Striking a Chord: Investigating Singapore’s Beloved National Day Songs

Tan Yin Xi and Samuel Chng


This research was conducted in collaboration with Channel News Asia (CNA) for the documentary ‘Striking a Chord’.  The documentary follows Shabir – award winning singer-songwriter and one of the lead singers of the 2021 National Day theme song – as he embarks on a journey to document the origins of some of Singapore’s most beloved national tunes. The two-part documentary airs on CNA on Aug 9 and 10, 2021.

Introduction

Every year since the 1980s, the Singapore government has commissioned a song to commemorate Singapore’s independence from Malaysia on 9th August 1965.

As of 2021, there are 26 different national day songs – albeit with different levels of popularity. The first national day song, Stand Up for Singapore, continues to be a beloved tune amongst citizens; however, the same cannot be said for some of the other tunes that have not achieved the same level of popularity and memorability, fading shortly after their release. Why do some songs ‘stick’ but not others?

In 2017, Rathbone and colleagues [1] conducted a study to explore how individuals personally relate to the media they consume, and how and why individuals prefer certain films and songs over others. They found that participants developed greater inclinations to media that are associated with “episodic memories”, which are events that we are able to recall from our personal past. This time period where we form preferences is known as a “reminiscence bump”.

We were interested to examine whether the concept of a “reminiscence bump” could be used to understand why some national day songs stay with us. Together with documentary producers from Channel News Asia and Shabir [2], an award winning singer-songwriter and one of the lead singers of the 2021 National Day theme song, we investigated the following question in the lead up to 2021’s National Day celebration:

Are Singaporeans more acquainted with songs that were released at specific times of our lives, and how is this related to the memorability, or ‘stickiness’ of the songs? 

Table 1: List of National Day Songs

Investigating the Reminiscence Bump

We conducted a survey with a representative sample of 300 Singaporeans in June 2021. To evaluate whether national day songs held significance beyond the years they were released in, participants listened to a snippet of each song from 1984 to 2020 before indicating whether: (1) they remembered the song; (2) they know of the song; or (3) they don’t recognise the song.

Figure 1: Plot of Memorability Against Age

We found that participants tended to remember songs that were released when they were younger, especially at school-going ages. The memorability of a song appeared to decrease if they were introduced to a participant at an older age. Further, a song’s memorability appeared to peak around the first two decades of our participants’ lives (around the ages of 0 to 19). This suggests that there may be life experiences during our childhood and teenage years that enhance the memorability of particular songs.

This coheres with Rathbone and colleagues who found that individuals tended to remember songs they considered personally significant during their youth. This could explain why national day songs introduced in our school-going years are more memorable. The school-wide celebrations for national day, the sense of camaraderie, along with the festivities and programmes leading up to the 9th of August, may be the life experiences that make these songs memorable for us.

Decoding the Favourites

In our survey, we also asked participants to choose their favourite five songs. Interestingly, the overall favourites had all been produced before the 2000s, suggesting that there is a charm to these older tunes. Despite being released more than two decades ago, they remain well-liked among Singaporeans. This led us to investigate what these songs had in common, and what their popularity might indicate about what Singaporeans value about national day songs.

Figure 2: Top 5 National Day Songs

We analysed the lyrics in the songs using topic modelling, a type of statistical modeling that allowed us to discover abstract “topics” occuring in the lyrics. From this analysis, we identified three distinct topics:

  1. Dreams/Aspirations: songs that typically contained the words “see”, “dreams”, “come”, “here”
  2. Home/Belonging: songs that typically contained the words “where”, “home”, “Singapore”
  3. Nation Building: songs that typically contained the words “together”, “Singapore”, “one”

Figure 3 shows how the songs fit within these categories. Four of the top five songs were about “Nation Building”. The only exception was Home (1998/2004) – which was about “Home/Belonging”. Thus, it is possible that our participants associate national day songs with the celebration of independence and nation building more strongly. It is also worth noting the time period these songs were written in: All four were written during Singapore’s early years, where sentiments related to nation building were likely to have been stronger due to the uncertainties and challenges of that era. These songs, hence, embodied the nation building process Singapore was experiencing, which may be why they were more memorable to our participants.

Figure 3: Categorising National Day Songs by Topics

The analysis also revealed a general evolution in the tone adopted for national day songs. In fact, the collection of 25 songs from 1984 to 2020 mirrors Singapore’s growth as a nation-state. From the early struggles of nation building, to making Singapore a place of home and belonging, to envisioning it as a city of dreams and aspirations – all these characterise the changes Singapore has gone through since 1965.

These findings may partly explain the positive reaction to the 2021 national day song, The Road Ahead. At this time, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Singaporeans to make difficult sacrifices, but Singaporeans have continuously displayed a collective willingness to work together to ensure that Singapore gets through this. The Road Ahead captures this spirit of resilience through its lyrics: “We did it before, and we’ll do it again”.

A Song for Every Generation

We further investigated the idea of whether there could be a song for every generation, i.e. a song that speaks to a generation and hence is more memorable. Supporting this, we found that the participants who chose the top five songs (song names) as their top five favourites were in their fifties. In contrast, those who did not rank any of the top 5 songs are significantly younger, with the majority of them being around the mid-twenties. This hints at a potential shift in the songs we favor as the generations pass. This is also consistent with the idea of a “reminiscence bump” discussed earlier. Hence, it is likely that we might see the newer songs becoming more popular in the years to come.

Figure 4: Comparison of Age Distributions Between Top 5 Songs Against All Other Songs

Conclusion

National Day songs have been a unique characteristic of our celebration every 9th August. Our brief survey of 300 Singaporeans suggests that we are more likely to remember the songs that were released in our youths, and this may be shaped by the school celebrations we participated in back in school. We also found that our participants’ favourite songs tended to be those that had “nation building” as their theme – with the exception of Kit Chan’s Home. As Singapore ages, the songs that we collectively hold dear may change. What will the next generation’s “theme song” say about their wishes and aspirations for Singapore?


Tan Yin Xi was a summer intern from Yale-NUS College in the Urban Psychology Lab at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

Bibliography
[1] Rathbone, C. J., O’connor, A. R., & Moulin, C. J. (2017). The tracks of my years: Personal significance contributes to the reminiscence bump. Memory & cognition, 45(1), 137-150.
[2] Shabir is a national award winning singer-songwriter, record producer, music composer and performer from Singapore. https://www.shabirmusic.com/