‘Operation Singalong’ was govt’s attempt to get S’poreans to sing folk songs in the 1980s

Singing together was thought to foster solidarity.

Joshua Lee | August 14, 2018 @ 05:59 pm


Every year without fail, Singapore’s National Day Parade (NDP) will feature a segment of folk songs like Munnaeru Vaalibaa and Chan Mali Chan.

But, why?

Because these songs were actually the products of a nation-wide campaign in the 1980s to cultivate solidarity through the singing of folk songs.

Operation Singalong

The campaign to get Singaporeans to sing was called “Operation Singalong”.

It was spearheaded by the National Folk Songs Committee in 1980 to make community-singing great again.

According to the committee chairman, Senior Minister of State (PMO) Lee Khoon Choy in an interview with The Straits Times, the aim of Operation Singalong was to cultivate a sense of solidarity, just like how the army builds camaraderie through songs.

“This is one way of building a nation, and it is a necessary way,” said Lee.

Via NewspaperSG.

According to the paper’s “well-placed sources”, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was “perturbed” during a campfire earlier in the year where none of the participants except one sang out loud.

The reason? No one could find a song that everyone knew, and hence, there was “little sense of rapport”.

Aside from nation building, the Senior Minister of State said that having familiar songs would greatly improve Singapore’s image overseas when our delegates need to present songs:

“When it comes to Singapore’s turn — there is no song. It is a disgrace to Singapore’s culture prestige and image. They say Singaporeans cannot sing — Singaporeans only know how to make money. They don’t care for culture, they’re only materialistic. And that’s bad!”

Which songs to choose?

Senior Minister of State Lee made it very clear that his job was to get people singing.

To that end, the committee looked for tunes which are “very easy to sing”, “easy to remember”, as well as songs which you would want to “sing again and again”.

Lee added in the interview that the initial tunes chosen by the committee had to be music that the general public had exposure to, instead of new compositions.

The lyrics were then adapted to a Singaporean context.

“You can choose any tune in the world, from any nation, but if you put new words to it, then you can sing it as your own,” Lee Khoon Choy said in a 1980 ST interview.

For example, one of the first songs chosen for Operation Singalong was Singapura (Sunny Island).

It was adapted from an Indonesian tune composed by Dutchman Van Moring and its lyrics revised by the Singapore Broadcasting Centre to the classic we know today:

Singapura, oh, Singapura
Sunny island set in the sea
Singapura, oh, Singapura
Pretty flowers bloom for you and me.

Come along, join the song in merry singing.
Blend our voices, join in the chorus.

Singapura, oh, Singapura.
Pretty flowers bloom for you and me.

Chan Mali Chan was also chosen for Operation Singalong because it was widely known in the region.

The song is actually based on a Malay poem (pantun) about a person searching for their pet goat, but in reality, is a cheeky representation of courtship between a man and a woman.

Another early folk song Di-Tanjung Katong was created by Malay saxophonist Muhammad Bin Ahmad, who also went by the alias Ahmad Patek.

Ahmad had his own band, the Commander Swing Band, which released a 1930s hit called Swing Dondong Sayang.

Getting Singaporeans to sing

Choosing the right songs was half the battle won.

The government engaged famous singers such as the likes of Anita Sarawak, Lena Lim, and the Cedar Girls School Choir to cover the songs in various styles. The covers were aired on television and radio.

The Culture Ministry also printed score sheets that were distributed free-of-charge to the public.

Cassettes and records of the folk songs were also sold at cost price to encourage Singaporeans to buy them.

1988 songbook of Singapore folk songs. Via Carousell.
1988 songbook of Singapore folk songs. Via Carousell.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Music and Drama Company organised training sessions for camp instructors to teach their campmates the songs.

The People’s Association also took to the community centres to spread these folk songs, and in Lee’s words, “plant a seed” in people’s minds.

This “seed’ extended to National Day songs that were commissioned by the Singapore government since 1984.

Songs like We Are Singapore and Count on Me Singapore were written to foster a strong Singapore identity at a time when Singapore needed to unite to compete on the world stage.

Over time, the National Folk Songs Committee envisioned that once the momentum of community singing is built up and Singaporeans have cultivated the habit of singing, Singapore can start looking at singing songs by local composers.

This was eventually realised in 1988, with the launch of Sing Singapore, which promoted original songs written by Singaporeans.

As time went by, Operation Singalong eventually died out, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint.

Maybe it’s because folk songs rarely find their space in today’s contemporary music environment, even less so for songs which are overtly nationalistic.

Instead, these songs become labelled as “classics”, and are trotted out during special occasions like heritage events and National Day celebrations.

Maybe it’s because different times call for different measures when it comes to fostering social cohesion.

Whatever the reasons, as Singapore society continues to evolve, it pays to know that something as simple as a folk song can play such a huge part in our national identity.

Top image via Carousell


Content that keeps Mothership.sg going

You don’t want to read this article about blackheads, but you do, don’t you?

Get yourself a healthy dose of local history in comic strip form here!

About Joshua Lee

Josh has found the perfect Nasi Padang combination. Ask him about it.

Morning Commute

Interesting stories to discuss with your colleagues in office later