Why I oppose the national pledge

Had enough of the National Day rah-rah? Now let me tell you why I oppose the National Pledge. Yes, you read that right: oppose.

Just in case you didn’t know, the pledge goes like this:

We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.

We are beginning to make a fetish of it, reciting it at nearly every opportunity even at election hustings. Certainly, the language is quite beautiful, with an economy of words and the sonority of cadence. But it says the wrong thing!

Its grave error is right at the end: “so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

No!

If I could change it, it would read: “so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for us all.”  The purpose of our endeavours must be the happiness and wellbeing of people, starting with ourselves, our families and loved ones. We are not cogs in a wheel grinding on so that a corporate body “the nation” can be grand.

Undoubtedly, as social animals, our individual happiness and wellbeing cannot be separated from the social unit — the “collective”, as I would call it here. But let’s get one thing clear: the wellbeing of the collective should be a second-order sum of the wellbeing of individuals. We should be striving to make ourselves happy and then consequently, if most or all of us are happy, the collective would as a result be doing well.

However, as it is written, the pledge expects Singaporeans to strive to make the collective happy,  prosperous and progressive, and then only by implication, there might be some trickling down of those goods to individuals. North Korea would be living up to the same pledge very well, by that measure. Which begs the question:  who determines the interests of the collective, when it is made into a first-order objective?

We are not here as servants of a collective. We are not cogs in some national wheel.

That is why I will not recite the pledge.

* * * * * *

Singaporeans need to marry and have children if they do not want the country to fold up, Mr Lee Kuan Yew warned last night.

— Sunday Times, 12 August 2012, Get married, have babies, by Leonard Lim

See what I mean? We are expected to do things in the interest of the “nation”. Many Singaporeans will say that having children is unaffordable, or it gets in the way of a career, success in which is essential for a materially comfortable life. But here we go again, a call to make sacrifices “for the nation”.

I think the most important part of Lee’s statement is this: fold up.

Frankly, if Singapore as a state or nation doesn’t serve the interests of the people here, then let it fold up.

* * * * *

The notion of the primacy of the nation-state is a recent phenomenon. It’s a form of large-scale tribalism born of European wars, when kings, no longer able to command legitimacy and loyalty from royal bloodline or religious anointment, began to appeal to atavistic identifiers such as ethnicity and language. The word ‘nation’ comes from the Latin natio, meaning birth. It’s a way of getting people to hang together simply because they were born in the same place, sharing social and cultural characteristics.

But the motive has remained the same as monarchical ones — to get people to make sacrifices, giving their lives in battle even, for the glory of rulers. By then, those rulers have acquired titles like Fuhrer, Il Duce, Party Chairman, and President.

We need to break out of that mindset. The reason why individuals form collectives is that certain things, e.g. security, can only be achieved by banding together. But the arrow of benefit must not be turned around. The collective is established to yield benefits to the individuals; the individual is not there to serve the collective, whether you call it kingdom, republic or nation.

That is why the pledge is wrong.

79 Responses to “Why I oppose the national pledge”


  1. 1 Maque 12 August 2012 at 14:33

    Then it seems that you will oppose all forms of ‘national’ pledges. The pledge is always about the collective: ‘citizens of Singapore’, ‘one united people’, ‘democratic society’. It is not just the last line, but the entire pledge that resonates with the need to cohere as a collective.

  2. 2 Jonathan 12 August 2012 at 14:36

    There is no such animal called the “public”. I agree totally with your point that the collective is the sum of individuals, and never the other way round.

  3. 3 ricardo 12 August 2012 at 15:05

    Well said Mr. Au. I think this is a suitable subject for another of your little surveys. Certainly your recommendation is deserving of more publicity and discussion by the wider Singapore nation. How can we foster this?

    Would PM Lee come on board? If he supported this change, it would add substance to his words about “needed change in the PAP”.

    Of course our Lord LKY may have other ideas.

  4. 4 swh 12 August 2012 at 15:57

    Well-written article. You have concisely brought up the mindset of what is expected of individuals here, but bear in mind that this is also common in many other parts of the world – in China, as a communist state; even in the US, when people are told to “make sacrifices for your country in these hard times.”

    It almost seems as it’s the right pathos to take nowadays, screaming for the benefit of the collective. Perhaps let it be said that it’s a form of emotional placation for people who want their jobs or what they do to mean something, to think that they have “contributed to society/other people” in the grand scheme of things that makes their lives somehow more worthwhile, worth it. Like it has purpose.

