Mediating Singapore: National Identity and the National Day Parade

Selvaraj Velayutham


For people at the cross-roads of cultures as in Singapore, [...] ethnic allegiances have to be held at a certain tension and balance. It is this experience, of the relative tugs and pulls of differing cultural standards underlying one's daily existence, that puts Singaporeans in a unique advantage in a global situation. In the economic world, Singapore stands between the East and the West, so in culture the Singaporean has a unique opportunity to be a cultural link and bridge (Ling 1994: 44).

The aim of this dissertation has been to situate the processes of constituting a national identity through the signifying practices of the National Day Parade in Singapore. In this sense national identity is seen as an effect of processes of mediation. That is to say, the construction of national identity in Singapore through the National Day Parade can be located at a point where absolute determination and absolute non-determination collapses. It is, as Jenks (1993) has argued, a site of cultural reproduction whereby inherent structures of identification are juxtaposed with ongoing social changes. Mediation is conceived, then, as a set of institutionalised practices which function conspicuously to maintain social order, cohesion and harmony, but which need not necessarily achieve those ends. Hence the categories such as national identity and national unity are powerfully overdetermining and can be only symbolically possible.

In this way, mediation can be seen as a collecting term for the categories of discourse, communication and power (Bennett et al 1992) constituting an invented tradition which functions to normalise, if not to naturalise, what national identity means at specific instances. While the articulation of national identity is never fully realised, the National Day Parade's ritualistic practices and symbolic content help to reproduce a set of values, norms and images which are in turn circulated in the wider institutional and discursive practices of the nation. The issues of national identity and national unity which is deeply entrenched in institutional discourses and political rhetoric are articulated out of a necessity to maintain social order and cohesion. To be sure, this entails the mediation of competing interests, forms of identification and allegiance.1 The arduous task of establishing a 'commonÓ point of intersection where these power differentials, if not, contradictory terms of affiliation may be subdued, reconciled and redirected, has been the main concern and preoccupation of the Singapore government.

As such, my discussion of the role of state apparatuses in chapter one attempted to highlight the processes by which state in(ter)vention takes place in the construction of national identity. The emphases on economic survival, national defence, education, and inter-racial solidarity at the National Day Parade, for example, are reproduced as 'mattersÓ concerning not just specific racial or ethnic groups but the nation as a whole. Hence this inclination is legitimised through a strategy of crisis management whereby the neglect of national commitments is projected as leading to conflicts and the demise of social harmony, order and affluent living.

The National Day Parade in Singapore can be seen as the epitome of an ideological system that pervades Singaporean society. Reproduced from various institutions such as the political system, the Armed Forces, schools, workplaces and so on, ideological dominance (also political dominance) of the ruling government is secured in and through these definite institutional forms and their practices (Benton 1984). These ISAs which, as discussed in chapter one, function through ideology to inculcate virtues and norms, contribute to different forms of subordination. All these institutions which are empirically present at the National Day Parade play an active role in the promotion of national identity and unity. The ideological synthesis reproduced at the Parade serves as an effective backdrop to mobilise the population, as it were, through its common interests and aspirations. Hence the forging of national identity comes about via the celebration of populism and in addressing a collective agenda.

In this sense, the ideological make-up of the Parade seeks to frame the whole practice within a composite structure of national affirmation through loyalty and obedience. In mediating national identity, the National Day Parade attempts to suture the differences whilst enhancing the diversity of the Singaporean polity with the overarching concern of moulding a cohesive, collectivist society. In Singapore, as Lim argues,

multi-culturalism is not seen as a coercive, but an incorporating strategy for securing ethnic attachment to the national political. It achieves this by foregrounding the seamless continuity of complementary diversity whilst on the other hand deemphasising conflicting differences or contradictions amongst the polyglot of cultures (1994: 16).

Hence, the Singapore government's political strategy of crisis management, for example, should not be seen as an attempt to white-wash social and cultural differences or in terms of being utilised as an absolute hegemonic device. On the contrary, it is a strategy conceived for managing the uncertainties and unpredictability of a multi-cultural nation-state fully dependent on its people for economic survival. The emphasis on national defence, then, is induced by the uncertainties of geopolitical conditions; the importance of economic survivability and the coaxing of excellence in all fields is reinforced by a lack of natural resources and the need to stay competitive with the rest of the world; the insistence on building racial harmony and strengthening inter-racial solidarity is triggered by (in hindsight) the racial conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s; and finally, in general, in order to ensure citizens' loyalty to the nation, the creation of a national identity is felt to be imperative.

According to Devasahayam, 'those who control the celebration also dominate the social order. In order to legitimise and sustain their political prowess, there is a tendency to ritualise their dominanceÓ (1990: 93). A similar view is stipulated by Scott, who suggests that 'nothing conveys the public transcript more as the dominant would like it to seem than the formal ceremonies they organise to celebrate and dramatise their ruleÓ (1990: 58). These observations may not be dismissed too easily, insofar as the way in which the National Day Parade is presented to representatives of the ruling government vividly personifies the celebration and legitimation of their authority. The apparent control over the celebration, in terms of its rigidity and well-planned staging, suppresses counter-forms of identifications. But this is by no means an absolutely controlled arena for the perpetuation of dominance, as discussed in chapters two and three. Despite the lack of overt resistance at the Parades since the mid-1970s, the idea of total submission is untenable. Possibilities remain for individuals to demonstrate subtle forms of resistance at the Parades, if only by being passive, apathetic or indifferent to such practices.

