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 11:53 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I think you would *expect* the gahmen to do something for National Day, otherwise quite pathetic right? And if the gahmen just leave everything to spontaneity, wouldn't they be defaulting on one of their responsibilities? I think they're trying to do their best to pitch things right, just not being too skillfull about it (from the point of view of you and I and people like us). But it definitely works for others. So maybe it's a question of bad style, and bad style can be improved. Maybe, just maybe, bad style for us is good for these other people? =S

But if you think there's something fundamentally wrong with a government of a country having a hand in its National Day celebrations... if you think that this is mutually exclusive with spontaenous demonstrations of "patriotism"... then you'd have to travel far and wide to find a country where this didn't happen. And if so, I think it would probably be because the governments of such countries are too busy fighting wars or running away from their enemies or spooning tax money into their own pockets... or half the people actually want to kill the other half and form their own country... or such similar scenario?..

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 8/09/2006 9:23 pm , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I didn't watch the parade (was having dinner with family friends), so I can't comment on its content. But I don't think there should be an immediate allergic reaction to anything a. military or b. 'multiracial' or c. involving large numbers of people, costumes and co-ordinated movement, as if by definition all such performances and parades have to be forced and fake. I mean, one can read all sorts of nefarious postmodern anti-individualist threats into marching and mass dances and anything that says "unity" literally or otherwise, but if that's the criticism, we should just not organize anything at all...

I suppose in bigger countries, the celebrations would probably be organized by the local town or city council, or the Daughters of the Revolution or some such organization - but I'm not necessarily convinced that makes them either more "authentic" or "better" as national day celebrations. My estate MC organized its own "observance ceremony" yesterday morning, which we stayed well clear of, and I think NDP would beat it hands down.

The privatisation solution would be to outsource the planning of NDP to some firm staffed full of creative types that specializes in putting these things together. But what would *not* be a "top-down" way of putting this together, whether done by the gahmen or the estate MC or the design company? Isn't top-down-ness, to a large extent, the necessary consequence of the sheer scale of the thing and the logistics involved etc? Sure, it would be great if groups of Singaporeans spontaneously got together to think of NDP items and all chapalan together into one big, glorious rojak - and I think that's one way of making improvements - but who's going to put everything together? Ivan Heng? This isn't quite the same thing as the STF!

But, finally, I agree that the parade shouldn't and doesn't define "patriotism". No, for me, patriotism is not breaking my bond and coming back to Singapore to do NS and giving up my American citizenship. And it's more because of real ties with family and friends and a feeling of "home" than guts-and-glory devotion to an 'imagined community'. I know other people feel strongly Singaporean and do just the opposite things with their lives - and I won't comment about them. But that's how I personally (and, hopefully "authentically") see it. I just don't see why, if I have to be charitable towards people who disagree with this interpretation of "patriotism", I shouldn't also be charitable to people who find the parade to be their definition of "patriotism". It seems strangely prejudiced and unfair to make that sort of judgment.

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 8:12 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I'm not really into this whole pride in country business, nardac. It's the pride-in-country version of patriotism that I think is dangerous, that can border on jingoism and parochialism, that is obsessed with "proving" that "my country" is superior to Elsewhere. What I find valuable is patriotism in the love-of-home sense, not because home is better than Elsewhere, but because home is, well, home. Quite apart from all the things that are wrong with it. And it's not like Elsewhere doesn't have its share of screwed-upness too.

I don't think that a solipsistic vacuum absolutely apart from external influence (which is impossible, anyway) is an essential prerequisite for "authentic" patriotism of the sort that I find valuable. I don't think any government can realistically be asked to tell its people, "hey, you should hate our country and not care about contributing to it at all". And I don't think it should be faulted for saying the opposite.

I don't think that because some people autonomously buy into and enjoy the gahmen-organized National Day stuff, noisemakers and cards included, they are being inauthentic/stupid/dishonest/brainwashed etc. I was at City Hall on Tuesday evening for dinner with friends and had to muscle my way past the huge crowds gathered to watch the fireworks display. Do you mean that these people are all brainless sheep because they're actually sincerely enthusiastic about gahmen-delivered smoke, pyrotechnics, lights and mirrors? I think not, somehow.

