It appears that Singaporeans can be divided into two categories when it comes to the month of August: those who manage to get tickets to watch the National Day Parade, and those who do not. (Now you may have another way of categorising Singaporeans, ie by their attitude towards NDP; but I hope you care enough about the country to read on…) Well blame it on the hype of the goodie bags if you like, there is a great demand for NDP tickets thriving just like a Keynesian economy that inspires people to go upgrading their cars and houses or accessorising themselves with branded goods; Singaporeans never like to fall under the have-nots, they always enjoy being the haves that make others jealous, but even better is when you can get the handout of freebies without feeling any shame (especially in a country that is decidedly not a welfare state?).
What I really really want to talk about here is not the thorny issue of equality (let’s leave that to some idealistic NMP who is ready to be rapped over the knuckles), all I want to say is what a great party we Singaporeans have witnessed, as in the so-called 44th birthday party of the nation. With walking puppets in exquisite ethnic costumes, and teenage ‘motivators’ and drummer boys littered among the audience to rev up the euphoria, it almost felt like a mardi gras that Singapore had never experienced (for the longest time, we citizens of this ‘fine’ city had to be tutored by plan to engage in ‘spontaneous fun’). And just listen to the fabulous soundtrack for the historical retrospective on the past half century, going from old cabaret to disco, from classic Cantonese and Indonesian tunes to the Macarena, from Madonna to the Spice Girls and all, it has such a hypnotising effect in stirring up a shared memory that the different generations and communities here would usually be unaware of in their daily lives. Never mind that it is conflating good memories of pop music history with hazy memories of the island nation’s urbanisation and industrialisation, for a minute or two one could imagine being part of one united rhythm nation, regardless of colour lines. And most importantly, NDP has never looked so sexy with its multimedia – you have, from the seventies, the seductive eyes of the Singapore Girl that speak a thousand words to tourists and foreign investors, whetting their appetite for a piece of her; and for the noughties, you have girls and boys of a metrosexual generation strutting down the street, barely ripe for the material city but expected soon to have their own taste of adulthood in this Garden of Eden.
What I like most about NDP 09 indeed is how it aims, through a multimedia montage of historical footage and archival news articles alongside glamourous song and dance, to communicate at a subliminal level. So what do you see? It depends entirely on you as an individual and your personal, mental associations. You may still choose to be negative about the whole thing, seeing it as more of the same old state propaganda, the bloated ego of a little socialist red dot, serving a cult of personality – especially if you are a young impetuous freedom fighter sort, or even some old and tired member of an opposition party that remains unrepresented at the parade. But if you are say a liberal and artistic sort, who takes to a more hedonistic and refined lifestyle, what you see would be a small but self-assured dot that is growing healthily in the pink, blooming in a resplendent fashion. This is a parade proudly targeted above all at the young and trendy. In fact, if you are a music lover who is enamoured of the neon signs on Broadway, you ought to feel old this year. For the theme song this year is written and performed by a band from Singapore’s alternative rock scene (I say this without being aware of any mainstream rock scene here; you may protest and consider them Singapore’s very own Coldplay instead). If you are annoyed that you fail to hum along to the tune while your nephews and nieces are all electrified by the guitar sounds, I am sorry for you. This parade has been a little imaginative musically. I have even come across some reader in Zaobao writing to complain that the new acapella version of Majulah Singapura sounds too alien to his or her family’s ears, but I am glad at least it is not a complaint that the music sounds too Malay and not karaoke enough.
The young is our future. Why else would they present the story of Prince Sang Nila Utama in the form of a talking giant puppet if not to speak to the young, propably schoolchildren? (Not that the story of Singapura is still a riddle to anybody; what remains forever shrouded in mystery to all is the entity known as Temasek.) Another stroke of genius was to present the history of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia through flashes of sensational newspaper articles like in a cliche mafia movie, and against a soundtrack of ‘I Will Survive” performed by a diva batting long eyelashes and sporting a tall beehive hairdo – to kids who cannot understand politics otherwise, we can now explain that the merger was like a love affair that was never fated to work out, and one must stop crying and move on and not go on bitching about it. For the family audience this year, the best-loved moment must be in the segment of children sharing their dream careers, when this little boy said that his ambition is to be the president of Singapore. For me personally, the most poignant moment was in the pause of silence after that, followed by a plaintive solo by a trumpeter on wheelchair, opening a song sung by popular visually handicapped singer Chen Wei Lian. This was also the song whereby young performers ran out carrying models of pagodas, churches, mosques and temples, while others started forming a big heart shape on stage and hundreds of balloons were released as the words ‘love, love, love…’ were chanted. If only you were there to immerse in that awesome atmosphere, you would believe that there is no further need of a charter for love or compassion in Singapore. But then again the NDP would soon be followed by the National Day Rally where our PM warned of religious fault lines, referring to the AWARE incident not so long ago, and reminding all of the need for the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.
An NDP would certainly not do without a message of defence and security, and this year it comes in the form of a self-referential drama about the NDP event itself being under terrorist attack, prompting military aircrafts and navy speed boats to be activitated, culminating in a water bomb being defused. How entertaining it is, in the way it mimicks the self-importance constantly displayed in Hollywood movies about New York under alien attack; it may well inspire one to feel proud imagining that we have landmarks around the Marina Bay worth bombing. But I confess I do understand how all this mandatory military display can be attractive to the young and old – you have men in shiny uniform en masse, all these gadgets like expensive toys played by real men who are the top gun, and last but not least you have a group of soldiers firing a round of feu de joie into the air together, how orgasmic. All i all, I guess the show is a happy marriage of the masculine and the feminine, also the political and the artistic, made possible of course only by the former courting the latter (an evident awareness of how boring life would be otherwise), but kudos to the latter still for having the balls to stick it out and create something with a refreshing difference. The screen in the form of a big eye is to me a wonderful metaphor that marks an unique vision for all Singapore. Think of it as symbolising the common people’s hopes and dreams for Singapore, including kampung folks that are all but forgotten, and not just a helicopter view. Think of it as a way of saying there are always different views and perspectives in society, and you should free your mind, be tolerant, and be colour-blind. Just try not to think of it as the eye of a big brother watching you. (It is simply an unfortunate bad timing that cameras were recently installed at the Speaker’s Corner.) Anyway, I’m not interested in talking politics here. (Go read Gramsci on hegemony and internalisation if you are intellectual.)
Oh, but the pledge, how can one forget? Those bus ads seem to have paid off indeed in inspiring people all over the island from Tampines to Bukit Batok to come together at 8:22pm on National Day and say it in one voice as one nation. How magical. I’m wondering though if it is already sparking a conspiracy theory about the true meaning of this, for those numbers in some Chinese dialect would sound like ‘to prosper easily’. There have already been urban legends about Singapore minting its one-dollar coin with the shape of an octagon like a Taoist symbol to protect its fengshui when the MRT was first built, and about the Merlion being moved to its new location for good fengshui marking a new era in Singapore’s development. Now what about this? After all we know now that the pledge is just a matter of aspirations and not ideology, so we really should not dwell on its meaning too much, perhaps it is really supposed to be used as a kind of chant. Wow. And why not? Prosperity, that is our bottomline.