Rad or Bad: Singapore 'Public Service' tunes that helped (annoyingly)

Rad or Bad: Singapore 'Public Service' tunes that helped (annoyingly)

Music achieves many things. It can soundtrack a romantic proposal, a raver and clubber's heart-thumping dopamine rush, or a serene soundscape that mindfulness practitioners meditate to. 

Alternatively, it can be weaponised into a cheesy campaign song and broadcasted day and night on our airwaves 'til the tune ingrains itself into our long-term memory cortex, searing it unforgivingly into our cerebrum along with the message it espouses. Brutal.

Over the years, public service announcement (PSA) tunes have shaped Singaporean society (for the better?) and left an indelible mark on our collective consciousness. And while we may find the incessant replaying of these songs mildly irritating or downright infuriating, perhaps the genius behind it is that we can remember its message for longer because of that. Or perhaps no one knew the wiser. Who's to say?

Yet, not all PSA tunes are that bad, are they? In this article, we look back on the most iconic campaign songs that have appeared over the decades and rate how rad or bad they are on a scale of 0 to 10. Read on to see how many of these earworms you've pulled your hair out to.  

Make Courtesy Our Way of Life (1980) 

"Courtesy is for free, courtesy is for you and me."

A classic. If you sang the title above in your head instead of merely reading it, chances are you grew up in the '80s. Your educators might have instructed you to sing this on the daily when you were back in primary school, and nostalgia is now hitting you hard.  

Commissioned in 1980 as the official song for the National Courtesy Campaign that year, this tune was part of a string of efforts by the Government to teach Singaporeans to be polite. Our late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was concerned that unkind and discourteous behaviour from locals might cast the island-state in a bad light, driving tourists away along with their spending. He thus commissioned the campaign and placed the affable mascot Singa the Lion as its cartoon representative (who has, unfortunately, 'resigned' because Singaporeans proved to be too disagreeable).

Written in an open letter to Singapore in 2013, Singa the Lion explains: "I quit. I need a long break, and you could probably use a break from me too. No one likes being nagged at, even if it's about being kind and gracious."

"I suppose it's time for real people to step up and for the mascot to step aside."

The campaign also emerged under the Singapore Kindness Movement from 1997 onwards.

The song was composed by J.J. de Souza, who worked as a music specialist at the Ministry of Education's extra-curricular activities centre. For his work, he was conferred the "Meritorious Award" by the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (COMPASS) in 2003. 

Verdict: Bad, 3/10 (but if we needed a track to encourage graciousness, maybe we're the real bad ones here).

大家说华语 'Let's All Speak Mandarin' (1980)

Taiwanese songbird Tracy Huang was given the opportunity to sing the first iteration of this famous tune. Written in 1980 as the theme song for the Speak Mandarin Campaign, it harkens back to a decade of intensive efforts by the Government to replace Chinese dialects with Mandarin as the standard spoken language amongst the Chinese population.  

During the 1980s, Mandarin became an increasingly important communication tool with business partners in China. The song's opening line "国家要进步// 语言要沟通", which roughly translates to "Our country needs to progress, so we should speak a language that is mutually understood", reveals the socioeconomic motivations that were behind the campaign.

This theme song was eventually re-recorded many times over the years, with notable versions featuring the voices of local songstress Dawn Yip and actors from Mediacorp's Channel 8.

Verdict: Bad, 4/10.

Great Singapore Workout (1993) 

Setting a new Guinness World Record is no mean feat, but Singapore managed to clinch a position in the coveted record book with the help of this one track in 1993. 

The Great Singapore Workout is a low-intensity aerobic exercise that was designed as part of the National Healthy Lifestyle Programme. It comprises 15 simple workouts that were touted to be suitable for people of all ages, from seven-year-olds to 70-year-olds. At the launch of the exercise, a grand total of 26,107 Singaporeans took part in the workout and grooved to the beat of the song. Since then, schoolchildren have been doing the workout too on the annual All Children Exercise Simultaneously (ACES) Day that coincides with Teacher's Day every year.

The soundtrack was composed by David Miller, who was the creative director of creative agency Adcom which produced the workout video and its accompanying programme on a SGD$500,000 budget (that's about SGD$769,547.08 in today's context). It features ethnic beats inspired by local traditional music and genres like the Malay joget.

Verdict: Those moves and that bassline? Play this in a club, pronto. Rad, 7/10

SAR-vivor Rap (2003)

"SARS is the virus, that I just want to minus. No more surprises if you use your brain..."

2003 saw the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus epidemic rear its ugly head with outbreaks over the globe. Similar to Covid-19, governments instantly mobilised to increase social campaigns encouraging vigilant hygiene in both quality and quantity, ensuring the epidemic could be quickly eradicated with every citizen first doing their part.

