Everything I Am: A National Day Interview with Dr Sydney Tan and He Shuming
The National Day song is something I look forward to every year. We’re probably one of the only countries that comes up with a new National Day song almost every year. With how much effort that goes into the composition and meaning behind each one, that’s something we should be proud of.
And someone who knows that incredibly well is Dr Sydney Tan, music director of this year’s theme song ‘Everything I Am’. Featuring music and lyrics written by Joshua Wan, ‘Everything I Am’ is a song that encourages reflection, with an underlying message of humility, teachability and gratitude.
Having been involved with the National Day Parade (NDP) since 2002, Dr Tan’s experience has helped him understand the intricacies that go into an NDP song. While it’s not easy to create a song that will please everyone, Dr Tan manages to always bring together just the right mix of people across the industry and make it work.
“Every generation’s songs have evolved stylistically and lyrically. And when you juxtapose that against history, you can see how the world has changed so much, and the music comes to represent that progress,” says Dr Tan. “But what legitimises an NDP song isn’t the tempo or genre, but really whether it fits the needs and reflects the concerns of the country at the time.”
In its initial years, the NDP song was characterised by big, patriotic anthems (such as ‘Stand Up For Singapore’). In 1998 however, following the Asian Financial Crisis and many Singaporeans leaving the country, there was a need to find a new type of song that would speak to the people. That came in the form of Dick Lee’s ‘Home’ (performed by Kit Chan), which struck a chord with many Singaporeans at the time with its message of belonging, and has become many Singaporeans’ favourite NDP song, resonating even today.
Charlie Lim’s ‘Room at the Table’, which expands on the prelude he wrote for ‘We Are Singapore’ (2018)
Since then, we’ve seen NDP songs exploring different genres, from Tanya Chua’s ‘Where I Belong’ (2001) to Electrico’s ‘What Do You See?’ (2009). Fast forward to 2018, and the NDP song began to look ahead into the future by reflecting on the past, with the new version of ‘We Are Singapore’, featuring a prelude by Charlie Lim, with lyrics like “I know I’ve got to be the change I want to see”, and “No, nothing’s ever perfect, but I still call you mine”.
“And then we continued the narrative in 2019, with ‘Our Singapore’. Beyond just creating a product, the process itself was an opportunity and an experience for the artistes of all the different generations to come together and meet one another. These were the people who literally taught the generations that began this process of mentorship, shaping Singapore into who she is today. This allows us to arrive at the humbling revelation that it is never about any individual ‘greatness’ but that we’re all members of a family,” says Dr Tan. “We’re all making that journey, and we can learn from those that have gone before, whilst simultaneously celebrating the success of those that come after us standing on our shoulders.”
And all of that leads back to how this year’s NDP song was finally composed, learning from past experiences, and conceived for the present. Says Dr Tan: “We went with this song that captured the message that ‘because of who you are, I can be everything I am’, this idea of empowerment in recognising who you are, who you want to be and what potential you have thanks to Singapore.”
*Editors Note* Driving home one evening, alone in my car, it was just me and the radio. I’m tuned in to Power98, and the deejay says they’re about to play this year’s National Day song. I didn’t know what to expect, but the first stanza of the song hit me:
“I want you to understand, because of you I am who I am.”
“Because of who you are, I can be everything I am.”
Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s been one heck of a year. And this stanza immediately spoke to me. Everyone has been going through their fair share of challenges, and sometimes it’s really hard to understand what another person is going through. There are times we’ll never know how privileged we are to be in Singapore. But look around us: we should be proud. And this song just brings out all these emotions in me.
Nowadays we get to go out (albeit, all wearing masks). And nowadays instead of seeing people’s smiles, we see them smiling through their eyes instead. This pandemic has brought out a degree of humility in us all.
When I got home, I managed to take a look at the music video for this year’s National Day song. The familiarity of Zoom calls and video conferences was there for all to see. Seeing families reconnect with one another digitally, it almost seemed like because of this, people are beginning to remember how precious communication and relationships are. And it’s beautiful how this video managed to capture all that.
In seeing all the smiles from the families and children featured in the video, I remember a time when children couldn’t even visit their grandparents, a time that has since passed. About the frontline workers tirelessly labouring away, and beautiful stories of Singaporeans coming forward to offer assistance with however little they had.
But the thing that hit me most was the message about acceptance, almost painting that picture of how we’re now more tolerant of those around us and aware of what’s going on. Not forgetting the singer of the song, Nathan Hartono. When the video begins, he’s looking straight into the viewer’s eyes, almost connecting with us. And towards the end of the song, the video pans out to the familiar scene of HDB blocks behind us, almost like a pop-up concert. Is this the future of concerts, and the new normal we should expect to see? It’s a moment of reflection on what the months ahead have in store for us.
At the back of my head, I’m listening out for the word ‘Singapore’. After all, it seems like a requisite word for every NDP song. We seem to see it across our past songs, but heard only towards the end, it seems almost like an affirmation that when Nathan sang ‘here’s to you Singapore’, it’s to every one of us who’ve kept on going on throughout the year, supporting each other. And I know amidst the bad year we’ve had, this is a song that offers us comfort and hope that things will get better. And together, we’ll get through it together, to be everything we can be. *
The music video for ‘Everything I Am’ was conceived and directed by He Shuming, who is a first time music video director for the NDP. “I’ve been asked to do the music video for NDP for a few years now, but there’ve always been scheduling issues on my end,” says Shuming. “So when the opportunity came up again this year, I thought it’s high time I took up their offer at last. It’s definitely very different from how I imagined it would be like going in, and I’m thankful to how Sydney (Dr Tan) has been there throughout the process to guide us along the way and advise us on how best to capture the message it wanted to get across.”
“I first heard the song at Sydney’s studio, and got the sense that it was an attempt to reflect how challenging this year has been. It was very introspective compared to other years, and the lyrics and melody really spoke for themselves,” he continues. “I could already see it in my head that it would be a tight shot of the singer looking into the camera, and addressing the audience, and grabbing your attention with that very first line, because it was so powerful.”
With the circuit breaker in place however, and new restrictions on filming, it became increasingly difficult for him and his team to carry out their original plans. “We had to rethink a lot of our original ideas, and kept wondering how we could still create something organically even within the limitations, and tell the stories that would represent the song in the video,” says Shuming. “So we thought about how the video should have been an aspiration of what we could achieve. We wanted it to be relatable for the times, and how people stayed connected with each other, these stories of hope and togetherness in spite of the difficulties.”
“For the Music Video, I wanted Shuming to go beyond the norm and find the more subtle nuances in each individual story, from the way people looked at each other to the smiles on their faces,” says Dr Tan. “I painted a vision of what I wanted to see, something that went beyond the usual landscapes of Singapore, like showing how teaching isn’t limited to just a formal setting, but in our daily lives. And to that end, Shuming really captured that in the MV.”
“Honestly, this was the first production I did during the COVID-19 period, and when I got my team together, they were just so happy to be working again,” says Shuming. “At the end of the day, there’s this huge sense of pride and I’m happy to have been a part of this. My job was simply to put visuals to the song’s words, and to that end, hopefully, it worked.”
Bakchormeeboy wishes all Singaporeans a very happy National Day. For more information on how you can take part in the celebrations on 9th August, visit their official website here