03 April 2019

Singapore's 200 Years of Music

It must have seemed so easy for the Singapore Government back then, when the established historical narrative was well enough known and widely accepted.  In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore, claimed it for the British, and thereby set in progress a chain of events which led to this tiny island, which seems physically to be dropping off the bottom of the Malay Peninsula, becoming the modern city-state it is today.  Modern Singapore has an economic wealth, a stage of technological development and a visible infrastructure which is the envy of the world.  Even the former colonial power has in recent years looked on Singapore as an icon, especially in the fields of education and financial management.  What could possibly be wrong with celebrating that turning point in Singapore’s history by having a grand bicentennial in 2019?

As everyone who dabbles in history knows only too well, history is not about dates and people, it is about a continual reinterpretation of events as viewed through the prism of contemporary ethics and sensitivities.  At school we may have been taught dates, but in life we learn that history is not about what happened in the past but how we view in our time what happened in the past.  History, as they say, never stands still.

So the inevitable happened.  As soon as the events of 1819 were put into the spotlight in the run-up for the bicentennial, questions were asked and the old narrative shown not to be as straightforward as we once thought.  Forgetting doubts raised over Raffles’ physical involvement in 1819, or the questions raised over the year itself – did not a Scot named Hamilton come here earlier and try to claim Singapore for the British? – there were two elements in that narrative which no longer sit comfortably with the ethics and sensitivities of 2019 Singapore.  For a start, there is the idea that a “foreign” race should be responsible for Singapore’s development over the past 200 years.  That certainly does not play out with the current conviction that Asian people are fully equipped to handle their own destinies and can most certainly not be regarded as the chattels of, or inferior to, a peoples from Europe.  Then there is the very uncomfortable concept for a Chinese majority 21st century population, that it was the British who settled here before the Chinese.  Who can blame anyone for wanting to reassess history when the current narrative suggests that those who regard themselves as Singaporeans actually have shallower historic roots in the land where they live than those whom they regard as foreigners?

Consequently, we now have the ridiculous spectacle of the bicentennial desperately searching around to give credibility to Chinese roots in Singapore above British ones.  The world must find it extraordinarily funny when they see the banners, the posters, the postal frankings which advertise the Singapore bicentennial as celebrating “700 years of history”.  It’s unfortunate that just as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of what was once considered an important milestone in Singapore’s history, contemporary ethics and sensitivities demand that this was neither important nor a milestone.

But in one area we can still recognise 1819 as a turning point in Singapore’s history which had a beneficial effect on subsequent generations of whatever race and creed.  Whoever it was landed here in 1819 and claimed Singapore for the British crown, that person brought with him his military garrison which included a military band, and thus was brought into Singapore the first Western Music and the concept of music as an international, cross-cultural, non-ethnically-specific entertainment medium.  The rest is, as they say (wilfully ignoring the horrible implications of the word) history.

I read in one of the desperate strivings to distance Singapore’s last 200 years of development from European influence, that what came with Raffles was “English music”; as if, by some quirk of society, English music was of less significance than music from other countries.  (To give the exact quote from Loretta Marie & Audrey Perera’s Music in Singapore: from the 1920s to the 2000s; “With Sir Stamford Raffles came the first English music, and shortly after that, came Chinese and Indian music, with the immigrants of those two countries”.)  In 1819, nationalism had yet to rear its ugly head in music (ugly it most certainly was, since nationalism in music implies a supremacy based purely on nationality and a consequent diminution of other nationalities’ musical worth).  Certainly the Indian military bands which first provided musical entertainment to Singaporeans – and one of the first I can find recorded was the 58th Regiment Bengal Native Infantry Band who were stationed here in 1823 – may well have played some marches by English-born composers.  But I imagine they also played music by composers born elsewhere, and would not have felt that they were promoting a purely English music.

What defines Western music and effectively separates it from “Chinese and Indian music”, and equally the music of the once indigenous people of this island who are largely ignored in the popular narratives – perhaps because they were comprehensively overrun by invading Arab traders who took for themselves the term bumiputera (“people of the land”) – is that it is universal.  It uses a widely understood system of notation to transmit it across national, physical, cultural, ethnic and linguistic barriers.  Equipped with the ability to read musical notation, a Sierra Leonean, a Syrian, a Swede, a Singaporean are all equally able to recreate in sound not so much a musical idea as a whole art form, complete with its emotional significance.  There may be nuances of interpretation which differ, but in essence the original is recreated in sound every time anyone reads the notation.  That is unique to Western Music.  Other musics may have their own notational systems, but where these exist they are largely confined to those of the culture from which the music originates.  And the vast majority of non-Western musics (often loosely lumped together as “ethnomusic”) do not have a written system of notation, but rely on inter-generational one-on-one communication within the specific culture in which the music originated.

So, while we argue about who did what, when and why in Singapore’s history, let us celebrate 200 years during which one of the world’s most wonderful art forms embedded itself in Singapore society and has so greatly enriched the lives of Singaporeans, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or linguistic origins.  The best thing that could possible come out of this bicentennial is an awareness that Singapore has developed into a global power within the world of Western Music.  It is a huge part of the Singaporean heritage and needs to be celebrated as such.

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