    Meaning.

  5. 5 Teo Eng Seng 12 August 2012 at 16:50

    Well said. LIKE.

  6. 6 ape@kinjioleaf 12 August 2012 at 17:04

    Alex, this is one of those rare moments I cannot agree with you. ‘… for the nation’, ‘for us’, ‘for the people/citizens of the nation’, whatever… they’re just semantics.
    Who defines a ‘nation’? What defines a ‘nation’?
    I can’t bring myself to boycott the pledge just because does not sound right or it can be better.
    Wouldn’t it sound selfish and mercenary that we pledge to ‘achieve happiness, prosperity and progress’ for ‘ourselves’? So does that mean for those who have achieved, they no longer need to pledge themselves ‘as one united people…’?
    I prefer to let our pledge remain as it is as I see myself as part of the nation. Thus by inference, I pledge to ‘achieve happiness, prosperity and progress’ for myself, my family and my fellow Singaporeans – the nation.

    • 7 Xiao Ren Wu 16 August 2012 at 06:54

      I cannot agree with you more on this. Personally, I am impressed with the writings and thoughts of this writer. I have benefited from his analysis on various topics and events.

      At the initial stage of nation building.. all will put nation before self; all would like to be motivated to do more …. hence … we all do all kind of things FOR THE NATION….

  7. 8 roni63 12 August 2012 at 17:20

    I am applauding the audacity of this writer. That he is able to articulate with clarity and honesty, the fundamental fallacy of our pledge. In a supposed “democratic” nation, many of us are on a daily basis, unwittingly pledging to function as one “communistic” people instead. Thank you, Alex Waipang Au, for calling to attention this very pivotal information.

  8. 9 The 12 August 2012 at 17:24

    Spot on. And uniquely Singapore too.
    Singaporeans are asset rich and cash poor.
    Singapore is rich, but the majority of its people are poor.

    As a wise man once said, the pledge is only an aspiration, so go figure…

  9. 10 Anon 1u76 12 August 2012 at 17:35

    It is just like some grand mission statement of a corporate good to be framed up but not a lot of people believe in it anymore.

    The national ethos has changed much that there is clear tension now on what is being professed in the pledge and what we see in practice and reality.

  10. 11 Gary 12 August 2012 at 17:40

    No comment. Just thought I’d share the original draft for the pledge as penned by Rajaratnam;

    We, as citizens of Singapore, pledge to forget differences of race, language and religion and become one united people; to build a democratic society where justice and equality will prevail, and where we will seek happiness and progress by helping one another.

  11. 12 Natureschild 12 August 2012 at 17:48

    The pledge becomes a mockery if the gap between rich and poor remains wide. The poor will remain ‘cogs in the wheel’ their whole life for the nation (read millionaire ministers) and the collective, especially the wealthy.. who, with the support of the rich policy-makers, refused to implement a minimum wage policy.

    • 13 Jake 14 August 2012 at 18:03

      The way it unfolds, the poor might be road kill under the wheel if we don’t do something to improve the situation.

  12. 14 the unnamable 12 August 2012 at 17:58

    To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht’s “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”:– What is the exploitation of workers compared to the founding(s) of Singapore?”

    Or, to be more specific: “What is the stagnation of the Singaporean worker’s real wages, inflation, and escalating housing prices etc., compared to the exploitation/slavery of foreign workers from Bangladesh, India, and China in the post-colonial period?”

    Singapore is, and has always been, founded on expropriation and exploitation. The British expropriated the Malays’ rights to land and instituted an exploitative system of cheap labour/slavery, consisting of huge numbers of poor workers from India and China. From the 1960s to the late 1970s the PAP government expropriated Singaporeans’ rights to land and continued to exploit the cheap labour of largely illiterate Singaporeans. The cheap, effectively-illiterate Singaporean workforce of 1960s and 1970s have now been largely replaced by cheap labour from India, China, and elsewhere.

  13. 15 Jackson Tan 12 August 2012 at 18:16

    agree with the writer. the pledge bears no significance anymore when the country is not people-centred.

  14. 16 No pledge for me too 12 August 2012 at 18:20

    Spot on! And in spite of contributing much to the “nation”, the “nation” does not even have any responsibility of looking after the people .. instead it’s the mantra of self help that’s constantly being bandied about while the “nation’s” custodians get richer day by day …

  15. 17 James 12 August 2012 at 18:41

    I think you are going overboard. 没国,没家,没 我。But if you think the nation is the party, then you are accepting failure. We can change that. A country purpose is to protect her people. If the people that run it withoit putting the people first, then they are running it wrong. We need to right the wrong.

