Now what?

It's National Day today and I sorta wish I was at the National Stadium for the annual parade extravaganza because it's the grand old lady's swan song. But I didn't realise it was going to be the stadium's last hurrah until well after it was too late to obtain any tickets (and I'm not inclined to pay online scalpers for one), so while the massive show rages on, I will probably be sitting at home watching DVDs or something.

(There's not much point in watching the televised parade because it's the stadium I want to see, not the vomit-inducing, mind-numbing, soul-killing pabulum that passes for patriotic fervour in this funny little country I live in.)

To quote one of the more resonant lines from Alfian Sa'at's play Homesick from last week, "How can we build a national identity if we keep tearing down everything with the word 'national' in it?"

Time was when National Day meant gathering with friends at ampulets' parents' home to hijack their well-accoutred den (big-screen projection TV and all) to watch anime VCDs, play a little mahjong and then switch over to the parade in the evening for some lively mockery and nit-picking. Shooting fish in a barrel, yes, I know, but then there was the year when the fleur de lis or some other fancypants gun salute went wrong (or so said all the National Service-trained men in the room) and no one really knew what to say.

Last National Day, we were in Bali celebrating my best friend's wedding. Although I haven't left the country this year, I feel about as cut off from ongoing National Day festivities. I didn't hear my first National Day song till I passed the blind busker on the underpass outside Orchard MRT station yesterday (it was the insidious, "This is home, Shirley surely", which will now linger unbidden in my head till it's displaced by Xmas tunes). No one harrassed us to fly the flag either, unless you count all the government banners that have inundated every residential district, exhorting "Join the Celebrations, Fly Our Flag!" (as though the former isn't possible without the latter).

Maybe I should just be a good Singaporean and do some work.


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At 8/09/2006 7:07 am , Blogger  said...

I mentioned that National Day was coming up a few days ago to N and to my horror he started singing "together we make a difference......" !!!

At 8/09/2006 12:38 pm , Blogger Tym said...

My beef with the National Day Parade is not that it's organised by the government. It's that its shallow and, frankly, increasing bad taste, is held up as the definition of being Singaporean and/or patriotic on the 9th of August. It's entertaining if you're five, the way children find the Teletubbies or any number of song-and-dance TV programmes entertaining. But national spirit ought to be about more than that

Plus it's a little embarrassing that this is the definitive celebration of our country's founding. I've seen secondary school productions with more pizzazz and honesty.

Also, although it's not unheard of for governments to organise activities celebrating their nation's inception, they're not necessarily the best persons to do it in a meaningful way. Here, it just becomes another example of how everything, including some kind of emotional attachment to the country, is engineered from the top down. And Singapore could do with a lot less of that in general.

At 8/10/2006 2:09 am , Blogger stellou said...

"but who's going to put everything together? Ivan Heng?" - taliesin

No, Ivan Heng's not going to put everything together. But Emily of Emerald Hill just might.

At 8/11/2006 10:35 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...


You know, everytime I've gone back to Singapore for visit, usually during the summer, somebody wheedles me a ticket to the National Day parade. Every single time. It's as if they would like to tell me, try to be Singaporean again.

Well, I can tell you it's laughs a plenty. From banging wooden cutlery that doubles as "noisemakers" at all the wrong cues to the hopelessly outdated "display a picture from thousands of coordinated monkeys flipping a card" trick, the National Day Parade is a riot. Other than comic relief, I fail to see the point.

What I think Tym is getting at, and what Taliesin seems to miss altogether, is that the issue in not patriotism. It's a question of honesty. Can you feel real pride for a country that tries to tell what to think, all the time? That kind of pride rings false.

There's something wrong with a government when the members of its population are scared of being different, of showing difference, of just existing the way they'd like to. There's something wrong where people can't actually question the type of place they'd like to live in.

In a place where national pride exists, this debate doesn't.

That said, I like the Merlion because it's just plain weird: a lion head on a fish's body spitting water into the sea.

At 8/12/2006 5:47 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

Well, I hardly think that fireworks is something unique to the National Day Parade, nor any other national type celebration. Of course everybody around the world loves blowing up stuff. Yay!

I think to love something you might have to have some measure of pride as well. Otherwise it's the type of blind love a mother has for its child, which, despite having merits, isn't the sort of thing I think is healthy to have towards one's government.

Consensus, anyways, isn't a very good indicator of what is right or wrong. That's just popular opinion... or, in Singapore's lovely case, a failure to imagine something more.

