Mediating Singapore: National Identity and the National Day Parade

Selvaraj Velayutham

Chapter Three: Mediating National identity

Many nations old and young hold larger parades to celebrate their founding, but few, surely, can match the multiplicity of colours or variety—everything from troops in ceremonial order to cavorting lion and dragon dancers—which the young Republic produces on Aug. 9. (The Straits Times Annual 1968: 33).

Carnivalising Nationality

This chapter first examines the carnival and spectacular nature of the National Day parade in relation to the reproduction of Singaporean identity, and goes on to consider how these reproductive practices mediate socio-cultural diversity and difference to reach some kind of modus vivendi. The discussions of ruling ideology and dominant forms of representation in the previous two chapters revealed how Singaporean nationality and identity are constructed and disseminated through the Parades. The approaches to the task of creating and sustaining these discursive regimes have been dictated by the direct intervention of the ruling elite of Singapore. Through the institution of a variety of initiatives, the PAP leaders orchestrated the invention of a state defined Singaporean identity. Government rhetoric is entrenched in a utopian trope of national identity:

let us create one nation for all Singaporeans. [...] Let us build among ourselves a sense of belonging, feeling of common identity and shared destiny. [...] Even though we belong to different races and worship different religions, let us feel instinctively that we are, first and foremost, Singaporeans (Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong cited in Mutalib 1992: 70).

Yet there remains an unanswered question: at what precise moment will citizens of Singapore become instinctively Singaporean?

If this question is indeed answerable at all, it may be that the National Day Parade is an instance of this moment being conjured. The condition of becoming "instinctively Singaporean" thrives on the specularity and carnival ambivalence that the Parade offers. The semiotically highly charged arena of the parade evokes a sense of belonging and patriotism with respect to the nation. The raising of national spirit (both in a psychic and emotive sense) and comradeship through the course of the parade accentuates the realisation of Singaporeans' solidarity. The carnival elements of the Parade (generally appearing after the solemn ceremonies) include colourful mass displays, acrobatics, fireworks, laser displays, flashcard displays and spectators' involvement. At the end of the 1968 National Day Parade, a commentator remarked: "Here had been displayed evidence of some of the first fruits of nation-building, young people of many races, sprung from immigrant stock, who now have found a real sense of belonging—to Singapore" (The Straits Times Annual 1968: 37). Yet as some social critics may argue: "Singaporeans are still some way from feeling as one, and the ideal of Ă”one people, one nation' is something as yet unrealised" (The Straits Times, 8 August, 1994: 4).

It should be stated that the carnivalising of nationality has peaked only towards the third stage of the people's Parade.1 Throughout this period the nation's independence day has been transformed metaphorically and symbolically as the nation's birthday. Since 1984, the people's Parades have been elaborate and intense to a point of appearing to be huge birthday bashes. The site of the Parade (either the Padang or the National Stadium) is turned into an electrifying and emotionally charged arena. Participants waving torch lights and singing national songs accompanied by fireworks create an exhilarating atmosphere and on television a perfect spectacle. On the whole, watching or going to the National Day Parade is like being involved in a football match (The Straits Times, 9 August 1987: 22). Such is the atmosphere that is being built surrounding the parades that virtually all tickets to the event are sold within a few hours. But for those at home the treat is served on television.

Indeed, the spectacle and festivity of the Parades exaggerate their physicality as a contrived and "perfect" spectacle.2 To be sure, the cultural performances of the Parades seek to mediate what is desirable, what is acceptable and what is expected (Turner 1986). For these reasons, the idea of Singaporeans feeling as one comes to be seen as engineered and motivated by the Parade, which is ephemeral. As a result, the National Day Parade is not characterised in the sense of the Bakhtinian (1968: 10) notion of the carnivalesque, which "celebrate[s] temporary liberation from the prevailing truth [and] from the established order: it mark[s] the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions". Instead the carnival form of the parade celebrates the official state of national unity—Singaporean identity par excellence. It is a moment when socio-cultural hierarchies are disavowed, multi-cultural difference and diversity are incorporated within the umbrella of national identity and national unification. It can be said that the organising principle of the Parade's carnival form, within official constraints, seeks to engender a populist celebration—as indicated by this commentary from an official souvenir magazine of the 1984 National Day parade:

National day is a day belonging to the people and the national day parade, a shared event. The parade is a show of the nation's progress, achievements and aspirations; one which every Singaporean anticipates and partakes; an auspicious occasion that is truly by and for the people (1984: 1).

