Headlines, Lifelines
yak, yak Majulah Singapura has been sung patriotically for 32 years


QUESTIONS provocative and even intelligently "sensitive" are to me the life-blood of creative thinking.

But what alarms me are not so much the questions as the hidden and dangerous implications which they often conceal. I refer to a recent proposal which a group of grassroots leaders and a lawyer described as "trivial" but "sensitive" (The Straits Times, July 22) and in which they suggested that "adjustments" should be made to our 32-year-old national anthem because, they claim, many Singaporeans cannot sing our anthem in Malay and therefore do not have "strong feelings" or "strong emotions when they sing the national anthem".

In other words, they lack patriotic convictions.

Now in the matter of the use of language, I consider myself as something of a minor expert in the technique of "double think" and "double talk".

I think there is more to the proposed "trivial adjustment" than the surface meaning conveys.

The proposal put forward by these grassroots leaders and a lawyer was made publicly. It also caught the eye of the mass media. I also understand that prior to this, the matter was discussed at some length in a manner sufficient to attract the attention of the Prime Minister. So this matter was not intended to be trivial.

Since this statement was described by its authors as also "sensitive", it was no doubt also intended to rouse emotions about the adequacy or inadequacy of a national anthem which had been a source of inspiration and respect for millions of Singaporeans for some 32 years.

Our national anthem in its present form has been sung since 1959 not only in Singapore but also in a great many countries in the world where diplomatic formality required the playing of Majulah Singapura. As far as I know, our national anthem has so far not attracted domestic or international disrespect.

In fact, the Majulah Singapura was unofficially launched much earlier by the old City Council, even though the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans even then knew little or no Malay.

Its composer, Zubir Said, has been officially honoured for his gift of Majulah Singapura. His Malay lyrics were so simple that anyone over the age of five, unless mentally retarded, had no difficulty singing the anthem. All Singaporean children of kindergarten age have not only had no difficulty memorising the words but have for decades sung it every morning with "strong feelings and emotion".

The anthem has been translated into the four official languages for those who cannot understand Malay. I know of no one, until recently, who has said that singing Majulah Singapura in its present form made him feel unpatriotic.

That is why I am somewhat mystified why a group of grassroots leaders, including a lawyer, should now suddenly experience mental and emotional block over the national anthem. There must be other reasons why these grassroots leaders cannot work up positive emotions for our anthem, and I am sure many would be interested to know why.

Since national anthems are sung en masse on formal occasions, I am further interested to know what kind of Majulah Singapura would emerge the next National Day were it to be sung simultaneously in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hainanese, Tamil, Urdu, Javanese, English and Greek, among other languages.

That should really bring the house down.

Of course, there is nothing in the law prohibiting any citizen, should he feel the urge, to sing Majulah Singapura in the privacy of his home or along Orchard Road in any language that takes his fancy.

I also understand that some of these grassroots leaders have argued that since the Chinese constitute the majority, then the new dogma of the greatest good for the greatest majority should be applied.

So the time has come to re-emphasise the difference between hot-potato politics and statesmanship. Statesmanship is something different and I should like to give an example of it for the benefit of, in particular, lawyer Lee Bon Leong who raised what he admits is a "sensitive" issue.

The question of a national language also came up for debate during Indonesia's struggle for independence. Indonesia has a far larger population and a greater variety of languages and dialects than Singapore. The Indonesian majority speak Javanese, an ancient language with a very sophisticated culture.

The late President Sukarno, who was called upon to choose a national language from among the hundreds of competing languages, chose Malay, a minority language, on the grounds that this was the language best qualified to unify a country consisting of millions of people and hundreds of languages and islands.

He made Malay the national language and I would say that in the whole of Asia there is today no country more united and with a stronger sense of and genius of Mr Sukarno, whatever his faults. I do not know whether the Singapore grassroots leaders concerned understand how he achieved this, but it would be worth their while making the effort to do so.

Finally, I would also like to point out that changing our present national anthem must also mean a significant rewriting of Singapore history.

* The writer was formerly senior minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

First published in the Forum section of the Straits Times, March 9, 1990.


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