Fabian Chan, ‘Count on Me Singapore: Narratives of Communal Care in Singaporean Patriotic Songs and its Role in Constructing National Identity and Loyalty’

Growing up, every Singaporean recalls belting out the lyrics of NDP (National Day Parade) songs at some point in their lives. These are patriotic songs commissioned annually by the Singaporean government for the country’s National Day celebrations. For most of us, these songs are simply good fun—a catchy tune reminiscent of our school years and a channel for our patriotism on National Day every year. As pragmatically minded people, we are not often inclined to consider deeper contemplations about the cultural and societal roles of these songs. Yet, my foray into anthropology this past term has spurred some reevaluation of the more mundane aspects of life. This has turned my attention to the role of Singaporean patriotic songs (colloquially known as “NDP songs”), commissioned by the government, in constructing narratives of care which shape our national identity and foster loyalty amongst citizens whose duty of care to one another is affirmed by these tunes. As care is a powerful force that affects our conceptions of identity and the bonds that hold us together, this article examines care as a tool in constructing identity and in engendering a sense of duty; that Singaporeans who have reaped the benefits of communal care must play their part in reciprocating.

Singapore National Day Parade, 2011 (available through Wikimedia Commons).

Origins of the NDP Song—A Mobilising Cry

The historical prevalence of patriotic songs used to mobilise soldiers (Hamer 2018) is testament to the potential of music where harmonies paired with lyrics inspire a strength of feeling that words alone cannot match. Governments have consequently not been shy to employ music to further their cause. Singapore’s NDP songs have a similar origin and were engineered by the state to promote a sense of national identity which spurs people to come to the defence of the nation in times of peril as part of the country’s total defence strategy (Kong 1995). The NDP song is therefore a deliberate and conscious construction that builds our sense of nationhood and duty.

While Singapore has fortunately never been at war and has never had to use NDP songs for this purpose, the mobilising role of patriotic songs in bringing Singaporeans together in the face of adversity was apparent in the release of the song, “Everything I Am” (Wan 2020), at the height of the country’s fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic where Singapore politicians frequently used the language of war to describe the country’s response to the pandemic (Rajandran 2020). A slow and poignant tune set against images of frontline workers and Singaporeans adjusting to the new norms of “social distancing” and “work from home” measures, the song emphasises the resilience of a people whose individual demonstrations of care for one another represent unifying and motivating forces that sustains the nation in times of hardship:

I want you to understand

Because of you, I am who I am

Because of who you are

I can be everything I am

“Everything I Am”, performed by Nathan Hartono (2020).

A Uniquely Singaporean Identity

In a diverse country comprising members of different racial backgrounds whose forefathers came from disparate lands, NDP songs endeavour to forge a uniquely Singaporean identity, in line with the state’s policy of multiracialism, where its people are defined, not by their diverse backgrounds, but by their shared status as citizens. NDP songs thus seek to establish a new kind of bond that redefines a uniquely Singaporean identity founded on the solidarity of its people through the exercise of care for their country. “One People, One Nation, One Singapore” (Monteiro 1990) emphasises that “every creed and every race, has its role and has its place”. Despite our origins as “strangers when we first began”, “now we’re Singaporeans” where the “toil of a people from distant lands” has “built a nation with [their] hands”. The success and forging of a distinctly Singaporean nation is attributed to care dispensed by Singaporeans for their fellow countrymen, regardless of their background. Subsequently, the song calls upon Singaporeans, now united by a common nationhood, to reciprocate that care, “to reach out for Singapore, and join our hands forever more”.

NDP songs therefore play a critical role in the government’s nation building strategy. It is a conduit for the creation of a uniquely Singaporean identity and culture. As founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, remarked, the state aims to produce a community that feels together and come together on certain things, motivated by a sense that “this is my country, this is my flag” (Kong 1995), words later invoked in the lyrics of the song, “We are Singapore” (Harrison 1987):

This is my country, this is my flag

This is my future, this is my life

This is my family, these are my friends

We are Singapore, Singaporeans

To be Singaporean, is to be part of a family, likewise observed in the song, “Song for Singapore” (May 2010), that refers to fellow Singaporeans as “brothers” and “sisters”. In constructing narratives of care, Singapore patriotic songs often evoke the language of familial bonds. Narratives of caring for fellow Singaporeans therefore impose kinship standards upon citizenship, which engender greater patriotism by strengthening the bond of common nationhood, and, thereby, place the duty of care and the onus of reciprocity to contribute to the nation upon them. As blood is thicker than water and so binds us more strongly to our country, the state is only too keen to conflate the relationship between kin and polis in these narratives.

Success as Products of Care

Besides the potent symbol of kinship employed to strengthen a sense of national spirit, NDP songs are replete with other forms of symbolism, tied to notions of care, to engender greater feelings of identity and loyalty. In appealing to care as pivotal to Singapore’s prosperity, these songs evoke the imagery of buildings and iconic landmarks of the city as material representations of the nation’s success, whose impressive scale and grandeur signify the collective strength of our care. This is apparent in the song, “Singapore Town” (The Sidaislers 1997), where the imagery of iconic Singapore landmarks is evoked:

You could take a little trip around Singapore town

In Singapore city bus

To see Collyer Quay and Raffles Place

The Esplanade and all of us

This imagery of physical structures is subsequently tied to our hopes and aspirations:

The buildings are climbing all the way to the sky

And there’s a hundred other people who are striving

For people like you and I

Within the song’s narrative, the spatial forms of buildings in Singapore and their development run parallel to the aspirations of its citizens whose strivings “for people like you and I” are metaphorically manifested in the way our buildings climb to the sky. Care, as the song attributes, is at the root of this development. The landmarks of Singapore are, therefore, physical examples of the potential inherent in our care—of what care has given us and what our care can yield us. When speaking of Singapore’s transition from third world to first, the imagery of a backwater fishing port which develops into a thriving metropolis is frequently invoked. The symbolic purpose of national structures as markers of prosperity and progress is thus firmly embedded into our national consciousness.