What is that word you guys have? Kiasu... A desperate need to prove that someone is just as good if not better than everyone else? I see this manifest in the government's idea that engineering a readymade identity, instead of letting it develop and mature on its own.

And this is where I agree with your last paragraph. I think it's important to love your community. But, in all fairness, Singapore seems to me to be a unhappy place to live. And, it's during the parade that I'm sure every Singaporean with any ounce of intelligence and taste, cringes with some measure of shame. Of course, most Singaporeans aren't exactly engineered for to know that.

At 8/13/2006 2:24 am , Blogger Tym said...

Sorry to leave this debate unattended for a few days. Work lah (I am a good Singaporean in that respect!).

To resume ---

On the qualities of official (i.e. government-organised) National Day celebrations: Militaristic is bad, yes; phony multiculturalism is bad; mass anything-organised-by-the-government is bad. Why?

I abjure militarism because it connotes all those elements of severe conformity, chain-of-command discipline and threat of force and domination that are not only repugnant but have nothing to do with the birth of this country. As a friend neatly reminded me, while other countries have gained a sense of nationality through going to war, Singapore has never actually gone to war since independence or even experienced a pre-independence revolution. Why should the military and military elements be the centrepiece of our official sanctioned celebrations?

Phony multiculturalism --- well, I should think the reason would be obvious. Pretty, "racially harmonious" (in the sense of all four "races" being represented) prancing around onstage in the name of some kind of cookie-cutter national identity achieves only two possible outcomes: a recognition of its superficiality (and hence a refusal to believe that it represents true multiculturalism) or worse, a belief that yes, this is what multiculturalism is about, having the four "races"/"languages"/whatever represented on some kind of national platform, in which case society at large is doomed anyway because people think that's all it takes to be happily multicultural.

Anything-organised-by-the-government is bad for National Day because it ends up being about politics and making the national identity about the party-defined identity. Why does any celebration or discussion of anything "national" have to be top-down? The agenda should not come from the top, not if there is to be any genuine sense of identity and belonging.

I'm not saying that the government should say, "Hey, you should hate our country and not care about contributing to it at all." Of course not. And I'm not saying that either.

But what is it to love one's country? What is it to contribute to one's country? Can we see someone like JB Jeyaretname as having contributed to his country? Or Melvyn Tan? Or any number of people, political figures or not, who have not followed the PAP-prescribed path to "nation-building"? What other definitions of "public service" or simply Singaporean-ness have not been permitted to air in the search for a national identity?

And why the need for centralisation, for someone to "put everything together"? Wild Rice's Singapore Theatre Festival can coexist alongside IndigNation alongside others forms of celebration ("organised" or not). You can have forums, parties, bazaars, fireworks, barbecues at the beach. It just doesn't, shouldn't have to centre around the National Day Parade or those bloody "national" songs or how great the PAP has made this country.

Does one love one's country because a song or dance told you to, or because the dominant political party has done a good job of running it? Or does one love one's country, as TaLieSin says, "because of real ties with family and friends and a feeling of 'home'" --- which are, ironically, the last things you will find in any genuine form in a government-organised, top-down celebration of National Day.

And yes, most people love fireworks :) But fireworks are not the basis for anyone's national identity, I should hope! (Well, perhaps except for some Guy Fawkes devotees ... )

At 8/17/2006 7:42 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

'...National service is a pivotal "national experience" for the whole citizen population, whom it affects one way or another ... I see the military elements in the parade as giving voice to that common and yet diverse experience'.

Interesting idea this ... that national service is the 'common experience' of the 'whole citizen population'. Is it like in that tv add for Total Defence where the buff husband goes off to fly his fighter jet while his wife stays in bed sleeping (perhaps getting some rest in so she can have little baby citizens and thereby do her own national service)?

Happy the day when there really do exist alternative celebrations of Singaporean nationality that are not so blatantly party-political nor dependent on a macho militarism that perpetually reminds the Singaporean citizen that he/she is always under threat.

(Maybe one day a patriotic citizen will even able to freely entertain and express ideas that dissent from those prescribed by the powers that be without being seen as part of this threat.)

At 8/19/2006 12:08 pm , Blogger Tym said...

In response to TaLieSin's point that people who are well-disposed towards the NDP are free of shallow unthinking, I think this depends very much on how you finesse the point. Forget the NDP; let's take a step back to the issue of celebrations (personal or mass) in the first place. Take a birthday, for instance. Do my parents love me (and I love my parents) because they gave me a birthday party? Do I love the birthday party? Or is what is being celebrated in a birthday something that transcends the form of celebration?

