Making Our Own National Day
by Kirsten Han
When I was a child, we watched the National Day Parade on television every year, waiting for the huge flag – suspended between two helicopters – to fly past my grandparents’ block. I remember it as an annual ritual, and the thrilling sense of ‘rebellion’ I felt that one year we opted out of watching the parade and went to the movies instead.
In those days, I saw the National Day Parade as little more than impressively choreographed formations and pretty fireworks lighting up the sky; it was only later that I started paying more attention to the content of the parade itself. Now, I can’t help but wonder: are these stories that we tell really ours? Who is telling them, and why? What is it that has been left out? Can there be a more authentic way for us to commemorate the day of Singapore’s independence, or do we even need to commemorate such an event at all?
The National Day Parade, painstakingly planned year after year, is a huge top-down performance of the stories Singapore wants to tell itself. We trot out the histories, the slogans and the aspirations; we turn them into military displays, coordinated mass dances and lavish light shows. We repeat the warnings about the need for a strong defence force, assure ourselves that we have racial harmony, and emphasise the policy goals that need to be met. It’s a single narrative writ large and fed to the entire nation.
I think of other national days, like Waitangi Day in New Zealand or Australia Day in, well, you know, and how they are days of contestation, days that have been problematised and discussed from a variety of standpoints, taking in different accounts and perspectives of history and power. There might be more conflict, more disputes, more protests, more messiness, but citizens are able to claim the space to talk about their history, their experiences and their relationship with their country.
Our National Day Parade, however, flattens the Singaporean experience. It assumes that we all have the same relationship with Singapore, and the same interpretation of the symbolism of 9 August. Through the National Day Parade – and its accompanying theme songs – we celebrate the anniversary of Singapore’s independence through reminders of self-reliance and self-congratulatory back-patting over how we have “made it” even when others said we would fail. We reiterate, over and over, that we are “united” in a Singapore “where dreams come true for us”. The messaging is focused and relentless; at no point is there an opportunity to suggest that perhaps not all Singaporeans feel this way.
For some Singaporeans, the day that Singapore gained independence from her colonial masters – 16 September – is more significant than the day Singapore split from Malaysia. To some Singaporeans, 9 August is a day of disappointment, the tragic failure of a merger that, to them, brought together two entities that should always have been one. These are perspectives that we no longer hear, drowned out and lost amid the directives to celebrate. We may not agree with these positions, but their loss means we’ve missed out on more diverse ways of understanding and considering our home country.
Then there are those who haven’t experienced life in Singapore as a place where we, in the words of this year's National Day song, “build our dreams… hand in hand”: people whose lives have been disrupted by detention without trial, couples who have been left in limbo for not conforming to state policy, individuals who have been pushed into exile.
In 2015, I spoke to members of the old leftist movement that struggled against colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. I asked them how they felt about SG50 and the no-expense-spared fanfare, the one-sided retelling of Singaporean history. Many said that, despite their personal views of the ruling party, they were impressed by the progress that Singapore had made. But what made them unhappy was the sense of betrayal, of their passion and efforts not just erased from the narrative, but skewed into something sinister and menacing. Their voices, their attempts to set out their version of events, have been largely confined to the fringes.
These are, of course, difficult subjects to address via fun clap choreography. But Singapore isn’t a five-year-old child; Singapore is a country, a diverse collective of people, of lives. Our National Day is not really a “birthday”, and there is no requirement for us to plaster bright smiles on our faces to make sure she has the perfect day of balloons and cake. We infantilise our nation to our own detriment.
Singaporeans aren’t stupid. We’re well aware of the superficiality of the National Day Parade celebrations. This annotated version of this year’s National Day Parade song demonstrates that Singaporeans are more than capable of seeing through the inane rhetoric of our annual celebratory tunes. Why, then, should we continue to reduce National Day to little more than motherhood statements pandering to the lowest common denominator?
We arrive at the answer when we look at who gets to do the telling through the National Day Parade. One doesn’t need particularly sharp observational skills to notice that the narratives of National Day Parades echo the frames and premises used by our political leaders in the governing of the country. The more we come to accept their assumptions as fundamental truths about Singapore, the more likely we are to acquiesce to their laws and policies. The more we internalise their directives as “the Singapore way”, the firmer their control.
In this context, it would be naïve to expect the National Day Parade – an exciting, shiny, fun propaganda tool – to give way to more grassroots-led activity. Yet it does society no good to continue pretending that there is only one way to relate to one’s country.
We celebrated our 52nd year of independence this August. That’s more than enough time spent on a monolithic idea of Singapore and Singaporeans, dictated from the top. We’ve more than earned the right to start seeking more authentic ways of commemorating National Day; approaches that are authentic to who we are and how we feel about Singapore, whatever that may be.
Decide for yourself what National Day means to you. Perhaps it’s a day to reflect upon our own family trajectories in this land, to trace our roots and talk about how each generation has experienced this island. Perhaps it’s a day to challenge the dominant narratives that are taught in our schools, to introduce complexities and nuances to our understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Perhaps it’s a day to just chill out with your friends and enjoy the communities with which you feel at home.
People are already doing it – for example, the annual Pink Picnic provides a space to spend time with one’s friends and family, while IndigNation uses the entire month of August to spotlight LGBT issues in Singapore. I’ve attended “alternative” National Day parties. But there is so much more that we can do, so many more issues, ideas, emotions and viewpoints to tap into.
Creating a more inclusive National Day isn’t about planning a bigger parade with more segments and participants. It isn’t about cutting more faces, more races, into a music video. It’s also about space: not only literal space, but also mental and emotional space. In an ideal situation, the state would take a step back and stop trying to dominate everything about National Day so the hype about the parade doesn’t suck all the air out of August, but there’s no reason why Singaporeans should sit around waiting for that to happen (because we’ll be waiting for a very long time). Instead, we should work to redefine National Day and create spaces for ourselves – transform National Day from a top-down one-size-fits-all celebration into a complex, contested event that reflects the many ways one can be a Singaporean. We can do this without permission, without directives, without marching in formation.
We don’t really need those things anyway.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist whose work often revolves around the themes of social justice, human rights, politics and democracy. Her bylines have appeared in publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Asia Times, Southeast Asia Globe and Waging Nonviolence, covering a range of stories such as labour exploitation, LGBT equality and free speech. As an activist, Kirsten has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and is a founding member of abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances. Twitter: @kixes
Thumbnail image: ST Photo: Kevin Lim