This is New Naratif’s Political Agenda — a fortnightly roundtable discussion series of current affairs and issues of national importance in Singapore. Hosted by Managing Director PJ Thum and Editor-in-Chief Kirsten Han.
This week, we talk nationalism and National Day in Singapore with political scientist Dr Ian Chong and theatre director—and former National Day Parade creative director—Glen Goei.
Below is a transcript of this podcast, with minor edits. Thank you to the New Naratif member who proofread this transcript for us!
PJ Thum Hello everyone and welcome to our first episode of Political Agenda, a fortnightly podcast on Singaporean issues and current affairs brought to you by New Naratif. New Naratif is a Southeast Asian platform for journalism, research, art and community organisation by Southeast Asians and for Southeast Asians. Join our movement for a better Southeast Asia at newnaratif.com.
We’re recording this on seventh of August, two days before National Day, and so this week we’re talking about National Day and Singapore nationalism. With us today is my co-host, the brilliantly talented Kirsten Han, who is New Naratif’s Editor-in-Chief.
Kirsten Han I’m good!
PJ Thum Fantastic. We have two guests on the show today. First is the legendary Glen Goei, master of stage and cinema. How are you, Glen? Thanks for coming on the show.
Glen Goei Thank you.
PJ Thum So for those of you who don’t know, Glen is legit! He acted as M Butterfly opposite Anthony Hopkins—that’s Hannibal freaking Lecter! What was that like, Glen?
Glen Goei It was fantastic.
PJ Thum Do you still keep in touch with him?
Glen Goei No, no! He’s a Hollywood A-lister, and I’m just, you know, a working director.
PJ Thum Well, you were nominated for an Olivier award once, weren’t you?
Glen Goei Yes, I was.
PJ Thum But you didn’t win. I’m sure it was total robbery—you should have won.
Glen Goei Well, they wouldn’t give it to an Asian actor, right?
PJ Thum This was when?
Glen Goei 19… 1990.
PJ Thum Wow, okay. So glen is also famous for his two critically acclaimed films, Forever Fever and Blue Mansion. And you’ve got a few others coming out right now.
Glen Goei I just made a pontianak film, which is coming out next year.
PJ Thum Cool. Fantastic. Looking forward to it. So also with us today is Ian Chong, a political scientist. Welcome Ian. Ian’s an expert on international relations and politics in the Asia Pacific. So for those of you who are concerned about our relationship with China and all the issues we’re having, this is the man to ask. If you ask me, forget about the Kishore, Bilahari… you want to know about China and IR, you talk to Ian Chong.
Ian Chong Thank you. That’s very high praise. I mean, the reason I’m here is because I thought someone promised me dinner. He promised some alcohol.
PJ Thum We’ll get around to that. Okay, so today we’re talking Singaporean nationalism and National Day, right? So Ian, why don’t you kick us off. You’ve done a lot of work on this. What is Singaporean nationalism? Do we even have a nation?
Ian Chong I suppose we need to start off by talking about what nationalism is, and what a nation is, or might be. Because I think Singaporean nationalism is a variation of that. If you consider what a nation is, it’s, in the words of Benedict Anderson, it’s an imagined community. I think that’s quite apt.
Break that down for our listeners. What do you mean? Imagined community?
Ian Chong So by “imagined”, I mean to say that we all believe that we’re all part of the same political entity, that we share certain fates, that we share certain traits. And it’s imagined because, I mean, if you think about it—is it four million Singaporean citizens—how many have you actually met? How many do you actually know? And how many of these whom you’ve met and you know, how many do you actually get along with? I say this because the idea of a nation is supposed to transcend the individual experience. So I and someone else whom I’ve never met can both sort of feel that we are part of this same entity, right? And this is important for political organisation because, here comes the next bit, which is the state. State and nation are not synonymous. You get the term “nation state” because they’re two separate things. What a state does is, sometimes it tries to organise and mobilise this idea of a nation towards some political purpose, towards some political end. Often, historically, it has been to wage war.
PJ Thum Wow, that’s really heavy.
Ian Chong I’m sorry. You asked me!
PJ Thum No, no, no, not what you said, but this idea that because we believe in a nation, you know, we get mobilised for war. We’re willing to fight and die and kill. And there’s a man 10km away in Johor who may be exactly like us, but because he’s on the other side of a “national border” and he belongs to a different nation, so suddenly he’s an opponent that we should be willing to fight against to defend our idea of nation. Right?
But this is kind of the origin of nation, isn’t it? It’s a very modern concept that… or at least one predominant school of thought of nationalism—not to get too technical—but it argues that it is a very modern construct that arose really post-WWI, with the crumbling of the land empires in Europe and the need to justify the new states that arose out of it as somehow these coherent entities that were distinct from the empires that fell apart.
So for Singapore, let’s take a step back in our history. We didn’t have a sense of nation until quite recently. We were never supposed to be “Singaporean”, right? We were for a long time supposed to be Malayan, and then Malaysian, and then suddenly we had this thrust upon us and then the government had to create this sense of nationhood out of people who thought of themselves as Malayan. I mean that was really what happened right after we split from Malaysia, suddenly this desperate need to distinguish ourselves, and any reasonable reading of history said that we were part of Malaya.
So what Rajaratnam as Minister for Culture did, was, he tried to wipe the whole slate clean, right? He said, we have no history. We are a new people, you know, and Singaporean history starts now. And so then they tried to create this whole idea of Singapore from a supposed blank slate.
Ian Chong Yeah. But lots of places do that. You think about the Declaration of Independence in the US. It attempts to do that same thing. When you look at the French Revolution, it attempts to sort of start things on a blank slate as well. It is not a process that’s unique to Singapore.
PJ Thum Right. Let’s hear from the rest of the team: what do you guys feel? What is Singapore and do you feel like there’s something organic about Singaporean nationalism or is it something really artificial?
