Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Singapore School Anthems Part 2

We have awarded the MOST ROTTEN SCHOOL ANTHEM AWARD (click here)  and have scoured many school websites in search of the RUNNER UP to the MOST ROTTEN SCHOOL ANTHEM.  Many school anthems are rather nondescript; they aren't very good and neither are they so terribly rotten that they are worthy of a mention here.  These school anthems aren't featured in my blog.  I've got to have a limit on the number of school songs to write about in this blog and only the top two and bottom two school anthems will be presented in great detail.

But this does not mean that I have not looked at many other school anthems. Just to show you that I have been doing my homework, I'll give an example of a school anthem that is typical of many school anthems which are rather middling and they are not very good or very bad.  The example I'll pick is that of Marymount Convent School, a girls' school.

The song consists of a few short simple lines that one would expect because of their simplicity to be at least flawless in grammar and usage but alas, that is not the case.  Desiring always to be just in my judgment and mindful of the possibility that the school could have misprinted the lyrics, I googled the school song and was led to an excellent performance of it by a lady with a beautiful voice called Geraldine Png.  Here is the screen capture of the youtube performance of the anthem of Marymount Convent and the same erroneous sentence can be seen here:

Nobody who has an elementary knowledge of the English language can possibly defend that sentence as grammatical and I'll be insulting your intelligence if I take up space on this blog to explain why it's wrong.

[EDITOR: Very shortly after I posted this article, I received three separate calls from my friends who told me that they could not see anything wrong with this sentence and one of them hastened to inform me that he was not in any way unintelligent.  Of course not.  I didn't mean it that way. 
Here I will explain to all my intelligent readers why the line is wrong.

Ever to thee we will abide 
The word "abide" used here has the archaic meaning of "live" or "dwell".  When used in this sense, the correct preposition is "in" and not "to".  
The anthem writer, if I may add a little facetiously, bearing in mind always that she might very well be a nun, should have taken more care in her Bible reading since this word with its archaic meaning is liberally sprinkled all over the first 10 verses of St John's Gospel in the 15th chapter.  In fact, in those ten verses, we see "abide" repeated some ten times or so.  "Abide in me and I in you", "He that abideth in me and I in him...", "If ye abide in me and my words abide in you...", "ye shall abide in my love" and many others. 
To use the preposition "to" instead of "in" with the word "abide" is very unusual. If I may go into the psychology behind the error, my guess is the anthem writer was thinking more of TURNING to the school.  She very likely had in her mind "Ever to thee we will turn" which would have been correct.]

This is typical of many school anthems which consist of short unassuming lines and they would have been reasonably passable if not for some glaring grammatical mistakes.  Why these schools did not bother to run through the lyrics of the song with a competent English language teacher is something I can't understand.

But these songs aren't outrageously rotten and they don't come anywhere near winning the RUNNER UP award for the MOST ROTTEN SCHOOL ANTHEM.

What then am I looking for in a school anthem that is worthy of the second most rotten award ?  The anthem has got to stand out for being really bad.  If you have read Singapore School Anthems Part 1, you will recall that the recipient of the MOST ROTTEN SCHOOL ANTHEM was guilty not just of plagiarism but it even failed to make the minor necessary changes to the lyrics in order to adapt the words to the school.  It's the ultimate in rottenness and I can't even conceive of anything worse than that in a school anthem.

That is the most rotten school anthem.  Here we're looking for the runner up. It can't be as bad as the ACS anthem but it's got to be outstandingly bad.

I've already mentioned in Part 1 that I have in my mind some categories in which points are given to the school.  Grammar, language, elegance and musicality are essential components.  For a long while, I could not find a school anthem that is bad enough for this runner up category and I was about to give up and focus my attention on the good school anthems when I stumbled upon a school song that fits the bill perfectly as the second most rotten anthem.   This school song is so badly written that it took me quite a while to get into the shoes of the composer in order to understand what it was that he (or more likely, she) meant to say in the first place, so incomprehensible and garbled are her sentences.  Here we have it -



Before I begin, let me stress once again that the school anthem is not a reflection of the quality of the school.  I embarked on this exercise with a view to moving away from all this talk about "good schools".  Instead of adding to all the stressful talk that is currently going on about which schools are better or give superior education to students, I decided, purely with the intention of taking the heat out of schools, to zoom in on something which isn't all that crucial and for which no current teacher or headmaster needs to bother about because these anthems were written by their predecessors who have long left the world of the living.  This is a fun exercise which I hope will bring the smile to your lips.  In any event, everyone knows that RGS is indisputably one of our finest girls' schools in Singapore and this award does not in any way detract from its excellent academic credentials.  All the same, it does have a terrible school song.