In any case, what are the implications of having a birthday cake, a birthday party, a birthday parade? Or say the implications of having a Christmas tree or Chinese New Year decorations or any other markers of a celebration? I know of families who've refused to have Christmas trees or presents because they felt that the celebration was about Christ, not these modern-day add-ons, and they didn't want the latter to dilute the meaning of the day for them. At the same time, there are people who only go to church at Christmas because that in turn means something to them.

I'm not trying to get into an argument about what is Christmas (heavens, no!), but I'm trying to say that with any occasion, one has to know what one is celebrating and then whether the "typical" symbols of celebration are meaningful in that respect. It's no different for National Day, whether you "celebrate" it with a parade or a party or nothing at all.

As for the National Service issue, I really don't think you can define a clearly subordinate role (washing clothes/transporting the soldier/lamenting the absence) as making National Service a pivotal experience for women in this country! That's like saying a father holding a mother's hand in the delivery room is tantamount to experiencing the fullness of childbirth, or that a foreign journalist on the frontlines has experienced the horrors of war as a resident of that country does. Playing an adjunct role may not be irrelevant, but being passively affected is not at all the same as going through the experience itself.

Pretending that the military experience ought to take centrestage in our nation's psyche and, further, that it ought to define that very psyche --- that privileges the legally mandated male experience over any other definition of what it means to be Singaporean, to love Singapore, to "defend" Singapore. It's just one of the many ways in which this society is blindly patriarchal.

And even if we were a state that mandated military service for men and women, I hardly think that militarism is the finest basis on which to define one's national identity. Surely there are finer things in life to celebrate.

At 8/21/2006 1:15 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This debate is fascinating but it seems to revolve around one side saying that for what it is the NDP is not that bad and that one shouldn't 'read' too much into it, and the other saying that for what it is (perhaps because it currently seem that it's ALL there is) it IS bad.

Both sides, however, seem to agree that there ought to exist alternative celebrations of Singaporean nationality in addition to/instead of the NDP.

So ... is such a thing in Singapore actually possible? Would it be possible to organize a national day concert or some other event held elsewhere on the same day (or there abouts), which, for eg, focused on local talent but without the military display or the party propagandist elements, or even the massed presence of the party itself? Would this kind of event be encouraged/tolerated or would such a diversity and plurality in terms of 'national' celebrations be something that distracted from the key message that the NDP presents? Indeed, would a national day event which did not feature military displays or the usual govt. approved slogans and songs be seen as a political statement for that very fact?

I remember MM Lee, a few years back, speaking about the importance of TV being in its capacity to get across Party messages to the people (and that this was why there was no need for several channels - especially, as it turned out, for Channel i.)Taliesin's openness to other kinds of nationalist celebration is commendable, but does he ignore just how far the govt. seeks to control public expression, the media and the free flow of information?

Perhaps, if the government did a little less in trying to mould a national identity - perhaps if it was a little less overbearing and allowed for a range of voices to be heard on this issue - a stronger sense of nationality would emerge. But once again, we come back to the point that such a patriotism might be harder to control - it might after all be critical (one can't deny, after all, that one very clear signifier of 'Singaporeaness' is having lived through the 'system'). Giving all sorts of people more scope to express who they are and what they think as Singaporeans, individually and collectively, might eventually lead away from the one clear message of the NDP ... that patriotism=Party.

At 8/21/2006 9:58 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, now we are really getting into the nitty gritty stuff... (I htink all these interesting points Taliesin makes deserve a full reply but will have to do that later).

But, for the moment, before we start accusing people of 'contempt for the masses', this whole discussion began with the comment that the NDP was a question of 'bad style' - a bad style that people like 'us' might have problems with but which for 'these other people' might be 'good', or 'good' enough.

This kind of attitude which seems to say that the current NDP 'is ok for the little people - not a problem for them, only for we the privileged elite' seems highly patronizing and smacks to me more than a little of 'contempt for the masses' (whoever these 'masses' may be, and on that I'm not clear on either).

Just because the PAP comands two thirds of the vote, this does not mean that everyone who votes for them is comfortable with the way they conduct national day celebrationss or is unaware of the propagandist elements and wants them removed. In fact, even within the Party there is a sense that too much of its 'style' has been reminiscent of Communist/ Totalitarian states - a concern which has been apparent since the early 90s.

(In fact, while we are on the subject, the history of Singapore's NDP and its borrowings from the USSR, North Korea and even Cambodia during the 70s is fascinating and might actually make you have seconds thoughts about the whole thing. It seems it was only by the late 80s that it was decided to lessen the militarism and party slogans in the NDP and increase the 'fun' element).

