Mediating Singapore: National Identity and the National Day Parade

Selvaraj Velayutham


And once a year most nations celebrate their National Day. It does not really matter what day of the year it is, so long as one day is set aside in which the daily business of life is stopped and men [sic] foregather to review their common purposes, their common interests, and chart a common course for the future (Lee Kuan Yew cited in The Straits Times, 10 August, 1984: 1).

The [Singapore] government's policy was not to "assimilate", but to integrate our different communities, in other words, to build up common attributes such as one common working language, same loyalties, similar values and attitudes, so as to make the different communities a more cohesive nation (Koh 1989: 711).

The construction of national identity in Singapore has resulted in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual polity. Despite such apparent multiplicity, however, many possibilities for articulating diversity and difference have had to be constrained. Singaporean multiplicity—its national identity—could be seen, therefore, as a direct effect of specific discursive and other strategies advanced by the state in the desire to realise an ideal of nationhood. This does not mean that the national identity of Singapore is a product of "oppressive" state intervention and control, however. Nor does it mean the opposite of this: that Singapore's national identity is a "natural" socio-historical outcome which could not have been otherwise. Instead, the national identity of Singapore has occurred, and continues to occur, as an effect of many forms of mediation between the poles of government oppression and natural history.

In general, of course, national identity is seen as a recurring problem by cultural studies, which is not restricted to its specific articulation in the case of Singapore. As Ang and Stratton (1994: 124) argue:

[t]he nation can assume symbolic force precisely in so far as it is represented as a unity; yet national unity is always ultimately impossible precisely because it can only be represented as such through a suppression and repression, symbolic or otherwise, of difference.

The claim here is that, in principle, national unity or identity can never be represented or conceived without compromising difference. Furthermore as Hall (1992: 299) argues,

national identities do not subsume all other forms of difference into themselves and are not free of the play of power, internal divisions and contradictions, cross-cutting allegiances and differences.

This may be inevitable for all cases of constructing a national identity. But for a nation which has little sense of commonality or a deep historical past, such as Singapore, the creation of a social cement would seem to be an important goal. Such is the historical, social and cultural make-up of Singapore that national identity cannot be understood as a natural outcome of a defining tradition but must continually be reproduced to maintain social order and cohesion. The objective of this thesis, then, is to examine a particular process of national identity formation in Singapore as it comes to be reproduced and represented by a specific instance—the National Day Parades. In keeping with the views stipulated by Ang and Stratton (1994) and by Hall (1992), national identity should be seen as both a necessary and an artificial construct.

The preoccupation with the construction of a national identity in Singapore is never more overtly conceived, visualised and demonstrated than through the semiotic practices of the National Day Parade. Hence this case study of the signifying practices of the National Day Parade seeks to establish the symbolic function of national festivals in the mediation of a Singaporean national identity. In this way the National Day Parade can be seen as a site of cultural reproduction which serves to

articulate the dynamic process that makes sensible the utter contingency of, on the one hand, the stasis and determinacy of social structures and, on the other, the innovation and agency inherent in the practice of social action (Jenks 1993: 116).

What this cultural reproduction invariably seeks to articulate is a conditional practice of identification with the nation and not necessarily an attempt to define what national identity is. Equally important to this process of constructing a national identity is the continual mediation of inter-racial harmony and enunciating the position of Singapore within a rapidly transforming political and socio-cultural global economy. In many ways the Parade allows for the possibility of new ways of articulating or representing the nation. This defining feature of the National Day Parade, I will argue, is capable of incorporating a multiplicity of "identities", an ambivalent status (hybridity) of the nation (in Ang and Stratton's (1995) terms of being both non-Western and always already Westernised) as well as heterogeneous images of the nation. It is through these mediations that symbolic representations of national identity and national unity emerge. I will therefore be considering some of the ways in which the discursive categories of national identity and national unity come to be constructed and mobilised.

The National Day Parades

Discourses of national identity pervade the various institutions of any society. But they occur also in specific places at specific times: for example, in the form of national festivals which are often celebrated annually and which appear distinctive and momentarily forceful in their orientation. An important national festival in Singapore is the National Day celebration whose main highlight is the National Day Parade. This event, which is full of pageantry, is celebrated annually on the 9th of August to mark the independence of the state of Singapore. The practice of parading in Singapore is a vivid ritualisation (reification) of populist euphoria over its political independence in 1965. More significantly, this invented tradition (Hobsbawm 1983) has become a vital cultural event, having attained the symbolic status of a popular ritual in the annual diary of the nation. In general terms, the parade's thematic contents are associated with the forging of national identity, arousing national spirit, patriotism and national unity.1