Intentionally kitshcy, grammatically ridiculous, yet message-brilliant, and despite its premiere being met with initially mixed reviews - the track has been immortalised in Singaporean' folklore ever since, with many a school children, parents, and households quoting PCK to 'don't play play' (to not muck around) when it came to civilian responsibility.

Don't doubt it - the minds behind the PSA were successful, and whilst one could cite many different reasons for its eradication, our yellow-booted contractor defeated SARS one bad verse at a time. It's with good reason that he's been employed for more PSAs to this time battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Drawing international praise and recognition from spectators worldwide on the one hand, it's enacted sentiments of lethargy and ire from some locals, with many chiming in that the recent videos are in poor taste as a result of rising cases, possibly undercutting the severity of the pandemic with a satirical approach. The tiresome overuse of the character as national mascot-cum-whistleblower is also a popular stance. Be that as it may, we believe the video's consumption was made for easy circulation for, say, misinformed/underinformed citizens on certain Whatsapp and Facebook groups, for example. Based on the track alone though, we understand the sentiments of disgruntled listeners. 

We'll pin this tweet by Minister Tan Chuan-Jin to cap things off.

Sonically criminal, 5/10. Virus-fighting effectiveness, 10/10.

MDA Senior Management Rap (2010)

Our personal pick of the lot.

If there's one thing you have to watch today it's this. Not much to say about this one barring how ridiculous it must've been for the producer(s) to brief the folks for performance in the video; we would've loved to have sat through that tutorial on flow and rhyme. Fingers and toes crossed for a spirited rap battle between HPB, NEA, LTA, MOE and whoever else wants summa' this. Seriously, make this happen and we'll start a petition stat'. 

Verdict: 9/10, rad. We don't care what you think, you try getting a building full of middle-aged senior management folks to participate in a rap. 

Love Your Ride (2010)

A commendable effort by the bodies in-charge to ride on their popularity and flair to popularise commuter graciousness to the masses, the Dim Sum Dollies' message here is simple - treat others the way you'd like to be treated on public transport. 

The cabaret group, formed in 2002, are famed for their performances and contributions to the local arts and theatre scene, and as anyone that has sat through any of their shows can attest, their incredulous vocal range, satirical and contemporary take on social issues, and trail-blazing accomplishments are a generational gem. Not to mention their outstanding flamboyant get-ups and dance routines which are present in the PSA. 

And if you're wondering where you've heard their voices sprinkled, here's a quick reminder:

Unfortunately, Emma Yong, one-third of the Dollies' passed away in 2012 at age 36 as a result of stomach cancer, with an outpouring of grief from local theatre and arts stalwarts amongst others. Rest in peace. Denise Tan has since filled as the last Dim Sum, until she was replaced by Jo Tan in 2020 due to the latter's pursuits elsewhere.

Rad, 6/10. 

Save My World (2012) 

Who knew getting 30 primary school kids to sing a catchy jingle about going green would be the key to melting our selfish, earth-polluting hearts? 

Recorded to be the official theme song for Mediacorp's Saving Gaia campaign in 2012, it's impossible to have not heard this tune at least once. The children's repeated cries to 'save my world' sends a strong message that protecting the environment is crucial. Global warming is a real and serious endangerment to humankind, and in many studies, we're already years behind from where we need to be. In recognising this, Singapore's largest and 'OG' content creator Mediacorp, and their efforts to address this urgency are paramount in mobilising the nation. 

In fact, this song has proven to be such a hit that it's been remade more times than the number of Phua Chu Kang's PSAs. A new version of 'Save My World' was made available every single year from 2013 to 2016. Notably, the 2013 iteration featured the cast of local National Service film Ah Boys to Men and included a rap verse from Tosh Rock

Verdict: Rad, 7/10. Any tune to save Mother Earth is a good tune. Think of the children. And their children's children! 

Choose water - Drink Up! (2018) 

While campaign advertisements from the Government aren't typically seen as "cool", this one's a true bop. 

Homegrown rapper Shigga Shay throws down in a rap battle with his alter-ego "Sugar Coat", who seems to have an extreme case of a sweet tooth. Throughout the video, Shigga beseeches his hedonistic, health-forsaking arch-nemesis to stop consuming sweetened drinks and opt for plain water instead. In true Singaporean fashion, the rhymes in this track have also been littered with relatable Singlish phrases like 'lim zui' and 'ler si gong simi wei?'. 

The song was released on World Diabetes Day as part of Singapore's 'War On Diabetes' campaign in 2018. The disease, which is aggravated by high sugar intake, has posed a clear health threat to the nation in recent years. Statistics show that more than 400,000 Singaporeans have diabetes, and this number could go up to 1 million by 2050 if left unchecked.   

Verdict: Rad-isculously good9/10 (we could listen to this all day, siu dai is the only way).

Honourable Mention: Keppel Corporation's Haka. Neither a PSA nor a song, but...trust us.

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