Kirsten Han It feels like a lot of the things that I personally, emotionally associate with being Singaporean kind of almost happened despite the government, rather than what has been imposed. So for example, there have been cases of the government trying to impose particular values as “Singaporean”, to kind of back up some sort of policy goal. So at some point there was this whole rugged nation thing. Everybody is rugged because we are tough people, resilient people, because they were trying to shop national service more.
And so there’s a lot of these top-down things. But a lot of the things that I would associate with Singapore and what I imagine when I think of Singapore as home and my country and my nation… things that maybe didn’t really get establishment approval, like Singlish, like hearing dialects in markets and things like that. So I think for me, I always see a sort of disjointedness between what the government taught me about how to feel about being Singaporean, and what I actually feel about Singapore, being Singaporean.
Ian Chong Yes, I agree with Kirsten, particularly talking about Singlish, for example. It’s certainly something not taught, not from the state. They didn’t promote Singlish, Singlish was just the opposite. It’s just completely organic. I mean, of course there’s Singlish in Malaysia, they have their form of what they call Manglish, and so in a way Singlish was already part of that… so there’s always been that. So I think that that’s very interesting because I think language is very important. In spite of… despite all the efforts by the ministry, the various ministries, to abolish it or to try to promote good English, people still speak Singlish because that’s what Singaporeans do.
Kirsten Han Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I was just reading that interview on Bandwagon with Dick Lee and Kit Chan and Sydney Tan about Home, and why Home is such a well-loved National Day song.
And Dick Lee was saying it wasn’t for National Day, it was for Sing Singapore and at first they didn’t quite get it because they were like, why is it so sad? Why is it not like “rah rah”, like Stand Up for Singapore? Why does it start with “whenever I’m feeling low”… like why do Singaporeans feel low? And he said, they didn’t really expect it to do so well because at first it wasn’t looked upon as your average National Day song, it wasn’t dictated by the state, what should be in the song. It was a song he had written to submit to Sing Singapore.
And in that way it was actually one of the National Day songs that kind of was more grassroots than top-down, and it’s just taken on such a life of its own that now you can’t, you can’t really have a National Day Parade without somebody singing some rendition of Home at some point. And so I found that really interesting because it shows that what resonates with people isn’t always what the state says. In fact, very often, it’s not what the state thinks should resonate or should be presented.
Glen, if you don’t mind my asking, you were really successful in London but then you chose to come home in 2002—speaking of home—right?
Glen Goei Yes.
PJ Thum And then you started Wild Rice.
Wild Rice was already started by my partner Ivan Heng, and he was also living in London at the time and we both had theatre companies, very successful theatre companies, in London, in the 90s. But I think Ivan was invited to come back to Singapore to be artistic director of the Singaporean Repertory Theatre. When he left, he started Wild Rice and then he invited me to join him. So I was living in London for 20 years.
PJ Thum Wow. That’s a long time. Why did you come home?
Glen Goei I knew you would ask me that. I’m going cut a long story short because otherwise we’ll be here the whole night. I don’t really have a particular answer—there isn’t a real answer why I came back, but I think now, with hindsight, because it’s been 14 years since I’ve been back, I think I came back because ultimately I realised at the age of 40 that London wasn’t really my home.
I didn’t spend my formative years there. I wasn’t there during my childhood or my teenage-hood. I certainly wasn’t there in my late teens; I only left for the UK when I was about… verging on 21. So my formative years were spent in Singapore. All the way up to National Service. I only left the day after National Service. Turning 40, I realised that England wasn’t really my home. My family and my friends were still here in Singapore and so when Ivan invited me to join Wild Rice, I took it up.
PJ Thum So the question then: is nationalism really just friends and family, familiarity? How are we supposed to… how do we articulate this sense of Singaporeaness? Sometimes I envy other countries and their citizens because they claim to have a set of core shared values that have evolved through their history rather than imposed on them, right? And they talk about, you know, the Americans and their American dream and the British and their sense of fairness, you know, and we don’t seem to have anything beyond what we’re familiar with. And we tend to cling to these things as Singaporeaness, but is there really something that we share that can be… that really is authentically, organically Singaporean? Kinda like a song, I mean it’s something that we chose for ourselves. I don’t know what… how do you feel?
Ian Chong I guess I can give you a sort of convoluted professor-type answer, because I think it’s important to preface it here. It’s also important to recognise that being a citizen and being part of a nation are not necessarily synonymous. In many places they are, because when you have the idea of a nation state, the state part demands citizenship, the nation bit demands that you’re part of this nation. But you can easily be part of a nation without being part of the same state. So for instance, if you think about the Germans and Austrians, right? And also, I suppose, part of the Swiss, right, they can conceivably be part of a Germanic nation, but they can belong to different states. That’s totally fine. I suppose you can make a similar claim about different ethnic groups in Singapore. So I am very comfortable in saying that I am ethnic Chinese, but I am a Singaporean and a Singaporean citizen, and I think the rights, obligations, restraints, responsibilities of being Singaporean are important, right? That gets to where you were going with the UK and the US. For them, in their nation- and state-building projects, there was an overt effort to make individuals into citizens, not just that they have a primordial feel for speaking the same language or having the same cultural markers.
PJ Thum Not primordial, but evolved over time. Or at least through some sort of trauma or event.
Ian Chong Well, yeah. So trauma is often a very useful way. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily good, but a very useful way to create a sense of belonging, the sense of trauma, the sense of threat. It’s very, very common. So countries that have or states that have a revolutionary history like to talk about that trauma, but I think beyond that, it’s also a sense of: if you’re talking about a citizen, what do you think are your responsibilities as a citizen? How do you participate in the political life of the nation? Because that’s the point. It’s not just a passive thing; as a citizen you have something to bring to the political life. It’s not something that we’re like, oh, we’re very comfortable or familiar, like we’re talking about in Singapore. But by it’s sort of very idea, going back to the ancient Greeks about citizenship, it means to participate in political life. So the question is how we participate in political life.
