proudly on a pole and waved in your face and played to your ears. Nationalism in other countries are rarely worn on one’s chest, because the tacit knowledge that one loves one country is sufficient. Sure, you have Americana, Japanese wave flags on the palace grounds during the Emperor’s birthday, et al, but they are hardly a concerted effort by the government to promote it. The last time I checked, North Korea was the only other one doing it.

One of the ways Singapore does it is by coming up with a new theme song every year to celebrate the nation and to foster ‘national spirit.’ It began in 1986 and after 1987, took a hiatus before coming back in 1998, where every year after that a new song is written. The music is rather catchy, and they’re played all over the country; on television, on the radio, in schools, on the train stations, but the lyrics are rather… shall we say nationalistic.

Here are some choice lyrics from National Day songs in the past till present.

  • You and me/ We’ll do our part/ Stand together/ Heart to heart/ We’re going to show the world what Singapore can be/ We can achieve, we can achieve — 1986, Count on Me Singapore
  • There was a time, when people said that Singapore won’t make it, but we did/ There was a time, when troubles seemed too much for us to take, but we did — 1987, We are Singapore
  • This is Home, truly, where I know I must be/ Where my dreams wait for me/ Where that river always flows/ This is home, surely, as my senses tell me/ This is where, I won’t be alone/ For this where I know it’s home — 1998, Home
  • Stars and crescent shine on me/ Make us more than what we can be/ All our dreams come true/ As we all grow stronger — 2000, Shine on Me
  • Where I belong/ Where I keep my heart and soul/ Where we are one big family/ I want the whole world to know/ I want to shout it out loud/ That this is where I know I belong — 2001, Where I Belong
  • There’s no place I’d rather be/ You’ll always be a part of me/ And even though I’ve roamed the world/ It’s still my home I long to see — 2007, There’s No Place I’d Rather Be

You get the idea.

Do they just simply not like the tunes? While the past few years’ official National Day songs were not well-received, other smaller efforts by regular people were preferred over the official ones.

I think it might be something more complex than people not just liking the tunes. Firstly, National Day song lyrics are incredibly cheesy, and Singaporeans know it. When we recall our favourite National Day songs, it is never for its lyrics, but ones that sound nicest to us. Sure, we hang our flags, we tune in to watch the telly and fireworks on National Day, but I think it is a stretch to say that people fervently subscribe to the content contained in the lyrics.

And when a government-led effort to try to rap out nationalistic message in the songs, I think that people feel it’s overkill. It’s trying too hard to make nationalism seem cool. Anyone remember the public service announcements in the form of raps by local comic icon, Phua Chu Kang?

Those weren’t cool.

It’s bad enough that the words, along with the tunes, of National Day songs are stuck in our heads. They sure are stuck in mine for the most part. Thanks, Singapore. There is no need to try to put on a veneer of ‘cool’ in addition to trying to be catchy.

And so, as part of my, er, patriotism, here are some suggestions on how to make your National Day songs work

  1. Drop the rap.
  2. Forget big choruses, focus on just one or two singers. Don’t be afraid to reuse older, popular singers. They are half the reason why people even bother to listen to the songs. (The other half is because we’re forced to)
  3. Themes that are good: Home, friends and family, being together, fun and laughter.
  4. Themes that are bad: Singapore overcoming adversity, how mighty Singapore is, showing people we can achieve.
  5. The tunes must be simple and hummable. Have you ever heard commercial jingles with complex arpeggios? I think not.
  6. The songs must be within the reasonable ranges of regular humans. We don’t all have five octaves of pitch.
  7. Slow songs are meant to evoke longing and wistfulness, faster songs for vibrancy and liveliness. Play mix-n-match with the Nationalistic jingoism with the appropriate tempo.
  8. Children singers are a hit-or-miss.

Combine all these… and you probably get 1998’s Home. Which I admit, is probably my favourite. I still cringe whenever I have to think about the lyrics, but then I just hum/sing it and pretend the words are no more than just words.

Like we all do.


Sorrowful Rice 黯然销魂饭

Sorrowful rice

I tried making my own char siew, or Chinese barbecue roast pork, for the first time today. People usually buy them because nobody owns a spit and a fire pit, but I learnt that you can actually cook it in the oven, and char it on the stove top!

Given that I now have a batch of char siew, a natural dish to make with it would be what is known as “Sorrowful Rice” or 黯然销魂饭. The dish is essentially regular ol’ char siew rice, or char siew over steamed white rice, with a side of a sunny-side up and some vegetables.

“Sorrowful Rice” is actually the name of a dish from a movie, God of Cookery (食神).

In it, the protagonist Stephen Chow competes in a competition and strives to create the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted. He reaches into his sorrow and memory of a woman, who made him a bowl of char siew rice when he was downtrodden, and she supposedly took a bullet for him. With that, he created the “Sorrowful Rice.”

The sorrow is apparently onions.

I reach into my sorrow and create my own “Sorrowful Rice.”

Grandma, you never got to see me graduate college. You never even got to see me off as I left for New York later that year. You never got to see me do the ‘triumphant return.’ I have yet to return, and it seems I am becoming quite the prodigal son. Will you still be proud of me, even if I am struggling to make something of myself and having racked up a colossal collegiate debt?

What will you say, if you learn that I do not wish to return to the land where you are buried?

On 28th May, 2009, at around 5 AM, you passed away in the hospital. I remember, because I wrote it down.

I also wrote down having heard you cry when Great Grandmother died. It was really painful.

A grandson should never live to see his grandmother cry. Or any old people cry.

I wrote that down in my logs. In my mind, it seemed impossible that you were one to sob uncontrollably, for you were my stoic grandmother; frustrating at times, but always well-meaning and grandmotherly.

I also remember, and wrote down when your youngest son, my uncle, passed away. By traditions and customs, you were not allowed to attend his wake. I can only imagine what grief it must be — grief I didn’t want to imagine, because I remembered the grief you had at Great Grandmother’s funeral.

Many times whenever I am doing something, I would think, “What if she could see me now?” And then I remembered that you can’t, and I am reminded of the finality of death.

Uncle (叔叔), I wrote down what you told me when I visited you on 12th April, 2008.

The first few things he said to me were, “Is the army stressful?” and then he went on about how I should learn to take things easy and learn how to let things go. However I feel that it was more for the benefit of himself, as if he were repeating these to remind himself exactly what he has to do.

But he seems ailing in his road to recovery. He doesn’t wish to pick himself up, saying how exhausted he is and all, and all he does is lie in bed. He doesn’t move much, not even to leave the room or to sit on a sofa. That is bad.

Hope he perks up soon? I’ve even offered going out with him for photography as bribes.

What I did not write down, but I always remember was when you asked me that day, “So what are your plans for college?”

“I’m probably going to apply for college in the United States,” I said.

“That’s nice. What are you going to be studying there?” he asked.


“Journalism? That’s good. I wanted to be a journalist too when I was younger, but I never studied hard, and I couldn’t be one. You should study hard and become one for me.”

You passed away a week later.

I graduated journalism school, but I have yet to find a job in journalism. I am going to keep trying, uncle. With the memories of that robot dinosaur you gave me as a kid, and also that toy guy that you disabled the recoil feature for because it scared me, I will become the journalist you couldn’t be. I could not keep the promise to go do photography with you, but I will try my darndest best with this one.

I should ease up with the onions. This is too much sorrow for me.