Patriotism in the Inauthentic Nation

August 17, 2008


According to historian Prasenjit Duara, a nation needs to feel authentic to its citizens to foster national identity and patriotism. This authenticity comes from the whole-hearted acceptance of a core of values or beliefs specific to the nation. Whether from historical myths, civilizational values or ethnic narratives, this core must then be embedded and embodied by groups or institutions in order to endow the nation with meaning. This core is eternal, never-changing and intimately knowable to citizens.


In other words, the nation, or what it stands for, is deemed authentic precisely because some things just never change. Without this sense of permanence, citizens will have very little to fight for beyond their families. The nation (the idea of who we are) must be timeless, while the nation-state (the country and the many societies within) must be dynamic to keep up with the rest of the world. Citizens find comfort and meaning in the nation; they eke a living in the nation-state.


Singapore is a nation predicated on change and fluidity. Birthed from the trauma of separation and profound insecurity, the Singapore mindset is a mixture of paranoia, pragmatism, reason, and anticipation. This is a country that has made a virtue out of change. Timelessness and permanence are just not part of the national vocabulary.


Is it any wonder why Singapore feels so plastic, so manufactured, so inauthentic? It is the very antithesis of what a nation ought to mean.


The PAP government knows this. And it has spared no effort over the years in trying to manufacture authenticity for Singaporeans. The Confucian ethics and the Asian values discourses in the 1980s and 1990s sought to propose a core of timeless values for us. Both did not quite take off because of our multicultural reality and the Asian crisis. The 1991 White Paper on Shared Values was another attempt, and if you can remember all five values you are either a PAP speech-writer or in dire need of a life (both are obviously not mutually exclusive).


National values cannot be issued like decrees. It is their presence in everyday Singapore life that makes them ‘authentic’; as opposed to heavenly edicts like “consensus, not conflict”. The problem with heavenly edicts is that while pristine, they are also alienating.


But the PAP doesn’t do chance. It only does policy and the clean implementation of.


How has this affected Singaporean patriotism? How can we be patriotic to a nation in constant flux, and inauthentic nation? Our permanent residents and new citizens, whether or not they win silver medals, do not share a common national memory with those who were born and bred here; and its certainly unfair to expect everyone to share the same ideas and memories of Singapore. But to make matters worse, by continuing to tear down historical buildings and landmarks in the name of efficiency, we’re also chipping away steadily at this very national memory. We’re a nation stuck in fast-forward mode. 


Without this authenticity it’s no damn surprise that Singaporeans cite the material – food, Singlish, shopping – as markers of national identity. The sum total of our national identity is Katong laksa and the Orchard Road experience. Clearly we’re about to take our place at the table of great nations.  


Unfortunately material markers will become more entrenched as the meaning of nationhood becomes increasingly dependent on how well Singapore the global city fares on the international stage. One can expect to see a decline in patriotism or nationalism during a prolonged economic recession, even emigration. This is in contrast to other nations where nationalism oozes in times of national distress.


It may be fitting on this our 43rd national day to imagine how patriotism will be expressed in a nation where nothing is timeless and where economic priorities override all other concerns.



One Response to “Patriotism in the Inauthentic Nation”

  1. sushibar Says:

    i like what i read here.

    have bookmarked this site.


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