One of Singapore’s most unique CCAs almost disappeared—then a school merger gave it a new lease of life. Now they are winning accolades – again.
East meets West
Picture this: three rows of students on a stage, smartly dressed in bright red Indonesia-inspired costumes. Each of them is playing an angklung, a traditional handheld instrument known for its soothing, mellow sound.
But the music in the air is not any folk tune. It is the complex, layered 1970s rock hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, by the band Queen.
This is Meridian Secondary School’s Nusantara Orchestra (MNO), and they are performing at the 2019 Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation. Playing pop songs is their stock-in-trade: their repertoire also includes Christina Perri’s ‘A Thousand Years’, Clean Bandit’s ‘Symphony’, and many more.
This is quite amazing as Indonesian music is based on different tunings and the angklungs have had to be recalibrated to play modern songs.
Little wonder that this unique fusion of Asian and Western sensibilities made this a standout performance.
Birth and rebirth
But what’s even more impressive is that the Co-Curricular Activity even exists in 2019.
It was founded two decades earlier in Siglap Secondary School. It quickly gained prominence, clinching awards at each biennial SYF. They were invited to perform at numerous cultural events, including the 2011 Surabaya Ethnic Music Festival in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, the wave of falling birth rates and shrinking cohort sizes hit Siglap Secondary hard in the early 2010s. Enrolment fell sharply, and the school began scaling down its CCAs because there were simply not enough students to make up some of them. Even standard offerings like Red Cross and Badminton had to be shut down. The Nusantara Orchestra hit a record low of 33 members. Morale was affected.
In 2017, the school merged with Coral Secondary to form Meridian Secondary. This was a lifeline. All the surviving CCAs set up booths for Secondary 1 Orientation that year. It was at this time that the Orchestra caught the eye—or ear—of Qistina Bte Jufri, a Sec 1 student from Coral Secondary.
A blend of friends
“It was very unique and calming,” she recalls. It was like nothing she had heard before. Despite already being in the Media Club, she decided to join MNO as her second CCA. At the time, she was the only student from Coral to do so—all the Orchestra’s other members were either from Siglap, or had just entered the newly-created Meridian.
“I felt intimidated, but as the days went by, I found that the Siglap students were friendly and accommodating to new members,” Qistina says. In fact, she found it an excellent way to expand her circle of friends. Her own class consisted mostly of her former schoolmates from Coral.
Qistina enjoyed her time in MNO so much that she left the Media Club to commit fully to her anklung-playing. The next two years were a flurry of rehearsals and school performances, culminating in SYF 2019, which Qistina describes as “unforgettable”. And worth the effort, too, as Meridian Secondary clinched Distinctions for both its angklung and gamelan ensembles.
Clearly, this is a CCA that thrives on diversity. “Many people think that the Nusantara Orchestra is a ‘Malay’ CCA, but there are also many Chinese students, and we play pop songs as well as traditional ones. It’s for everyone!” Qistina says enthusiastically.
This is something that all her fellow MNO members—who now number a healthy, whopping 57 — will attest to.