Singapore’s Inescapable Jubilee
Cakes. Cameras. Kit-Kats. Furniture. Even planes. These are just some – the tip of the iceberg – of the SG50-related promotions and products I’ve come across this year. In the past week I've also watched The LKY Musical and the film 1965, two productions planned, produced and launched to coincide with SG50.
It’s Singapore’s 50th year of independence – we separated from Malaysia in 1965 to become a sovereign state – and there is nowhere you can go on this island to escape.
I doubt there’s any market research to prove that consumers are desperate for any and every product stamped with that red SG50 circle, but it’s certainly not stopped anyone from coming up with limited edition SG50 swag in every imaginable shape or form. (There's a reason why #simisaialsoSG50 – which translates to "all sorts of shit is SG50" – is a hashtag on Facebook and Twitter.)
Apart from the government’s own SG50 projects, patriotism and nationalism are getting increasingly commodified as businesses jump to capitalise on the Jubilee. With shopping malls also opting to play patriotic songs like Stand Up for Singapore, Count on Me Singapore and the ever-popular Home, it feels as if there’s an obligation to be excited about SG50 – or at least do a good job of feigning it.
It’s in keeping with the general theme: there is only one track for the nation-building train, and everyone should get on board or be left behind. Private companies, businesses, communities and groups have long been subsumed under the single banner of the Singapore Story.
This makes things awkward and difficult for those who love Singapore, but don’t subscribe to the Singapore Story. These people, many of whom might actually be at odds with the establishment narrative, are left with little to no space to express their feelings about their home country and what they hope for it, because the concept of loving one’s country has been so co-opted and dominated by the hegemony of the powerful that dissenting opinions are repeatedly cast as antagonistic towards the nation.
Patriotism and nationalism are never apolitical, but in Singapore it is particularly partisan. The official SG50 celebrations aren’t an inclusive celebration of all Singaporeans’ shared history, but the strengthening of a narrative, whether it be about developing from a rural backwater to a cosmopolitan metropolis or about how our first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew singlehandedly dragged Singapore into the First World.
These narratives are not party-neutral (to be honest, very little in Singapore is), because they inherently foster a sense of gratitude and connection – a sense of need – between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the citizens. It once again blurs the line between the country, the state, the government and the party, continuing to make it difficult for Singaporeans to ever conceive of a future in which the PAP does not hold power.
Already we see how SG50 can be appropriated for service to the party: PAP politicians have been walking the ground distributing SG50 funpacks, paid for by the government and sponsors, and packed by the Singapore Armed Forces for the purpose of our Jubilee celebrations. Do politicians from any other party get to distribute these funpacks as part of their walkabouts in constituencies? The answer appears to be no.
This has a run-on impact to the elections that we all feel in our bones will be in September. Everyone is free to decide who to vote for, but come the hustings we know that state initiatives from the SG50 celebrations to housing estate upgrading works will be co-opted as proof of one party’s capability and largesse.
There are many who simply want out of this system, eschewing national symbols and songs. Yet there are others who feel a lot more conflicted.
On 1 August alternative website The Online Citizen held its own National Day party. A Singapore flag adorned a small red-and-white makeshift stage. Across from it, civil society groups – from sex workers’ rights to free speech to animal rights – clustered under a gazebo distributing flyers and selling T-shirts.
All these groups have largely been shut out of the mainstream narrative. Former political detainees, transgender sex workers, citizen journalists – these are the people for whom there is no official SG50 logo. Of all the corners of Singapore, establishment nationalism would be expected to have the least hold here.
And so it was with conflicting emotions that I observed the singing of popular national songs. Some opted to leave. Others – myself included – sang along, caught up by the familiar tunes and catchy refrains. Although I knew it was propaganda, that it was part of a narrative where many things I care about are excluded or outright rejected, there was still something in those songs that brought back memories of fun-filled primary school days and a happy childhood, that tugged at heartstrings.
A friend visiting from the UK observed that some nationalism might actually be beneficial for a country, for its people to come together and take pride in the good that has been achieved. And perhaps that would be true for Singapore, if only the stories we tell ourselves haven’t been so overwhelmingly dominated by one voice.
But things are changing, slowly. Civil society is growing and trying to be more inclusive. Academics and researchers are broadening our understanding of our history and society. The coming election will see another uptick in political discussion and debate, allowing Singaporeans to talk about the country they want to see grow beyond these past 50 years.
This is what I hope to capture and examine in this column on Byline. The journey through which more and more Singaporeans find their voice and tell their own stories, a (relatively) quiet evolution in society and politics often deemed too local or un-newsworthy to push past the regular tropes of high GDP and ultra-clean streets.