Yawning Bread. July 2006

Flags and monuments




Singapore's National Day, August 9th, is coming around again. So are the flag-naggers. Organised by quasi-governmental bodies such as Residents' Committees of course the government denies responsibility they go door to door "reminding" residents to hang a national flag from apartment windows through July and August. To say that you do not have a national flag won't let you off the hook. The naggers also sell them. So not only do you find yourself having to fend off an unwelcome reminder to do your "patriotic" duty, you need to parry an ardent sales pitch too.

"It's impossible to see hanging out a flag as an act of patriotism," a friend of mine remarked recently. With all the badgering by these nosey strangers going around like petty commissars, to hang one out becomes an act endorsing the ruling party's capture of the state.

"It feels more like a demonstration of support for the PAP than for the country," she said, referring to the People's Action Party.

"So of course, I refuse to do it."


Yawning Bread understands the feeling totally. I have never hung out a flag either, even though no one has come to my door all these years, mostly because, I suppose, I'm rarely at home.

But it is enough that the National Day celebrations (and the parades) have for so long been commandeered to tell the PAP version of the "national story": a city-state born of adversity, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps through industrialisation, education and (now) scientific research, and while preserving our CMIO [1] ethnic traditions in racial and religious harmony, we strive for a better future!

The event is always so scripted, telling such a linear and narrowly-based story, and couched in skin-crawly ideological rhetoric, that it cannot but be seen as an annual paean to the glorious reign of the PAP. Long may the party rule!

Moreover, the newspapers and broadcasting stations inevitably devote a suffocating amount of page space and airtime to the parade and celebrations, presumably as part of their constructive "nation-building" role.

It's time somebody tells them that their efforts set back nation-building rather than foster it. The over-identification of Singapore with the PAP leaves a hollow where the nation should be. Few know how to demonstrate affection to Singapore -- few even know how to feel affection for Singapore -- when the only kind of (pseudo-)affective demonstration there is is so pro-government.

* * * * *

Last Saturday, I was at a talk organized by the Singapore Heritage Society. During the question-and-answer part, someone in the audience asked the speakers, sociologist Chua Beng Huat and architect Tay Kheng Soon, for their views on our "national" monuments. "What plans do we have for them?" he asked.

Indeed, Singapore has quite a few monuments in our city commemorating individuals such as Lim Bo Seng, who organized resistance against the Japanese occupiers during World War II, as well as groups, such as the Cenotaph and the Chopsticks [2].

The speakers' responses went along the lines of "Why must we do anything about them?", which at first didn't quite hit home. Then a woman from the audience stood up and gave her reply to the first question.

I don't recall her exact words, but they were something like this: The gentlemen at the back who asked the question does not need to worry. I can assure him that in the Education service, we have to take our schoolchildren to see these monuments and teach them about our history. The monuments won't be forgotten. It's a compulsory part of the school program.

Well, well, well, then we most certainly have reason to worry. "Compulsory part of the school program?" I shook my head.

Another member of the audience then rose and spoke my fears. "That is precisely the problem," he said. What is the story being told about these points in our history? The program is part of "National Education" he explained, but there are widespread misgivings about the linear, uni-dimensional nation-building story that is the backbone of National Education.

Before the PAP, Singapore was dark. There was war and pestilence. Malays fought Chinese and Muslims fought Christians. Labour strikes hobbled much of the economy and communism loomed above the horizon.

Then came Lee Kuan Yew, riding a white charger, come to save us. Not quite. There was no white charger; he just wore white. But anyway, we were saved. Riots, labour unrest and colonialism became a footnote to history. So did unemployment, bad sanitation and tenement housing. As proof of the PAP's wisdom, foreign investors (now renamed "foreign talent") came to our shores.

The monuments are the hooks on which to hang various parts of the story. Some, such as the various war memorials, are directly related to the narrative, while others, such as temples, mosques and churches, are useful for reinforcing the 'orthodox' view of Singapore society, always seen through the filter of race. "Living harmoniously together", remember? "Asian Values" anyone?

How are our monuments selected? And who determines what meaning is to be ascribed to each of them?

Why aren't the detention barracks of the Internal Security Department marked as monuments? Don't they represent a page in our history, reminding us of men and women of conscience?

Why are there no monuments to the newspapers shut down and editors sacked?

Chua Beng Huat's response to the original question, "What plans do we have for them?" was "Why?"

Why must people visit monuments? Why can't we have monuments that nobody visits, except the occasional fellow who sees meaning in them?

He's right, of course. Why do we have to script their meaning, troop our schoolchildren there and instruct them on the catechism? The danger from pressing our monuments into service to aid the "national story" that the PAP wants told will be that they become identified not with the nation, but with an alienating, partisan ideology. Just like flying the Singapore flag. And another set of symbols that should anchor our sense of place and history is corrupted and lost. Another hollow where pride should be.

In being over-anxious about instilling a sense of nationhood, in being so controlling about narrating the PAP's central role in the Singapore story, we gut the sense of nationhood. Somewhere, one day, there should be a monument to such folly.

Yawning Bread 


From a reader, Edmund:

July last year, many of my neighbours and I did not hang out the flags. I live in a 18-storey block that's U-shaped, with approximately 350 households, and that's clearly visible from the main road.

About 2 weeks prior to National Day, overnight, flags were hung from each and every flat, along the corridor parapet. I knew my family did not display it, and it was unlikely my neighbours would have spontaneously decided to do so either.

So I think the Residents' Committee had a hand in it. I had a very mischievous notion to remove the flag that hung on my parapet and perhaps even remove all the flags as well, as an act of indignation.

I never got around to it. This year, I'll probably observe this phenomenon once more.



  1. CMIO - "Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others" is the race-conscious prism through which we see too many sociological issues in Singapore.
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  2. The Cenotaph is the memorial built by the British to honour the military men and women who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars. The Chopsticks is the colloquial name for the memorial that honours the civilian victims of the Japanese Occupation 1942 - 1945.
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