A lesson in humour: An analysis of MCCY’s PR response to the ‘Count on me, Singapore’ copyright claim

Photo credit: Singapore Incidents YouTube screen grab

“Count on me, Singapore” is one of those anthems that Singaporeans grew up listening to and singing along every National Day season. So, when videos featuring school children from India singing the exact same song – with the lyrics amended such as ‘Singapore’ replaced with ‘India’ – started circulating online, it no doubt confused and amused some Singaporean netizens.

But this confusion spiralled into national anger when Indian composer Joseph Mendoza claimed he wrote the song first in 1983, according to local media reports. The song was originally composed in 1986 by Canadian Hugh Harrison, and the copyright is owned by the Singapore government. Mendoza has since withdrawn the claim and apologised, according to MCCY.

I think part of the Internet furore is fuelled by what I believe is this anti-establishment and anti-CECA (India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) sentiment floating about. And this is largely to do with the composer’s race and nationality, evident by one of Singapore’s top Indian comics’ comments on this:

But I won’t be going into that.

A PR case study: how a light-hearted response bombed

For communications professionals though, I think this an interesting case study because one key trigger point was how MCCY handled the debacle, particularly with this Facebook post that triggered some people:

MCCY has since issued a few more responses that were thoughtful and well-written. The final post to close the case, I think, nailed it. But the above attempt at some humour to calm the raw nerves definitely fell flat. Granted, I think it was a stop-gap measure at the point in time, to quickly assuage the anger online.

My 2-cents worth

I think the officers behind the post wanted say – without definitively proving it – that the song was stolen. They were, perhaps, still checking with the India end of things, to be sure that the copyright was indeed infringed. Hence, they issued the statement to show that they were in solidarity with netizens over the possible infringement (‘imitation is the best form of flattery’).

Well, this official response, however, led to mainstream media picking up the story and having more Singaporeans scrutinise the hoo-ha.

It made some people angrier because it looked like high-level civil servants did not take intellectual property seriously. Such a reply on Facebook should have been approved by at least a director-level officer. It could have been written by a managerial-level officer, but to have been posted on Facebook, it would have been approved by a director.

This FB comment puts things in perspective:

In short: Copyright infringement and plagiarism in commercial music is a big deal. That’s why record labels and musicians sue one another when their beats, riffs, and lyrics are used without permission. Singapore needs to protect our national songs because taxpayer money is involved. This post by Bertha caps it nicely.

I guess the lesson here is to avoid humour in stop-gap responses to crisis situations. Gather the facts first before saying anything witty. Or… just keep the wit to the copywriting side of things.

Check out the India version of the song:

The original: