Hodge Lodge Debate Series: Is Our Institution Anthem Sexist?

By Adri Faris (18A13A)

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Sir Stamford Raffles contemplates, “Should we amend the school song?”

We have seen numerous female presidents representing the student body on behalf of the student council, even in the current present. We have seen a multitude of female chairpersons taking charge of various CCAs (including Raffles Press!). Indeed, we have seen the achievements of many of our fellow female Rafflesians being celebrated, but does that necessarily mean the issue of sexism (against female counterparts) is wholly absent in Raffles in this day and age?

We sing the institution anthem which contains the line “Sons of Singapore” proudly every Tuesday, yet the deliberate exclusion of the female sex within that very line is never openly discussed. Is the issue of sexism truly distant to our student body or is it more pertinent than what we dare to admit? This was exactly what Raffles Debaters attempted to discuss in the recent Hodge Lodge Debate Series event that took place on the 19th of July. The motion for the afternoon was “This House would amend the school song”.

The general mood throughout the debate was one of mutual learning as well as friendly discussion. It is interesting and peculiar to note that the male debaters were chosen to represent the Proposition while the female debaters were placed on the Opposition.

Following the debate was a discussion segment which got the audience involved, prompting the audience to think of bigger issues related to the idea of sexism as well as the symbolism of the institution anthem and the premise of unity.

The core arguments brought forward by the Proposition were as follows: the need for an amendment in the lines which no longer hold value in today’s culture is more pertinent than ever and by abolishing what seems to be a minor line with only three words, it actually highlights the bigger idea of inclusivity that an esteemed institution like Raffles should prioritize. Being symbolic, the institution anthem has the capacity to shape perceptions and opinions of the student body.

First Proposition speaker Ng Tze Ho (18S02A) emanated confidence as he opened the debate with cogent arguments which grounded the stance the Proposition team was taking. He underlined the necessity to amend the anthem – specifically the one used at the junior college side – highlighting the fact that the line “Sons of Singapore” is exclusionary in nature. More specifically, he argued that our institution anthem should not be biased against any group of students in the school, noting that the word “Sons” seems to be non-inclusive of our fellow female students. Tze Ho concluded his speech by reminding everyone of the need to honour the female students around us because they too make up the Rafflesian family.

When it was Proposition speaker Ryan Chan’s (18S06N) turn to speak, he quickly reminded the Opposition that we are no longer in a culture of sexism. Ryan skillfully emphasised his stance by declaring, “Our argument of inclusivity still stands.” Minh Nguyen (18A01C) also reminded everyone on behalf of the Proposition that the sole purpose of an institution anthem is to celebrate the institution itself. He reinforced that removing the line “Sons of Singapore” actually symbolizes the bigger idea of acknowledging the contributions made by the thousands of women who make up the Rafflesian family, past and present.

The moment Danial Asyraaf (18A13A) began to speak for the Proposition, it was evident that he is an experienced debater. His words and poise emitted his natural flair for speaking, successfully capturing the attention of the audience. Danial highlighted the need to amend the institution anthem because only then will our current values and culture – one which is non-discriminatory towards our female students – be reflected more accurately.

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Debate in session – should we really amend the school song?

On the other hand, the Opposition mainly focused on the need for the preservation of the institution anthem’s historical context and its significance. The Opposition also pointed out convincingly the ways in which an institution anthem could be used as an emblematic tool to tie us to the heritage that we share with our alumni.

Opening for the Opposition was Tan Yu Han (18A01B), who noted that the institution anthem was composed by then Headmaster of Raffles Institution, Mr Edward Wilson Jesudason, in the 1960s. Considering that the purpose of an institution anthem is to mirror the school spirit at the point of composition, the line “Sons of Singapore” would be an appropriate one because Raffles Institution “had always been an all-boys school” and because of the fact that “we came from a time with a sexist and conservative culture”. Sun Jia Ying (18A01D) challenged the Proposition team’s core argument of the need to amend the institution anthem. Jia Ying argued fervently that in order to truly achieve the notion of fairness and equality, we need actual, concrete social changes within the school itself and not just a symbolic change through an amendment in the school anthem. In a memorable moment at the end of her speech, Jia Ying claimed confidently, “I’m very proud to oppose”.

Melody Leom (18S06D) from the Opposition toppled the Proposition arguments, noting that changing one single line would not reflect the change in school culture because not many people from the student body could relate to the anthem fully in the first place. Citing examples such as “Gryphon’s strength” and the allusions to God as symbols and ideas foreign to many students, Melody thoroughly substantiated her reasoning and arguments. .

The debate that afternoon was concluded with a speech from final Opposition speaker Peck Hsiao Shan (18A13A). Hsiao Shan reminded everyone for the last time that things change fluidly all the time but some things are just meant to stay the same over the years, especially something as symbolic as an institution anthem. With bold conviction, she maintained that the institution anthem is something that binds us together as a shared community – students past and present. The school song should remain an emblem that we share with our alumni in the same way the school uniform and the school badge serve as fragments of shared heritage. By amending the institution anthem, we risk alienating our alumni. Hsiao Shan intelligently concluded her speech by reminding the Proposition that while the line “Sons of Singapore” may seem as if the school celebrates the male students in our midst, celebrating one group of people does not automatically mean the other group is oppressed.

The audience discussion segment which followed the debate was one which expounded upon the key points of contention brought forward by the debaters, moderated by the Vice-Chairperson of Raffles Debaters, Muhammad Dhafer (18S03O). Members of the audience were invited to think about the symbolism of the line “Sons of Singapore” as well as the use of mascots and its features. They were also challenged to think about the tension between preserving historical relics versus present social issues. After the event, proposition speaker Danial Asyraaf (18A13A) expressed “This debate has really broadened my horizon on the issue of how symbols that represent the values that our society emphasizes have a significant impact on the different stakeholders and marginalized groups that are present within the society itself.”

The audience was truly treated with an intellectually-stimulating discussion that afternoon, broadening their horizons on the relevance and significance of the institution anthem. Pertinent ideas such as the historical context and symbolism of the anthem were also discussed, allowing non-debaters to have a clearer insight and newer perspective on the whole issue on whether or not the school song should be amended at the end of the session. The Hodge Lodge Debate Series will return soon, addressing bigger ideas that promises to be as thought-provoking as this one.

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