PJ Thum Is that why we struggle with this idea of Singaporean identity, because the government doesn’t want us participating in politics? We’ve had 50, nearly 60 years of a government which explicitly wants to monopolise politics and defines our sort of citizenship and identity as one which is apolitical, nonpolitical, right? And does that undermine our sense of nationalism then, because we can’t take part? So if you can’t take part in the nation—or the state, you know—why would you identify with it?
Ian Chong So I think with ideas of nation, citizenship and the state, they are always going to be contested ideas. So on the one hand, you can say, well, to choose to be apolitical, that choice is a political choice.
PJ Thum We don’t have that choice.
Ian Chong Well, I suppose even if you accept it, it’s an implicit choice. You can argue, but the whole point is that these ideas are ultimately contested, so that’s how you get to the sort of evolution of nations, the development of states over time. So the question then comes down to: what is it that people are willing to contest about in the state? Maybe it’s about nothing. Maybe there’s nothing to contest about, but in such a situation, what you may be faced with is your autonomy or ability to express yourself in a sort of political sense of being a citizen, of taking that ownership, right? You are ceding that for someone else to dictate for you. Maybe some people are okay with that, but these are issues that—for any other polity where a contestation is more normalised—it’s something that happens continually.
Kirsten Han I think one thing that’s made me think more… what is citizenship? What does it mean? What does it mean to be a citizen? What are the responsibilities, two-way responsibilities, right? Not just citizens’ responsibility to give, but what does the state… what is the state’s responsibility to us?
When you look at all the rhetoric and the comments about whether Ben Davis should be getting his deferment and all these comments of like, “oh his father, he doesn’t have the interest of Singapore at heart. It’s for his own personal pursuit.”
And then people say, “oh yes, you know, he should serve the nation first”, but then, what is this kind of contract… Why, if he gets this once in a lifetime opportunity, what is it about his responsibility that he has to give that up for the nation?
Or, if you look at it the other way, what is the nation’s responsibility to support a Singaporean trying to achieve his goal, which is not an easy goal? Not everybody gets a contract to play in EPL, right? Like who could do that? It’s such a new controversial issue precisely because he is the first Singaporean, and so what is the responsibility of the nation or the state to support this goal, rather than everybody just talking about, “oh, does he have Singapore’s interests at heart”? Is he, as a citizen, is he even required to put that as the number one priority over his own career, over his own development? So we don’t really talk about that. And then when it comes up in these cases, it becomes very bogged down in the detail of that particular case without talking about the values and principles of what it even means to be a citizen. What does it mean to have responsibilities to a nation?
PJ Thum You know just now how you’re talking about that vision of citizenship in the Greek times right? What was that again—as citizens to be involved in the political life of the polity? So in our political life, I mean that’s also a broad right, right? I mean, it doesn’t necessarily mean politics, right?
Ian Chong Right.
PJ Thum Yeah. So it doesn’t have to mean partisan politics. There are all kinds of ways that we participate in politics from very micro ways to macro ways.
Ian Chong Yes. So one thing I like to show to my students right, is every time you use money, you are reaffirming the sort of legal tender of the sovereign nation. In some ways it’s a very minute political act, but it is a political act. You’re saying that “I believe that this note is legal tender has the backing of a state behind it”.
And I think, getting back to the idea of what is the state’s responsibility to us… I mean ultimately that’s another reason why we want to be part of a state, right? It’s because, like I said, on the state side is getting people to mobilise, but for individual citizens, it is to say, well, “I want protection. I want to have some redistribution.” So on a very basic level, that’s the sort of quid pro quo that happens, and it happens in a way that, in this sort of idealised sense, that applies to your ability to restrain what the state does.
So states, in a more authoritarian sense, states can do whatever it is they want because they supposedly have the authority, because we’ve delegated it.
PJ Thum Because we, we’ve mandated them through voting?
Ian Chong So that’s what, whether through voting, or by not challenging, that’s one view, another view of the state. If the state is our representative, then we have a hold on it. We can and should restrain what it can and should do and what it cannot do.
So this is where the sort of limitations of state part comes in. That isn’t so much there in the Singaporean discussion of nation, but it’s certainly a part of what you see in other efforts to build nationhood, to build states. One example is if you think about the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, this is 2014, where many people took to the streets. They occupied the legislature. Now the idea behind it was, look, the executive has gone off and signed this agreement that is very suspect. The legislature has ceded its responsibility and not really questioned it. So there’s some need for citizens to hold back what the state is doing, to say, “wait a minute, maybe we’re going too fast.” That idea of efficiency being equated to speed isn’t something that is necessarily good. Maybe thinking things through is quite important. So that’s actually an exercise of effort. It’s an effort to exercise restraint on the state.
PJ Thum So how did the people of Taiwan do it?
Ian Chong Well, they organised and…
PJ Thum You mean public rallies?
Ian Chong So public rallies are one way. That’s certainly one thing that they did…
PJ Thum Which we can’t do in Singapore anyway.
Ian Chong Yes, we can’t do it legally in Singapore, obviously. There are different ways, different mechanisms to try to pull the state back. In Singapore, I suppose we have a more sort of pedestrian… well, maybe you write letters, you try to get an online petition, but of course the question is how effective are these in different situations? I suppose in Singapore we were fortunate not to have a case where there’s so much state overreach that we have to test how much we can pull it back.
PJ Thum You’re putting a positive spin on what is really authoritarian oppression, a limitation of our rights to assemble and to protest, which are enshrined in our Constitution and which, let’s not forget, we used to win independence in the 50s, right? We were out there, we protested, we had rallies, we had strikes and these are all part of our history that is very much suppressed by the government, specifically as I mentioned earlier, to exclude us from political participation.
Ian Chong I said, we have no legal means to do so. Now the question is…
PJ Thum We do have, I mean, it is in the Constitution. We have these rights but they’re limited by the law.
