By Claire Yip (13A01A)
Here is a brief history of the school song. Firstly, remember this: it is not any school song. It is an institution anthem. Prior to his tenure as RI Headmaster, Edward Wilson Jesudason decided to share his talents in song-writing and archaic apostrophising by bestowing a majestic institution anthem on the school. (We cannot feel smug about this. Jesudason did the same for Bartley Secondary School a few years later.) A Jesudason descendant is quoted as saying, rather incredulously: ‘RI went for more than a century without having a song to call its own…until Papa came along!’ Indeed, for nearly fifty years now, Rafflesians have been singing the selfsame melody and evading the vacant ‘v’ in ‘what’er’. The antiquated language is charmingly old-fashioned, and our athletes and schoolmates who have been for match support would attest to how heartwarming it is to sing the song, acapella, after a gruelling sports event, but arguably this is not to any melodic or lyrical credit of its own, and simply its status as the official institution anthem. A sizeable portion of the school population, however, does not care much for the song, perhaps due to its musical flaws and lyrical missteps. Nevertheless, it continues to be sung at the first assembly of every week—that is, Monday at the Year 1–4 side, and Tuesday for the Year 5s and 6s.
Musically, it is unimpressive. Many RI boys prefer the grander soundtrack over at the Bishan end of the campus to the ‘Disney version’ we use here—a midi track, created with computer software. This means it lacks the ‘authenticity, depth, and grandeur which a school song should have’, according to Rei Lim, a Year 5. Even without the comparison, the institution anthem can hardly be called an anthem. Mr Rollason, a History teacher, thinks it sounds rather like a ‘military song’. Rei agrees: ‘It’s written in a typical military marching band style, with lots of flutes and flourishes. Many of the instruments used are arbitrary, like the glockenspiel.’ It seems as though they have used these assorted instruments to replace a key component: the bass line. ‘There’s no bass line to keep the melody going, so the song feels empty. Now, if you listen to the national anthem, you hear all the bass notes from the lower brass instruments. But that’s missing from the school song, which explains why everyone is out of sync when singing parts like “Auspicium Melioris Aevi” at the end,’ says Rei.
Apart from the musical aspects of the song, most of those who were first introduced to the institution anthem in Year 5 would have felt slightly discomfited calling themselves ‘sons of Singapore’. Everyone knows JC life is a big transition from secondary school, but transforming from a ‘daughter of a better age’ to a ‘son’ is perhaps too dramatic a change. Furthermore, this line’s deliberate exclusion of the female sex is compounded by the fact that Jesudason wrote the school song in 1961, when girls had already been schooling at RI for close to twenty years. However, it was only in 1998 that a student referendum was held on this very issue when Mrs Carmee Lim, then principal of RGS, proposed changing ‘sons’ to ‘youth’. The result of the referendum is obvious, but regardless it is not too late to make the change now.
However, there is a lack of an obvious replacement for the word ‘sons’. ‘Youth’ arguably sounds too ‘politically correct’ and ‘children’ has one too many syllables. We have inserted a poll below for all aspiring shapers of school culture to offer their suggestions. (View the results in a pie chart here.)
As Xiaohan from Year 5 puts it, ‘some people take issue with the religious references’. There are two allusions to Christianity: ‘with one voice make us pray’ and ‘with God to guide the way’. It is not known why Jesudason chose to insert them, since RI has always been a largely secular school. However, they are mostly harmless, since despite Jesudason’s intentions, ‘God’ is not exclusively Christian, and it is interesting that a pagan reference to Grecian mythology opens the song, while a Christian one ends it.
It seems, however, that these politically incorrect lyrics are not sufficient to ‘let our hearts be stirring’. An informal survey of students’ immediate visceral response – or lack thereof – revealed that although some were fond of the anthem, a considerable part of the school population was apathetic towards it, with certain noticeable trends. Most of the RI (Secondary) boys feel ‘nonchalant’, with some even calling it ‘useless’, while the RGS girls find it quaintly antediluvian, or, as Ningxin, Year 5, says: ‘It makes me happy when my OG sings it together, and these are memories which I will always associate with my time in Raffles.’ Yet they often cannot help but compare it with their beloved alma mater’s pagan song. There are, as always, exceptions: Jun Yan, a Year 5, calls the institution anthem his ‘favourite part of the week’. He does a rousing rendition of it, because it makes him feel like he is part of a ‘larger tradition’. Han Jun (not related), also in Year 5, added an interesting imperialist perspective to it: ‘It makes me feel like we are still a colony.’
In all, the institution anthem could do with some improvements, lyrically and musically, but it is a nice, pompous old thing, and it is one of the most participative and encompassing parts of our school culture—Hannah, a Year 5, confides: ‘I sing it during Physics lab lessons.’ And, at least there is one way in which it will always be useful: as an effective way of ending awkward class reunions.