The role of these spatial forms is likewise observed in what is arguably the most iconic of Singapore’s patriotic songs: “Home”. NDP songs have assumed a variety of styles from the upbeat to the contemplative. All patriotic songs are naturally celebratory, but ‘Home’ (Lee 1998), assumes a quieter celebration of Singapore. As the song’s title suggests, Singapore assumes a position which transcends its physical status as a place of residence. It is home, a place of belonging, where notions of care and communal support are tied to its spatial forms. The physicalities of the Singapore city serve as symbolic reminders that immerse citizens on their metaphorical journey through the city and its winding landmarks. Contrasting the hustle and bustle of Singaporean life and the grand and triumphant tone of previous songs, ‘Home’ is slow and urges its listener to take a contemplative ‘sail’ down a river winding through Singapore, reflecting that:

There is comfort in the knowledge

That home’s about its people too

So we’ll build our dreams together

Just like we’ve done before

Just like the river which brings us life

There’ll always be Singapore.

“Home”, performed by Kit Chan (1998).

The impressive physical structures we encounter on this “sail” constitute material reminders of how a people, tied by mutual care, have forged, in unison, a more successful country. Structures, besides being physical manifestations of prosperity, are also symbols of our identity, hopes and dreams. Thus care, represented by the building of structures and dreams are critical to the formation of a successful Singapore. Through evocations of spectacular buildings as symbolic manifestations of success, hopes and dreams, the government encourages its citizens, not just by evoking notions of duty but by the potential present in their care, to forge a better future for themselves. The spatial forms of Singaporean landmarks are therefore signifiers of success that cement the importance of care in the country’s continued success. Aligned with the communitarian sensibilities of the Singapore Government, NDP songs perpetuate state narratives that communal care and individual responsibilities to the state are at the heart of its success. In invoking the imagery of impressive buildings and iconic landmarks, the government essentially says: look at what has come of your care. NDP songs ultimately aim to encourage Singaporeans to “look where we are”, see that “we’ve come so far”, “and [that] there’s still a long, long way to go” (Lee 2002).

A common theme of NDP songs is the role of the individual. Images of impressive landmarks are invoked as symbolic demonstrations of what care, even small acts by ordinary individuals, can achieve. The juxtaposition between the scale of our success, represented by large and impressive structures, and small and mundane actions of care, invoked in NDP songs signify the potential and power of communal care. The strength and role of the individual, by the smallest act of his care, plays a part in constructing a more prosperous Singapore:

One man on an island

One drop in the sea

All it takes to set a wave in motion (Lin & Low 2021).

Conclusion—The NDP Song in Singaporean Lives

Anthropologists study the phenomena of culture and customs whose motivations and origins are often obscured. As “clinically engineered” (Koh 2021) forms of music to serve the state’s purpose of nation building, the NDP song provides a unique opportunity to examine a deliberate and conscious endeavour to create a distinctly Singaporean culture and identity. Singaporeans, however, have not always been responsive to NDP songs (Lai & Chia 2013) and their narratives of care. Dismissing these songs as state-fed propaganda and a perception that songs in recent years have declined in quality, the NDP song has faced numerous trials in gaining acceptance by the Singaporean people.

Cynical as we are, however, the ubiquitous nature of these tunes and the role they have played in the Singapore experience makes it hard to deny their impact on our sense of identity and the Singapore experience. Few Singaporeans can grow up without being able to recall a few lines of these iconic tunes. The success of a song in appealing to Singaporeans has been posited to be linked to the role it played at certain points in a person’s life, from dancing and singing to songs in primary school celebrations (Tan & Chng 2021) to ties with contemporary events, as with “Count On Me Singapore”, written as a response to the 1985 recession and the pessimism of its youth (Koh 2023). 

“Count on Me, Singapore”, performed by Benjamin Kheng and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (1986).

Just as Singapore has grown in the years since its independence, the NDP song’s style and structure has changed across the years (Koh 2021). From rousing tunes (“Stand Up for Singapore”), to reflective songs (“Home”), to the modern, more experimental songs (“Tomorrow’s Here Today”), these narratives of communal care, engineered to spur patriotism and their attempts to adapt to the preferences of a changing populace, are also reflective of the stories and aspirations of a people that changes from generation to generation (Tan & Chng 2021). What unites these songs, that have differed across generations, is a common theme that care for Singapore and its people has, is, and will continue to be integral to the success of a nation.

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 (Harrison 1986).

Fabian Chan is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, studying Human, Social and Political Sciences. Having never heard of anthropology prior to his time in Cambridge, his trials and tribulations in his first term adjusting to the rigours of this new subject has since developed into a deep passion for the discipline which challenges our normative understanding of culture and society. Seeking to apply this new subject to gain a fresh perspective of his native culture, Fabian is keen to reevaluate the cultural role of his favourite form of music, Singaporean patriotic songs, which he plays incessantly when studying, jogging and staring into space. 


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