The shift to mediation as a key explanation of the National Day Parades should not, however, be seen as a rejection of the deterministic aspect of national identity discussed in chapter one, nor of the dynamic and innovative aspects discussed in chapter two. The representation of national identity at the Parade is possible only within its performative terms. Therefore, national identity in Singapore is indeed artificial, and cultivated through and at points of intersecting discourses. As Hall puts it, 'representation is possible only because enunciation is always produced within codes which have a history, a position within the discursive formations of a particular space and timeÓ (1995: 226). Furthrmore, the Parade as a mediatory event offers possibilities for rethinking national identity in Turner's (1994) terms as a 'radical kind of unifying discourseÓ but subjected to its own constraints. In other words, without having to celebrate the National Day Parade as a kind of 'radicalÓ in(ter)vention that is free from the exercise of power and from divisions or contradictions within, I have argued that it is possible only because it is mediated and mediating.

The Parade is staged for specific purposes and objectives which necessarily equate to a specific orientation, as I have argued throughout. Nevertheless, and more importantly, as Hall (writing from a different context) points out, the Parade offers a recognition that 'we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular cultureÓ (1995: 227). National identity, then, emerges not only through the in(ter)vention of state apparatuses but through a continual and ongoing negotiation with both internal and external social complexities and changes. Its representations are contingent upon this dialectical tension which, as Mutalib argues, amounts to 'being obsessed with multiracialism and yet trying to be highly cosmopolitan and universalistic given the country's vision to become a Ôglobal technopolis' with its dependence on international tradeÓ (1992: 91). Perhaps this tension may never simply be resolved but only mediated to suit the position of the country and its place in history.

In their discussion of Singapore's particular form of multi-culturalism, Ang and Stratton point out that

the place is a thoroughly hybrid construct. But it is precisely this reality of hybridity, with its related dynamics of cultural impurity, mixture, and fusion, which represents a problem in the dominant global cultural order, where nation-states are supposed to have pure and unified, if not homogeneous national cultures (1995: 71).

The acknowledgement of hybridity at the level of implementing changes to the existing racial policy may be a shortcoming. As far as the fundamental structures of Singapore's multiculturalism are concerned, the racial categorisation (CMIO) effectively determines state defined cultural identities for individuals. Whilst racial identities and cultural systems are essentialised, the notion of hybridity may be seen to appear at the level of a national identity. Elsewhere dubbed and fashioned as potpourri or a salad bowl identity, the Singaporean identity is celebrated for being unique while retaining its diversity (see The Straits Times, August 8, 1994: 4). Therefore being a Singaporean is always already a hybrid construct.

Apart from being codified by an ethnic identity, a Singaporean as s/he comes to be represented at the National Day Parade assumes an identity that cuts across the nation's history, its social and cultural system and ways of life. The diasporic communities have created their own forms of common identification and their own histories. The themes addressed by the National Day Parades are, in this respect, relevant and pertain to all Singaporeans. Whilst in Hutchinson's state festivals, the disparities in representation and privileging of White dominant history resulted in an idea of nationhood taking off on the wrong footing, in Singapore's case the path to nationhood has been thoroughly planned and well rehearsed (as seen through the National Day Parade). The gradual development and deployment of the major pillars of national identity (be they cultural diversity, national defence or Singapore's stride as a dynamic 'modernÓ society) remain etched in the representations of the Parade. Rather then appearing to create competing images, the signifying practices of the Parade attempt to create the interwoven nature of these discourses, which are inseparable from the experiences of Singaporeans.

The National Day Parade proceeds with the assumption that national identity can be accentuated by involvement and overt demonstrations. It must be said that all cultural representations are ideologically and politically motivated. However effective they may be, the assumption that people of different and diverse ethnic, social, religious and cultural backgrounds can be mobilised under the banner of national identity and patriotism is always theoretically problematic. Even critics like Yong (1992) and Mutalib (1992) are apprehensive about the existing racial harmony in Singapore and caution against its superficiality. National unity and inter-racial solidarity are incommensurable. For, as Appadurai points out,

patriotism is an unstable sentiment, which thrives only at the level of the nation-state. Below that level it is easily supplanted by more intimate loyalties; above that level, it gives way to empty slogans rarely backed by the will to sacrifice or to kill (1993: 413).

How Singaporeans relate to the National Day Parade and its signifying practices still remains unanswerable. Yet the existence of the Parade and the kind of experiences it offers cannot be easily discredited. The enormous effort, planning and resources that have been entrusted to this once a year event indicate a high level of invested interests. These invested interests are not merely a means of securing and maintaining dominance; they reflect also on the attempt to mediate the political and cultural tensions of a multicultural population and to collectively encourage the recognition and understanding of national unity. Positively, the parade occasions the mobilisation and motivation of its citizens, gearing them as a nation.

The main task of this dissertation has been to examine a way of conceptualising national identity in Singapore. By focusing on the National Day Parade, a provisional reading of its existence and construction has been realised. The historical and political processes of cultural reproduction have been explored in some detail with particular attention to conceptualising the complexities of national representations. The construction of national identity and national unity in Singapore is contingent upon the idea of mediation whose effects of identity formation, with particular reference to the National Day Parade, can be summed up in the following remarks by Hall:

perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new [sic] cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a Ôproduction', which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation (1990: 222).

The National Day Parade as a site of cultural reproduction is both enabling and constraining at once. Whilst the event is contrived and remains formal, it is replete with creative and innovative ideas that come to represent Singapore and its people. At its best, the Parade's signifying practices exemplify Mutalib's enthusiastic summation:

[w]ith a judicious blend of creative and inventive imagination, and a flexible approach to nation-building, the Singaporean city-state can [...] progress further towards becoming a more cohesive, dynamic, and united nation [...] distinctively Singaporean in form and yet universalistic in outlook (1992:91).

In mediating Singapore, perhaps the carnival aspect of the Parade may create a space for more spontaneous expression and an informal atmosphere as the nation celebrates.

New: 19 August, 1997 | Now: 28 April, 2015