The Big Birthday Party's Finally Over
It was no surprise when it was announced that this year's National Day Parade (NDP), to commemorate the country's Golden Jubilee, was going to be extra big. Ng Eng Hen, Minster for Defence, said at the Committee of Supply Debate this year that the cost of the 2015 NDP was going to be about twice that of the usual S$20 million (US$14,445,127) spent on NDPs, because there were multiple locations and facilities to cater for. Added to that was the huge military display and the bigger-than-ever fireworks show.
I have mixed feelings about National Day Parades every single year. This year, a year in which we all got into such a tussle over our history and the stories we tell ourselves, I feel especially conflicted.
When the parade show simply skipped the years between 1819 – when Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company landed on Singapore – and Singapore's independence in 1965, it felt like Singaporeans were once again deprived of a chance to examine dark, difficult parts of our history. With episodes like Operation Coldstore, where over 100 people were detained without trial in 1963, and the repression of the old leftist movement completely erased from the narrative, we were left with myths the establishment would prefer we tell ourselves. We were left with rhetoric about progress and unity and the continued need to work hard, without any analysis of discrimination, racism or inequality.
It's probably unreasonable to expect a parade to deal with such deep and difficult issues, but Singapore as a society needs more self-awareness somehow.
"We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion," said Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in a 1965 speech that has been played and re-played many times this year.
Lee did go on to create a nation that, to many, felt increasingly Chinese. Today Chinese Singaporeans enjoy enormous amounts of privilege, from economic opportunities to social capital. Yet because Lee, and all subsequent leaders, have claimed that Singapore a multiracial haven, this inequality has never properly been discussed, and is in fact widely denied. (See: this Tumblr on Chinese Singaporean privilege.)
The NDP is made even more problematic because there is little opportunity for Singaporeans to really confront these difficult questions at any other time. The parade therefore plays into a context where the conversation has already been skewed.
But with that said, it's also been impossible not to appreciate how meaningful this parade must be to people like Colonel (Ret) Goh Lye Choon, who had led the very first mobile column in 1969, when tanks had to be test driven on golf courses because there was nowhere else to go. Or how fun the experience must have been for the hundreds of primary school children who got to be lit-up LED stickmen in the final performance – I met some of them two weeks ago and was charmed by their boundless energy and never-ending chatter while waiting for rehearsals to continue.
Perhaps it is helpful for people to have a focal point for their sense of nationality; a moment or event that draws folk together. Yet it would be so much more helpful for such an event to be more organic, more open to dissenting voices and discussion, rather than a top-down extravaganza complete with explainers in voiceover for home viewers.
Now that the official SG50 party is (finally) over, we move on to other challenges and hurdles. We're all likely to be swept up in the elections next: another exhausting fog of rhetoric and myths to decipher. But we all have to start somewhere, and perhaps there's no better time than after a celebration of the first 50 years to consider a new direction for the future.
If you're interested in my Storify covering the 2015 National Day Parade, click here.