Mediating Singapore: National Identity and the National Day Parade

Selvaraj Velayutham

Chapter One: Inventing National Identity

The actor may come to know himself better through acting or enactment; or one set of human beings may come to know themselves better through observing and/or participating in performances generated and presented by another set of human beings (Turner 1986: 81).

In this chapter, I want to examine the role and function of the National Day Parade in relation to the development of a national identity whose appearance, I would argue, is less problematic compared to the state festivals that Hutchinson (1992) discusses and which will be dealt with below. Whilst these state festivals are held periodically, the National Day Parade is an annual event. On this basis, it can be said that the latter is closer to being framed as an invented tradition (Hobsbawm 1983). Since the National Day Parade is held every year, my main aim in this chapter is to show its relationship with the ongoing discourses of national identity formation. This will mean looking at the Parade's ideological conventions and the political and historical conjunctures out of which it has come to exist. Hence the role of the state, in the form of state institutions, in the involvement of the organisation and staging of the Parade will be considered also. For this purpose, Althusser's (1971) theory of ideological state apparatuses will be used as an analytical tool. My concern here is to establish the point that the construction of national identity in Singapore evolves with the direct in(ter)vention of government policies and state apparatuses.

The Problems with State Festivals

John Hutchinson (1992) has critically examined the commemorative festivals of Canada (the centenary in 1967), The United States (the Bicentenary in 1976) and Australia (the Bicentenary in 1988) that were celebrated to mark the birth of nationhood for these countries. These national festivals were contrived to mark an important transitional point in the history of these nations. Hutchinson (1992: 3) argues that, historically, the state festival was invented as a rite of national regeneration. The periodic state festivals occasioned the articulation of nationhood as a means to rejuvenate and reinforce, supposedly, its central defining characteristics. In his study, Hutchinson (1992: 8) posits several reasons for the festivals being staged. Among the most significant are "the need of cohesion" and "the status anxieties of 'new' nations". His study of state festivals reveals that, at the point of their staging and afterwards (reception), organisers of the event encountered difficulties and problems in mobilising the people of the nations. They also faced widespread reaction against the state festivals.

These nations are settler societies which were founded by colonists from (in most cases) a single ethnic core who, dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants, establish an independent state and later admit waves of migrants from many ethnic backgrounds, seeking to absorb them through equal citizenship rights (Hutchinson 1992: 3).

This means that there was a need to acknowledge the historical disjuncture and multicultural diversity of the population within the nation's formation. Whilst the state festivals ambitiously attempted to represent the diversity of their multicultural status quo, there was little recognition of the displaced histories and marginalised position of indigenous peoples. The acknowledgement of cultural diversity inevitably resulted in the tendency to contain cultural difference (Bhabha 1990: 208), thereby constituting a norm which was necessarily seeking to assimilate the indigenous cultures into the dominant settler culture.

These state festivals created conflicts and contestation over representation and failed "to function formatively in the sense intended as galvanisers of a once-and-forever transition" (Hutchinson 1992: 25). The ability of these state festivals to engender conflicts and thus to prevent a successful reconciliatory process may be identified as their shortcoming. The idea of "nation" becomes a contested category of discourse and power. For state festivals to accommodate the corpus of the nation's diverse cultures and different histories at the occasion presented an arduous task. The failure to successfully articulate a national identity through a definitive approach which privileged popular myths and dominant white historical recordings received severe criticism and brought about wider divisions and discontenments within the nations. From Hutchinson's essay it can be seen that the state celebrations of Canada, The United States and Australia achieved only marginal success in establishing social cohesion and a sense of national identity/unity. Moreover, they perpetuated cultural diversity at the expense of obliterating cultural difference. This fundamental issue concerning cultural difference in practice is antithetical to the view of national unity. Difference is not analogous to unity but in the traditions of modern nations, difference is substituted to signify diversity.

Inventing a Tradition

State festivals such as those which Hutchinson has examined sought, in principle, to regenerate or to an extent to reinvent their nations' character and outlook. This process of reconstituting "nationhood" and "national identity" relies on the basis that is synonymous with what Hobsbawm (1983) has called invented tradition.1 An invented tradition is a set of practices,

normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm 1983: 1).

