Sunday, October 27, 2013

Singapore School Anthems Part 1

There has recently been a great deal of hype and angst about schools in Singapore and the government is scrambling to assure us all that every school is a good school.  I have written a lot about schools in Singapore and I'm sure I have ruffled a few feathers especially of those who may have misplaced pride in some schools but the time is right for us to forget the academic records of schools and focus on something quite inconsequential, trivial and lighthearted - the school anthem.  The school anthem doesn't really mean much. If a school is unfortunate enough to have a rotten anthem, it may be saddled with this disgraceful yoke on its neck for a long time to come because schools don't normally alter their anthems.  But a bad anthem is no indication that the school is bad, as we shall see soon enough if you follow my blog on to Part 2.

Let me begin with the worst school anthem.  How bad can an anthem be?  It can't be that difficult to write a school anthem and I'm sure I can sit down for no more than a couple of hours and come up with something quite respectable. The fact that some of these schools have rotten anthems does make one wonder what the school administration was up to when some teacher or, as is usually the case, the school principal came up with his or her own composition.  But these are usually former teachers or former principals who are long dead, so please understand that I'm casting no aspersion on the current crop of teachers and principals who are all wonderful people and are perfectly able, at the drop of a hat, to write the most glorious anthems.

But really, how bad can an anthem be?  What makes a school anthem truly bad?  Naturally, because it's to be sung, the musicality of the anthem is important.  But I will attach less importance to music since I have to admit that this is one area that can be rather subjective and besides, whatever I used to study for my ABRSM Music Theory exam is all forgotten.  But any one of us can judge the language or grammar in a school anthem and we don't need to have a training in music theory for that.  We can also judge an anthem by looking at its choice of words.  This is different from its grammar.  For example, if the lines are largely in iambic pentameter  and we see a stray line "We in our youth try to acquire knowledge" which will immediately strike anyone as jarringly ugly and inelegant and that's because the metre is broken even though it's grammatical.  Perhaps "Despite our youth we'll scale the heights of arts" would be a great improvement.

But for the bottom-of-the-heap school anthem that wins our "Most Rotten School Anthem" award, we don't even have to examine the metrical structure of the lines.  Such a close scrutiny of the metre may only be necessary when we want to decide which of two great school anthems should win our coveted top prize for Singapore School anthems.

I will begin with the worst school anthem and work my way to the best, so please look out for future parts in this series.  I will be guided purely by aesthetics, poetry, grammar and less so, music.  I will be purely objective and I will give my reasons and you are free to disagree with me if you think I am wrong.  Just post your comments on this page below.

Which school takes the MOST ROTTEN SCHOOL ANTHEM award?  Such an anthem must not just be grammatically wrong.  It's got to be worse than that. And there is one school anthem that has just about everything you can think of when you want to look for a really rotten school anthem.  This anthem doesn't just get its grammar wrong, it does something truly shocking - it steals its song from elsewhere.  You probably think I'm being a bit harsh and the school merely "borrows" the tune of another song but no.  This is outright plagiarism in that not just the tune is stolen but the lyrics as well.

Now, you're probably wagging your finger at me in disagreement.  How can anyone plagiarize the entire lyrics of another song?  Yes this school anthem does precisely that with the exception that it sneaks its name in where someone else's name appears.  I will present the facts and leave you to be the judge.

It's with a heavy heart that I denounce the anthem of a school that I should feel something for but since I have decided to be purely objective so here it is -



(or ACS, as they would rather be called)

This school anthem is shamelessly a shocking plagiarism of the Canadian anthem "The Maple Leaf Forever".  It is shocking in that not just the tune was stolen by ACS but the lyrics as well. I'll just say a few words about the Canadian anthem.  "The Maple Leaf Forever" was written by Alexander Muir in 1867, some 19 years before ACS was founded.  In the song, we hear of "Wolfe, the dauntless hero", a reference to James Wolfe who captured Quebec from the French. It's not surprising that the song was not picked to be the official national anthem of Canada because its strongly pro-British stance would be objectionable to French-speaking Canadians but it was one of the songs considered for the national anthem and it is still widely sung today and is generally known as the unofficial national anthem of Canada.

