Monday, 24 August 2009

Once Upon a Time in Singapore

There was a time not too long ago, when we clenched our fists upon our hearts, and pledged ourselves as one united people. Regardless of race, place, and united by Time, 8:22 was a rousing moment towards the sublime. Across the country, a fusillade of imagined community. An image so rare, of Singaporean unity. Imagine, a nation. An imagination. An image, a magic, coming true at 8:22.

But Singapore won’t make it, a wise man said. And he duly rose up from his living grave, to bring his highfalutin flock back down to earth. And how swiftly that vertiginous paradise disappeared. The tenets of our Pledge, the wise man said, are grandiose ideals that, if undemolished, would demolish Singapore.

And from the highest office of the land came this lowest living lie. That a democratic nation would destroy Singapore. It was a wonderment how a nation’s founding father would fight so forcefully against the founding of a nation.


When we think of nations, Benedict Anderson’s classic formulation often comes to mind, where a nation is a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ that only exists in a people’s collective imagination.[1] Nations as imagined communities. Might MM Lee be right that our nation is really a fantasy.

But Anderson’s treatise is not the final word. Nations are European inventions, one of many forms of political organizations, of creating communities. But what about us?, the political theorist Partha Chatterjee wondered – the once-colonized, the bastard children of Empire who have no choice of nations other than from those bequeathed by Europe – what do we have left to imagine? Europe has already written for us our colonial and postcolonial scripts of victory and failure, resistance and destiny. ‘Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized.’[2]

A nation, conjured by one's imagination. More important for a nation, the freedom of imagination. And freedom, in PAP parlance, an abomination. Unsurprisingly, we remain colonized subjects. It’s Empire once more.


It is this connection between nations and the freedom of imagination that allows us to understand MM Lee’s outburst. It has little to do with the Constitutional sanctity of the Malays’ indigenous rights.

Examine closely MM Lee’s well-documented eugenicist views on the ‘superiority’ of the Chinese ‘race’, his political intervention in the Association of Muslim Professionals’ (AMP) in 2000, as well as the various frank academic writings about the Malay community, and we’ll notice how his supposed Constitutional considerations evaporate. In any case, parliamentary dominance ensures that the Constitution can be arbitrarily amended, as it has been. And we wonder if Singapore really has a ‘Constitution’. We might well pay MM Lee a backhanded compliment when we say that he is above parliamentary and Constitutional powers, but that’s merely typical of tyrants and their regimes. Can there be harmony in the race between freedom and tyranny?

Rather, the true Pledge of our nation, as desired by NMP Viswa Sadasivan, strike right into the heart of the PAP’s strategy of divide and rule. The sociologist Chua Beng-Huat offers a perceptive reading: instituting multi-racialism enables, no – compels, the Singapore state to ‘set itself structurally above race’, giving the state enormous political leverage. A multi-racial Singapore would then necessitate the enactment and enforcement of racial harmony. This is a masterstroke that corrals Singaporeans into the paradoxical logic of deterrence: ‘it is because of deterrence that misdeeds are kept low, if not entirely erased – thus, deterrence must continue; however, since deterrence is never lifted, the validity of the assumption that, if lifted, misdeeds will indeed break out is never tested – thus deterrence continues.’[3]

‘Racial harmony’, like most other PAP political strategies, serves two simultaneous functions. First, a regime of power surveilling a compartmentalized citizenry. Its elaborate walls surreptitiously woven into discriminatory legislation, housing quotas, NS deployment, education trajectories and traps – the major institutions that govern the state, control the populace, and shape our assorted fates. Second, every strategy, invariably self-serving, cumulatively strengthens and entrenches its political dominance. That we don’t even notice how the necessity of ‘racial harmony’ conveniently requires a GRC system, is testament to MM Lee’s brilliance. ‘Racial harmony’ is not just that. It institutionalizes gerrymandering, legitimates control, and perpetuates a Chinese-dominated political party/-country/-nation.[4]

Thus, to pledge a Singaporean identity regardless of race is already to position oneself politically against the state.

Among the plethora of contradictions in Singapore politics, the cruellest must be this: The regime’s control is so complete that even displays of patriotism, like fulfilling the ideals of our Pledge that we hold so dearly, is also a brazen act of high treason.

No wonder then, we dare not pledge ourselves too seriously. For the freedom of imagination is to imagine a nation free from the PAP.


The late S. Rajaratnam is now well-known for having penned our Pledge. What is less-remembered, is his disappointment, publicly expressed in 1990, with how Singapore had turned out: our materialism, philistinism; and how we have become a soulless, unthinking flock. A people reduced to waged labour.