    • 18 yawningbread 13 August 2012 at 00:56

      You seem to accept that it’s a given that Singapore is a country and a nation, and therefore there is an immutable relationship between Singaporeans and Singapore. I think your starting point is highly debatable.

      • 19 Regime Change 13 August 2012 at 08:34

        Singapore is a state. I’m not sure if it is nation yet.
        A state is a geo-political entity with a flag, an anthem and embassies in other countries. A nation is a group of people who think they are a nation.

    • 20 eddy 15 August 2012 at 15:30

      I think James’ point of 没国,没家,没 我 is a good example of Azuoye’s point of philosophy. From a Chinese (Asian? Eastern?) point of view, the collective is always greater than the self. The nation before the family before the self. Alex’s point of view follows a different tradition; a family is a collective of individuals who want to be a family; a nation is a collective of individuals who want to be a nation.

      Personally my gripe with the pledge has been ‘regardless of race, language or religion’. Why not gender or sexuality?

  16. 21 yuen 12 August 2012 at 18:45

    just curious: wedding vows (at least in the past – I’m not familiar with current mores) had the phrase “till death do we part”, which seems to exclude the idea of divorce; do you oppose that too?

    • 22 yawningbread 13 August 2012 at 00:53

      Er… only Christian wedding vows. And nope, I don’t think that clause is there anymore (but I’m no authority on that). In any case, in certain situations divorce can be a very good idea. But what’s your point?

  17. 23 Anon 163d 12 August 2012 at 18:48

    In Singapore, it is always,

    Nation before Self and
    LKY above everyone else

  18. 24 Azuoye 12 August 2012 at 18:48

    From a public finance angle, this is a difference in political philosophy known as organic vs mechanistic view. See link

    http://www.planiran.com/index.php/site/article/organic_vs_mechanistic_view_of_government/

  19. 25 Anonymous 12 August 2012 at 19:10

    I agree deeply with this.
    And there is a difference between country and nation.
    Maybe in Singapore we can’t really tell the difference , but for eg Italians , it’s clear – at least from those I met. They love their country, but national day is not a day they celebrate.

  20. 26 functionsmiddle 12 August 2012 at 19:30

    isn’t ‘our nation’ the same as ‘us all?’

    Fact is – the Pledge was written for us all to belong to ‘our nation’. This last part did begin to take on a corporate nature in the early years of our birth, but today it has changed to have roughly the same meaning as ‘us all’ – taking on the meaning of home, where family is.

    • 27 Ian 13 August 2012 at 08:56

      Nope.

      For example, when we say ‘our children’, it does not include the parents of the children. Whereas for ‘us all’ includes the parents. ‘Our nation’ only includes the nation, not its people.

  21. 28 Chua Sen Yan 12 August 2012 at 19:49

    Oh really? The country depends on its people and the people depends on the country. It just happens that Singapore do not have any natural resource besides us, the people. For you to enjoy the stability, safety, education and other various benefits that are both tangible and intangible, asking you to give a little bit more to this nation of your birth is too much to ask for?

    So why don’t you look at your parents in the face and tell them that you will not repay their effort in bringing you up, your friends for spending time with you and many other people? If you can’t accept the fact that we are stronger as a collective, then you better move overseas and build a farmland from scratch using what you have on had that is not purchase from shop or in anyway manufactured by other human or machines hands beside your own.

    It is selfish people like you that disgust me. The entire world seems to revolve around you. Go and do some volunteer work before you make such comments.

    • 29 walkie talkie 22 August 2012 at 09:34

      To Chua Sen Yan,

      On what basis do you say that Yawning Bread is selfish and has not been doing volunteer work?

      Yawning Bread has been rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty by doing volunteer work. One example among various examples: he has been volunteering via a non-profit organisation to help migrant workers who have been abused or treated unfairly by some employers.

      If you have any decency at all, you should apologise for your remarks.

