Mediating Singapore: National Identity and the National Day Parade

Selvaraj Velayutham


1. It should be noted that discourses of nationality circulated within the Parade are aimed at the production of national identity and nationalist sentiments which are necessarily overlapping and criss-crossed. For the purpose of this paper, Singaporean nationalism and issues of nationality are seen as an inseparable aspect of the practice of the National Day Parade.

2. Benedict Anderson (1983: 15) offers the following definition for the nation: "it is an imagined community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign". That is, "in modern national communities none of us will ever meet most of our fellow citizens and so our identity has to be "imagined" rather than directly experienced" (Anderson cited in Turner 1995: 12). In the case of the National Day Parade, it offers both a chance to witness and experience an idea of the nation either directly as a spectator or indirectly through television and the print media.

3. I am using the term national culture, following Lo, as a "formalised political discourse which attempts to impose specific ideological constraints on the process of representation and identification" (1992: 5).

4. Modernity, as Hall citing Giddens describes it, is not only defined as "the experience of living with rapid, extensive and continuous change, but is a highly reflexive form of life in which social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character" (1992: 278).

5. For a detailed study of the nation-building process in Singapore, see You and Lim (1984), Regnier (1987), Quah (1990), Chua and Kuo (1991) and Yong (1992).

6. This official history as Ang and Stratton point out is "rhetorically legitimated by Singapore's untimely birth as a nation-state [and] its struggle to exist, previously used to justify Singapore's drive to develop its economy, is now reformulated as a struggle to develop a distinctive Singaporean identity" (1995: 74).

7. See Willmott (1989) for a comprehensive look on the emergence of nationalism in Singapore. He identifies the ways in which disparate nationalist sentiments of the Chinese, Malays and Indians were redirected towards a collective Singaporean nationalism through social engineering (education) and the national building process (national defence, housing and other government policies).

8. A racial policy which is argued by Benjamin (1976), Lo (1992) and Ang and Stratton (1995) as emulating the British divide and rule strategy with the exception that while the colonisers opted for a non-interventionist policy on ethnic affairs (Clammer 1985), the Singapore government on the other hand plays a highly active role in affecting and moulding the racial identity formations.

Chapter One: Inventing National Identity

1. This idea of invented tradition has been taken up elsewhere by Gellner (1983), Schlesinger (1991), Smith (1993) and Hall (1992) to account for the emergence of the modern nation-state.

2. Having said that, for cultural critics like Meaghan Morris (1993) and Grame Turner (1994), the Bicentennial celebration, from the point of Australia Live—a live television programme aired on the day of the celebration—presented Australia's different cultural groups in unity. Despite the controversies surrounding the Bicentennary, for these critics, Australia Live was a televisual event that attempted to represent a "multicultural" Australia.

3. Such meanings are attached to a history of shared values in Singapore which constitutes citizenship, unity, race, language, religion, democracy, justice, equality, achievement, happiness, prosperity, progress and nation (Birch 1993a). Moreover the recent government rhetoric of core ("Asian") values, namely "community over self; upholding the family as the basic building block of society; resolving major issues through consensus instead of contention and; stressing racial and religious tolerance and harmony" (Quah 1990: 91), also engender social cohesion and a sense of national consciousness.

4. As Chua argues, "the significant symbolic difference between these reviews and those conducted by the colonial government is the completely plebeian attire of white shirts and white trousers of the ruling party's (the People's Action Party) Ministers and MPs. signifying their connection to the people as opposed to the pomp of the colonial uniform that distanced the colonial administrators from the colonised" (1992: 58).

5. It is worth pointing out here that two other occasions, the Singapore Armed Forces Display and sometimes in its place the Military Tattoo and the Youth Festivals held annually function in similar ways as the National Day Parade to promote a sense of loyalty and affiliation with the nation.

6. According to Clammer (1993), in Singapore the fundamental power equation—People's Action Party's (the ruling government) hegemony—is non-negotiable. This uncompromising power equation has led to an almost absolute PAP political dominance in all aspects of Singaporean society. Furthermore as Birch argues, "[h]egemony of meaning in Singapore is achieved by ruling out politically possible alternative readings of those [dominant] values" (1993a: 2). In effect, the dominant ideological system in Singapore retains its legitimacy and authority with the continual reaffirmation of its status quo by appearing to be populist and at the same time by marginalising counter discursive regimes.

7. Heng and Devan (1994) also make a similar observation with regards to the state's persistence in developing a national identity based on "Asian" (Confucian) values against the threat of "Western" values. Also see Quah (1990) for a detail account of the search for shared values.

8. This mainly due to the fact that every Parade is heavily policed and regulated. The official nature of the Parade dictates the surveillance and containment of individuals—a means of disempowering and controlling "deviant" behaviour—within the parameters of the Parade ground.

9. Even so, this form of inertia actually works to the advantage of the dominant as Baudrillard contents, "the strategy of power has long seemed founded on the apathy of the masses. The more passive they were, the more secure it was" (1983: 23).