The origins of parading in Singapore can be traced back to colonial history. Occasions such as the Empire Day Parade, the Victory Parade after the end of the Second World War and the King's and Queen's Birthday parades (The Straits Times, 9 August, 1993: 4) demonstrated the celebration and patronage of colonialism. Carried over from the past, military drills, displays, band and dance performances have been retained in current parades, although the ritual idioms of the National Day Parade have been substantially altered to suit the present political, social and cultural conditions. Structurally, the National Day Parade constitutes a symbolic enactment of an imagined community.2 The parade is a performance executed by the citizenry and delivered to their state representatives and fellow members of the nation who are present both as spectators and at home watching it on television. As Mutalib adds, the National Day celebrations in the Republic have always tended to "revolve around some common theme which Singaporeans of different ethnic backgrounds and walks of life can associate themselves with" (1992:77).

The tableau of the Parade consists of marching contingents and display troupers representing the army, government institutions, state and private organisations. The Parades are generally divided into two segments involving a regimental parading and a civil mass performance. The regimental segment consists of the participation of military and non-martial groups (institutions and statutory bodies) symbolically paying allegiance to the state, government representatives and dignitaries. This aspect of the Parade is strictly regimental and hierarchical. The marching contingents receive orders from the parade-commander for the execution of every move. These include coming to attention, taking salute (at the arrival of the Prime Minister, the President and during the recital of the National Anthem), executing the feu de joie and marching-off. The second segment, staged as a carnival, attempts to highlight the colourful and vibrant characteristics of Singaporean national culture.3 Over the years it has featured an array of styles and forms of articulation (which are both exhilarating and entertaining) such as mass displays, dances, multicultural shows, float processions, stunts, flashcard displays, laser displays and fireworks. Generally these performances adopt a particular theme or message directly associated with aspects of Singaporean livelihood.

The National Day Parades have gone through three phases which can be regarded as significant to the overall dimension of the occasion. At the initial stage the Parades were held at the Padang (historically the locus of important events) in front of the Cityhall and came to be known as the Padang Parades (1966-1974). It was at the Padang that the inauguration of the sovereign government in the place of colonial rule and authority was performed. In this sense, the position of the postcolonial government sustained through electoral exercise (consensus) signifies a legitimised placement of authority. The Padang Parades, then, mark the transition from colonial rule to a sovereign status of the nation-state. This was also a period when the previously divided multicultural groups of Singapore, under the colonial divide-and-rule politics (see Benjamin 1976), were brought together under a unifying construct of nationhood.

The Travelling Parades (1975-1983) mark the second phase and can be seen as an effort to reach out to the people during a period when Singapore was rapidly industrialising. This period effectively saw the Parades being held island-wide at selected centres and alternating between the Padang and the National Stadium. More importantly, the decentralisation of the National Day Parades brought the national festivities closer to the population centres, allowing more of the population to witness the occasion in comparison to the limited seats available at the National Stadium or the Padang. Furthermore, the main purpose of these so-called Ôgrass-root' Parades were to stimulate a greater involvement of Singaporeans (The Straits Times, 10 August, 1975: 1).

Finally, the People's Parade (1984 onwards) initiated spectators' participation, transforming the parades into a spectacular event in their own right and (crucially) for television. As the Parades were given a "celebratory" cast, every individual at the ritual was an actor to a different extent (Devasahayam 1990: 51). In this phase greater emphasis has gone into the articulation and personification of a Singaporean national culture and identity. Interestingly, this phase has reverted to centralised parading, with the Padang and National Stadium now being the two main venues.

Whereas the National Day Parade has its own specific histories and discontinuities, it does conform to a general structure. As Yong (1992: 73) puts it:

in its essentials, the parade-form is found in all the capital cities of nation-states, including those where attainment of community is visibly weak. In its content, the parade makes a symbolic statement of community, involving, as it were, the participation of its multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural population.