  22. 30 Tan Tai Wei 12 August 2012 at 19:51

    It’s a textbook teaching in political theory that there’s no collective whole over and above the individuals that make up society. The nation is just the nationals, although dictators are prone to use the fiction of the collective whole to get people to acquiesce in, say, “unpopular” policies as “sacrifice” for the national whole, usually for the benefit of the dictator; ie. the collective whole is the dictator for whom the sacrifice is made! The latter motive should probably not be ascribed to LKY and the PAP, for hasn’t LKY been dubbed “benevolent dictator”? But, even with the best of motive, the people can still be subjected to this sort of propaganda to accept things they otherwise would think about again and resist.

  23. 31 Koh 12 August 2012 at 20:17

    Your argument sounds very attractive, but it also sounds very close to the basis for anarchy…

    • 32 Tan Tai Wei 13 August 2012 at 14:18

      Why jump so fast to “anarchy”? Why not first consider that, saved from that fiction of a “whole” or “nation” for whose imagined interest we individual nationals are asked vainly to “sacifice” for, we might then be in a truly realistic position to adjudicate, and cater fairly and truthfully to our mutual interests as “citizens of Singapore”?

  24. 33 lobo 12 August 2012 at 20:38

    Your whole article hinges on the definition of ‘nation’.

    To me, the nation IS the people. There is no difference between the line in the Pledge, and the line you wrote. Personally, it is PAP who is interpreting the word wrongly, and now…from my perspective at least, so are you.

    In the end though, it is a matter of semantics. I can disagree with the calls to sacrifice for the ‘nation’, and still think that the ‘nation’s happiness applies to each and every individual Singaporean.

  25. 34 bubbs 12 August 2012 at 20:52

    singaporeans complain about foreign talents… and now complaining about LKY’s article of having more kids… if singapore cant replace its current population the only way to stay competitive is to enroll the foreign talents.. obviously the article was written by some Gen-Y who dont understand the big picture… whining away cause u need make an effort for collective happiness… shows that how selfish the new generation can be…

    • 35 Jake 14 August 2012 at 18:16

      I think the point is that we shd have children for the sake of our own happiness. It’s a very strange concept to have children for the sake of the country. Off hand, I only know of only Sparta, Mongol tribes, N. Korea and Nazi Germany that probably have such a concept. Usually, this is to cater for a militaristic purpose. In our case, it’s economics?!

      If this government wants higher fertility that badly, it shd start “breeding programs” to produce workers to fuel the economy. That’ll be more direct than to use moral suasion and bribes to get ppl to marry and have children. Hahaha.

  26. 36 Alex 12 August 2012 at 21:01

    This reminds me of what is stated inside the Declaration of Independence. “…Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

  27. 37 60% happy good enough 12 August 2012 at 21:12

    I would think as long as there is happiness and well being for 60% who will vote PAP, Lee Kuan Yew should not worry the country will fold up.

    If I were Lee Kuan Yew, I will only truly worry if the 60% become less than 50%, not about Singaporean babies not enough. If 60% become 50% or less, even GRCs can’t help to make PAP have 2/3 majority or more in Parliament or even be govt.

    By the way, in case you don’t know, part of the 60% can also include foreigners turn citizens turn voters. And can even include their parents, grandparents, etc, etc! And hope they vote PAP come election time.

    So to me and to sum up, happiness, prosperity and progress for at least 60% is more than good enough already. And there will still be a nation called Singapore.

  28. 38 octopi 12 August 2012 at 21:21

    As usual I find myself in the position of partially agreeing with you. Yes, we should have “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”. But what is really so wrong when the collective benefits? The issue is that the gains are not shared well, that the progress of Singapore as a nation does not translate to the progress of its people – or rather some people benefit more than others.

    Then the issue of – is it possible for Singapore to progress as 5 million individuals? I don’t think that’s possible. Most of the challenges we have today are too large to be solved by individuals – climate change, overpopulation, reformation of the current state of the capitalist system and competition from other countries. Personally I am wary of anything that encourages people to be even more selfish than they already are.
    People all agree that the system is in trouble, but there are quite a few versions of this “system is in trouble”.

    1. This system is in trouble because the government is responsible for our problems.
    2. This system is in trouble because selfish employers and businesses are responsible for our problems and the government is not doing enough to protect the people from the bad capitalists.
    3. This system is in trouble because selfish people are screwing each other over and the government is not doing enough to protect people from each other.
    4. This system is in trouble because the government is colluding with big bad capitalists and selfish people to screw the people. Therefore (1) is true.

    I personally lean towards 2 and 3. In any case, you’d see that whichever version you believe will result in a different prescription for our problems.