Within this arrangement, the celebration of populism thrives not on the inversion of power relations but on the reification of established discursive formations of national unity and identity. As Bakhtin (1968: 7) suggests, "they [the people] live in it [the carnival], and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people". The point here is not that Singaporean-ness (feeling as one) has been realised, but that such a feeling generates a sense of collective consciousness stimulated by the Parade.

However, the fundamental effect of the carnival, which celebrates populism, has not been well received. According to Docker (1994: 186), "the theory of carnival has been haunted by the fear that carnival is populist, idealising the people, constructing them as unified and wholly and invariably admirable in their inversionary values". Ironically, the National Day Parades are staged as a populist event, idealising the unity of the people and constructing them as active participants in the cause of the celebrations. The carnivalising of the Parade is not designed to facilitate the production of counter-values, since its very basis is to endorse unanimity and consensus. Hence the carnival form of the Parade does not empower the people but it certainly intensifies the celebratory mood of the people, so that "when Singapore celebrates, she makes a strong statement of national pride which will remain etched in the hearts of all her people for years and years to come" (Seet and Ahmed 1990: 87). The carnival as an officially sanctioned hegemonic practice attempts to fortify a state of national consciousness. In this sense, the carnivalising of nationality is an extension of the everyday discourses of nation-building, where the only difference is in its spectacularised appearance.

The appearance of carnival, according to Terry Eagleton (1981), is a strategy of containment which acts as a safety valve that strengthens the apparatus of social control. He (1981: 148) argues that the "carnival, after all, is a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off [,] disturbing and relatively ineffectual". This view of carnival as a release mechanism is not a feature of the National Day Parades, however, due to the absence of disturbing consequences. A recent exception was the Singapore Swing (mass street parties) staged between 1988 and 1991 in conjunction with the National Day celebration. In Mutalib's (1992: 78) view,

the primary motivation of having such an extravaganza is not only one of celebration but rather of political socialization: providing citizens from all ethnic groups and walks of life an opportunity to come together, and enjoy together, and in the process, nurture a sense of oneness among Singaporeans.

Another instance of this type is the appropriation of popular cultural practices of everyday life into the Parade's officiated practices. The 1993 and 1995 Parades featured bicycle stunts and roller-blading respectively. Otherwise, the parades in general have been contained and highly policed, deterring any "popular blow-off".

According to Stallybrass and White (1986), carnival can work to strengthen the social order. If the parade is read as a space where the multi-cultural Singaporean identity is mediated, it goes without saying that this space is a policy effect of multiculturalism and the political strategy of crisis management. The parade is a manifestation of the diverse and heterogeneous constitution of Singaporean society. It functions as a confluence of practices which works to strengthen the social order by mediating discontinuities, uncertainties and managing differences. As Devasahayam (1990: 1) puts it:

the annual celebration also expresses the various facets of Singapore culture—its symbolic, economic, social, and political life. It not only focuses on the colourful diversity of the country, but also captures the unifying threads running through this varied fabric.

It is in the effort to strengthen the social fabric of a multicultural society that the parade reproduces not a single image but a multiplicity of images characterising Singaporean nationality. The Parade's form is not a strait-jacketed event, nor is it meant to be a banal affair. It is structurally dependent on festive/carnival elements that are innovative in their staging and dynamic in their spectacularity. The obvious mundane repetitiveness is less visible as each Parade is organised around different themes and performances.3 In principle, the contents of the Parade are intertextually informed by the history of the nation and its social context. Social order is built upon ritual idioms of the parade that collectivise rather than homogenise the population. Any self-contradiction in terms is negated by the fact that Singaporean-ness signifies a confluence of many varied images: unity, then, through and as hybridity.

The National Day Parade as a Mediating Practice

The National Parades in Singapore are mediatory events which serve to articulate and represent the cultural collage of Singaporean-ness emerging from a post-colonial era, characterised by the heterogeneous communities of Singapore and rapid modernisation. In this light it can be argued that the nation as an imagined community (Anderson 1983) is manifested through the Parades, which serve to reproduce and manage the synthesised images of nation. The Parade as a practice (political, social and cultural) seeks to maintain domination by a ruling elite through ensuring that any acts of semiotic reproduction, together with the involvement of participants and spectators, are hegemonic within the colourful and carnival-like environment. But the Parade's carnivalesque nature means that no single ideology or regime can hope to achieve complete dominance over the Parade's meanings and non-meanings. This contrived event with its thematic content emphasising nationhood and identity strives to produce a dynamic and unified imagined community for Singaporean citizens. Political domination is attempted through the process of controlling meaning-making and regulating those involved in the Parade. At the same time, however, the Parade form (in general) is a site of negotiation and consensus-building where the multifarious differences of the multicultural citizenry are celebrated under the rubric of national identity.