That is, such a tradition (state festivals) arouses or revitalises a sense of nationhood and patriotism amongst the people of a nation through dominant modes of ritualisation and collective practices. The very idea of an invented tradition relies on the fact that it is contrived and staged by certain institutions or even by the state (a top-down process of inculcation and production of knowledge) which is preoccupied with the intention to instil a collective identity through such state festivals. Most of all, an invented tradition epitomises the unity of the nation through commonalties and continuity with the past. Hutchinson's analysis of state festivals reveals that for a settler colony like Australia its historical past begins when the British supposedly discovered the continent — hence the marking of the "bicentennial" in 1988, commemorating that "discovery". The establishment of such a historical link threatened the very foundation of the reinvention of multicultural Australia.

This thesis of the invented tradition has a direct correlation with state festivals in so far as the objectives of the latter are driven towards establishing certain values and norms that come to constitute a national entity. At the same time, there lies a real problem in determining its association with the past. The state festivals of Canada, the United States and Australia relied on the settlers' history to justify their celebrations. This undermined the positions of displaced indigenous cultures and other minority settler communities. Where the state celebrations that Hutchinson has highlighted were both exclusive and exclusionary in character — predominantly reflecting White settler's history and society — Singapore's National Day parades, by contrast, are an embodiment of its rich multicultural diversity.2 More importantly this invented tradition has been framed to mark the emergence of Singapore as a new nation and thus coincides with its historical formation.

The underlying logic of success of these parades and their ability to reproduce national identity "unproblematically" and convincingly can be attributed to their lengthy planning and staging. Most of all the parades' success also lie in their ability to mediate between competing discourses of national identity, complexity of engineering such a collective identity, and systematically representing uniformity and historical continuity. The parades, Yong (1992: 74) argues, "speak volumes about the capacity for efficiency, skill, organization and predictability". By contrast, the state festivals of Canada, The United States and Australia were organised at the federal level, but the federal system was not always "able to control the actions of states or provinces, which [had] their own agenda and [made] decisions which [could] shape the occasion" (Hutchinson 1992 : 24). This has not been the case in Singapore. All decisions concerning the National Day Parade have been undertaken by the Ministry of Defence since its inauguration in 1966. The government had delegated the military the task, as the latter could "mobilise large groups of people and provide logistics such as communications, medical support, and transport necessary for such a large celebratory event" (Devasahayam 1990: 48). Other government bodies and quasi-government agencies have also been involved in the co-ordination of the parades.

According to Ang and Stratton (1995: 74), "Singapore has no pre-colonial past which could give ready meaning and justification to its post-colonial, newly achieved nationhood". However, the absence of a pre-colonial past has not inhibited the development of an idea of nationhood in government rhetoric and even through the National Day Parade. As Chua and Kuo (1991: 1) argue, "while there was no nation until 1965, there was nevertheless a society" in Singapore. Hence the meaning of a Singaporean nationhood had to be invented and fostered, arising from a colonial setting that encompassed diverse immigrant communities.3 These histories, together with the country's independence from British colonial rule and the separation from Malaysia, remain as important points of reference for the founding of the nation. The emergence of Singapore as a post-colonial nation-state occupies a turning point in its history that has been recognised and celebrated on every 9th of August. Therefore the resources for this invented tradition were all new, but were not without traces of a colonial and immigrant cultural past.

In other words, this ritualistic practice is neither new nor unique to Singapore. For example, the parade's antecedents can be traced back to Empire Day parades, the Victory Parade (1945), the Queen's Birthday Parade and City celebrations (1951) in colonial history (The Straits Times, 9 August, 1993: 4). The significance of such parades is discursively and historically located within

the politics of imperialism, [where] only the interests of the metropolitan centres of the colonising nation mattered, [and] those of the colonised [were] essentially irrelevant and must be suppressed should they raise their heads. Under such conditions, force must be a constant reminder implanted in the minds and eyes of the colonised lest they rebel (Chua 1992: 58).

This ritualistic reinforcement of colonial authority enunciates the political position and invested interest/stakes of the colonial rulers of Singapore. The colonial subjects were interpellated as the object of the colonial gaze. Structurally, the colonial parades may have been uneventful for the participants who were compelled to participate. With its top-down power relation and absolute authority, subordination was almost guaranteed in such colonial parades. The ideological function of these parades maintained the relation of coloniser to colonised and through coercion celebrated the colonial political order.