    There is something hidden deep in LKY’s statement. People have objected to the clumsy language that he’s used. LKY has been using clumsy language throughout his career, but he’s never been punished for it as much as now. But if you dig deep enough into what he’s saying, you’d realise that it is something to the effect of “maybe there’s something really wrong with our foreign talent policy”.

  29. 40 Nelson Young 12 August 2012 at 21:29

    surely one of your more emotional articles to-date.

    the “nation” as an ideal is not simply what the government of the day wishes it to be. Ex-PM LKY can say all he wants that making babies = prosperity of the nation, but we can reject his contention without rejecting the principle that the nation is worth sacrificing for.

    In rejecting LKY’s assertion, I would disagree with your premise too. That “the collective is established to yield benefits to the individuals; the individual is not there to serve the collective” has not been substantiated.

    Why shouldn’t the individual work for the collective – i.e. why shouldn’t people sacrifice for the common and larger good? Is it not good for a society that individuals think beyond themselves and serve their community? Afterall, man cannot be safe alone – as you put it. I would extend the argument further and say that man cannot be happy alone. Participating and valuing shared ideals can brings happiness to the individual and to the nation e.g. “we reap the rewards of our forefathers’ work.”

    This would then beg the question of what should constitute shared values, and this might not be as difficult to identify as one might think.

    • 41 yawningbread 13 August 2012 at 01:16

      The problems are:

      1. In real life, the interests of the political collective are seldom determined equally by its members; it is more often than not determined by an elite, and those interests coincide much more with the interests of the elite than of the members generally. The calls to serve/sacrifice for the collective should be seen for what they are: an attempt to marshal wider resources for the elite in the name of communal solidarity. What I think people need to be reminded of is the inherent manipulation behind such language.

      2. Just as we have overlapping identities, we belong to overlapping collectives. The nation is not the only one, and should not necessarily have any prior claim over others. A Muslim may have shared identity with other Muslims, a gay person has a shared identity with other LGBT people arounnd the world, someone very concerned with the global environment has far wider horizons than just his nation-state. We give of ourselves to these wider causes — and narrower ones, e.g. our own local clan or professional association — to the extent we choose to. We exercise reason to judge what is the right level of commitment and sacrifice we should make to these collectives, both in furtherance of the common objectives as well as our place (our happinness, our satisfaction) within that particular collective. It is not up to the collective to demand certain things from us. Likewise, we should approach the nation and the nation-state with the same autonomy, and likewise resist the subjugation of interests that para (1) above highlights.

      There is an old adage: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

      • 42 octopi 13 August 2012 at 05:02

        I think that the problem with this logic is that in a way you’re siding with the people you disagree with the most. That is: you think that ultimately in a collective, the elites of that collective will eventually screw over the rest of the people. But wouldn’t that be true of an LGBT collective, or a Muslim collective / mosque? City Harvest has shown us that smaller collectives are no less exploitative? Then why would patriotism be the last refuge of the scoundrel? Because making demands on the basis of membership to any other collective is almost the same thing, isn’t it?

        The issue would not be to say that there’s anything wrong with patriotism, because rejecting patriotism actually reflects a certain sort of confusion. Actually, the elites who are taking more than their due are the ones who are not caring for the people, and they are the ones who are unpatriotic. It is more important to take back the word “patriotic”.

        It’s not true that “it’s not up to the collective to demand certain things from us”. People give and take in a collective, and that is how a collective works. Otherwise there would be no collective. The main issue is: to what degree? The leaders of the collective are demanding but they are not giving back. Then it shouldn’t matter which collective you think is the problem since the same dysfunctional behaviour is seen in the different collectives. The nation is special because it is the second biggest collective out there, only one tier down from the entire human race. And it is the smallest one with any true claim to universality. In fact the clause “regardless of race, language or religion” is partially a claim to universality and partially a claim that all smaller collectives ought to be subordinate to this larger collective.

      • 43 Nelson Young 14 August 2012 at 21:13

        Hi Alex,

        I’ll reply in point:

        1. Doesn’t this mean that the problem is about defining what the ‘national’ is? The usurpation by the elite does not mean that the principle is wrong. The issue then would be to properly define what the ‘national’ is. And in many instances already individuals have already redefined what this means. Already one can see the de-linking the idea of the national from having more children.

        2. I agree that we belong to overlapping communities and identities. But I would disagree that they allow one to choose one’s level of commitments, simply because not all communities are created equally. Some communities do not require as much commitment and arguably, some do (I would assert that the nation belongs to the latter). It could be said that the nation belongs to the latter due to the privileges that accrue at one’s point of birth – security, movement, rights etc. Other communities do not give such privileges and thus have no right of expectation.