Ian Chong But the thing is, if you think about how the civil rights movement gained that openness or the suffrage movement gained the kinds of rights that they did, suffice to say that sometimes it’s important to think about what legality means and where the edges of the legality might be and might possibly be pushed.
Kirsten Han Yeah, I mean there are a lot of contexts in which things are outlawed but are strategically breached to make the point that bad law is not to be recognised, that bad law is to be called out for being bad law and we will not respect bad law. And so the whole idea of civil disobedience is to strategically do things that are illegal to push the point.
Ian Chong Right. And I mean, it’s also important to recognise that the legality and justice are not necessarily synonymous. Right? Was it legal to have slaves? Sure. Was it just to have slaves? Probably not.
I mean in our own context, of course, was it legal to be anti-colonial? No. But we had a massive anti-colonial movement. anyway.
Ian Chong Sure. Because it was just.
PJ Thum Okay. So let’s talk about this, you know, a specific sort of construction of nationalism in Singapore. As seen, through the uber-nationalist event that is National Day. Now, Glen, you were creative director for National Day. For what, four years? ’03 to ’06?
That’s right, yes.
PJ Thum What was that like?
Glen Goei It was fun, you know. I mean, it’s a big epic project and a great opportunity for a theatre director. Usually… my last play was performed in a 150-seater theater. You know, 150 audience members, and this is being performed in front of 55,000 people live, and of course two million in their homes watching the NDP. So it was a great opportunity for me. I have to say that when I was creative director, it was under the previous prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. I started in 2002, 2003, 2004. Times were different then, I think. So I can only speak from my own experience of that too.
PJ Thum What do you mean times were… do you feel like there’s a difference between NDP then and last year?
Glen Goei Well, no, the reason why I mentioned it is because I feel there has been a shift. Not necessarily in the NDP, but you know, from 2004 onwards… I think things changed. I mean, not necessarily NDP, but I think, but certainly under the state government that I was working under, I suppose, you could say in 2002, 2003, 2004. I think Singapore was different then. It was a Singapore that I came back to, anyway, after having been in London for 20 years. And I thought there was a change, I thought, this Singapore, it was a different Singapore that I had returned to and the army who conducts National Day Parade, they were the generals and the colonels and lieutenant colonels. They all had been educated in England or in America and they all seemed very progressive and I had a great time working with them. I don’t know, but personally I think things have changed, you know, 2004 onwards. It’s as though this wave of conservatism has entered, that’s the way I feel. I don’t know how you guys feel. I would love to hear what you guys feel, but that’s how I felt.
Kirsten Han I was just wondering how much freedom you get to plan and execute?
Glen Goei At the time, we had a lot of freedom, as I said, with the military, right? And I’m with the generals and colonels and it’s really a lot depending on the sort of committee that you have working with you and how progressive they want to be. And I think in 2002, 2003, the very thought of actually inviting a theatre director to direct the NDP, this was the first time they invited a theatre director. So somebody outside the establishment, so to speak. So I thought that was very progressive of them. There they were, they were opening up the NDP to outside.
PJ Thum Walk us through the process here. So, you know, National Day Parades usually have a theme. Who decides the theme?
Glen Goei I’m very involved with that decision, but there’s always many levels of committees, but of course it does start with me and the military brigade which is conducting that year’s NDP. And the committee within that brigade. So we’ll brainstorm ideas. But given a theme, the theme, it’s quite broad. It’s quite broad, they’ll say something like “One People, One Nation” and then from there we can decide how you want…
PJ Thum So you’re given a theme and then you execute.
Glen Goei Yes, yes, yes.
Kirsten Han But where does that theme come from?
Glen Goie It comes from, I suppose, from the President’s office, or the Ministry of Home Affairs. Or, you know, several ministries come up with it, I imagine.
PJ Thum It’s above your pay grade. They say to come and see this year’s theme and then you decide how to execute.
Glen Goei Yeah. And we decide what the content is going to be. Yeah.
PJ Thum How much leeway do you have? Does it always have to be, you know, the National Stadium? Or the float or the Padang.
Glen Goei In my case, the three years I did was at the National Stadium. And it was, it was fantastic. And the National Stadium, I mean obviously, so evocative, so historical. So many things have happened in the National Stadium. I mean the birth of the Kallang Wave, the early years of football mania in the 70s and 80s. So it was wonderful to do a parade at the National Stadium, and I always like doing things in the round because you’re actually communicating with your fellow audience members, you know, so when you shout, when you do the Kallang Wave you’re doing it at each other and sharing it. So it’s very much, it was very different from now. Now it’s on the floating parade. So you don’t really get interaction with your fellow audience members.
PJ Thum Yeah. So give us an example of how, if you… do you remember any of the themes you had and then how would you execute that as something to inspire Singaporeans to, you know, suddenly feel this surge of pride and, and aspire to the theme?
Glen Goei Of course it was very difficult for me to… you know, as an artist, how to bring a story, a narrative into such a big stadium, right? But also I realised that I personally wanted to create something which was not necessarily propaganda but a celebration. Right. It’s a birthday party and I wanted people to celebrate it. I want people to enjoy it. Rather than pushed propaganda messages. That was where my starting point was, you know, I wanted to tell a story and I wanted to make people feel good about being Singaporean. That I felt was my job to make people feel, yeah, ultimately good to be who they are, where they are. Yeah.
PJ Thum Cool. Was there anything like where you, you kind of disagreed on something that happened and it was pushed back.
Glen Goei For me it was very important to showcase youth and to showcase people, talents from all different races. In my first year in 2003, the finale item was Kumar. So I think that was the first time, you had Kumar in Indian costume and dancing with a group of Indian dancers, and the people I worked with thought that was really cool because, you know, it’s being very inclusive and yeah, I don’t know if Kumar’s ever performed again in the National Day Parade. So yeah, I mean, I don’t know whether that was discussed outside the NDP and whether somebody had made a complaint.
PJ Thum Why would anyone complain?