These people are my community. They have their faults, and I don't think I'm particularly "proud" of them, but insofar as they are persons individually and my community collectively, I still find them deserving (though not necessarily worthy) of care, help and respect - on account of grace, on account of gratitude, and on account of being a complicit and responsible part of a quite un-solipsistic body greater than myself.

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 8/13/2006 9:54 pm , Blogger TaLieSin said...

Hmm... I appreciate your points, particularly nardac's about consensus ethics and government kiasuism, and tym's about alternative definitions of 'contribution'. Some rejoinders:

1. Nardac, I agree that mother-love for *governments* is a pretty bad thing. But at the same time I hold, consensus or no consensus, that a feeling of gratitude and reciprocal obligation to one's community is a very good thing. And that's what I mean by love for country/"home". The separation between home and gahmen is very clear in my mind.

It is true that one wants the object of love to be, or become, something one is proud of; but love is not contingent on the object achieving such a status. Hence my reference to grace, and your very correct parallel with mother-love. Some get so disappointed and frustrated that they decide to give up on the whole thing; I hope to have a little more patience and forgiveness and fortitude on my part. I think I will ironically be helped by the fact that this community is not the most important thing to my life - so I can weather the disappointments better.

2. Tym, I think there's a difference between military displays and full-blown militarism. You're right that our national identity wasn't "forged in war" (and believe me, that sort of identity is full of its own problems, so no regrets!), and the Malay Regiment is claimed by Malaysia as its "national property". But surely National Service is a pivotal "national" experience for the whole citizen population, whom it affects one way or the other; I see the military elements in the parade as giving voice to that common and yet diverse experience. And I think there is some legitimate pride in things like discipline, military professionalism and espirit-de-corps. But you must forgive me; my first love, after all, was military history ;)

As for multiculturalism, the parliamentary debates on the subject from the Lim Yew Hock era show that the selection of the Four was very much a matter of necessary convenience - the same as it is today with, for eg, MRT station signs and announcements. I agree that restricting 'multiculturalism' to the sanctioned Four is just not accurate. And perhaps we can showcase more communities, or individuals who cross community boundaries, as a way of imrpoving things. But I guess, as with all politics, the 'official' definitions are very much a matter of compromise with the ethnic pride of the dominant communities. So there might very well have to be a balance of sorts. And I don't like the menagerie-ish flaunting of people-with-more-than-six-races-in-their-blood; I think it's a kind of faux self-promoting construction as well (in the specimens I have seen).

As I've said, I agree about the problems of top-down organisation and manufactured sentimentalism. But I also think that people (like my immediate family) who appear to be more well-disposed towards the NDP are free of your charges of shallow unthinking. I think many of them, at least the ones I know in person, are like me: we love our country, and we accept (with some criticisms) the things that the gahmen does to try and give voice to that affection on a grand organisational scale. We don't see it as mutually exclusive with the other kinds of celebration that you mention at all. And I don't think the two are exclusive - in fact I appreciate both and would like to see both. Taking the family out on one's own initiative to see a fireworks display is an excellent example of where the boundaries blur into indistinction anyway. So perhaps there doesn't need to be a quarrel at all!

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 8/17/2006 8:29 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8/17/2006 8:30 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

Of course the women are affected by NS too - it's time to stop the rather silly gender-war pretense and false assumption that the whole thing is completely irrelevant to half our population. When your male friends start nattering on about army days, when you have to help wash out your son's muddy uniform and iron it, or send him down to camp (or pick him up on bookout days) or to the army market at beach road, when you're waiting at the camp gate or wherever for your boyfriend to emerge on his rare off day, when suddenly your husband has to go for in-camp training - surely you're affected, surely you are in some way a part of things, surely you'd like to see what's going on behind the scenes rather than turn the other way in splendid and unsympathetic indifference? At least feign some interest - it helps, you know, when you've actually got to go through the whole thing. =P

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 8/20/2006 2:46 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I agree about celebrations and understanding. My question is, what then would you expect the *government* to *do* in that respect - and if your answer is "nothing", what alternatives do you have in mind (if any)?