The National Day Parades by and large replicate the ruler and ruled power structure in the way they are conducted. The solemn ceremonial segment of the parade which is made up of military and non-martial marching contingents paying tribute to the leaders of the nation is still practised. This proceeding reaffirms the allegiance of the parade participants to the state power. The ordering and control of uniformed bodies directly under the command of the parade commander ensures regimentation and regulation of actions. The parade (including mass displays and cultural performances) is always presented to the politicians and government representatives who occupy the grandstand (away from the general section of the crowd) of the parade ground. From here the marching contingents are reviewed.4 Due to the highly official nature of the event, every execution and movement is pre-planned and rehearsed thoroughly. In this sense, the National Day Parades have never been a spontaneous event. In postcolonial Singapore, however, although the structural relations of power are still maintained in so far as the parade is presented to the government representatives for review, a new inflection arises with respect to the actual content of the event. The Parade is not only implicated within ruler-ruled power relations but also actively reproduces the idea of Singapore as an imagined community (Anderson 1983) or nationhood for its citizens.

Accordingly the Parade attempts to mobilise the population under the banner of national celebration. It is at this juncture of mass participation and mass viewership that the on-going practice of conformity and constraint under a ruling ideology is established and maintained. Like all state organised rituals, the signifying practices of the Parade are systematic, structured and highly elaborate, involving the participation of citizenry coming together to celebrate the birth of the nation. As part of an ongoing process of socio-cultural inculcation, the Parades are highly redundant in their reproduction of meaning pertaining to a "Singaporean" identity. More precisely, the purpose of the Parade in the context of national formation in Singapore can be approached from the construction and circulation of ideological regimes that inform and facilitate the creation of "Singapore" as a national entity.5 These regimes may be responsible also for the creation of accepted values and norms that characterise Singaporean society, as manifested in the cohesive and ritualistic practices of the parades.

The ideological function of the parade

The construction of national identity is a complex and on-going process in which state apparatuses constantly negotiate meanings through consensus and coercion. It is also a means to neutralise the conflicts existing within the social structures and making the structures of meaning unambiguous from the view point of the dominant ideological form.6 How the construction of national identity comes into place is important because it is organised around a politics of signification, which is never unproblematic. In Singapore, this process is largely undertaken by various political and social institutions. As Quah (1990: 45) argues:

[t]he government has relied on many instruments to promote national integration, including the promotion of economic development, public housing, national service, educational policies, the mass media, periodic national campaigns, and grassroots organizations.

In creating a multi-racial society, the central focus fell on managing racial relations and socio-economic and political stability. The various institutions noted by Quah play an active role in the nation-building and national integration process.

A critical examination of the national discourses concerning Singapore's national identity may bring to light the patterning of social structures and their determinants through ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). For Althusser, these ISAs "function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondarily by repression" (1971: 145). In his account, although there is a plurality of ideological state apparatuses, they are unified in so far as they work together to perpetuate submission to the "ruling ideology", or to the representation of a society's structural formation and the indication of hierarchies of power. This is not to suggest that only one dominant ideology is being reproduced and circulated within Singapore, but that an ideological system is realised through various institutions constituting the formation of Singaporean society. The following words of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew are an instance of that system, with respect to official priorities: "national cohesion, economic and social rationalisation, maximisation of intellectual capacity and hard work, and the constant mobilisation of the whole population" (cited in Regnier 1987: 229).

In addition to developing Singapore's economy and national identity, other fundamental infrastructures are at work during the National Day Parades. Played out through the festivity and hype of the parades, there are several primary objectives which are inculcated: loyalty to the nation (through the military and non-martial parade); racial harmony and cohesion (through multicultural shows); education (through school children mass displays); national allegiance (through the recital of the National Anthem, National Pledge and National songs); and economic development and progress (through mass displays and float processions). These ritualistic idioms in general, which are vividly articulated through symbols and performances, were initiated at the first independence celebration on the 9th of August 1966 and have continued to be built upon in subsequent celebrations. It was hoped that these expressive symbols and performances, "regularly repeated in mass and joyful settings, such as the National Day celebrations could help instil virtues and values in the hearts and minds of the citizenry" (Mutalib 1992: 77). The meanings attached to such symbols and performances may be seen as effects of the state apparatuses. Studies conducted by Devasahayam (1990) and Birch (1993a), however, indicate that these virtues and values attached to state symbols, are either not known by many or read incorrectly in comparison to the state's version. Nevertheless, the national ideology is perpetuated tenaciously in the hope of securing and instilling state defined virtues and values amongst the population.