Glen Goei I don’t know. But you have…
PJ Thum So in your time was there the military column?
Glen Goei Yes, of course. That is like the how our NDP first started, right? It’s about the military parade. I mean the NDP begins and starts off, historically it’s a military parade. And then of course the show element is a mass parade, is a mass formation parade. And mass dance, I don’t know where that comes from historically, but…
Ian Chong Well it’s just to show that you can mobilise a lot of people, right? So whether you’re talking about a mass dance, having a lot of military, having a massive display of other sorts. Being able to put your resources together to create lots of terracotta warriors. I mean the idea is, the principle behind it is very similar, right? It’s to show that my society, my polity, has the ability to mobilise all these resources towards a very solid, tangible end. And the signal behind it, of course, is to allow the people within that policy to feel good about themselves, their ability to achieve something, often warfare. And the other is the outward demonstration to potential adversaries saying, “Look, if you want to take us on, then it will cost you.” So this tends to be the more martial element of these sorts of mass displays. Personally I don’t like mass displays so much precisely because of this element of it.
PJ Thum Because of what?
Ian Chong This sort of overt show of martial abilities, right? I understand that it has its place, but it’s this overt show of military might, this sort of overt sort of threat, you know, idea of engineering a threat is not something that I am personally that comfortable with.
PJ Thum Yeah.
Glen Goei So I think over the years, the NDP started in the 60s and started as a military parade, and of course it’s not unique to Singapore because over the hundreds of years, countries from all over the world would have their own military parade, but I think they’ve tried to soften it over the years. Then the show, the show element became in a way more important, or at least they try to balance the military side of the parade. So there was a military element which was the military parade. And then there was the show element culminating in the fireworks. So I think that has developed over the years, so much so that you know, that people turn on the television to watch a show and then they watch the fireworks, that’s the entertainment side.
Ian Chong Well I might be overthinking this a little bit, right? But to say that, look, I can get tens of thousands of people together to do a mass display and a mass show also implicitly says I can get tens of thousands of people together to form an armed contingent. So in that sense, the veneer… the expression maybe softer, but I think underlying message is still quite similar and I guess one reason for my discomfort, apart from those sorts of martial element, is the fact that you, when you have people in these sorts of mass kinds of displays, in a way it’s very disciplined. So it has that sort of, I suppose, positive side to it, but also means to say that we’re giving up to some degree our independence, our individual autonomy and agency, maybe willingly, that’s fine. But for me, I suppose that ability to exercise your agency and autonomy is really important. And to the extent that you can be mobilised towards some end… Right now, I’ve been giving quite a positive spin to it, but it’s historically been how a nation’s mobilised for war, aggressively offensive war. It’s been how a nation is mobilised to eat into themselves. So think about something like, the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, that is mass mobilisation as well. Used to different ends, but it’s the same means. So I suppose this means that I understand it needs to be there, it’s necessary, but I’m not completely comfortable with it because I understand the sort of more pernicious directions that we can possibly go.
Kirsten Han What I feel uncomfortable with about the National Day Parade is watching the military element. How it feels like it’s really entrenching the militarism in Singapore that, you know, this is what patriotism is, this is what supporting Singapore is, you must support the military, the military is so strong. And then the different messages that come out. So I think it was last year’s NDP that was about terrorism and counter-terrorism. And there were, there were officers with rifles coming out of the audience and pointing their guns at the audience. Obviously we know the guns are not loaded, but it’s still a really effed image to see them come out and point their rifles at the audience and then have like staged terrorist hostage situation where there were hostage children who got kidnapped, then they have to come and outmaneuver and then pew! pew! pew! shoot all the terrorists and save the kid with a teddy bear and everybody comes together and it’s really uncomfortable to see because it’s so uncritically presented as “Yay!” And then weaponry to shoot people. And it’s also really weird to re-enact kidnapping children and like, so okay. So it’s part of the parade.
Ian Chong So I wanted to jump in here, because this also gets into one of the sort of double-sided elements of these kinds of displays. I mean the overt message is , look, we have this capable force here to protect you, and in case of kidnapping and all that, which I suppose is important. But the question that also remains is can this force can be used for some other purpose. Could it be possibly turn onto its citizens? Could it then be sort of turned in that sort of forceful manner? I’m saying it not because I think this is what will happen in Singapore in its immediate sense, but because, you know, I look comparatively at different polities. This is what sometimes militaries, police forces have been repositioned to do. And this is where, when I talk about restraint, restraint on the state, this is where it’s important, right, to say, “okay, no, you can’t go there.” And so sometimes when these displays are there… it’s probably it’s my problem, I think to myself, “oh, okay, so if this were to be used for some other purpose, what means are there to restrain ourselves?” But again, this is probably just Ian Chong overthinking things as I usually do.
Kirsten Han It does feel, I think it does feel more uncomfortable in the context that outside of National Day Parade, we never ever talk about excesses of state power or restraint on law enforcement and armies and things like that. We never talk, we always talk about these other special powers we need to give the police in case of serious incidents. But we never really talk about who checks that power, where’s the accountability, you know, we don’t really talk about all this accountability until something really horrible happens like, you know, a kid dies. Then suddenly we all talk about the gun culture, like nobody’s ever heard of the gun culture before that. Now why does it need to wait for this long before we even talk about accountability. And so because these conversations don’t happen, that makes the National Day Parade even more unsettling, I think, because if we talked about checks on police power and military power for 364 days a year, and then on day 365 we have this nice parade, that’s not as bad as the fact that we never talk about it at all. And now we have this huge day where we completely lionise military and armed forces.
Ian Chong I guess, when I talk about giving up your agency and autonomy, I suppose there’s something or someone who’s done it as you see and maybe others have seen it too… there’s this stress on discipline, not challenging authority which is needed for armed forces, but sometimes commanders, in my opinion at least, go a bit overboard with the way that they treat people who don’t toe the line. And the question is, “okay, what do I do then? Are there any mechanisms I can use? Do I keep silent and let this go on?” And this is where the tekan-ing stuff comes in. So I think 99% of the time, nothing very serious happens, but, you know, that 1%, something very serious could happen. And by keeping silent, by sort of delegating away my agency, my autonomy am I then being complicit in some of these excesses. And you know, that’s one of those things I struggle with myself.
