Singapore’s 50th Birthday and a Lost Opportunity

Lee Xin Li

National Days are most often celebrated in the name of heritage, in memoriam of a struggle for freedom, or to commemorate the day of a nation’s founding. On August 9th Singapore will celebrate its own National Day—the mark of its 50th year of nationhood. Singapore’s celebrations, however, are markedly different from many of those we see around the globe. They do not celebrate hundreds of years of political or cultural tradition, nor give thanks to or commemorate freedom fighters who fought for Singaporean independence; indeed, there exist very few of these. Instead, Singapore will be celebrating its extraordinary growth in moving so rapidly ‘from third world to first’. Singapore’s National Day Parade thus celebrates national pride more on the basis of economic development than of cultural heritage or shared identity, making SG50 a celebration much more like that of a corporation (complete with merchandise and catchy slogans) rather than of a nation. Of course, forming a national identity on the basis of economic success in-and-of-itself does not necessarily cause harm to a nation or its people. However, allowing Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government (the ruling party since independence) to mould this identity—instead of allowing the increasingly artistic, exuberant, and patriotic populace it rules over to design this identity for itself—does. 

It is said that when the father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, was studying at Cambridge it was the racism he experienced there that pushed him to devote his life to achieving prosperity for his country, in the hope that this would ensure the Asian and Singaporean individual a more respected place on the world stage. After Singapore was expelled from the Federation of Malaya in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew quickly began taking steps to fulfil his mission. He made sure Singapore was unabashedly welcoming of foreign talent and capital by offering magnificently low tax rates and a seamlessly well-oiled bureaucracy that promised easy business operations, which in turn created a strong currency that also attracted the masses of cheap labour available in the region. This economic model has put the nation 3rd in global rankings of GDP per capita, and has given unprecedented legitimacy to the authoritarian government Mr. Lee Kuan Yew spearheaded at Singapore’s birth. With over 80% of Singaporeans living in public housing, a world-renowned public education system and a government bureaucracy with a pristine reputation in terms of corruption and efficiency, Singapore’s authoritarian system has become one of the few enduring bastions of political capital that can stand against democracy as the ‘End of History’. Thus the Singapore government wields exceptional and unchallenged power over almost everything in Singapore—such as deciding what companies are allowed to enter the market, what information is allowed to inform public discourse, and, in particular, what Singaporeans celebrate when commemorating the nation’s 50th anniversary. A common refrain both within the country and beyond it is that in less than fifty years Singapore grew from ‘Mudflats to Skyscrapers’. This is what Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government has deemed to be Singapore’s uniting national narrative, and this is what it has decided shall be at the core of Singapore’s identity—development and economic success.

For National Day this year families have received banners and stickers emblazoned with ‘SG50’ logos across them ready for display. Schools, tourists, babies, and senior citizens are all set to receive gift packs and goodies to commemorate the occasion. In particular, Singapore will be gifting its senior citizens a package of perks, with discounts on public transport and in certain restaurants, to honour its ‘pioneer generation’s’ contributions to Singapore’s economic growth in its earliest years of nationhood. Carnivals, exhibitions, and a fantastical Air Show by the Singapore Air Force are all being fervently set up to celebrate Singapore’s fantastical 50-year transformation from a cluster of kampungs to one of the most expensive and prestigious cities in the world. The Air Force is, of course, a government entity. The companies producing the banners and stickers and gift packs, are also public sector organizations, as are those that are putting together most of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee carnivals and exhibitions. The ‘SG50’ slogan itself was created by the ruling PAP party, to “represent the little red dot we’ve come to know as home.” As is the case with much of the rest of Singapore, the nation’s 50th birthday celebrations are framed by productions and structures that come from Singapore’s revered and respected government administration, which is a sad fact that jeopardizes the authentic development of Singapore’s identity as a nation.

Stickers decorated with government logos and pictographs of army-men should not be what defines the national identity of a people. National cohesion and identity come from culture, art, intellectual discourse, and shared experiences: the productions of the citizenry, rather than of those who govern them. The aggressive media and merchandise that comes from the Singaporean administration—advertising messages of development and cultural harmony to create a heightened sense of national identity—pose grave obstacles to a genuine exploration of the Singaporean identity. Singapore has a vibrant and growing art scene, powerfully intelligent intellectuals, and an extremely patriotic citizenry. However, these champions of true Singaporean culture cannot fully take the stage in organically building Singapore’s identity from the ground-up because government propaganda and bureaucracy leaves little space for these initiatives to take hold, and become broad-based symbols that manifest themselves in Singaporeans’ everyday lives.

This year, Singapore witnessed the passing of its founding father, and will celebrate a milestone in its economic success and evolution as a nation. Unfortunately, it will also mark the passing of a lost opportunity. SG50 could have been a turning point in Singapore’s history, where after 50 years of hard work by a firm but fair government and a determined populace, the nation could have begun to decide for itself what it wanted to be. The day Singaporeans truly decide for themselves what is means to be a Singaporean will be the day that students on blogs and artists on street walls decide what the national message should be for the nation’s birthday. It will be the day foreigners come to this city and seek to assimilate into its society rather than ignore it. It will be the day that Singapore can stand next to cultural capitals of the world—the likes of London, Paris, and Tokyo—with pride. This will be the day Mr. Lee’s dream of a successful and globally respected Singapore is truly fulfilled.

Illustration – Lee Xin Li

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