Sunday 11 August 2013

Raising the flag on what defines Singapore

Give people more leeway to ask what 'nation' and its 'icons' mean to them
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 10 Aug 2013

THIS National Day, one thing that arose quite memorably from the usual celebrations was the Singapore flag.

Not the red-and-white cloth that bedecks neighbourhoods, schools and the National Day Parade (NDP), but the discussion online and offline about what the flag symbolises.

It was sparked by playwright Alfian Sa'at's latest offering, Cook A Pot Of Curry, which touched on the debate over immigrants and ended with the anthem being played and a huge Singapore flag dropping to the ground.

The provocative finale led to an exchange of letters in this newspaper's Forum pages, with one saying the ending was in bad taste and another praising it for encouraging the audience to reflect on nation and identity.

Blogger Alex Au weighed in, arguing that around the world, flags symbolise not the country but the State. And when a State that may have become closely associated with the government of the day "no longer represents the aspirations of the people", he said, people have every right to resist the State and its symbols.

In contrast, playwright and law professor Eleanor Wong said in a recent interview: "Icons like the flag, the pledge and the national anthem, these represent our country, and when we desecrate them, we desecrate all of ourselves."

It is food for thought: Does the flag represent the Government, the State, or that larger, more amorphous idea - the nation?

Mr Au is right that icons like the flag are artificial constructs created by the State (in Singapore's case, the flag was the brainchild of a committee chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye in 1959). Adding to that impression of the flag being a top-down construct is a question that resurrects itself from time to time: Would Singaporeans fly the flag on their own without the grassroots groups/town council/ school/government agency doing so on their behalf?

However, the idealist in me would like to think that surely, on some level, the flag has surpassed its creator and come to represent something more than the State.

The terms "State flag" and "national flag" are used interchangeably sometimes, but the latter term is somehow much more evocative.

It speaks of a higher consciousness where people instinctively identify themselves as belonging together; a nation, to use political scientist Benedict Anderson's famous definition, is an "imagined community", conceived as a "deep horizontal comradeship".

Just two years away from Singapore's big 5-0 birthday, perhaps it is worth some introspection on whether this organic sense of nationhood indeed exists. Some scholars have noted the rushed nature of Singapore becoming an independent state, propelled more by circumstances of the time than by a growing tide of nationalism.

Indeed, ministers then have spoken frankly of the need to build a common consciousness and identity quickly. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told the Legislative Assembly in 1959: "It is pressure-cooking. We are the first to admit it. We are also the first to say that pressure-cooking, if we had other alternatives, would probably not be the best way of doing it."

But set against the artifice of nation-building is how Singaporeans have arguably gone on to reclaim the nation, through aspirations and common experiences.

Then Minister of Culture S. Rajaratnam sketched out the higher aspirations behind the national flag, coat of arms and anthem when he unveiled them to the Legislative Assembly in 1959.

The Government worked closely with the opposition parties in designing these symbols, he said, because "we want these symbols to express the sentiments and aspirations, not of any particular group, party or section, but of the people of Singapore as a whole".

The genesis of the flag, therefore, lies in an inspirational coming together of many voices.

On top of that, the ideals represented by the flag - universal brotherhood and equality, purity and virtue, a young nation, democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality - are no less noble and worth aspiring towards today.

But the best litmus test of whether the flag and other icons have succeeded in representing the nation and people above the State lies, perhaps, in one's gut feeling.

It could be the sheer pride and exhilaration at seeing Singapore's colours flying high at international events and the sports arena.

It could be the palpable excitement at last year's NDP, when MPs from all political parties turned up wearing red and white - the colours of the flag - instead of party colours for the first time.

Or it could be the discomfiting ambiguity from the ending of Mr Alfian's play, which cast a mirror back on the audience when they had to decide whether to stand for the anthem and how they felt about the flag coming down.

Ultimately, the people decide what constitutes their nation and how they want their nation to be represented.

For the flag to truly be a symbol of the nation and people, perhaps there can be greater leeway for Singaporeans to redefine and question what "nation" and "national icons" mean to them. This comes with trusting in their maturity to decide what is beyond the pale. Think of the recent uproar over the National Geographic Channel's publicity stunt involving another icon of sorts - national servicemen.

In introducing laws that still govern the use of the flag and other icons today, Mr Rajaratnam said they were to discourage "misdirected patriotism", such as underclothing and toiletries using the flag as a trademark or the anthem being "jazzed up into a rhumba or a samba or a conga".

While Mr Rajaratnam's examples betray a certain dry sense of humour, the notion of "directing" or prescribing patriotism is an uncomfortable one for me. Which is more patriotic: displaying the flag during National Day, or asking yourself, through a discomfiting work of art, what the nation means to you? Why should one be considered more patriotic than the other? If the nation is an imagined community and a higher consciousness above "group, party or section", should it not encompass different ways of expressing love or affiliation?

Of late, the word patriotism has made its way back to the political lexicon. In a heated parliamentary exchange in May, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan chided a member for acting "as if you are the only patriot in this House". In an interview, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan described the late Barisan Sosialis leader and former detainee Lim Hock Siew as a patriot.

Both instances were striking reminders that serving and loving one's nation is what it is, regardless of one's political stripes.

As the political landscape becomes more complex and diverse, it may become more important to draw on that higher consciousness and common bond of being a nation. That will come with giving Singaporeans more space to imagine the nation and what it could be.

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