'Tis the season

We've lived in the same place for several years now, but tonight was the first time that we were approached by flag proselytizers to display the national flag outside our apartment. They were loitering outside our front door as we returned home from dinner, and looked so delighted to see us that I thought for certain they were there to either recruit us for a neighbourhood church or sell us a burglar alarm system. (Door-to-door salesmen for those two pitches are the cheeriest I've ever seen.)

But no, they just wanted to know if we owned a national flag.

The flag proselytizers --- a man and a woman --- spoke to us in Mandarin, which isn't exactly a language I'm comfortable with for a heartfelt discussion on the whys and wherefores of flying the national flag, so it wound up going something like this:
THEM: Do you own a national flag?
ME: No.
THEM: Would you like to have one? (proffers a flag in a neatly wrapped plastic package; also some gesturing to indicate that it could be displayed from the common corridor in front of our apartment)
ME: You can hang it there if you like. (gestures at the common corridor area)
THEM: Uh ... but wouldn't you want to hang one?
ME: Not really. You can hang it there if you like --- but make sure you come back in September to take it down.
THEM: (after looking at each other and at the common corridor area uncertainly) Wouldn't you want one?
ME: Not really. I go to school, sing the Majulah everyday --- why do I need to fly a flag just for the month of August?
THEM: Ah ...
Actually, it went on for a little longer than that. I think I stumped them by repeating several times that they were really, truly welcome to fly the flag from the area outside our apartment --- far be it from me to get in the way of my apartment block winning the prize for having the most flags displayed on a HDB block --- but they would have to come back in September to take it down. I suppose they hadn't expected anyone to refuse a free flag while also giving them carte blanche to do what they liked in the common area, as long as they cleaned up after themselves.

To be fair to them, I didn't know that the government'd relaxed the "guidelines" for flying the flag, so that it can be flown all year round now without any penalty. It used to be that you were only allowed to fly it between late July and the end of August (National Day's on August 9), and every September, the newspapers would run the obligatory stories about innocent (ignorant?) citizens who'd forgotten to take down their flags after the stipulated National Day celebration period was over. I didn't want to be one of those statistics, stuck with an errant flag come September, especially if it wasn't my idea to put one up in the first place.

On the principle of it, it didn't quite make sense either. If I have Xmas or Chinese New Year decorations up, no one comes over after the twelve days of Xmas or fifteen days of Chinese New Year to tell me I can't have the decorations up anymore. I take them down when we're done celebrating or when I remember to; why should the national flag be any different?

But even knowing now that the flag can be flown throughout the year, I'm not keen to put one up just for National Day. First of all, the government told me to. Last week's press release states, "Singaporeans can now fly the Flag throughout the year, but they are encouraged to do so especially during National Day celebrations" (emphasis taken from the original). I do a lot of things the government tells me to, mostly because it'd be breaking the law if I didn't, but I'm only human too. The more you hound me to do something, the less likely I'm going to comply.

More importantly, I'm not sure that an enthusiasm for displaying the flag translates into any meaningful expression of love or loyalty to the country. I'm not putting the flag down or suggesting we go stomping on it for fun --- no, no. In fact, I kinda have a soft spot for it. It's a humble little thing, not bold and recognisable like the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack. The combination of red and white's so naff, you can't help feeling a little sorry for it. And if you were ever in school and had to sing "Five Stars Arising" (a "national song", I kid you not) without a trace of irony, you can probably manage a small grin when you see footage of the flag flapping loftily in the tropical breeze.

So the flag gets the job done, when it comes to representing the country at international events and state occasions. But is it my country? Do I love the state it represents? My Singapore's a funny sort of place, where litte kids rumble-tumble in the neighbourhood playground and crow "Happy Birthday" cacophonously for their playmates, grandparents cluck leisurely through stories, and the rest of us scamper helter-skelter to and from work around them. The red-and-white flag, on the other hand, is always associated with the state and the government: its cold, calculated policies, its relentless ordering of society, the many mantras that gradually assume the uncontestable quality of scripture, and worst of all, the labelling of people: citizen, PR, foreign talent, foreign worker, heartlander, cosmopolitan, stayer, quitter, patriot, peanut, mentor, servant, flag-waver --- flag-hater?

I don't hate the flag. I don't hate the government. But the affection I feel for the country I was born into and live in, is not measured in parades and flag displays and national songs. You can mock the parade on TV --- and come on, how can you not, when it takes itself so seriously and, as Nardac observes, is "the oriental version of a smurf-like Third Reich" --- and still love the country. You can leave the country for National Day for a short vacation, as thousands do every year, and still be absolutely certain why you return and what you're returning to.

We live here, all year round. We know what lies beneath the extravaganzas, the hyperbole and the drama. And we love the country despite all that. We don't need a flag to prove it.

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At 7/20/2005 4:26 am , Blogger Abigael said...

Gotta share this with you man ...

"It's that song again. Is it your national anthem? Don't you guys have a proper national anthem?", asked Australian colleague.

"Erm ... yes. We do. But it's not this annoying song that they're playing. The national anthem is in our indigenous language, Malay and It's called the Majulah Singapura." I answered.

"Then why are they singing this cheesy cheeseball song on radio? Can't they just play the national anthem if they really wanted to stir up feelings of patriotism?", she continued.


Hear that?

Even foreigners think THAT song that they play at least 7 times a day on radio is "cheesy cheesball".

At 7/20/2005 5:23 am , Blogger tscd said...

I brought some of my UK friends to a National Day Parade once, and they were so excited afterwards, they were like 'Where do we sign up? We want to be Singaporeans!' They sang the Count On Me, Singapore and everything.

Later, one of them said that Britain hardly every tries to do anything patriotic, so hardly anyone here has any nationlistic pride.

At 7/21/2005 5:37 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm doing my bit this year to empty our little island state over the National Day weekend ;)

At 7/26/2005 11:57 am , Blogger Tym said...

So it seems that some foreigners hate our songs but others love our National Day Parade!

Update: As of Friday, July 22, the flag proselytizers have displayed a national flag from the common corridor outside our apartment. If anyone knocks on my door later in the year to warn me that it's against the law to let a weather-worn flag by seen in public, I'm going to have to nicely point out that it's not my damn flag in the first place. *growl*


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