I can’t help but feel slightly disconcerted by this whole SG50 thing. It’s great that we’re trying to do something special on the fiftieth anniversary of our nation’s founding, but it all feels so forced. Scratch that. It feels so manufactured. SG50 is like the Big Mac of national day celebrations. It was probably birthed in a sterile office, then focus-grouped to death and finally polished to mass-market perfection. And it is absolutely everywhere. Since last week, there has been at least one story devoted to SG50 celebrations in the Straits Times every day. Just yesterday, half a page was devoted to an SG50 family picnic held on Istana grounds. The day before, a graphic about SG50 baby certificates appeared smack in the middle of the main cover page. I’m not sure I can survive another 8 months of this.
At this point you may be thinking, stop whining. There’s nothing wrong with the manufacture of patriotic spirit! Heck, our most stirring and goosebump-inducing national day songs were all composed specifically for August 9. Just because Count On Me, Singapore and This Is Home were manufactured doesn’t make them any less powerful. Well, yeah. I’m quite cool with these one-off displays of patriotism and pride. The problem arises when you have a sustained campaign which aims to drive home a specific narrative, dominating discourse in the mainstream media and imposing a lens through which we should view the past.
I’ve never been a huge fan of national triumphalism in the form of “look how far we’ve come” or “we’ve built a prosperous utopia on the backs of our rugged pioneer generation” because it feels way too simplistic. It ignores the fact that Singapore was a thriving port under British rule – even then, we were considered the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. It truncates history to the years between 1965 – 2015, with less emphasis on how the preceding years contributed to the nation we now know and love. For instance, the irritating caricature of Singapore as a sleepy fishing village before Raffles (and later, MM Lee) took charge really holds no water. Excavations in Fort Canning have shown that as early as the 14th century, Singapore was an extremely important regional port that was under the indirect control of the Mongol Empire. It also makes the narrative of ‘survival against unimaginable odds’ seem like immutable fact – for all we know, historians ten or twenty years down the road may hold a different view regarding the formative years of our country. In other words, we’ve got a year-long National Education extravaganza on our hands.
There’s another thing about SG50 that’s been irking me. This has everything to do with the fact that the Prime Minister has indicated the next election may not be held when Singaporeans expect. Given that by law, elections can be held earliest by this year and latest by January 2017, doesn’t it make sense that the government will eschew the widely-anticipated 2016 date and hold the General Election in 2015 instead? How convenient that this so happens to be the year when SG50 takes place, and the year right after the Pioneer Generation Package was launched. I’m sure this isn’t the main reason why SG50 is being celebrated, but surely there’s an undercurrent of political interest at play here.
The notion that Singapore was sure to fail after separating from Malaysia if not for the intrepid pioneering spirit shown by our grandparents and the political wizardry demonstrated by our founding fathers is very advantageous to the PAP. This narrative is one that is charged with political potency – it blurs the line between Singapore and the party which rules it. We are implicitly led to believe that the PAP is the essence of modern Singapore. I’m uncomfortable that the construction of a supposedly cohesive national identity happens to intersect with the PAP’s partisan interests. Of course, I could be completely wrong and it turns out that the GE is held in 2016 or 2017. Then I’ll be the first to admit I was really stupid and presumptuous. But even then, it will be hard to shake the feeling of unease I have that the state or the upper crust of the civil service is dominating discourse about national identity for a whole year.
If you believe that this isn’t the case, feel free to argue your case in the comments. But before that, I would like to pose a thought experiment which I would appreciate an honest answer to. If a prominent member of the opposition, or someone who has consistently shown that his affiliations lie with the opposition, were to apply for the SG50 Celebration Fund to finance an apolitical project, is it likely that they would receive it? Sure, I’ll readily concede that Philip Jeyaretnam is a member of the SG50 Steering Committee. For those of you interested, his thoughts on SG50 are well worth a read. And that’s a step in the right direction. But the Committee still overwhelmingly comprises government ministers and bigwigs within the civil service. Even after 2011, when the Worker’s Party established themselves as the leading voice for the opposition in Parliament, no WP member features in the Committee. I don’t want to speculate as to why, but the facts point to an undeniably strong governmental presence in the planning process and oversight over SG50.
Doing something special for our Golden Jubilee need not involve doing something bigger, grander, more kitschy, and more loaded with narrative. It may just be something that needs a lighter touch – allowing activities and exhibitions to organically sprout up without the heavy hand of a steering committee. Come National Day though, I’m probably still going to be belting out the National Anthem and feeling excited and proud to be Singaporean. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. In the interim, however, colour me a little sceptical.