Such a paradoxical presentation of the Parade seems to suggest, on the one hand, the mediation of a collective imagining of a nation through its differences and, on the other, the subservient nature of this process that is motivated by the determined and deliberate closure of meaning which the event mediates or attempts to mediate. That is to say, the Parade is a dynamic practice whose mediation of a Singaporean nationality, though admittedly offering preferred readings, must also be acknowledged as presenting opportunities for negotiated readings. Therefore, even if the Parade is normatively considered to be a highly regulated, formal and contrived proceeding, having every possibility to dictate national identity, this should not lead to a conclusion that regards (or reduces) the parade to an event of absolute fixity.4 In this sense, the enunciation of national identity itself has to be read as provisional and partial. Moreover, there is a need to recognise that such processes do not strive for semiotic closure but are formulated to mediate discontinuities.

The discursive construction of a national identity and national consciousness is, inevitably, systematically organised and stipulated. Underneath the veneer of superficial racial harmony and national unification lie forces and undercurrents which have the potential to dismantle or disrupt such discursive structures which characterise the National Day parade. In the wake of national independence, the ruling elite in Singapore were in a dilemma. Heidt (1987: 139) observes that Singaporean politicians had not only

to justify the establishment of the new sovereign political and territorial entity to its neighbours and the international community, they also had to make the Singaporean population see sense in that unexpected formation viz to regard themselves as a collective in its own right and to development [sic] a sense of loyalty for the new whole.

In addition, there was much uncertainty as to Singapore's political and economic viability because of the strained external relations with its immediate neighbours (separation from Malaysia and the "confrontation" with Indonesia) exacerbated in an unstable regional and geopolitical climate of deep insecurities and mutual suspicions and internal communist influence in Singapore's politics (Chew 1986: 17). The challenge for the new government was not only complicated by the complex nature of the regional realpolitics, but also by other immediate internal concerns such as economic uncertainty, in the midst of the clear and present danger of communalism (e.g. Maria Hertogh incident 1950 and racial riots of 1964) and communism.

It is at this juncture of the process of mediation that the construction of a Singaporean identity should be located, not as a definitive project but as a continuing process of managing difference and negotiating the intricate and heterogeneous socio-cultural boundaries which are specific to Singaporean modernity. The process of mediation which is specific to Singaporean modernity is reflexive both of incoming information and the complexities inherent within the space of multicultural Singapore. The National Day Parade, then, is one of the sites through and at which the process of mediation takes place.

The process of mediation is analogous to what Fiske (1993: 123) calls media-populism. That is:

the commercial media's attempt to speak with their version of [a] popular voice. Media populism is a strategy of mediation and, like all mediations, is crisscrossed with the discursive traces of the social formations between which it mediates.

In translating this view, it can be said that the Parade attempts to suture a Singaporean identity by inter-linking the various national discursive formations. The mediation of a Singaporean identity at the intersection of populist euphoria over independence and national celebration does not hide the discursive traces of other identity formations such as gender, race, ethnicity and so on. As David Brown (1993: 21) puts it:

the national community is portrayed as a multi-cellular organism which derives its character, identity and values from those of its component cells, specifically denoted in ethnic terms. The Singaporean national identity and values are thus seen as developing out of the component Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian cultures.

The National Day Parade is an enactment, therefore, of media populism which is reflexive of the national character of Singapore. The "popular voice" of the Parade addresses this crucial component of Singaporean identity without undermining the various positions collected by that identity.

Furthermore, as Tony Bennett (1982: 288) argues:

media are agencies of mediation, [...] moulding or structuring our consciousness in ways that are socially and politically consequential. Viewed in these terms, the media are not apart from social reality, passively reflecting and giving back to the world its self-image; they are a part of social reality, contributing to its contours and to the logic and direction of its development via the socially articulated way in which they shape our perceptions.

The Parades as agencies of mediation are not separate from the social reality of Singapore. This is not to suggest that the National Day Parade is a media outlet in the strict sense, but that it functions to mediate, not to arbitrate or adjudicate, between a multiplicity of identity formations in the interests of negotiating a collective national identity. Furthermore, it is centred around the "modern" and technologically advanced status of Singapore, which may be considered as an aspect of Western modernity incorporated within the dimensions of Singaporean modernity.