Yong's view of the parade-form helps to contextualise its relevance to national identity formation and national unity, and can be identified as a site of theoretical contention from the point view of Ang and Stratton (1994) and Hall (1992). In part the parade has a dual function: its role is instrumental to the process of national integration and as an invented tradition it participates in the perpetuation of the heritage of the nation. At the same time, it is a space in which the ambivalent cultural status of the Singaporean nation-state (non-Western and always already Westernised) is tentatively reconciled to emphasise the distinct character of the Singaporean identity. In particular it is centred around the Ômodern' and technologically advanced status of Singapore. Hence mass displays, flashcard displays and floats often depict these aspects of Western modernity, incorporating them as an essential feature of Singaporean modernity.4

The Parade is a spectacular event. The Parade is rich in colour; every routine and execution is highly co-ordinated and meticulously precise. Most of all, it seeks to reveal (or to produce) the aspirations of the multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural population of Singapore. The purpose of the Parades may also be seen as an act of mythologising (Barthes 1973) in terms of a culture's way of "thinking about something, a way of conceptualising or understanding it" (Fiske 1990: 85). The staging of the Parade, though, began with the euphoria over self-rule but now proceeds towards another dimension (more so in the current phase of the People's Parade). Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, commenting on the National Day Parade, announced to the people of Singapore that a Singaporean identity will emerge "in which the differences of race, culture and religion will be more than made up for by similarities in values, attitudes and a feeling of belonging to one whole" (The Straits Times, 9 August, 1967: 12). Furthermore, as indicated by this commentary from an official souvenir magazine of the Parade,

National day [is] a time to celebrate, a time to rejoice as well as a time to reaffirm our identification with and loyalty to the nation; a time also to stand alongside fellow Singaporeans, feeling as one (Public Affairs Dept. 1984: 1).

The National Day Parade thus marks the historical journey of the nation-state positing a sense of primordial unity of one people, commonality and continuity in its existence (Hall 1993a: 356). The Parade is a seamless spectacle which instantaneously converges on all differences and contradictions, turning them into an ensemble which resonates and signifies the multiple images of the nation. However, the question that needs to be asked does not concern the performative success of the parade but its ability to deal with complex issues of national culture, national identity and patriotism which are reproduced as uncontested and simple.

Manufacturing a Collective Identity

In colonial Singapore, while there was no clear indication of any form of national consciousness, the rise of nationalism was almost restricted to a group of overseas educated locals. As Yong (1992) indicates, nationalist sentiments amongst the communities were geared in support of the nationalist movements in their respective homelands and as a result,

Singapore's status as a nation was thrust upon its people by a decision taken at the highest level by a few people. It was not sought after in the sense that there was a broad movement of people embracing the modern ideology of nationalism with its stated goal as the attainment of independent nationhood (Yong 1992: 57).

National independence was reluctantly bestowed, in 1959, on a group of overseas- educated local elite who successfully mobilised the population for its cause. However, the end of colonial rule was marked by periods of instability resulting from communal violence, racial riots and communist threats. In order to combat these perceived and actual insurgencies, Singapore announced a merger with Malaysia in 1963. Unfortunately the merger was a disappointment because it hindered the political and economic expectations of Singapore's state government. On the 9th of August 1965 Singapore renounced the Malaysian Federation and became an independent nation-state.

The birth of Singapore as an independent nation-state indicates the formation of this separate and distinct political entity. As Chua and Kuo (1991:4) argue, "the birth of Singaporean culture and national identity can be located at the point of its political founding in 1965". Hitherto, as Chew (1986:9) argues, the "inhabitants of Singapore had little in common—there were many racial, religious, cultural and linguistic differences to divide them". The task at hand for the new government under the People's Action Party (PAP) was to administer these differences and to project a new image of solidarity and harmony. What was to follow was a rigorous project of nation-building according to a routine process, as described by Birch: "by developing national institutions and exploiting tactics of political socialisation, the attempt is made to replace local and sectional loyalties by an overriding sense of national loyalty" (1989: 37). Hence nation-building can be seen as an ideological process emerging from preconceived notions of commonality and from economic and social pursuits put together by exercising power which renders such a process necessary, if not natural. To add to this agenda, core values were formulated that would bring all the communities together.

These core values were both represented and produced in the creation of a National flag, National Anthem, National pledge and other symbols of identification. The National Day celebration is also a direct initiative of nation-building that fosters integration and induces a sense of belonging and pride. This practice became a regular feature in independent Singapore. Furthermore, other major policy changes were implemented: English became the administrative language, bilingualism was an essential feature of the new education system, the government public housing program sought to integrate the different ethnic groups by resettling them, and ethnicity was institutionalised.5

The issue of national identity in Singapore presents an interesting case for analysis because of the government's interventionist policy in determining it. As Turner (1994: 69) writes, "all nationalities ... are invented and all relatively recently—despite the often lengthy mythic histories upon which they draw for their legitimations—but the process of nation formation is especially explicit in the settler societies". Hence it goes without saying that nation-building is organised around a single history which interlocks the ethnically diverse immigrant population and puts everyone on the path towards to nationhood.6 Though national identity is constructed as a mosaic of multiculturalism, many points of social cohesion act to even out competing identity formations. Nevertheless, as Hall (1993a: 362) puts it, the immigrants who arrived in Singapore

bear traces of particular cultures, traditions, languages, systems of belief, texts and histories which have shaped them. [...] They are not and will never be unified culturally in the old sense, because they are [now] inevitably the products of several interlocking histories and cultures, belonging at the same time to several Ôhomes'—and thus to no one particular home.