10. This observation is based on the account of Hutchinson's problematisation of state festivals. It is not an attempt to rule out the possibility that the state festivals would have worked, and worked wonderfully well for many of the respective nations. Nevertheless, the difference that I am drawing between Hutchinson's state festival and the National Day Parade should be seen at a point where contestation for meanings of the nation and national identity are realised.

Chapter Two: Representing National Identity

1. Theoretically this would mean that "events, relations, structures do have conditions of existence and real effects, outside the sphere of the discursive, but that it is only within the discursive, and subject to its specific conditions, limits and modalities, do they have or can they be constructed within meaning" (Hall 1995: 224).

2. For instance, as Pettman (1992: 123) asks: "are people represented, or are they absent, invisible or unheard? Secondly, how are they represented, or misrepresented, for example stereotypically or in sexist, racist constructions? Thirdly, who represents them? Are those who speak for them representative of them?

3. His book is a compilation of a series of textual analyses which finds that Australian nationality is mediated through the fields of national festival, corporate interests, music, films and sporting events. His focus is centred around these various representations of Australia and the ways in which they address the heterogeneous characteristics and competing natures of Australian nationalism.

4. That is to say, in a context of a pluralist society like Singapore, ethnic differences and contradictions within and between them—which are potentially disenabling to any discourse of nationality—have been turned around into a productive idea of complementing and enriching the national character of Singapore.

5. An important point to note here is that although these racial and cultural communities carry traces of their origin via transplantation of their "cultural roots" (Rushdie 1991), they are no longer one and same. Their existence and interaction with one another in Singapore has recreated and translated their cultural constituents (Hall 1992). Thus as Latiff argues, "a Chinese Singaporean is more than a Chinese; equally a Malay is not necessarily a Malaysian, nor an Indian an Indian. Singaporeans of different ethnicities share national jokes, longings for similar foods, and identification with special situations because we live within the same context" (1995: 11).

6. As Devasahayam points out, "the Singapore National Day Parade reflects the modernizing tendencies of the state. In fact, symbol systems become increasingly universalistic with the advancement of modernization as the latter serves to steer the participants of the ritual away from traditional affiliation towards national tendencies" (1990: 80).

7. The capacity for the reproduction of "identity" in Singapore, given its size, is limited (limited television/ drama production infrastructure, publishing market, etc.) and therefore correspondingly a greater importance is attached to the National Day Parades and the like. The "economy" of symbolic images in Singapore on the contrary to Australia's case as highlighted by Turner (1994) relies very much on occasions like the National Day Parade.

Chapter Three: Mediating National Identity

1. As Chua (1992: 59) observes "with increasing economic stability and relative prosperity, and perhaps regional stability, National Day commemoration was changed in 1986. In that year, the more formal and serious features of military and civilian march-past, signifying a disciplined citizenry, were retained but subdued by musical and other cultural activities and a display of fireworks". Yong makes a similar observation also, but concedes that the post-1986 celebrations "bore the hallmarks of synchronisation and planning to the last detail at the expense of spontaneity" (1992: 74).

2. Perhaps one may argue that the Parade is transformed dramatically trajecting at a third order of simulation—the hyperreal (Baudrillard 1988). As Baudrillard explains: "[h]yperreality points to a blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal in which the prefix 'hyper' signifies more real than real whereby the real is produced according a model" (Best and Kellner 1991: 119). Hence the whole process of its production as a carefully rehearsed and monitored "spontaneous" event, which celebrates an artificial moment of national formation understood as a real birthdate, may be said to mark the Parade as an instance of hyperreality.

3. Furthermore as Rajah adds, "innovations in the National Day Parade are, however, not simply reflective of developments within Singapore [...]. Some of the symbolic innovations indicate a highly reflexive understanding of how symbolic representations work, leading to the construction of new representations which counter other representations already existing in the Parade itself" (1994: 12). I owe this to Ananda Rajah's conference paper, The Myth and Management of Tradition, presented at a conference on Heritage in Singapore held at The Substation, in Singapore on 17-18th September 1994.

4. In addition, "while the "natural" authority of nationalist discourses is guaranteed in advance of their particular deployment—and this makes them especially powerful influences upon their readers—the specific meanings generated through specific representations of the nation, seductive as they usually are, cannot be guaranteed: they are still the subject of interpretation by those "reading" the text" (Turner 1994: 11).

5. At the same time, I do not want to totally dismiss Ang and Stratton's argument that the channelling of a hybridity is recognised in only "some" dimensions, that is, in the case of a Singaporean identity.

6. This idea is further supported by the view that "the Singaporean is a hybrid being [...] springing forth from accidental circumstances, and held together by the beauty and majesty of an act of will that is constantly and collectively renewed" (Heng 1992: 2).


1. These should be understood as interests born out of socio-cultural differences, ethnic nationalism, religious revivalism, communalism and so on. All these factors, including different political orientations (for example communism in the 1950s) and more recently the threat of Westernisation, can be seen as potentially disruptive to the idea of maintaining social order and solidarity.

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