As for military parades and NS: 'Pivotal' is probably overstating things for women, I admit. But surely there can be lots of middle ground between "patriarchy/defining-legally-mandated-male experience/centrestage" and "giving voice" (in a nice left-wing sub-altern way) to an experience that does affect half the population? Or perhaps it's largely semantics and perspectivism and how one *chooses* to "read" a single visual of marching, uniformed contingents. So somebody will always be unhappy with all parades by definition because, you know, marching symbolises machine efficiency, violence and killing, drilling and unthinking obedience and hierarchical structures of command (and the gender points can be added if one wishes here too). But to somebody else it embodies discipline, unity, good order, cooperation, physical fortitude, determination, the willingness to follow, and other such virtues. I think a glorious, riotous rojak of singlet-and-slipper dressed Singaporeans milling around is a celebration in its own right too, but it's not a parade. Surely we can have both?

I think NS is just one of those things which are specifically Singaporean and ubiquitious to a high degree, and lend themselves well to expression in a parade setting. I'm not saying that the marching and military equipment ought to dominate the whole thing. But to want to exclude them totally, perhaps because one isn't so greatly personally affected, or an avowed pacifist by personal conviction? I wouldn't want that either, in my ideal "representation" of the nation's voices.

As a side point: nation and national defence/strength/might have, historically and theoretically, been very closely linked - so maybe it's not just a Singaporean phenomenon or problem?

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 8:41 pm , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I'm hoping that other kinds of celebrations in the month of August will be increasingly encouraged *and* tolerated, but I guess that depends on how much ground intiative and energy remains after a large amount of organizational power has already been "captured" by the NDP organisers.

I think the heart of the debate revolves around 2 points; the "crowding out" argument and the "propaganda" argument.

The first argument is that govt. organising of NDP "crowds out" other ground-level celebrations. I suppose this is true to an extent in the terms I described above. But how culpable is the govt. of bad behaviour here - or is it, as I think, simply a case of the requirements of scale? Would *not* having a parade or *not* taking any govt. action to celebrate whatsoever be a desirable course of action? I say no in both cases.

The next argument, where most of the heat is concentrated, is that the govt. is using NDP as a propaganda tool to "brainwash" the masses with its own definition of national identity that, among other things, places the Party, patriarchalism and militarism at the forefront. To which I raise several points of consideration:

1. Firstly, isn't this argument showing a certain amount of contempt for the "unthinking masses" themselves, whereas many people I personally know, my family included, are blessedly free of any such conception of the nation or any identification of the parade with "national loyalty" in toto? Are we making the govt. out to be more powerful and influential than it actually is, and thereby ourselves contributing to the propaganda?

Also, we're forgetting that competitiveness and self-promotion is the essence of multi-party democracy. I don't like it myself, I don't like this blowing of the Party's horn, but it's the price you pay for a system that demands these "vices" from its participants.

2. Closely related to this: isn't the govt. itself tied by political circumstances and demands in considering how to organize the parade? This would explain many of the objectionable elements, including faux multiculturalism and naff co-ordinated displays - the result of political bargaining with powerful groups in Singapore society. And don't forget the international observers, for whom the parade is a deliberate demonstration on our part of "national strength/unity/organizational efficiency". For these people, national weakness is perceived if, for eg, we were to suddenly take out every hint of anything military from the NDP.

