Citizenship, nationalism and civil society in Singapore: Notes from SG50
Lucy Jackson is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. Lucy’s research interests include citizenship, practice and performativity, activism, and national identity.
In August 2015 I travelled to Singapore with Dan Hammett, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, to conduct a small project looking at the practice and performance of citizenship in a ‘constrained’ public sphere. We set out to explore how claims to citizenship are made in Singapore, reflecting on the tight control of public spaces. This fieldwork intended to establish local civil society and academic contacts and to conduct preliminary fieldwork related to the research interests in the build-up to and immediate aftermath of Singapore’s 50th Anniversary (SG50) of Independence celebration (9th August) – an event which provided a prime opportunity to explore expressions of and understandings of nationhood, nationalism and citizenship.
‘SG50’: Nationalism in practice?
The 9th August 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence. Whilst Singaporeans celebrate national day each year, ‘SG50’ ‘scaled up’ these celebrations to demonstrate to the world everything that is ‘uniquely Singaporean’. Examples of things uniquely Singaporean included the Durian, the Merlion, EZlink travelcards, the MRT, Singa the courtesy lion, Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks, the ‘ice-cream uncle’.
The hype around SG50 was enormous- from landing in Changi airport, to the MRT ride to Bugis district where we were staying we were overwhelmed by signs marking the upcoming SG50 celebrations from national flags being displayed on (almost) all balconies of HDB blocks, to the red and white SG50 symbol being present everywhere on signs and fliers, as well as promotions in shops and restaurants. After wandering around Singapore to get a feel of the celebrations we came to ask ourselves a number of questions based on our observations
- SG50 and understandings of nationalism?
We decided to enter into the spirit of SG50, buying a Singaporean flag ($4); in the packet there was a note to residents explaining how to display the flag, noting that during the National Day celebration period (1-31Aug) there were no restrictions on where and how the flag could be displayed, but that there should be nothing hung or displayed above or to the right of the flag, that mattresses and laundry should not be in front of it. Also, that worn or torn flags should not be thrown away but returned to Residents Committee who would deal with them. The impressive sight of Singaporean flags on HDB blocks can therefore be seen as orchestrated and enabled in some way by the Singaporean government. This made us think further about the overt sense of ‘national spirit’ on display throughout the SG50 build up and celebrations; was this led by bottom-up (community) or top-down (governmental) initiatives and what did this mean in terms of an enforced sense of national pride? One such example of this can be seen in the SG50 funpacks, designed and given out by the SG government to engage households in the SG50 celebrations.
Whilst the funpacks were designed to get people excited and involved in SG50 celebrations, on 22/7/2015 Liang Hwei, writing for the Vulcan post, noted “As the freebies keep coming, the true Singaporean spirit shows through in the attempts to earn a quick buck off of them. After the SG50 lego set, the SEA Games volunteer freebies, and SG50 NDP tickets went live on online marketplace Carousell, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the SG50 funpacks have gone on Carousell as well”. Hwei goes on to remark “We’re sure these are not going to be the only few funpacks we see on Carousell. The truth is, Carousell is an authentic glimpse into the underbelly of Singapore’s value system. As much as the older generations value freebies (if free must take), the truth is that Singaporeans still prefer cash above all else. And nothing, not even sentimentality and patriotism, can get in the way of that”. As of 16th August, 120,000 funpacks (around 10%) remained uncollected.
The SG50 funpacks thus became nothing more than a commoditised sense of nationalism- an almost ‘plastic nationalism’ wherein citizens and PRs became involved for the fun and celebrations rather than the true meaning of the anniversary. However, is this too harsh a critique to write?
- Marking SG50: A public holiday
National day took place on the 9th August with free travel across the MRT network for the celebrations. The MRT is state-run demonstrating a commitment to the people of Singapore and its infrastructure. Here, we see this implicit connection with the state promoting involvement with national day celebrations through the implementation of free travel- encouraging citizens PRs and all visitors to become part of SG50. Such close ties were also seen through the theme of ‘celebrating nationalism’, evident throughout our time in Singapore. Examples include exhibits at the National Philatelic Museum demonstrating the history of Singapore’s independence and story through stamp issues and narrative history, and the Singapore memories project, celebrating icons of Singapore and people’s memories of these. Entrance to the Philatelic Museum was free for the national day weekend, with the Museum also running fun activities such as design a stamp and a national day quiz. While free museum entry was drawing people in, other spaces were also attracting Singaporean residents eager to participate in the SG50 celebrations.
Throughout the SG50 weekend (including the public holiday on Friday 7th August) preparations for SG50 were evident across the city, with one of the key spaces for residents to congregate in emerging as busy shopping areas. This made us think carefully about what SG50 actually meant to people. The SG50 symbol was emblazoned across shops, market stalls, mobile phone companies- it was everywhere. SG50 had, like many of its’ critics suggested, become a way of commercialising and commodifying national pride and spirit. In this way ‘SG50’ could be seen as ‘branding the nation’, advertising for Singapore with well known Singaporean brands utilising the SG50 theme. This ‘overload’ led us to question whether SG50 was indeed about national pride and a celebration of independence, or something that could be taken and sold, commoditised.
On national day itself, we headed to Marina Bay to take in the celebrations. We were met with a sea of red and white.
Marina Bay is the centre of the national day celebrations with a number of activities taking place. We were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people at the Bay, and indeed by the preparedness of people for the event with picnics, games, blankets, and water bought along by families. People were ‘finding a spot’ and staying there- we soon found out why as it got busier and areas began to be closed off due to numbers.
Over the course of the afternoon there were live concerts and activities. The national day parade was shown on a large screen; people took this very seriously and there were shouts from the back for people to sit down so everyone could see. Live feed was shown from the platform, the centre of the activities. There were loud cheers when important officials entered the platform, with people again watching intently from where we were by the Esplanade Theatre. The fireworks display was spectacular, albeit drawn out! After this finished people quickly packed up and formed an orderly queue to get home (again using the free MRT). Volunteers began to pick up the rubbish left behind, not unlike a military operation to return order to the (organised) chaos left behind.
So what did we take from the preparations and celebrations around SG50? Government efforts to promote SG50 were about civic rather than civil society; promoting a sense of coming together as part of nation building and branding. Further, a particular form of civility could be seen in the way that SG50 was promoted, this was based on Confucian ideals of the older generations, grounded in heritage of last 50 years, rather than on the younger generation of ‘modern Singaporeans’. This was demonstrated by the overt marketing of SG50, from shops to mobile phones- this perhaps shows how SG50 was less of a birthday and maybe more about a Singaporean pastime of shopping. Further, whilst there were so many activities around the commemoration and celebration of independence, such as people being asked to provide memories, these were predominantly positive narratives. This left little/ no space for critical engagement regarding Singapore’s 50 independent years. Whilst wrapped in fun and celebrations, SG50 demonstrates a very real example of a ‘young’ nation striving for recognition and celebration in a global world.
[Please note: from 1st September 2015 Lucy has moved to the University of Liverpool where she has taken up a lectureship in Human Geography in the Department of Geography and Planning. Lucy’s correspondence address is email@example.com]