Such a reading of the National Day Parade, however, does not merely attempt to highlight the best possible interpretation or to offer a series of rejections of earlier claims. Instead, it hints at an approach that allows a possibility for theorising the parade as something other than a static and contained event—that is, a dynamic event which is interdependent and highly motivated by other discursive formations. This event, therefore, is implicated with the discourses and histories of Singaporean culture and identity which are

characterized by a state of fluidity, one may even say discontinuities, which reflects the changing conditions, rather than one of constant and consistent unfolding from some naturally given characteristics. (Chua and Kuo 1991: 4) [my emphasis].

Consequently the discursive site of the parade entails coming to terms with a state of fluidity and discontinuities. The parade is always a process of mediation whereby its incidental existence foregrounds the space for negotiation and identification. In this sense, the "meaning [of Singaporean identity] is not simply given, but socially constructed across a number of institutional sites and practices" (Best and Kellner 1991: 26). To be sure, the very existence of the parade exemplifies a network of discursive formations (institutionally based) which complement one another in the social construction and production of meaning, collectively and in different ways, to reproduce an idea of an imagined community.

In understanding the National Day Parade as a mediating event, we can begin to critically examine its dynamic function as a "channel" for negotiating otherwise irreconcilable cultural differences, historical discontinuities and contradictions which together constitute the Singapore nation-state. In principle, the process of mediation allows a way of seeing how these competing forces are given emphasis, mobilised and negotiated through and as the National Day Parade. Therefore it can be argued that the Parade does not attempt to represent or frame Singapore in any monolithic sense; instead it creatively stimulates a dynamic collective imagination which is foregrounded by its mediation of cultural and historical divergence.

Nevertheless, like all dominant practices, the Parade subscribes to a specific logonomic system which cannot guarantee its outcome. As Hodge and Kress (1988: 4) explain, a logonomic system is

a set of rules prescribing the conditions for the production and reception of meanings; [sic] which specify who can claim to initiate (produce, communicate) or know (receive, understand) meanings about what topics under what circumstances and with what modalities (how, when, why).

Since the relationship between production and reception is managed by the logonomic system, the Parade itself is circumscribed within these sets of rules and regulations. Hence the discursive production of a Singaporean identity through the Parade is never simplistic, comprehensive or contained. Its discursive realm is an area of contestation, one that cannot be overcome nor resolved. The Parade does concede to some form of unified national identity based on a set of values propounded by the National Anthem, Pledge, national songs and other national symbols and icons. The performances during the Parade invariably reflect these views and values. As Mutalib suggests:

it was hoped that these expressive symbols and slogans, 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 (1992: 77).

At the same time, the parades have reflected also on the changing socio-economic and cultural trends of the nation over the years. In particular the themes of the Parades exemplify the changing moments of Singaporean nationalism. Every Parade is predicated on the management of competing social forces in relation to the construction of an imagined collective image of Singaporean identity.

Mediating Nationality

The Parades may seem idealistic in their projection but they exemplify a constant struggle of knowing who "we" are and where "we" speak from. As Stuart Hall (1990: 225) argues:

cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialist past, they are subject to the continuous "play" of history, culture and power. [...] identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

The mediation of Singaporean identity is a process which is both important and necessary for informing its position. The National Day is a necessary marker of the short historical past of independent Singapore. By the same token, Singapore's colonial past is also deeply entrenched in the narrative of the nation.

This colonial history is one which cultural studies critics like Ang and Stratton (1995: 68) find to be unacceptable in terms of Singapore's attempt at self-orientalisation:

Singapore is a contradiction in terms: on the one hand, its very existence as a modern administrative unit is a thoroughly Western occasion, originating in British colonialism; on the other hand, the Republic of Singapore now tries to represent itself as resolutely non-western by emphasizing its Aisanness.

This rhetoric problematises the irrefutable modernity of Singapore and implicates Singapore's desire to redress its perceived cultural "in"-authenticity and "lack" of an origin. However, Singapore's migrant past cannot be denied this cultural ballast which is unmistakably of non-western origin is a fundamental feature of Singaporean nationality. As Mutalib argues (1992: 90), "it becomes imperative that Singapore must zealously project a truly multiracial image in all aspects of life in the republic because there do not seem to be other viable alternatives to this plural society and, increasingly pluralistic, polity". It is also a multi-racial image bearing traces of Asian immigrant stock that cannot be erased. Constructing a Singaporean identity based on the hybridity of an Asian ethnic hotchpotch does not mean that the colonial past of Singapore has been erased or that its status of affluence as a modern city-state is concealed. On the contrary, Singapore's political and social infrastructure is derived from British colonialism and its modernity is thoroughly shaped and reshaped by the interaction between the local and the global.

