Sounds of Singapore: The Xinyao movement, Nanyang university closure, shift to English stream, Chinese dialects ban


Sounds of Singapore is a segment where Offbeat Perspectives share music we enjoy by local artists or bands regardless of it’s genre, popularity, or year released.


It was full house when I watched 我们唱着的歌 The Songs We Sang (2015). The seats were mainly filled by the older generation. Expecting the film to explore solely on the music history of 新摇 (Xinyao) movement, I was enlightened to discover that the  music movement also intertwined with our national policies.

Roots of Xinyao

Back then in the late 1970s. China’s music was of a revolutionary genre, Hong Kong’s  Cantopop songs were used at theme songs of their TV’s soap operas, and Taiwan’s music style were influenced by Japanese anime (which was very popular back then).

History goes like this – at the then Nanyang University, the respective heads of the poetry club and music club were friends, and they eventually decided to start creating music together – with one side penning the lyrics, and the other side providing the tune. Who would expect it to grow into a significant cultural music movement when they decided to rope in their club members? The movement later spread to the different universities, and Junior colleges.

What exactly is Xinyao?

The word itself Xinyao新谣 is shorthand for ‘新加坡年轻人创造的歌谣’. It is a genre of songs that is unique to Singapore, where the songs are composed and sung by young Singaporeans and are usually about life in this small island country. Xinyao can be clearly identified by its distinctive style of clean acoustics, with a group of people singing and harmonizing together in the singing style Shuochang (说唱), usually accompanied solely by the guitar. It is defined by Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians as ‘a Mandarin vocal genre accompanied by guitars which began in the early 1980s among teenage students’ (Groves 2001, pg. 421- 423). (Xinyao Singapore)

In simpler terms, Singapore’s 新摇 were Chinese music written by youths with simple, folksy tunes about their lives in Singapore and often sung to the sole accompaniment of guitars.

The closure of Nanyang University

In the 1970s, Nanyang University (the first Chinese university outside of China and Taiwan catering to high school graduates from the Chinese stream) faced the problem of falling student enrolment as more parents were sending their children to English-language schools. In February 1978, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the need for Nanyang University to switch to using English as the language of instruction within the next five years. This was soon followed by an announcement in March that a joint campus scheme would be introduced to enable students from Nanyang University to study in an English-speaking environment together with students from the University of Singapore. (Singapore infopedia, 2014)

Lee Kuan Yew’s comment on the Nanyang University graduates being worth $300 was also once – splashed across the front page of the mainstream newspaper. But out of respect for the Chinese students who were already sadden by the fact that their school had to close down, was there a need to add fuel to fire?

For many of Nanyang University’s students, the sudden switch of the entire educational syllabus to English was a huge struggle after their merger with the University of Singapore. One male singer from a Xinyao band remarked that it was inevitable one generation had to be the “sacrificial lamb”, which is very true. With any form of change, there has to be a group of generation / individuals to act as the guinea pigs during the transitional period.

Ban of Chinese dialects in local media

The movie too, gave focus to the decline in Chinese dialects which occured more than 3 decades ago.

This downward spiral can be traced back to the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which was launched by Singapore’s government in 1979 to unify the various dialect groups by encouraging them to speak a common language.

Consequently, dialects were banned on local media and have been for decades, which spawned an online petition aimed at reintroducing dialects on local television and radio programmes. (April 7 2014, NUS blog)

Ma Que Xian Zhu Zhi (Sparrow With Twigs) by singer-songwriter Liang Wern Fook, a local mandarin song with Cantonese lyrics has it’s ban removed after 23 years in 2013, when featured in the local movie That Girl In Pinafore. According to the Media Development Authority’s guidelines on radio content, “songs in dialects in a programme may be allowed provided the context justifies usage and is used sparingly”.  (Aug 5 2013, ST)

Xinyao in the 1980s

In 1983, veteran DJ Lim Cher Hui introduced a new weekly radio programme titled Our Singers and Songwriters (歌的心声), with a focus on promoting local artists and Xinyao (Singapore songs). ..The programme quickly gained momentum as youths in local schools had been actively composing and performing songs that reflected their identity since the late 1970s..(and it) became a popular platform for youths to present their original music…Many xinyao compositions were also used as the theme songs for local Chinese television dramas.. the movement grew into an annual xinyao festival in 1985. Successful xinyao artists who emerged include Eric Moo (from Underpass Group) and Billy Koh (from The Straws). (Celebrating Radio – In tune with the times exhibition, 2016)

All these later paved the wave for local artists (from the 1990s to early 2000s) who made it big in the global Chinese market (China, Taiwan) – A-Do, Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua, JJ Lin.

In recent times…

The film ended off with the song’s performance at the 2014 two-hour Xinyao concert featuring 1980s singers held at Bras Basah (the complex known for its bookshops was a student hangout, as well as a popular venue for Singapore singers to launch and promote their cassette albums in the 1980s).  (ST, July 6 2014)

Many concerts and events featuring Xinyao, were organised in 2015 to celebrate the movement’s 50th anniversary. (SPH, 6 April 2016)

And in recent years, there have been a spade of exposure to the Xinyao movement in our media:

That Girl in Pinafore film (2013)

Crescendo Concert (2014)

Crescendo TV Drama Serial (2015)

Inaugural Xinyao Singing Contest (2015)

The National Schools Xinyao Singing and Song Writing Competition. In its second edition this year, it has expanded to include a songwriting category(2016).

According to Winners of National Schools Xinyao Singing And Songwriting Competition want to make the indie folk music relevant again (ST, 6 July 2016):

Young talents gave their take on xinyao, the Singapore Chinese indie folk music movement popular in the 1980s and 1990s, at the finals of the National Schools Xinyao Singing And Song Writing Competition 2016.

Held last Saturday at the Singapore Polytechnic Convention Centre, the competition aims to promote xinyao while discovering new talent. Open to secondary schools, junior colleges, Institutes of Technical Education and polytechnics, it attracted more than 420 participants from 52 schools in its second edition this year.

The event was organised by Singapore Press Holdings’ Chinese- language daily Lianhe Zaobao, music event company TCR Music Station and Jurong Junior College.

The top performers walked away with cash prizes ranging between $200 and $1,500.

During an interview with Mr Lee Kuan Yew…

Q: The closure of Singapore’s only Chinese university, Nantah, in 1980, has left a lingering sense of loss among Chinese-educated people of that generation. Could it have been avoided? Would it have been a plus today if there was a Chinese university in Singapore?

A: If we have have one, who’s going there?  You’re going to send your son to a Chinese University in Singapore when they can go to Beijing or Shanghai?

I’ve offered Wee Cho Yaw (banker and Chinese community leader): we will revive the old Chinese school, you fill it up. He turned it down. He knew he couldn’t do it. No Singapore parent who wants his son to succeed in Singapore wants his son to have a schooling that does not give him a command of English.

Information source:

Han, F.K., Zuraidah Ibrahim, Chua, M.H., Lim, L., Low, I., Lin, R., Chan, R. (2011). Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Singapore, Straits Time Press.


I’m glad to know that the Xinyao wave seems to be headed back on track, as they reach out to our younger generation of Chinese music lovers. Our television and radio stations also seem to be showing more support with their increasing exposure, and platform provided for local musicians to perform. Maybe an original song writing-cum-singing talent competition on TV would be a breath of fresh air, away from the usual singing talent competition.


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