But his greatest disappointment was with the PAP’s insidious strategy to racialize Singaporeans. He believed the CMIO policy would end our quest for a united nation, a Singaporean Singapore: ‘At this rate there will be a long ethnic queue of Singapore citizens proclaiming Sikh identity … Ceylon Tamil identity … Indian Tamil identity … Cantonese identity … Hokkien identity – and goodbye Singapore identity.’[5]

For us, Rajaratnam’s hard-hitting speech illuminates how the PAP that had led us in the first decades is no longer the PAP that is leading us now. Passion, conviction, and that roaring fire have been replaced by a cold-hearted elitism and the rampant profiteering of Singapore Inc.


Our National Day celebrations are resplendent affairs. Clothed in fascist irrationalism, luminous in their silken totalitarian complexion, they’re our annual thanksgiving dear supreme leader, Fatherland’s only son. Tightly-scripted and controlled, these celebrations’ surging militarism overwhelm our senses, appealing to our basic instincts for survival, for war, their pomp and pageantry paced to perfection.

But underneath these grand gestures, there are some realities that we overlook. For most of us, the words of our national anthem remain a foreign mystery – a mystery we’re in no hurry to resolve. We recite our Pledge; it is fluent, but empty. The significance of our flag – the five stars and the crescent – is gazed past with ignorance, with diffidence. Sometimes it is hung backside-front, upside-down (although that is not necessarily a bad thing). If we were honest with ourselves we would admit that our nationalism rings hollow, our patriotism shallow.

I am no nationalist, but I share Rajaratnam’s 1990 sentiments: ‘…after nearly 20 years of growing prosperity, peace and better education, a Singapore identity must be even more deeply-rooted and indelible than in 1971. If not, there must be something seriously wrong with our nation-building process.’[6]

Yet another twenty years have passed, and little has changed. Our nation remains imagination-free.


National Day Rallies: images and stories of yore, again and again, Time past and Time future. Reminders of how we came, from Third World to First, and who had brought us here. But this arrival is a mirage. If our existence is dependent on PAP rule, without whom…, then arrival will always be a mirage. And our government and its nation-building press would have failed our people. A Singapore that cannot survive without the PAP is a failed Singapore. And Time would have passed us by.

That Rally night, a glossy, contrived theatre, puppets and marionettes coming with strings attached, everybody performing perfectly to canned laughter. That Rally night, a treat to fabulous fantasies, foreign islands in a faraway time. But ask, here and now in our Singapore for a democratic society…, and see how the lights go out, the curtains come down, and how hearty laughter takes a bow. Night falls, and fear, timeless fear, is invoked. The fear of racial riots. The fear of our perdition. The fear of a Singapore without the PAP. Those faded, black-and-white photographs of old Singapore coming alive in their rowdiest kaleidoscopes. Unrealistic, unpragmatic, ungracious, irrational fear, ruthlessly untouched by Time.

So we haven’t arrived. Time exploded, and we remain in 1965. The chimera of skyscrapers and the reality of slums.


After four decades of nation-nothing and wasted years, perhaps we do have to start over. Rebuild our own nation, on our own terms, on our own earth. The story of Singapore cannot be told by just one man. It cannot be just one story, where we live on one man’s island, one man’s vision, while our imaginations remain colonized, forever trapped in his time, living our lives as voiceless people in a lifeless story. A nation is possible, and it is already in our thoughts. Remember our Pledge, and remember 8:22.

And we’ll imagine better. We have to imagine truer, in fragments, in freedom. To MM Lee our deepest gratitude, who has given Singapore the best as well as the worst, and so whose rightful name shall always come to be our messiah and curse. But the lovely night can only last so long.

An age has passed, and time belongs to a new day now. For us to render a Singapore that is not the fraudulent Pax Singaporeana built on money, exploitation, appearances, and fear. But a nation that is forged from our own hands, hearts, and dreams. Just like how it was, once upon a time in Singapore.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.

[2] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1998.

[3] Chua Beng Huat, “Multicultiralism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control”, Race & Class, 44:3, 2003, pp. 58-77.

[4] For more on the structural disadvantages that the non-Chinese minorities face as a result of PAP policies, see Michael D. Barr and Zlatko Skrbis, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity, and the Nation-Building Project, Copenhagen, NIAS Press, 2008; Lily Zubaidah Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1998; Christopher Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994. It is unsurprising that most of the trenchant analyses of Singapore politics are conducted by foreign academics and not local ones.

[5] The Straits Times, “Raja Wants Revival of ‘Singaporean Singapore’”, 11 March 1990.

[6] ibid.


  1. Excellent analysis. I enjoyed reading the article ... apologies are due though, as I've not recently had much time to analyze much of anything outside my thesis.

    This article deserves a re-visit some time in the future :).

  2. Better read those published literature than these bald assertions. When u finish i give u reading list. :) when r u submitting?

  3. If all goes well, late October looks like a decent defense date.