These immigrants, who were mainly from China, India and neighbouring Southeast Asia, were in no sense homogeneous, as Clammer (1985: 111) observes:

the Chinese can be divided into at least sixteen groups on the basis of dialect and province of origin in China, the Malays into at least seven groups, including Javanese, Minangkabau, Bugis, etc., and the Indians into at least nineteen groups, divided from one another not only by language, but also by religion, and further internally stratified by caste, as well as by the socio-economic differentiation to be found also amongst the other ethnic groups.

This state of ambivalence typifies the socio-cultural formation of Singapore. Thus for policy makers, apart from creating a "home" for the immigrants, there was also a need to integrate them as a unified socio-cultural and political group.

In post-colonial Singapore, there are two important processes taking place as Clammer (1988: 99) describes: "the Singapore experiment with ethnicity has been its deliberate enhancing of cultural differences at one level, while promoting national harmony at other levels". This project signifies the effort to forge a national culture, a national identity and to create a sense of belonging to the nation while simultaneously preserving ethnic heritage and origins which were previously unarticulated or taken for granted. It should be noted that prior to the independence of Singapore the immigrant population intensively sought to maintain ties with their Ôhomelands', but the intention of the national integration policies were to symbolically redirect their affiliation and allegiance to the new Ôhomeland'.7 That is to say, the efforts of the nation-building project were aimed at creating a sense of Ôhome' in Singapore and to win the immigrants' support and loyalty to the nation. Effectively this strategy of winning the loyalty of the populace necessitated a non-discriminatory and egalitarian approach to racial policy. As such Singapore's racial policy tended to emphasise individual identity as being intrinsically rooted in ethnicity, be it Chinese, Malay, Indian or others, and thus these categories are seen as unproblematic.8 From here, the emphasis shifts to enhancing these categorical differences and thereby to converging these identities into a mosaic framework of a national identity and similarly a Singaporean national culture appears to take such a formation. This is not to suggest that a Singaporean national identity has been fully developed nor that the process of nation-building has been completed.

Indeed the National Day Parade, like all dominant forms of cultural reproduction, is a mediated ritual conceived as an entertaining and joyous occasion. The reproduction of national identity and national unity is explicitly a manufactured and mediated process. However, at an implicit level, the National Day Parade itself can be said to be a mediatory event. The parade as a semiotic and sentimental process in the context of Singapore perpetuates continuity in the sense of belonging to a homeland and at the same time manages differences. It functions to highlight differences but within the distinct and specific framework of Singaporean nationhood. This suggests that the National Day Parade represents the mediation of inherently unresolvable and unsettled conditions for the formation of a Singaporean identity. Perhaps it is a site where encounters with contradictions and divisions within the national identity formation of Singapore are both obviously and covertly negotiated.

In order to test this proposition, I will begin in chapter one by discussing the role and function of national rituals in relation to the development of national identity. This discussion will take account of a general interpretation of state festivals offered by Hutchinson (1992) and an examination of their problems. In this chapter, then, the National Day Parade will be approached as an invented tradition which attempts to inculcate certain norms and values which are shared by the multi-racial population of Singapore. These norms and values can be understood as ideological constructs reproduced by institutional state apparatuses at the level of the everyday. These apparatuses can in turn be understood as distinct systems attempting to normalise or naturalise the politics of identities through their signifying practices at the parades.

In contrast to a theory of ideological determination, chapter two approaches the National Day Parade from the point of view of some more recent theories of nationhood advanced in cultural studies. In this chapter, national identity is no longer seen as an ideological effect but as a particular problem within the context of late-modernity such that a perceived globalising force is seen to threaten the integrity of regional differences, or to be a contributing factor in their ongoing formations.

This leads to a discussion of the National Day Parade, in chapter three, in terms of its non-deterministic and dynamic nature. Hence the Parade as carnival, as an event which is both mediated and mediating. In the same way the national identity of Singapore can be seen as an effect of mediation, such that it may never be fully essentialised or determined by the state. Singapore's national identity, then, need not be decided between a single or a multiple identity, between unity or hybridity. Instead, the national identity of Singapore may be understood in terms of unity as hybridity.

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