July 21, 2009
And that is what I love about this goddamn country; the contradictions. Ask any conservative Singaporean about whether we should change the way NDP is celebrated to, say a mega concert and a big BBQ, and you’ll get a chorus of protests. These folks, so resistant to change, prefer to cling on to the gayest possible mode of celebration.
The latest media hoo-ha (the local media likes to create fake controversies to fill up its pages in the absence of investigative journalism) is the howls of protests against the new NDP song What do you see? by local rock band Electrico. It’s not the greatest song in the world but it marks a progressive change from the rest of the kitschy nonsense like Count on Me Singapore or Stand Up for Singapore. People who tear up when singing the latter two songs most probably also own The Sound of Music DVD (director’s cut), ABBA’s Greatest Hits, and know the words to every Barry Manilow song…ever. Nothing makes me more agitated, more unpatriotic than the strains of “there was a time when people said that Singapore won’t make it…but we did”. And when its sung by 60,000 flag-waving Singaporeans who queued overnight for their tickets all dressed in their red $9.90 Giordano T-shirts, well it’s just like a sweet natured version of the Nuremberg Rally isn’t it?
NDPs are depressing. They remind me of everything that is orchestrated, superficial, rehearsed, practiced, and devised from top-down in Singapore. They are artificial cauldrons of whipped up frenzy and heightened emotions where quick spasms of ecstasy are mistaken for patriotism. Not too dissimilar from how churches use music to stir up mass feelings of elated bliss. At the end of the day NDPs are pure theatre.
I would like to put out a suggestion to readers. Celebrate National Day differently this year. Think back to your childhood. Go to a location, a space or a building that first springs to mind. It could be an old estate, a torn down building, an empty parking lot where your old school used to stand, the beach or even a lonely road you used to take to primary school. Ponder for a while how far you have come since, how far this country has come, and what sacrifices it has made to achieve what it has. Ask yourself if these sacrifices have been worthwhile, both for yourself and the country. Get to know yourself a bit. I promise you, it’ll be more meaningful than watching grown men jiggling in tights and foundation.
December 2, 2008
The relationship between governments and their citizens is like a wife who marries a man and then tries to re-create him in her own image. All authoritarian governments, to some degree or another, have described its fantasy citizen to society and then exhorted society to live up to this fantasy. Such national campaigns to create an ideal citizenry is a bit like your wife marrying you and then asking if you can put in some effort to look like George Clooney.
Chairman Mao’s ideal communist was one schooled in the tenets of Marxism-Leninism yet soaked in sweat from carrying out the Chinese revolution. In Stalinist Russia the heroic proletariat was at the center of communist ideals; a shift from the aristocratic excesses under the Russian tsars of previous centuries. Malaysia had its “Melayu Baru” and Singapore, well, we’ve had a few memorable ones.
In 1965 when we were kicked out of Malaysia, the PAP government saw the need to galvanize this strange new breed of people called ‘Singaporeans’. A year later we saw a national campaign to be a “rugged society”. As a “rugged society” we were challenged to be tough and strong enough to face our precarious political and economic future. Our national survival was at stake! Malaysia had expected us to crawl back to them, Indonesia didn’t like us, we had to be rugged! Or so we were told. The “rugged society” campaign was also, no doubt, helpful in introducing national service to a migrant population so foreign to soldiering. Then PM Lee Kuan Yew observed “Societies like ours have no fat to spare. They are either lean and healthy or they die.” And so our siege mentality began.
[see interesting Time Magazine article from 1967: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,843586-1,00.html%5D
Fast forward 40 years later and we’re still at it. Just eight years ago in 2000, The Renaissance City Report (RCR) was published. It was the country’s cultural policy blueprint that would make the city-state culturally and artistically vibrant. But it was more than just a policy blueprint. In it was the blueprint of the ideal Singaporean, the wet dream of the PAP government in the age of globalisation.
According to the RCR, the “Renaissance Singaporean” is “an individual with an open, analytical and creative mind that is capable of acquiring, sharing, applying and creating new knowledge” while “attuned to his Asian roots and heritage”. He “has a strong sense of identity and belonging to his community and nation” that “gives him the confidence to pursue activities beyond our shores”.
What’s more, the Renaissance Singaporean “is an active citizen who understands the balance between rights and responsibilities. He has a healthy regard for his fellow men, respects common property and is willing to make sacrifices for the greater good and to help those less fortunate than himself”.
But like all best laid plans, things often go awry.
Far from being a macho rugged society, we’re a country trapped in a shopping mall. We have one of the highest rates of myopia in the world. An estimated 80 per cent of 18 year old Singaporeans are short sighted. Our obesity levels are high and our children can’t tie their shoe-laces without their maids. The PAP government is a victim of its own success. In delivering urban comforts and material affluence, it has also, inadvertently, bred generations of round wobbly cubby tubbies.
But more than that, the government very often goes out of its way to create an environment that suffocates the very ideal citizen it had hoped to nurture. The “rugged society” campaign began in 1966 but by the 1970s we already told not to spit, how many children to have, what language to speak and what our values should be. Long hair, no. Juke-boxes, too much fighting. Fire crackers, dangerous, banned. In such a top-down draconian climate we were less rugged and more like plain rugs to be stepped on. How was a rugged society supposed to emerge from this?
Things aren’t so great for the ‘Renaissance Singaporean’ too. The Renaissance Singaporean is supposed to be global yet local; but dual passports are still not allowed in Singapore. The Renaissance Singaporean is supposed to be an active citizen, but only if your activities don’t go against the grain of established political culture. The Renaissance Singaporean is supposed to be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good…hmmm, really? I thought that the whole point of the Italian Renaissance was the belief that the Self, Man, was now the centre of all things to be celebrated as opposed to the Middle Ages where the Church was the centre of the universe.
The PAP government has got to stop having wet dreams about citizens. It was cute and understandable back in the mid 1960s when we were all shivering newborns thrust into this strange bad world but things have changed considerably since. I would like to believe Singaporeans today are sophisticated and emotionally mature enough not to have to aspire to the PAP’s latest poster citizen. And we can start by getting rid of all the corny communist-inspired National Day Parade themes. Meaningless rubbish like “A Caring Nation” (2002), “A Cohesive Society” (2003), “A Progressive Society” (2004), “Celebrating the Singapore Spirit” (2008), and my personal favorite, the minimalist “Our People” (1999), all have to be flushed down the toilet.
Free from all these government fantasies, perhaps we’ll stand a chance of becoming independent minded adult citizens.