As for the suggestion that the govt. is being made out to be more powerful and influential than it really is ... well, whether editors cancel recent mildly critical columns in newspapers or this job is left to Ministerial secretaries, the 'influence' of the govt. (in silencing even mild dissent while barely raising a finger) seems to be a good indication of its effective power.

But I might be wrong ... so, in that case, let's see some alternatives to the NDP around August 9th. Then everyone, judging from the general tone of this discussion, will benefit. We could start by holding an independent Aug 8th forum on the question of nationality and opening this debate right up.

At 8/22/2006 8:17 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for another long comment (promise this is the last one. Taliesin, one day we must meet in person to discuss all this ...).

Here are some further points to consider, prompted by Taliesin's last contribution.

1. While politicians in several countries with functioning multiparty systems might like to hijack national celebrations for party-political purposes they usully avoid doing so for fear of public outcry. While, for example, the French government might use tax payer's money to fund and sometimes organize Bastille Day celebrations in France, and likewise while the British government might fund all those 'very British' royal displays full of pomp and circumstance, these remain events that are not visibly party-political. (Even George Bush might have trouble turning the 4th of July into a Republican party fiesta).

In addition, the above national celebrations celebrate a collective sense of shared history rather than a collective experience of public policy. Except in Singapore, I have never seen the whole ruling party turn up in attendance to a national day celebration and be surrounded by a crowd of people, led by cheerleaders, apparently displaying their gratitude for the nation the party has given them.
Maybe this does happen in other 'multi-party' Asian democracies. If so, please correct me.

Personally, I think an avoidance of party-politics in any such national celebrations would be healthy since it is less potentially alienating to those people who vote the other way. It allows everyone to celebrate the nation's birthday, regardless of party politics, and thus feel a part of the nation. The govt. might organize such celebrations but does this give the ruling party the right to hijack them? If I was a tax-paying opposition voter in 'multi-party' SIngapore I might be pissed off with the current NDP.

2. It is sad that Taliesin and the Singapore govt. feel that their regional neigbours are still an ever-present military threat and that they need to annually show them Singapore's military strength to avoid a potential confrontation. I thought we were all part of Asean.

If the real threat currently comes from international terrorism, then do the gun salutes and the jets really scare off would-be bombers (while reassuring a fearful citizenry)? Or, when coupled with the Total Defence 'siege mentality', do they merely reinforce the outside perception that Singapore is insular and unaccomodating, that it still sees itself as a 'little Israel' surrounded by enemies. If so, this makes the job of crazy extremists, when recruiting would-be terrorists, that little bit easier.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really not against NS, or it being a part of the NDP. As has been noted, other countries have NS and annual military displays (the former usually for the practical reason of it being cheaper than a standing army). But from my knowledge of Spain, Switzerland and Italy (South Korea might be different), NS is far less of a pivotal nation-building experience and not part of a Total Defence mentality that speads fears of external threat. (Today, in the above European countries military display is also not such a feature of national day celebrations - two of them having had their dose of fascist militarism.)

I suppose it's the fear of 'these people' Taliesin speaks of, those facelesss 'international observers', that bugs me about the whole NDP/NS/Total Defence mindset. Have NS, by all means. Even better, extend it as a means of serving the nation and bulding up a sense of collective spirit to humanitarian work, health, the teaching of underprivileged children etc., and especially, if they desire, to women. Then have a procession that incoporates all these nation-building activities. But please don't let NDP/NS serve as a means to reinforce the kind of fear of unnamed foreign elements that is currently part of the Total Defence rhetoric. To me, this as yet unrealized fear of invasion (Konfrontasi, in my book, doesn't count), like the fear of a return to communal riots, is sometimes cynically used by the govt. to justify itself and its less than democratic methods of governance.

3. On the final issue of the creation of nations, I really disagree with the fallacy of the 'imagined community' as argued by Gellner and Anderson, the argument I believe Taliesin is referring to in his comment. (If so, please read Manuel Castells for a searing and common-sense response). Nationalisms do not need to be constructed by ruling parties nor by any other political elites. They have often preexisted the creation of nation-states and will last after nation-states pass (look at Catalunya in Spain and many other nations without a state). They are rooted in communal imaginings usually centred on a sense of shared history. If a ruling party overtly tries to order and organize this history and thereby fulfill its own agenda - as in Singapore currently, and as has happened in many other nations - its efforts frequently come across as propaganda. Often, a whole generation loses touch with what can be a very 'real' source of national identity. If you don't believe me, go ask Singaporean some school students what they think of national education.