It feels like there’s a sort of a meta-narrative here. Because if we don’t, you know, if we are coerced to do national service, then this, this idea that the authority can coerce us to do things then goes down to all the different levels of our military, and even our civil service, right, our relationship to the state is a very one-directional one. It’s a very subservient one. And, and that then breeds the kind of culture where you have that gun culture, where you have authority which is able to do these things without accountability. Right? And this also then comes back to Ben Davis and, and this issue of what is a national service, because this idea of serving the nation is imposed on us and it’s such a limited, strict one. You can only serve in one way. You know, in other countries you could do national service by working as an orderly in a hospital, something like that. Right? And especially if you are a conscientious objector, because of religion, because of moral conviction, whatever. Maybe you serve longer, but you do it, you work in a hospital, you know, cleaning up old people’s poop or something. And that is also seen as a way to serve your nation, your people, your state, your country, but we have such strict definitions here that are non-negotiable and imposed on us and that implicitly then creates this whole culture where everything is strict and non-negotiable and imposed on us. And any deviation must be punished, you know, cannot be tolerated.
Ian Chong No, you can appeal for exception or something. That’s something we do really well in Singapore. People are always doing appealing, right? Whether the appeals work or not is a different story. But I mean, I mean, if you think about it, right? One of the key elements of our political process is, for better or worse, the Meet the People session. What do you do when you meet the MP? What do you, why do people go to the MPs? It’s to appeal most of the time for some cause or another, it is to say that, look, here are the rules. My case doesn’t fit the rules for whatever reason, it could be very valid, and I need an exception. I need you as a person in a position of political authority to make an appeal for me. So that appeal, it does work, it does. I mean it does work in the sense that, not that it’s successful, but it is part and parcel of our political process. Right? So in that sense, yes there is that, there’s that discipline, but the way to get around it in Singapore tends to be, okay, we’ll deal with the deviations on a case by case basis, whether that’s necessarily better or worse, I think it’s up for debate, but that tends to be the way we would get around it.
PJ Thum It kind of becomes exceptions that reinforce the rule, you know. Okay. So two things, right? First, you know, people say Singaporeans, don’t do politics, not political, but you see Singaporeans at Meet the People sessions appealing for exceptions. You see any Singaporean parent at their child’s school, right? Trying to get a better deal for the kid, trying to get their kid in a good school. You see any Singaporean at an en bloc trying to convince other people to, to sell. Right? So they can get their millions. Singaporeans are really political, just not in the sort of high form of politics way. So yeah, the second thing is, but you know what the examples you’re bringing up, right? We kind of implicitly in that we accept the premise that these are hard and fast rules by saying these are exceptions. You know, it’s not, here’s a process with which we adjudicate things. It’s these appeals, these are exceptions. So the rule is then reinforced by the fact that you’re giving, you’re making this an exception.
Ian Chong Sure. Right. I agree with you and I think there the issue is there’s an exception, that the rule is necessarily a good one, or at least an acceptable one, right? That, it might not be, well, maybe there’s a problem with the rule, and I mean this replicates itself throughout our sort of formal political process. So the appeal when you talk about the MPS is one, but I suppose what I think is quite curious and quite interesting is the way that our parliament works. So in most parliaments that I’m familiar with, when a bill gets introduced, there’s usually this… we have a debate, but there are usually efforts to make amendments. “You know what I don’t like this clause, I think it can be made better. I don’t like this language. It has all these implications that I’m not comfortable with.”
But that barely ever happens in Singapore. So again, it’s that replication of what you’ve just described saying, okay, well the premise is that the rules that are given down from the top are necessarily good and acceptable, and you know, we might differ a bit on interpretation and where the exceptions might be, but there’s no questioning of the sort of fundamental principles or I guess the ideas behind particular rules, which I think is very curious about being in Singapore.
PJ Thum So coming back to nationalism then. I mean this seems to me to be reflective of the whole way the whole nation-state is constructed. Coming back to my earlier point, it’s imposed on us. And then any deviation from it, you, you can legitimise it by saying it’s an exception, which then reinforces, again, this government’s view of the nation. Right? And it seems like this idea is so deeply inherent in the whole system and how we conceive of things. It itself seems to be, has become, part of how we conceive of Singaporeanness. Am I taking it too far?
Ian Chong No, I suppose if you talk about nationalism apart from the laws and all that, right, it’s a set of practices that we engage in and do, that we reify, then I think it’s something that in terms of lived experience and lived practice, how we behave as Singaporeans. And so this also brings up an interesting question of whether nationalism and whatever practices and laws that implies are necessarily beneficial, because you can see a situation where acceptance of something that’s sub-optimal would it be worse off than trying to challenge and change for something better. So, that is an inherent risk in our system if you will.
PJ Thum Inherent risk in our system? To challenge?
Ian Chong No, no, to accept, including something that’s sub-optimal. So actually, I mean, it’s perhaps not even to find out what might be better. It’s “okay, this was given to me, I’m not going to challenge or think about it. It might be sub-optimal, but if it is, I’ll live with it.” It might be good, then fine. But the thing is you’re not really clear whether it’s the best solution, whether you’re just settling for second or third best, right?
PJ Thum Okay. Let’s bring the two parts of our conversation together.
Ian Chong Sorry, this is becoming very disjointed.
PJ Thum So we talk about nationalism, construction of the nation and ideas of it. And we talked about National Day. So if you guys could reinvent National Day, right, how would you do it? In pursuits of what ideals of the nation or what conception of the nation? What about National Day with the way that we currently have a theme of National Day that is propagated through the way it’s being held? That then expresses certain ideas about our nation. How would you reinvent National Day and what would that say about Singaporean nationalism?