Click here for the lyrics of this beautiful national anthem The Maple Leaf Forever and do a mental comparison with the ACS anthem (note: the music is identical):

You would have thought that a school that filches a national anthem would of course get its grammar right so on my score board, the school should at least pass the grammar category.  But not so for ACS.  With the ACS anthem, we don't have to go very far.  Just look at the second line of the anthem: "Oldham dauntless hero came".

The very first time I heard the ACS anthem, I felt strangely uneasy and I got a copy of the lyrics to see for myself if it really was printed as it was sung.  I'm sure all of you had that same feeling.  It's because we get this sense that there is something grossly wrong about the anthem.  It's the problem we have when we are drafting an email hurriedly and we copy and paste from wikipedia onto our own text and we fail to read through the email and click "SEND".  When we finally read through the email, we wish we could edit it but it's already sent. But folks, this is a school anthem we are talking about and not a personal email written in a hurry!!!

Leaving out an article in a sentence is common in Singlish but I have to remind myself that this school anthem was written in 1926 by a teacher called Henry Hoisington.  This was before Singlish even came into being.  Why then was the article left out in "Oldham dauntless hero came"?  Bishop Oldham, a great man for whom I have the highest respect, is of course the founder of Methodism in Singapore and the founder of ACS.  It is only when you look at the Canadian national anthem from which this line was copied that you will understand the reason for the error.  In the Canadian anthem, the line is "Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came".  Presumably, Hoisington, thinking to himself that since "Oldham" has two syllables while "Wolfe" is monosyllabic, felt he had to remove a syllable from that line and he must have decided that the article "the" was dispensable.

Whatever Hoisington taught in ACS in 1926, one hopes that he didn't teach the poor students English or English literature.  Anyone who reads poetry knows that you can always abbreviate the article the to th' so that you don't count it as a syllable.  It's a little like a grace note in music.

But Hoisington goes on to remove the article in other lines in the ACS anthem.  I just have to glance through the lyrics and I see a few examples: "emblem" stands by itself without any article but the most hideous error must be "the Land of Rising Sun".  I know a young boy who sang it as "the land of Rising Suns".  The poor lad is at least grammatically correct even if he badly needs a lesson in geography and possibly astronomy.

The other line that brings deep furrows to the brow is this:

No discord e'er will sever

You immediately look at the preceding line to see what it is that discord won't sever.

Our hearts our hopes our aims are one
No discord e'er will sever

This is inelegant even though it's not ungrammatical.  You sever chords, ties, bonds and knots but you don't sever hearts, hopes and aims.  Again, all you have to do is to look at the Canadian anthem and you will see why plagiarism can bring disgrace to your school for a very long time to come.  If you must plagiarize, at least put in the effort to tidy up the parts that differ from the source from which you stole the lyrics.

In the Canadian anthem, the lines are

And may those ties of love be ours

Which discord cannot sever

There you have it.  The original song talks about not severing the ties of love which is a perfectly correct usage.  Shame on Hoisington not only for plagiarizing the music and lyrics but also for making no necessary changes to the lyrics to ensure that the school anthem doesn't sound like the theme song for Jack Neo's future movie, "When an Ah Beng Copies a Song".

It's only fortuitous that Hoisington picked the Canadian anthem for the ACS anthem. He might very well have chosen a more famous national anthem and today, we'll all be laughing away every time ACS students sing with pride and gusto (which they will no doubt do in blissful ignorance of how rotten their anthem is):

God save our ACS
Long live our ACS
God save our school
Send her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long live to be our school
God save our school.

EDITOR:  In case you think I'm just doing a spot of ACS-bashing which I assure you I'm not, in Singapore School Anthems Part 2, I will be presenting the Runner Up Award for the Most Rotten School Anthem to a school that is famous for its high academic achievement.  It is a school loved and respected by all Singaporeans and parents will give an arm and a leg to see their child in the school.  I have only recently heard the anthem of that school (obviously the school would do well to take pains to conceal its anthem) and it's astoundingly ROTTEN!!!  Stay tuned for Singapore School Anthems Part 2.

NOTE: Singapore School Anthems Part 2 is now posted on this blog.

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