Singapore, in fact, has a rich history that goes back well before 1965 and LKY's tears and even 1954 and the creation of the PAP. There are many things that come out of this history which go beyond sojourning and money-making, that still resonate today and which many people, if they knew more, might suddenly feel they connected with. From 1300 (save for two hundred years between 1600-1819) Singapore has been a multiethnic city-state/naval base/island, sometimes a part of wider empires and countires, other times not, and yet always unique. If national education was less party-political it might do more to emphasize this.

Finally, I strongly disagree with the idea that nations can't be expressed through the 'immediate whims of a large number of individuals'. If these 'whims' are allowed to flourish, unhampered by govt. control of the media or the fear of govt. reprisal (real or imagined), there might actually develop expressions of patriotism inspired by love rather than Ministerial fiat. An individual whim that catches on with a range of people might eventually become a source of national identity - one which a nation connects with.

Think of all those individual whims created by artists, writers, musicians, architects, sportsmen etc. etc. that have become sources of collective pride in other countries and which have given a people a sense of being itself. As Rabindranath Tagore said, artists, poets, composers etc do far more to build up nations than politicians ever do. To imagine that Singapore has neither the history nor the individuals to inspire suh a sense of collective nationhood, one that overcomes communal barriers and creates a genuine multiculturalism - to argue that the government must intervene to organize everything - is in my view, rather cynical.

The great thing about individual whims that, given free space, might eventually become tomorrow's expressions of national identity, is that people usually have some choice over the matter.
They can choose to read a book, sing a song, enjoy a piece of architecture, admire an individual performance - find their own chapter in their nation's history with which they identify. They can choose to do so again and again, or they can choose not to. These sources of collective identity are not provided for the people by a govt. that feels, for whatever reason, it must do something or there will be nothing.

And the more a group of people identify with any of these things, for whatever reasons, they become less individual and more collective. Eventually, they can even become a source of national pride because they become admired internationally.

The 'hodge-podge' which Taliesin condemns is in many other countries, exactly what creates, after the people have made their choice, a national identity. Perhaps, only in a place like Singapore, where too many people have been deprived of this 'hodge-podge' for too long (remember LKY's comment on the BBC, 'we don't dance like the Thais, we don't dance like the Philippinos ...) would one be not so 'blessedly free' of this knowledge.

At 8/22/2006 3:45 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...

Besides Spain and Italy: 4th of July fireworks don't involve military parades. A siege mentality is part of the national, government-induced discourse.

Constructed identities fall apart once the forces promulgating them disappear - look at the Soviet Union.

About NDP and Jingoism - everyone should watch Triumph of the Will: http://jal4eva.blogspot.com/2006/03/triumph-des-willens.html . Other parallels are also interesting to draw: http://gssq.blogspot.com/2006/05/trip-with-jiekai-part-17-day-11.html

"A nation is a society united by delusions about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbors."

The govt. might organize such celebrations but does this give the ruling party the right to hijack them?
According to them, yes. Maybe the compensation is the "free" goody bags, paid with with income tax, GST and COE money.

At 8/23/2006 1:37 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Ok one more ...)

Yes, Taliesin,, in fact I agree - you are likely correct with regards to point 3 and I may have underplayed the need for some role to be played by political elites in encouraging inclusive nationalisms in multiethnic states in my comments on the 22nd. (I now think of 20th century Sri Lanka, which for a time did have a multiethnic inclusive nationalism, but one which wasn't encouraged enough by political elites and which fell by the wayside by the 50s. I'm not a great fan of the PAP post-1962, as you might have gathered, but in Sri Lanka a bit of its early multiethnic idealism would not have gone astray.)

Also, I should have earlier made clear that I don't think that masses of people are brainwashed by the NDP (certainly not your family or even members of my own - who also enjoy the parade, though they always feel a little embarrassed by many elements in it).

I just think that in the case of the NDP, as with much else in Singapore, lots of people go along, ignoring or shrugging off the unnecessary propaganda, and find something else to enjoy - in the case of the NDP, the colour, the crowd participation, the military hardware (minus the Total Defence rhetoric) the fun 'naffness' of it all and, of course, the aerial display and the FIREWORKS!!!

Most of all, I don't want to deny people their enjoyment of the NDP or their choice to participate in it. I just think, that if you were to take out the party propaganda, give a few more 'individual whims' a chance, it would be enjoyed even more, by a broader section of the population.


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