Underlying such a national ideology is the concept of survival. The dominant ideologies in Singapore are exercised through what David Birch (1993a) calls crisis-management tied to a do-or-die preoccupation.7 He observes that

within Singapore the very maintenance of a discourse of crisis is one of the main strategies adopted by the Singapore government to maintain its ideology of control, anchor its people to the nation and create a climate of domestic uncertainty about the fragility of the state and the economy (Birch 1993b: 75).

This strategy is about economic survival, managing difference, creating a sense of belonging for all Singaporeans and arousing patriotism. In this manner, the ideological practices of state apparatuses take the form of constantly instilling the population with a sense of the uncertainty of the future and the need for the effective mobilisation of the people. As Althusser argues, ideology is a "structural feature of any society; its function is the cementing of its unity" (Larrain 1979:156). The National Day parades, then, are utilised as a stage for the perpetuation of such ideologies. Therefore, in terms of an Althusserian argument, the parade contributes to the reproduction of relations of production in the form of reproducing "good", disciplined and patriotic citizens.

Reading the Parades

At a discursive level, the parades reproduce a strategic reaffirmation of the ongoing institutional discourses of nationality through schools, work-places, the media, the family, etc. For instance, Singapore's National Anthem and National Pledge are recited every day by schoolchildren and at every National Day parade. Civil servants, employees and Army personnel also take part in paying their allegiance to the state in respective assemblies on the eve of National Day. For Birch (1993a: 2), the recital of the national Anthem and Pledge, which he argues very few Singaporeans understand, "lies not with its individual words exhorting a migrant, postcolonial, people to success through unity, but with its powerful association with a carefully constructed national identity which signals the idea of belonging; of finally being 'home'". It may be argued that the everyday discourses of national consciousness which are normalised/naturalised at a mundane level are repeated at the Parades. Similarly the introduction, since 1984, of national songs at the Parades hails individuals in support of national pride and honour. They include songs like Count on me Singapore, Stand up for Singapore and We are Singapore.

According to Althusser (1971: 143) ISAs "present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions". The issue of national defence is always a key feature of the National Day Parades. Although this ISA has not been identified in the Althusserian schema, it can be shown that national defence (the military system) is indeed a vital component of the ruling ideology. For reasons of imputed geopolitical uncertainty, national service was made compulsory in 1954. The possibility of potential external antagonism and threat has been used to legitimise the existence of the Armed Forces. As a constant reminder of national security, military hardware is paraded at the occasion. With the introduction of the concept of total defence (Military defence, Civil defence, Psychological defence, Social defence and Economic defence) in 1985, the area of national defence as an institutional practice limited to the Singapore Armed forces was expanded to incorporate other institutions in a network responsible for the preservation of peace and stability. The concept of total defence is an indispensable part of Singapore's ruling ideological construct which reinforces discipline and loyalty to the nation.

The participants representing various institutions inculcated in specific ideological regimes (the military, schools, work place, etc.) come together at a specific time and place to convey and reaffirm discourses of national identity. The emphasis on collectivity and uniformity is perhaps a salient feature of the Parade. The anonymous faces within the marching contingent/ mass performers/spectators signify collectively the comradeship of the Singaporean nationhood. It is at such instances that the work of the ruling ideology is most effective, especially when the category of national identity becomes definitive, attached to expressions and signification via various displays. Since the framework of the parade is structured as a reified spectacle, it is a site for reproducing the official cultural meanings that underpin the national character of Singapore and in many ways an institutionalised form.

The parade effectively is an ideological device which interpellates, that is, "transforms" the individuals into subjects (Althusser 1971) regardless of race, ethnicity, language or religion. This process of interpellation is perhaps the most obvious transformation that the parade produces pervasively. Hence the National Day Parade has a different political, if not deeper psychical significance: it is staged not only by the people for the people to express their allegiance to the nation, but also to collectively imagine a sense of history and destiny, and to contribute to the formation of a national consciousness over and above individual and ethnic loyalties or affiliations. At this level of cultural transmission, the Parade seeks to normalise its legitimacy by its emotive appeal to its citizens — its participants, spectators and television audience.

