Up Close With... Hugh Harrison, composer of Count on Me, Singapore
In this instalment of Up Close With, Low Youjin speaks to Mr Hugh Harrison, composer of the popular National Day song Count on Me, Singapore.
In this series, TODAY’s journalists meet the people behind the headlines to talk about issues of the day and the more personal side of their lives.
In this instalment, Low Youjin speaks to Mr Hugh Harrison, composer of the popular National Day song Count on Me, Singapore. The 70-year-old Canadian found himself in the spotlight this year after Indian musician Joseph Conrad Mendoza claimed that he had composed the song, which was first performed at Singapore’s National Day Parade in 1986. Mr Mendoza has since withdrawn his claims. Speaking to TODAY via video-calling platform Zoom from Northern Alberta, Canada, where he lives, Mr Harrison spoke of how he came to work in Singapore decades ago and how he ended up writing some of Singapore’s best-loved National Day songs.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Youjin: How did you end up working in advertising in Singapore so many years ago?
Hugh: I’ve been travelling the world since 1969, and it just so happened that, in 1982, I saw the movie Mad Max 2: Road Warrior. I was in Vancouver, Canada at the time, and I said to my friend: “I’m shipping my motorcycle to Australia.” The next day, I took it down to the docks, cleaned it up and off it went. Months later, I flew down, and I drove all over Australia with my 1971 BMW 750.
After many months, I came up to Darwin, Australia, then Indonesia and into Singapore. I eventually ran out of money, and it occurred to me that the best place to find work would be Singapore because it’s an English-speaking place… I had experience as a film producer and director, music producer, composer and so on. But I didn't have any experience with advertising agencies, and they seemed to be the only thing going on in Singapore at that time, so I started knocking on doors. I had nothing to show, but it just so happened I had knocked on the right door with the advertising company McCann Erickson. I talked to Brian Watson (the firm’s managing director then) to give me a one-month probation. If he likes me, he keeps me. I eventually became a kind of creative producer, writing jingles and producing all the television (content) for the next several years.
Youjin: What did you like about Singapore?
Hugh: I used to love riding a motorcycle in the balmy breeze of the nighttime — what a wonderful temperature. I love the fact that it can rain on one side of the street, and not on the other side, during the monsoon. I love the proximity to all the other places around, from Sumatra to Sarawak and Myanmar, India and China. Singapore is dead centre — a perfect place for any person who wants to explore and travel. And Singaporeans are such nice people. They might have been a bit transitional when I first got there with the “kiasu” (Hokkien for the fear of missing out) culture, but they have become so much more sophisticated and international.
Youjin: How did you get involved in writing National Day songs?
Hugh: In 1984, the Singapore Government... wanted to celebrate years of nation-building. It was a chance at this point to stop, take a breath, look at what had been accomplished in one generation and get some kind of commitment from the youth, to carry on for another generation.
They decided that they would, this time, turn to the advertising and public relations agencies to get a professional look on how to market this concept. And Brian, not wanting to involve the other creatives because it was just a tender and there was no time, turned to me and said: “Let’s do a song. We’ll get some archival footage and edit something together.” So I went away that weekend thinking about the idea for Stand Up for Singapore — it was about looking at the past with pride and the future with confidence… I took it back to the agency, showed it to Brian and he said: “Perfect, let’s do a full thing.” (We eventually) put a tender in, didn’t sleep for several days and we won. There was no talk about this being a national song; it was just going to be part of a commercial about nation-building. The song was liked more than I ever understood or realised, and it was pushed into the public domain and everybody was singing it and it carried on until National Day.
Youjin: Do you still watch our National Day Parades online?
Hugh: Oh yeah, all the time. I listen to the National Day speeches, too.
Youjin: What do you think of the songs?
Hugh: I think there are some winners in there, and they are moving away from those cliched themes about caring and sharing. Those are not bad sentiments, but there are better ways to say it metaphorically. Singapore is in my heart all the time. I have lived all over the world, but it is still another home for me. I still have constant contact with Singaporean friends through social media, the telephone and I was last there two years ago.
Youjin: Did you find it odd that you wrote songs that became national favourites?
Hugh: Later, it was a bit mind-boggling. But I never had time to reflect on it. I've written songs for companies, motivational songs for airlines, corporate songs, jingles and all kinds of things. It doesn't matter. It’s people. It’s ideas. It’s understanding what they want from you. You focus on that: Writing according to a brief.
Youjin: In other words, it was just another assignment?
Hugh: It was at that time. (I remember) I was living in Hong Kong and it was just after the National Day celebrations in 1985. Richard Tan (a former director at Singapore's communications and information ministry) said the Government would like another song, as the prime minister was concerned that there was a bit of a recession going on. “Can we get a song that builds confidence in young people, to continue the success of Singapore?” I was told this on the telephone. On the plane to Singapore, I had a vision of kids all standing, saying: “Count on me, Singapore”.
Youjin: Did you expect Count on Me, Singapore to be so popular to this day?
Hugh: You don't have these expectations and, of course, there were lots of critics. They said it was all propaganda, but that changed over the years. People look back with nostalgia, and they seem to like it from a distance now. Back then, it came out like a sledgehammer and people were getting a little fed up with it. Some people were complaining. “Your songs,” they said to me, “got into my head and I can't get them out.”
Youjin: You told me you didn’t mind being anonymous, but you were thrust into the spotlight this year. How did that feel?
Hugh: There has been increasing awareness over the years (of my involvement with National Day songs). And then, of course, Singapore formally adopted international copyright laws and they (the authorities) had to put my name on it. People saw this and wondered who I was. With the internet, my name appeared more and more.... Somebody notified me on my YouTube channel that a version of my song (Count on Me, Singapore) was being sung in India. I checked it out and it was quite a cute version with schoolchildren singing it. But it turned out this Joey Mendoza guy claimed he wrote the song in 1983 when you and I both know it’s quite impossible. It's one thing if you've got a wonderful string of notes that might reflect something that somebody else wrote, but you don't have an entire song and the lyrics. It just doesn’t happen.
Youjin: Now that this episode is over, how do you feel?
Hugh: I was touched that total strangers were writing to me, thanking me for the song. I enjoy people taking the liberty with my songs and doing whatever they want. Jeremy Monteiro (who arranged Count on Me, Singapore) has played some light jazz versions of my songs, and I’ve seen some young people do pop versions of Stand Up for Singapore. So I say go for it and have fun with the songs. Change and modernise it — that gives them life, too. It’s a great honour, now that I reflect on it, that the songs mean anything to people and they are sung every year.