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Composer of Count on Me, Singapore refutes plagiarism claims by musician in India

SINGAPORE — An enduring patriotic song widely sung in Singapore has induced all kinds of emotions in the past week. Anger turned to confusion after a composer in India claimed to have written the original version of Count on Me, Singapore, a National Day favourite among the people here.

A screenshot of a video showing people in India singing a song that sounds close to Count on Me, Singapore.

A screenshot of a video showing people in India singing a song that sounds close to Count on Me, Singapore.

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  • Over the past week, the online community had been up in arms over videos of Count on Me, Singapore being sung by what appeared to be students in India
  • The version had replaced references to Singapore in the lyrics to India
  • A composer in India claimed that he had written the song in 1983
  • In Singapore, it was first performed at the 1986 National Day celebrations
  • Count on Me, Singapore’s composer has outrightly refuted this claim

 

SINGAPORE — An enduring patriotic song widely sung in Singapore has induced all kinds of emotions in the past week. Anger turned to confusion after a composer in India claimed to have written the original version of Count on Me, Singapore, a National Day favourite among the people here.

Videos of what appeared to be students in India singing the iconic song have surfaced on social media — except that all references to “Singapore” in the lyrics seemed to have been replaced with “India”.

The song also goes by a different title, We Can Achieve, which Indian musician Joseph Conrad Mendoza claimed to have written three years before Canadian Hugh Harrison composed Count on Me, Singapore for the 1986 National Day celebrations here.

Speaking to TODAY, both composers dug their heels in, each claiming to be the original songwriter.

Mr Mendoza, 58, said that he wrote the song in April 1983 and taught it to children from the Bal Bhavan Orphanage in Mumbai where he is based.

They rehearsed for a month before performing it on May 1 that year during an annual gathering of children from different orphanages, he said.

“We shared the song with many teachers and institutions,” Mr Mendoza, who is also known as Joey, told TODAY in an email. 

“The children in remote villages all sing We Can Achieve,” he said, adding that he travels around the country to teach music and sports to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Asked for evidence, he said: “Whatever data I had on the performance has gone missing since all cassettes and written (documents) were all washed away in the floods of July 26, 2005.” 

In 1999, he sold the rights to the song to a Catholic publishing house Pauline Communications for what he claimed to be a nominal sum of 2,000 rupees (about S$37).

The publishing house then released the track as part of a CD called We Can Achieve — Inspirational Songs for Children and All in 1999. It also uploaded the song to music-sharing platform SoundCloud in 2012, which it has now removed.

In a Facebook post last Sunday evening, Pauline Communications said that when it bought the song from Mr Mendoza, it was unaware that a similar song was used in Singapore's 1986 National Day celebrations.

“It seems that it has been copied 99 per cent from the song Count on Me Singapore,” it wrote. “Sorry for any inconvenience caused and sentiments hurt.”

‘AUDACIOUS ACTS’ 

For Mr Harrison, who works in advertising and had written three of Singapore’s earliest National Day songs, Mr Mendoza’s claim touched a raw nerve. 

“I don't think anyone would have been bothered if a group of school children wanted to alter the lyrics slightly and sing this song for their own enjoyment,” he told TODAY from Canada. 

“The real problem is that Joey has been commercialising this song, even going so far as selling the rights… And worst of all, he makes his audacious acts even more outlandish by claiming that this second of Singapore's National Day songs was essentially stolen from him and does so in a public forum.”

Mr Harrison said that the copyright to Count on Me, Singapore belongs to himself and the Singapore Government, which had asked him to write the song while he was working for the McCann-Erickson advertising agency.

While he was working on the song, the lyrics and melody had evolved over a number of months after input from a government official, a colleague from his firm, as well as Singapore jazz veteran Jeremy Monteiro, who arranged the piece.

“What are the odds that after all these small tweaks, the song just happened to end up being identical to Joey Mendoza's Indian version?”

He has not been contacted by any government officials about the dispute over the song, but he has written to Mr Mendoza for him to retract his claims, he said.

In a Facebook post last Friday, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) said that it was investigating unauthorised versions of Count on Me, Singapore for potential copyright infringements.

But it edited the post a day later to remove references that it was conducting an investigation.              

It said in the latest version of its statement: “We have noticed that a remixed version of our national song Count on Me, Singapore has been made into several videos. This is one of our most beloved and recognised national songs, we are happy that it seems to have struck a chord with people in India as well.”

It added: “It may be a copy of our song, but sometimes, imitation is the best form of flattery!”

TO SUE OR NOT TO SUE?

Intellectual property experts who were interviewed agreed that this case was one of clear-cut copyright infringement.

Lawyer Jeffrey Lim, director of Joyce A Tan & Partners, said that with the stark similarities in the lyrics and the melody of both songs, it would be impossible to escape the conclusion that one work was copied from the other.

The question, Mr Lim asked, is who copied from whom?

Lawyer Bryan Tan, a partner at Pinsent Masons law firm, said that Mr Mendoza’s claim warrants an investigation by MCCY if the authorities decide to take any legal action.

If Mr Mendoza had plagiarised Mr Harrison’s song, Singapore could send a lawyer’s letter to the copyright infringers to stop using the copyright or to credit the source of the song. 

Associate Professor Saw Cheng Lim from Singapore Management University's School of Law said that any copyright infringements involving the two countries can be enforced because both sides are signatories of international intellectual property agreements.

The issue, however, lies in the sensitivities surrounding the use of patriotic songs and whether enforcing action may hurt friendly relations between nations.

“The legal position appears to be very strong from Singapore’s perspective”, if Singapore’s version was the original, he said. 

“But whether you want to take further steps in that direction is probably a question that’s not legal in nature.”

Related topics

Count on Me Singapore National Day song MCCY India

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