In other words, the question of Singapore's place in the world remains open:

In the cultural logic of East/West divide, Singapore cannot be represented: the problematic positioning of Singapore exemplifies, perhaps more than any other nation-state, the exclusionary effects of the binary logic of the East/West discursive dichotomy (Ang and Stratton 1995: 71).

If Singapore cannot be conceived as belonging either in the East or in the West (as a discursive construct), the problem for Singapore is not one of representation but lies in successfully managing and manufacturing a national identity which mediates between these discursive spaces. To be sure, Singaporean nationalism always has been romantically placed within the liminal space of the East/West dichotomy. If the cultural logic of the East/West divide is to be seen as a problematic space of negotiation, it is also the space in which the Singaporean identity is mediated. That is to say, the representations of Singapore through the parades are always already a consequence of its hybrid state. The National Day Parades, then, have been the site for reinventing and sometimes redefining the cultural hybridity of Singaporean identity.

According to Ang and Stratton:

what drives Singaporean national cultural policy, then, is the desire to eradicate "cultural contamination" which seem as a key [sic] threat to the creation of a viable national identity. This represents a fear of the processes of hybridization which expose and emphasize the necessarily impure, unoriginal, mixed, and provisional nature of all identities emerging and proliferating within the boundaries of Singaporean national spaces (1995: 82).

However, Ang and Stratton's contention that there is a lack of acknowledgement, even a national fear of hybridity is unconvincing. Rather, I would argue that it is precisely the space of articulation to which the parade lends itself which ensures the mediation of hybrid formations—one that is distinctively and specifically Singaporean. In this sense, then, there is an acknowledgement of hybridisation which is given meaning through the very act of reproducing and positioning Singapore at the locus of mutually intersecting histories and cultures. Though any attempt at defining what "Singaporean" means is untenable, I want to suggest (provisionally) that this category is not a limited or confining one. Instead it has traces of multiculturalism, "Asianess" and Western modernisation. The distinctiveness and specificity of this formation is an ongoing process of mediating discontinuities and managing differences.5

According to Siddique (1989: 575) who argues that, although the underpinning of the CMIO model which sets the framework for Singapore's multi-racialist ethos

has caused certain internal contradictions and tensions within each of the constituent ethnic groups, [...] given the complexity of Singaporean society, the government has chosen the only alternative which could have sustained such a lengthy period of stability measured ultimately in such a society in terms of harmonious race relations.

If the success of the nation-building process is seen in the light of maintaining social order and cohesion, we cannot dismiss the relatively harmonious livelihood that Singapore has achieved since the last communal riots in Singapore which occurred in the 1960s (Siddique 1989). Within these thirty-five years inter-racial tensions have been subdued at least from emerging exuberantly. As argued by Vasil (1994: 38),

[i]n today's context of vicious and savage world ethnic conflict, it must cause sobering reflection to contemplate what Singapore might have become but for the sagacity of its people and government. Undoubtedly, the key to the Singapore miracle has been the remarkably successful management of the country's ethnic diversity and, as such, today's multi-racial Singapore stands as the most monumental achievement of the People's Action Party (PAP).

In its efforts to foster inter-racial solidarity and better understanding between racial groups, forms of identification (also national values) with the nation continue to generate the national ethos of unity in diversity which necessarily seek to manage cultural differences. Hence the manufacturing of a collective identity in Singapore is not a finished project. It is a continuous process of negotiation in confronting ethnocentrism, communal absolutism, Westernisation (see Ang and Stratton 1995) and the fate of modernity itself. Thus it must be acknowledged that the discursive strategy of nation-building is always in tension with competing forces within, as well as with both internal and external changes.

The National Day Parade as a mediatory event can be located synonymously within the practices of an invented tradition. This invented tradition through ritualistic and symbolic display seeks to inculcate a sense of commonality and national consciousness amongst Singapore's ethnically diverse diasporic population. These communities have arrived from different places, with different histories, cultures and practices. Their common point of intersection is the arrival in Singapore. Previously divided by the British colonial divide-and-rule policy, these communities have been mobilised through the Singapore government's nation-building project to interact and co-exist harmoniously. The National Day Parades, in this sense, enable the mediation of cultural differences and also other major challenges that Singapore has been facing since independence. The discursive construction of a Singaporean identity is thus always in a process of negotiation with such challenges. Despite the contrived nature of the Parade, which seems to suggest that domination is always ensured, it must be noted that this is not an absolute process. The process of mediation ensures that the construction of a Singaporean identity is always ongoing and always in a state of hybrid formation.


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