Now, that I've settled that point, let's examine the school anthem.

I must admit I was totally flabbergasted when I first chanced upon the lyrics of this school song.  I couldn't believe my eyes that this was the RGS anthem.  I had to check the school's website just to be sure it wasn't a joke posted by some student of a rival school.  Everything is wrong about this anthem.  The music is awful but I have already decided from the start to pay the least attention to the musicality of the anthem because this can be highly subjective.

Let's look at the grammar.  The writing style tells me immediately that it was probably composed by a Chinese language teacher in the school.  The writer hasn't got a proper grasp of the rudiments of the English language and she lacks the linguistic sensitivity in weighing which of two words is more apt in a sentence.  This is a handicap very commonly seen in Chinese language teachers and I'm really not criticising these fine teachers whose strengths lie in the highly complex Chinese language which the Guinness Book of World Records tells us is the most difficult language in the world to master.  It may just be pure speculation on my part but I'm fairly certain the song was composed by a Chinese language teacher and why RGS picked a Chinese language teacher for this task is a mystery.

The very first sentence is elliptically jarring.

From high Olympus flows to us the glory

The glory of what?  That's probably on everyone's lips when he reads the first line of the anthem of Raffles Girls' School.  We saw in Part 1 the strange tendency of the ACS anthem in leaving out an article in a sentence but here, the addition of the article leaves the reader hanging in midair.  What the writer probably means is "Glory flows to us from high Olympus".  That would be grammatically more acceptable but it doesn't cure the sentence of the pervading sense of childish hubris that informs the entire anthem.  It reminds me of a loud bungling supercilious little girl who doesn't know how to be tasteful in her boastful speech.  This reference to Olympus is pretentious and falls flat particularly when there is no reason to speak of it in the first place. I'll deal later with this tiresome need of the anthem writer to force a bit of Greek mythology into the song and I'll suggest what I believe is the reason for this need.  I love to get to the psychology behind the problem.  But more of that later when I discuss the anthem's allusions to Greek mythology.

While still on the first stanza, we next see one of the most jarring lines (it's hard to decide which is most hideous since every line seems to be jostling for that honour) -

Rise, sisters, rise, the world is all before ye 

In standard usage, "ye" is the archaic form of the 2nd person plural pronoun in the subjective case.  In standard archaic English, "ye" has from its first usage been nominative.  There are of course later instances in the past where its use in the objective case is recorded but in these instances, such use is almost without exception colloquial or dialectical.

The Authorised Version of the Bible gives the best illustration of how one should use "ye" but this is hardly useful to most of us who are quite content with using the good old "you" (or perhaps I should say the newer "you").   But we always have in our midst those who think they can spice up their lacklustre writing with a few archaic expressions and these are the people who should take heed of the following highly instructive sentence from the Bible which illustrates quite comprehensively how one may properly use "ye":

If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?

If Madam RGS-Composer (that's the honorific Chinese language teachers love to use) had read her Bible diligently, she would have written "the world is all before you" and the hope and rousing beauty that this line evokes in its Miltonian simplicity would have been spectacular. 

I always like to do a bit of investigative work and get into the mind of the writer just to see why she wrote what she wrote or as Jeeves would put it simply, to get to the psychology behind the problem.  Why did she write "ye" when "you" would have been so much more elegant?

My guess is she had probably been reading the Scottish poem called "The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond".

Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll get to Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.

Notice the use of "ye" in the objective case?  "And I'll get to Scotland afore ye". I've already explained that "ye" used in this way can be found in dialectical writings and it is easy to see many examples in Scottish poems.  But I really doubt very much if any respectable girls' school will want to fashion their school anthem after "The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond" especially when for the rest of the anthem, we see failed attempts at Greek mythological allusions. The two just don't make good bedfellows.

