When it comes to proudly singing and talking about our national anthem Advance Australia Fair, Australians are divided on this. Some of us are proud of our national anthem, and some of us not so proud.
In the 1990s, I went to pre-school in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and don’t remember singing Advanced Australia Fair except at assembly on Fridays. After pre-school, I moved to Malaysia and Singapore for more school. Some years ago, I returned to Melbourne and finished my last years of high school here and my classmates and I never had to sing the anthem at assembly.
On Australia Day, Advance Australia Fair is played during town hall flag raising ceremonies around the country but those of us watching aren’t asked to sing it. Right before the start of our Aussie Rules Football (AFL) Grand Final each year, the national anthem is sung by an entertainer in the middle of the pitch and the 100,000 at the match stand at attention, not all singing. Is singing and hearing the national anthem really a moment of patriotic pride and what does it mean to us?
Australians certainly have mixed feelings about our national song, a song that has changed over the years. Different generations identify with different anthems. God Save the Queen was our formal anthem before 1974 and it was played at international sporting events where Australia won medals before that year. Our current national anthem was voted as the country’s song through a plebiscite in 1977 – the popular feel-good song Waltzing Matilda came in second.
A few years ago, the national anthem was playing on TV at home and I pointed it out to dad. He said, “I thought Waltzing Matilda is the national anthem?” Mind you, my dad is a Chinese-Malaysian migrant who has a good grasp of the English language, follows local politics and has worked in Australia for years. Maybe we don’t sing it often enough and forget the lyrics, and the anthem altogether.
As Australians, we all have different views on nationalism and some national anthem’s lyrics are lost on us. In the song, the line “For we are young and free” might come across as strange to some of us who strongly want a republic (currently Australia still has a British monarch). “Our home is girt by sea” gives the impression Australians live by the sea. I certainly do not live by the ocean, nor do I go to the beach that often.
Reading between the lines, racist undertones seem to nestle within Advance Australia Fair. While it acknowledges “those who’ve come across the seas” in the second verse, there’s no hint of the First Peoples or Aboriginal culture in the song. It’s no surprise some Indigenous school students find it hard to sing the song at school assemblies.
But arguably the positive side of Australia comes across in the song as well. The words “young and free” and “boundless plains to share” touch upon the true-blue, fair dinkum Aussie spirit. There’s also a degree of progressiveness surrounding the song: it’s a song Australians independently voted for in 1977 to formally replace long-standing royal anthem God Save the Queen, in a time when the White Australia Policy which discriminated against non-European immigration was recently abolished.
Sometimes our personal experiences influence our attitude towards our national anthem. Being picked on because of my race by my so-called Caucasian friends in pre-school in Melbourne wasn’t pleasant and I avoided them. Needless to say, Friday assemblies and singing Advance Australia Fair was something I never looked forward to. Today, I don’t mind the song; it does point to Australia’s positive spirit after all.
Singing the national anthem at school in Malaysia and Singapore was a different story altogether. Every morning as my Chinese, Malay and Indian heritage classmates and I watched flags being raised during assembly, we sang Negaraku (My Country) and Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore) in respective countries. Up until this day I still remember the lyrics of both songs and the meaning behind them – Bahasa Melayu lyrics nonetheless, a language foreign to me. Perhaps this has something to do with my teachers in Malaysia and Singapore testing and grading my class on singing these two songs and my classmates encouraging me to sing the songs with them. As one. As one culture.
In multicultural Australia, many of us identify with multiple identities and cultures. At the end of the day, we each have a right and a choice on whether we want to sing our country’s national anthem or not, just as we have a choice on deciding what being a citizen of country means to us.
I reckon the high school I went to in Melbourne never got my class to sing Advance Australia Fair because they sadly assumed it wasn’t a song was significant to us: more than half of the school comprised international students and Australians of culturally diverse backgrounds. Just because some of us weren’t Australian doesn’t mean we’re not interested in the anthem. Nevertheless, so many of us clamoured at the canteen to buy sausage rolls for recess on numerous occasions. How Australian.
There are certainly more ways to show our love for our country than singing a song.
Did you sing the national anthem at school?