3. Thirdly: a nation is an imagined community the concept of which is embedded in a historical tradition, not a hodge-podge and arbitrary concatenation of the immediate whims of a large number individuals. If there are no generic features that connect Singaporeans, if it's all about "my solipsistic conception of what the country should be defined exclusively in my terms", then let's drop the propaganda and not call it "national" at all. So I think a certain amount of organization is necessary, a certain amount of imagination that for eg. allows women to see national service as properly "national" even when it doesn't affect them directly. Otherwise we are not a community, the essence of which is the ability to sympathize and identify with a plural group of Others who are different from yourself, right?

In this connection: both the military tradition and the tradition of mass co-ordinated displays have a venerable "national" history stretching back to the colonial period, e.g. the visit of Princess Alexandra which I saw live footage of. You can shout "postcolonialism" as loud as you want, but that risks destroying what little history we do have, which I think ought to be preserved. You know, Raffles Hotel etc... ;)

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 6:06 am , Blogger TaLieSin said...

I think we need to know more "little people" in person and what they actually think. I don't know if my immediate nuclear family counts as "little" enough, and the whole big-little dichotomy is wrong in the first place, but they certainly feel the way I've described. They certainly wouldn't watch the parade every year (Hey, we don't even have TV, that's how little we are =P), but they wouldn't be so negative towards it either. So are you going to call them unthinking and brainwashed? The problem is that, if they and others like them really say what they honestly believe in favour of the NDP, there's a whole bunch of self-righteous elitist-activists ready to lambast them for being stupid sheep. And this kind of holier-than-thou-ness is what I'm unhappy about.

That's why maybe "bad style" is a misnomer and a mark of personal preference more than anything else (and whay I qualified it with "bad to us") - you know, the whole high vs. low culture false divide, maybe we're just seeing two different and equally valid cultural preferences evolving here. I don't know. But I'm not about to set myself up as a doyen of style anytime, that's for sure. I prefer humility in the face of the different preferences of Others.

As for borrowing from Totalitarianism, I've been watching lots of film footage from the National Archives lately, and the core NDP elements (military and coordinated displays) bear a strong resemblance to, as I've mentioned, the celebrations at the visit of Princess Alexandra *and* the Japanese surrender in honour of Lord Mountbatten, hardly the best totalitarian figures you can think of. That's what I mean by a historical tradition of parades in this island, that needs to be brought into the debate.

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 8/22/2006 9:22 pm , Blogger TaLieSin said...

Okay, last reply from me:

1. I agree that Party shouldn't hijack National celebrations as a general principle. I think however that, realistically speaking, the temptation in the Singapore case is particularly great because of the political layout. In the countries you mention, we may simply be unaware of similar dynamics (or they are so large that the Party-organized celebrations just fade into the background), but more importantly, the political balance is more even and no one party can plausibly claim to have "done so much" for the country over its whole post-independence history etc etc. I know many people feel, and not entirely without good reason, that the PAP has done much for the country in the past and deserves kudos for that.

Problems of scale, problems of the innate nature of democratic competition, problems of the indigenous balance of political power. I don't think any one can be easily solved, and I hesitate to propose solutions too quickly myself.

2. Being realistic about our world once again: ASEAN is a dead letter, just look at Myanmar. I tend to be more cautious myself about neighbourly goodwill, recalling things said in the Malaysian and Indonesian press not too long ago. But even if all that is mere sabre-rattling, States are not the only problems nowadays (as per your own argument). I was thinking more of eg. foreign currency speculators who might interpret developments as a weakening of the Singapore goivt's poltiical will and decide it was a good time to launch a speculative attack on our currency, perhaps precipitating another AFC-recession. We shouldn't underestimate the power of human selfishness, whether at the Party, State or Individual level!

3. About nation as imagined community: I am not familiar enough with the debate (though I think the top-down element should not be neglected altogether), but it seems evident to me that respect for the different national understandings of Others has to be balanced with an imaginative identification with these Others - that some compromise between "your idea" and "my idea" must be made if "we" are ever going to be something, or do something celebratory together. Otherwise you get civil war (the worst case), or more likely, a selfishly atomized society of alienated individuals all living in a non-community of one person because they refuse to sympathize with and see themselves as part of the same thing as people who are different.

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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