I can go first.
Glen Goei Yes, please go ahead.
I would do away with it entirely, and I would take all the money, and I would say to Singaporeans, “here’s the money, celebrate it in your own way.” Because for me, being Singaporean and what I love most about being Singaporean is the sheer amount of entrepreneurship that we demonstrate. And you know, people talk about, “oh, Singaporeans, we always play by the rules.” “We aren’t very good at entrepreneurship”, but I think most of the energy that we use towards that, you know, in being inventive, is, as we discussed, to get around the rules, right? To get a better deal for us within the framework of the system. And so what we’ve become very good at, entrepreneurial at, is operating within a rules-based framework, but then being very innovative within it.
If you think about maybe jazz solos, right, in big bands, where you have a sort of strict structure and then you can improvise, but maybe not that far. But I find Singaporeans are really good at, you know, this sort of filing complaints and making appeals, and I’d love to see this innovation unleashed. And so I’d say…
Ian Chong Make it a national day of appeal and complaint.
Glen Goei But maybe in America on July Fourth or in Australia on Australia Day, you know, they all have parties at home, right? I mean they’re all having, in Australia, barbies, and every home is having a party. I don’t see that happening in Singapore. In Singapore, it’s a public holiday. People, you know, leave the country as soon as they can, you know. I mean, of course not everyone can leave the country, but everyone sees it as a public holiday and an opportunity to actually go away if they can, if they can afford it. It’s not celebrated like in other countries where everyone’s having a party. So if you do away with NDP, as you suggested, and the money’s distributed…
PJ Thum What’s your budget for NDP?
Glen Goei I’m not privy to that.
PJ Thum So you can just, you propose and then they’ll tell you if it’s within the budget.
Glen Goei Yes, that’s right. Yeah. But it’s, it is a monster. A lot money.
Kirsten Han I think they put it in the Budget every year. But they might not break it down into like what goes to what, they’ll say this is the overall budget.
Glen Goei Yeah. But of course there are a lot of hidden costs which are not in the budget. Yeah. So, uh, what, whatever is official, you can probably…
PJ Thum Yeah. I’m going to try and look it up.
Glen Goei But yeah, I agree with you. I think a lot of money is spent on it and I suppose the state thinks that’s important for to build up nationalism or to promote this sense of community, but you know, after 50 years, 53 years, we should be confident enough to say, well maybe we should, we should change it. Do something else for National Day.
Kirsten Han I wonder if the reason people go away instead of having their own kind of like gatherings and parties is because it’s been done in such a way that it feels like there’s only this one way to celebrate National Day and if you’re not at the stadium or if you’re not watching on television then this whole day has nothing really to do with you, so you might as well go to Bangkok to go shopping for the weekend or something.
So it doesn’t feel that our participation is needed unless we’re watching this parade. If you, if you don’t like this parade, then there’s nothing for you on National Day. So maybe that’s part of the problem. I always feel very conflicted during National Day, because even if I know that the producers didn’t want to make it propaganda, it’s never getting away from the fact that it does come across as propaganda ultimately. Actually the goal of it is propaganda. Nobody puts a parade together to not be propaganda, whatever the parade is for.
And so I always have this like in my mind, oh it’s propaganda, it’s entrenching all these myths about Singapore that’s not good for us. We should be questioning and challenging these things. But then towards the end when the fireworks are coming and people are singing the songs and I’m like, “oh so many feels!” And then they show a skyline and you’re like, it’s so pretty, and then you kind of… So it’s kind of like whenever I watch the parade, which is not every year, but when I do watch it, it’s kind of like I want to be critical, but at the same time I also don’t want to be like the parade grinch, while like everybody else on Twitter is like so… So I’m always very conflicted.
But I think if it were up to me, I would get rid of the parade and leave it open to people to make their own meaning of what they want National Day to be. Maybe they don’t even care about National Day. Maybe it’s just another day and that’s fine. But if you had some sort of meaning that you wanted to add to it, like even Australia Day now, it’s become like this push to make it more controversial, to bring up aboriginal rights and things like that. And so people are making meaning that’s not necessarily celebratory, but it’s still important because it’s about reflection as a community of what our responsibilities are to each other. What have we done to each other? What is justice in this community? And I think like, in New Zealand they have a similar thing with Waitangi Day, where you know there will be protests by Maori communities about this Treaty of Waitangi, that was signed and that is now commemorated as Waitangi Day… [the treaty] was not fair, not just, and it brings out all these issues again. And then people are forced to sit down and talk about what are our responsibilities to each other, what are the reparations that should’ve been made, years of injustice, how should we address those things? And so even if it’s not always like happy, happy, it’s good to have these conversations.
Ian Chong I’m agnostic as to whether there’s a big parade or, whether it’s more of a private affair. Of course, having said this, I, full disclosure, I did write a piece many years ago, this is in the late 90s, about how it’s okay for people to go away and have little things. To leave the country and go on holiday, if they want to. But I think ultimately, I think I agree with Kirsten in the sense that, I think National Day, one good way of commemoration is to be self-reflective and perhaps that is something we need a little bit more in Singapore, to think about what have we done to ourselves, to each other, what can we possibly do better? When we talk about the pledge, equality, justice, what, what do these things mean? Democracy, what do they mean? How, how do we know what the standards are when we see something that is unjust, what do we do about it? What are the mechanisms we use? I mean, these sorts of reflections I think are useful, but of course that’s just me lah, and many of my friends have told me I’m very strange, and I think all of your listeners will probably figure that out by the time we’re done with this. But that reflectiveness, I think, is important.