It must be noted that overt resentments were expressed towards the parade in its early years. For instance in 1966, the Barisan Sosialis and Party Rakyat condemned the festivities. It was "phoney independence and utter waste of public money, according to a statement they issued" (The Straits Times, 10 August, 1966: 20). The boycotting of the public ceremony by opposition parties continued until 1970. Other incidents like "anti-government demonstrations", "anti-government banners some attached to harmless parcels" and "an unserviceable smoke grenade" were reported in the papers (The Straits Times, 10 August, 1967: 12 and 10 August, 1970: 1 respectively). In recent years, although overt resistance against the event appears to have diminished, there are instances which can be identified to suggest a general apathy shown towards the occasion. In the 1980s and 1990s, many Singaporeans headed for Malaysia for a one-day visit during the National holiday. This means of escape may indicate that not everyone in Singapore is totally immersed in the nation's celebration. Needless to say discontentment or resentment towards the celebration are not expressed to the extent of disrupting the proceedings of the Parade.8 On the contrary, outlets for resistance are less reactionary and in most cases expressed in the manner of being apathetic or inert to the occasion.9 Nevertheless on the whole the Parade has been well received by the public. Their participation and involvement testifies to the affirmation of the processes of nation-building.

As Dayan and Katz (1985: 60) argue, "[b]y their presence these audiences validate the ceremony [and] give a first legitimisation to the decision of the official bodies that organised it". So this relationship dictates the validity of the Parade in conjunction with viewership and the official text of the Parade. For the viewers at home watching the packaged presentation of the parade televised "live" with commentaries in the four national languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil), the Parade is not only a mediatised but a strictly mediated event. As Dayan and Katz add, "[t]he intervention of television is so essential to the existence of national statewide rituals that the original ceremony finds itself reduced to not much more than a prop, a structure yearning toward another structure" (1985: 61). Nevertheless such a translation mediated by television is an incisive and powerful means of cultural reproduction. It not only contributes to the cultivation of the idea of the nation as an imagined community but also proceeds to win the endorsement of the television audience. The spectacularising effect of television captures the performance at a public arena and delivers it to the private sphere of the home in an effort to mobilise the nation-as-audience into accepting the symbolic enactment of nationhood, national culture and national identity.

The National Day parade as an invented tradition is a regular feature in the nation's diary and continues to reinvent the cultural memories of the nation. It functions as a site of intersecting ideological systems which reproduce the ruling ideology that shapes and moulds the Singaporean identity and culture. In Victor Turner's theorisation of cultural performances, they generate a

"discontinuum" of action among the same collection of people, culturally made possible by setting aside times and places for cultural performances, [and are] equally part of the ongoing social process — the part where those people become conscious, through witnessing and often participating in such performances, of the nature, texture, style, and given meanings of their own lives as members of a sociocultural community (Turner 1986: 22).

This observation summarises the notion that the official meaning of a Singaporean identity and culture is socially constructed and the Parade is a case in point. The parade is an exception from the mundane quotidian social processes, in so far as it is crucial to the discourses of national identity and culture. The creation of awareness can equally be a cyclical ritual as is the case in Singapore, which naturalises and conditions the citizenry.

At a discursive level, the Parade's colourful demonstration of national spirit, allegiance and patriotism is incommensurable even though the parades have always been well received. At the same time, the Parades cannot deliver a conception of national identity except in an institutionalised form. The ambivalence of the Parade is its attempt to conjure spontaneity when in fact every aspect is sought to be controlled. As Yong (1992: 73) comments on one year's parade:

rehearsals and post-mortems ensured that everything took place according to plan. The timing of each sequence of the parade was so accurate that the organisers (usually military personnel) could control the entire proceedings.

The Parade's potential to mobilise the citizenry and to normalise their encounters and interactions perhaps best exemplifies its ultimate goal and effect. Whereas Hutchinson's commentary on the state festivals of Canada, The United States and Australia had problematised the idea of nation and national identity, in Singapore's case, the parades strive to invent these categories uncontentiously.10

The logic of parading is driven by uniformed participants, uniformity, formal proceedings and conformity. It bears the hallmarks of synchronisation and planning to the last detail at the expense of spontaneity (Yong 1992: 74). Even the spectators are regulated by seating arrangements overseen by marshals and ushers. Furthermore the presence of television cameras creates a panoptic effect ensuring the uninterrupted continuity of the Parade. These strategies also create regulated bodies or in a Foucauldian sense docile bodies. In other words, the parade constitutes a disciplinary mechanism which "produces subjected and practised bodies, Ôdocile bodies'" (Foucault 1987: 138), with the aim of producing a docile citizenry. At the same time, a structural relation of power seems to be the defining characteristic of the National Day Parades. Meanings attached to categories like national identity, national culture, allegiance, patriotism and so on are highly motivated by institutional systems. How are these categories conceived or represented and how are differences represented through the Parades? These questions will be taken up in the following chapter.


New: 19 August, 1997 | Now: 27 April, 2015