There are many other glaring errors in the anthem and they are too numerous for me to list them all here.  The error we see in the first line is repeated in some of the other verses.  For example, "The fire by which the will attains". What does this even mean?  It sounds like a word-for-word translation from another language, presumably, Mandarin Chinese which was what Madam RGS-Composer taught in the school.

There are many instances where the writer of the RGS anthem leaves the reader befuddled as to the intended meaning.  For example, in "So heart to heart we'll scale the heights of learning," what is meant by "heart to heart"?  I'm tempted to think Madam RGS-Composer meant "side by side" which would appropriately highlight the solidarity and camaraderie of the girls.  In the Mandarin Chinese language, the word for heart is liberally used in just about anything you can think of.  The anthem writer availed herself of the same liberty when she wrote this anthem.

Apart from linguistic problems, the writer is obviously unsure of her Greek mythology.  Writers of school anthems must be careful when they want to introduce elements from Greek mythology into a song.  If they do it clumsily, they can appear pretentious and silly.  They must not do it on the misguided understanding that it will imbue the song with a respectability it otherwise lacks. You can't make a rotten song great by throwing in the names of Greek mythological figures especially when you know nothing about Greek mythology. My sympathy is actually with RGS.  I understand why this was done.  RGS is closely related to Raffles Institution (RI) which is Singapore's top school.  The RI anthem makes a direct reference to Prometheus but it is done in a subtle and tasteful way.  The reference to Greek mythology in the RI anthem lends further depth to the meaning of the song and it enhances the beauty of the song.  RGS, ever envious of RI's superiority, probably felt that it should not be left far behind and so it threw in Greek mythological references without a firm grounding in mythology. That may have moved the RGS anthem writer to write "On us the sacred fire descends" but then she should have read up more about this fire before she comes up with this gaffe:

The magic fire that moves the gods to love us.

When Prometheus stole fire and brought it to men, the gods were far from being moved by feelings of love.  If the punishment they meted out to the thieving Titan is anything to go by, love is the last emotion they felt.

Quite apart from all this, every line in the anthem is shockingly inelegant.  The chorus, "Sisters in learning and sisters at heart / Life lies before us, here's luck to the start" is simply hideous and coarse and is really inconsistent with the kind of school RGS really is.

The RGS anthem suffers from what I would term the "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" syndrome.  Some coffee shop owners think they can increase their business by giving their shop a name that smacks of antiquity.  The writer of the RGS anthem craves respectability for the school anthem which is decent enough and one can't fault her for that.  But the way she goes about doing it only serves to win for RGS the Runner Up prize for the Most Rotten School Anthem. 


  1. In case you didnt know, the RGS anthem is in fact an antique and old song, taken from someplace else by honourable staff to represent the true ties that bind everyone

    1. My dear Anialet Tan,

      How does an allegedly "antique and old song, taken from someplace else (sic) by honourable staff" in any way exonerate the song writer of the inelegance, failed pretentiousness and shocking errors (both in grammar and in Greek mythology)? Would you like to go through the above post again and address each of the points that I have raised?

  2. To be exact, the song was an old British war hymn. It is also the school song of a few other British schools; one example is Clydebank High in Scotland. (Link: It is true that the anthem is plagiarised, save for the last stanza and the refrain which were added by RGS to the old war tune.

    However it is not true that it is ungrammatical and inaccurate. Nobody said the sacred fire referred to the Promethean flame. That you think it is only proves RI's regrettable influence over the perception of RGS and nothing more.

    Further, the Bible is not the definitive grammar guide. I suggest you look to the Oxford English instead for linguistic advice, which states "In the 15th century, when 'you' had become the dominant subjective form, 'ye' came to be used as an objective singular and plural (equivalent to thee and you)."

    A song is in essence a poem and in poetry one aims not to be too literal. Thus 'the glory' is a proper noun known only to the singer. It should in fact be read as 'the Glory'.

    Lastly, I am aghast that you have never heard of the phrase 'heart to heart'.

    You remind me endearingly of Polonius. I rest my case.

    1. My dear Caesium,
      I thank you for your comment but I apologise that I only saw it recently after returning home from abroad. I have a reply to your comment but it's too long for this column and I have written it here:

      Please let me have more comments and please invite your friends to comment too. I will publish every comment in my blog and where necessary, I will respond to it.