PJ Thum But what outlets do we have after the self-reflection, you know, what channels do we have to, you know…
Ian Chong That’s a good question. But I think, so in this respect, maybe I’m thinking ahead. So yes, you know, 53 years, 54 years, 55. Oh, that is great. But where do we go from here? How do we move ahead together? How can we do better? Because like any other country, we have our fair share of failings, and I think it’s important to admit that, whether it has to do with some issues of racial discrimination which comes up, right? I mean, I think it’s unconscionable. For instance, for us to have, housing ads that discriminate against race, for us to say that, well, there are certain racial groups that we will block from employment. Uh, so these things, how can we do better on these? And yes, there may not be channels right now, but maybe the issue is to think about how we can find channels, what these channels might be, right? Because the issue is how to do better in the years ahead.
Kirsten Han Because yeah, I think it’s even if the intent is for it to be celebratory and positive, then it’s not like the National Day Parade doesn’t come with the risk of doing harm to some of these conversations. So like the sort of narratives that get pushed in a National Day Parade could actually be counterproductive to some of the conversations that we should be having. So I can’t remember which year it was, but I saw a National Day Parade where they were, when they were telling the Singapore story, they had Raffles coming on the boat, and then it went from Raffles to ’65 as if nothing happened in the middle and this sort of telling of the Singapore story, it’s actually counterproductive to a lot of the conversations that we’re supposed to be having about what is democracy about, what is grassroots organisation, what is, you know, our very ideal of the type of people and the type of society that we want to be. If we only see Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew with nothing in between, it actually harms the way we think about ourselves. Well they said before Raffles they were fishermen, and like, they were like super happy there. Yeah. Occassionally you will get a Sang Nila Utama, then you will get a Raffles and then a Lee Kuan Yew. Right?
Glen Goei And you know of course next year, we will have celebrations for the bicentenary of Raffles Landing.
PJ Thum We will celebrate our colonialism, when we were colonised. Which other country does that?
Ian Chong You’d be surprised. Australia, they are a very good example. They tried to move away with it from talking about the aborigines, but look, it’s basically about white settlers going and taking away land from aborigines. When you talk about, this is another thing that comes up in the US, not so much July Fourth, but Columbus Day, right? It’s about, well, you have some Europeans sail over and take over land and also spread disease, and then, you know, because of disease killed lots of the population, it looks like this native population, right, so it looks like this broad expanse of land and yes, that’s because a lot of people died in the millions. So these sorts of things, they were celebrated in other contexts. And so we’re not that different.
Kirsten Han But we are not the Europeans who came.
Ian Chong True. But my point being that the whole celebration of something that is actually deeply colonial, that is, that is about creating authority and subservience. Yes, you’re right that we’re not European. Maybe in some ways we’ve taken that over, but the point is that I think there’s still that, those elements that we can think about a little bit more.
It’s also the date as well, right? 9 August. Why do we celebrate 9 August of all days? Because the date of our independence from the British was 16th September 1963. That’s when we became independent from the British Empire, as part of the sovereign state of Malaysia. Right, and that the creation of Malaysia was endorsed through a popular referendum, through a long drawn out political process that was then endorsed in a general election, and we were all fine with that, you know, more or less, we wanted to be part of Malaysia, Malaya, but our separation was done totally in secret in the middle of the night by three men, Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Eddie Barker drafting, you know, these secret documents announced suddenly at a press conference and Lee Kuan Yew cries. Quite famous the end. So why do we celebrate this day that is so associated with failure instead of at least also celebrating the day that we actually became independent from the British coloniser? So there’s a very deliberate choice there, right? 9 August is as much separating us from Malaysia and our Malayan heritage, as it is celebrating some sort of idea of independence, you know, because technically we were already independent before that, right?
Ian Chong Well, this goes back to something you said earlier. This was trauma. So the way that many nations are built is this moment of trauma. So in the Singapore case, 9 August is this moment of trauma, right? It could possibly be be amplified, but the point is that this moment of trauma is when you need to wipe the slate clean. You need to start all over again. That’s the sort of idea that I think is built into 9 August, I suppose you could call it Hari Ditendang Keluar.
PJ Thum Okay. So I looked it up, the costs of NDP and it’s actually very interesting. So there were written replies in Parliament or questions raised in Parliament about the cost of NDP and the cost seems to have really ballooned over the years. So Glenn, when you were doing it right, 2002, it’s S$5.56 million. 2003, S$6.25, 2004, S$5.43 right? Those were the years you were doing it. 2005, at the Padang, it shoots up to S$10.3 million and then it slowly climbs. Well 2006, it drops to S$7, then it goes up to S$13, S$14 and S$15. 2010, it becomes S$20 million. 2011, S$17 million. Then there’s a gap here. And for SG50, it’s S$40.5 million and you might say okay that’s SG50 but then 2016 it’s S$39.4 million. Almost exactly the same cost. So this is a huge amount of money. Although to put it into context, right? The Youth Olympics cost S$387 million. So you know more than the 12th most expensive NDP.
Kirsten Han But that was spread over a number of days and NDP isn’t. But this year’s NDP, they were giving away quite swish tote bags.
Glen Goi They give away nice bags every year, but that’s because the budgets are really high.
Kirsten Han I saw people on the MRT, and I was like, the bags are really nice. When I went as a Primary Five kid, it was just like string bags and now this year it’s like those like canvas, zip totes.
Glen Goei Yeah, that’s true. Waterproof inside.
PJ Thum Okay, but S$40 million. If we distribute that…
That’s not including the cost of all the participants because that’s free, right?
Glen Goei Which I like. Not just the national, not just the soldiers, but I mean the students who perform, the SOCA, the SOCA Association, the People’s Association. I mean, which amounts to between 3,000 to 5,000. That’s not including the national servicemen.
PJ Thum So if we take S$40 million and we divided it among, let’s just say there are four million citizens, That’s S$10 each. Sofor those of you who are still listening, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. If you had 10 bucks, which you can pool with your friends, your family to celebrate National Day, how would you do it? Do drop us a line, tweet us or comment on our Facebook page and let us know how you think you would want to celebrate National Day if you had a budget of S$10 a person. In the meantime. I think that that’s all the time we have.