The flags have been meticulously hung out by the town council; there are no faded, upside-down or mirror-image flags in sight. People have flags on the side mirrors of their cars, and everyone’s sending out “Happy Birthday, Singapore!” tweets. Even the sushi store by my local Cold Storage is having a National Day sushi set.
Some years I’ll participate, letting myself get swept up in the festive feeling. Or I might complain about the quality of the song (okay, I have done this fairly often). Sometimes I find myself getting teary during the fireworks, while other times I feel little more than a vague discomfort. My feelings about National Day have not remained constant. As I get older I find myself feeling more and more conflicted, unsure how to feel, how to react, what to say.
The more I think about nationalism, the more I feel uncomfortable with the concept. I know that it is difficult to avoid in today’s world, ordered as we all are by nation-states. I know that people instinctively reach out for different ways of categorising and describing one another so as to simplify the world and make more sense of it. I know that with or without nationalism, there will always be in-groups and out-groups, and that there will always be conflict between different groups of people.
But that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to accept how nationalism makes us exclude and alienate people. How nationalism in Singapore has brought us to that poisonous, painful concept of the “true blue Singaporean”, making us police each other’s identities, elevating some while oppressing others on the basis of something as meaningless as an emblem on a passport. How we set ourselves apart from the rest of the world (and especially from many of our ASEAN neighbours), seeing ourselves as more successful, more pragmatic, less corrupt, more clean, more safe… somehow just better. (Some of these things may of course be true, but the sense of entitlement and superiority that nationalism brings really aren’t necessary.)
As I grow older it seems stranger and stranger that we roll out our soldiers and tanks to march during the National Day Parade, turning the day into a militaristic show of strength. It’s strange for a country not actively involved in any armed conflict. Beyond that, marching men and armoured vehicles speak to me more of authoritarian rule – even of military dictatorship – than of a democracy where legitimacy is attained through the will of its people.
To put it really bluntly: I hate the marching. It is ultra-nationalist and militaristic and either very, very weird or very, very scary.
These things are hard to say in public. Especially on a day like today, when nationalism – and total state-sponsored nationalism, at that – is at its peak. People get very upset when one ventures the opinion that the National Day Parade might be nothing more than propaganda, the “FUCK YEAH WE ARE SINGAPORE” sentiment little more than a very successful PR campaign that has been stuffed down our throats for (almost) five decades, further legitimising and cementing the political capital and control of the ruling party. Yet I find myself coming more and more to the conclusion that’s exactly what National Day has become.
This might not stop me from getting a little misty-eyed when the fireworks are set off over Marina Bay later tonight. I’ll still be watching/hate-watching the National Day Parade on television later, trying to work through my messy feelings. I suspect that my ability to hold two (or more than two) conflicting thoughts in my head at the same time will be tested tonight.
But what I really wish is that we could question all of this more. That we can stop seeing National Day and the accompanying celebrations as sacred, and to start talking about what happens when we begin to value people according to how much “loyalty” they have to the nation. Why do we even place such a high premium upon the concept of willing to die for the country, of loving the country before all else? Why do we care so much about the flag, even if we might not remember what each star, each colour stands for? How much does this actually square with many of our real-life experiences, especially at a time when many Singaporeans live, work and study overseas, or fall in love and have committed relationships with non-Singaporeans? Is it really that important to ensure purity within our population, so much so that we would invent the term “true blue Singaporean” just to ostracise others and claim superiority? Are we really going to continue on this path?
These are all issues that we should be discussing. But for that to happen, we have to first let go of this rigid nationalism, this elevation of “Singaporean” symbols – be they the flag, the parade, even NS – to hallowed ground where public discourse dare not go.