        3. I would qualify that statement – “FALSE patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

      • 44 Abraham Wilder 22 August 2012 at 11:15

        Or as Bob Dylan put it: “They say patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings, steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot then they make you king” -Sweetheart Like You, 1983 (Infidels)

  30. 45 Samuel 12 August 2012 at 21:56

    I disagree, I feel that the pledge means – I shall borrow scientific notation here for clarity – (happiness), (prosperity), and (progress for our nation), rather than (happiness, prosperity and progress) for our nation. I do not disagree with the former. I think that when the people are happy, they prosper, and the nation will progress naturally. I may be reading too much into things, but I think the order they were presented in also speaks of their relative importance. Here, on paper at least, happiness seems to take primacy over prosperity, which in turn seems to take primacy over national progress. I think in this interpretation, the ethos of the pledge at least is off in the right direction.

  31. 47 Geoff 12 August 2012 at 22:26

    The government has always made it clear that individuals must be subordinate to the nation. Two generations have said this prayer every morning. Your view is going to sound like heresy. Actually I would like to suggest they add “and meritocratic” society after ” democratic”. Then everything is complete.

  32. 48 Norm 13 August 2012 at 00:55

    Well said. Singapore has been moulded by LKY as a collectivist society, based on utilitarian principles.

    • 49 Tan Tai Wei 13 August 2012 at 14:44

      Well said, “Norm”. The pledge is indeed based upon “utilitarian principles”: we do all those things only “so as to achieve happiness and progress…”, and not because justice, democracy, etc., are to be valued in themselves; (and so, we may merrily cast aside justice, liberty, etc., aside when they are not expedient to our pragmatic ends! So we hang people, for example, as “effective deterrent”, nevermind the injustice).
      I used to teach pre-service teachers, and taught them how to teach school children a corrected meaning of our pledge. True happiness and prosperity must necessarily include justice, etc. So you can’t choose expediency, etc. at the expense of justice, compassion, etc. On this, I can quote even JS Mill who wrote that well-known essay “Utilitarianism”. Even though Mill argues for utility or happiness as the ultimate goal of the moral life, he stresses that by that, he means “utility in its widest sense”, which must incorporate “liberty”; and we should add, if liberty should be included, then surely also justice, and other values besides?

  33. 50 Passerby 13 August 2012 at 02:34

    The words of our pledge were born out of the political and social milieu of the 1960s, when the various ethnic groups still had not begun to truly see Singapore as home but as a place to seek their fortunes before returning to China or India, while the Malays likely regarded the other races as foreigners. Building up a sense of nationhood through the pledge made sense.

    47 years on, our society is still under threat of being fractured, but the fault lines have shifted. I’d support the idea that the pledge needs to be re-worded to reflect the changed circumstances. However, things like the anthem, the pledge, and founding myths tend take on the quality of hallowedness as time passes. Too many would consider the words of the pledge sacrosanct now.

  34. 51 TAP 13 August 2012 at 03:33

    This is a nice article on the National Pledge. I see your point.

  35. 52 ricardo 13 August 2012 at 06:42

    Mr. Au wants to change the pledge from “happiness, prosperity & progress for our nation” to “happiness, prosperity and progress for us ALL.”

    Some have argued that this is a selfish aim. I don’t see how this is selfish.

    Let me quote Kennedy.

    “The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It measures neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.”

    Goh Chok Tong decided that Singapore Ministers should be, by far, the highest paid in the World. It is no coincidence that this was when Singapore’s GINI (the measure of the disparity between rich & poor) started going through the roof.

    Today, Singapore is one of the most expensive places to live. It has very high GNP and also one of the highest GINIs. The poor have seen their income and standard of living drop substantially.

    Taxation is very low … for the rich.

    Policies were encouraged by bonuses for multi-million Dignity ministers to achieve just this result.

    Is this “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”?

    I’m not naive to think changing the words of the pledge will encourage PAP ministers to consider us ALL … but perhaps it might make those of us who grant them their multi-million Dignity, happiness & future prosperity think a little harder about everyone else.

  36. 53 Anonymous 13 August 2012 at 08:01

    Without a nation there is no home without a home there is no opportunity for one as an individual. Saying that the nation shouldn’t prosper and be strong? Tell that to the Karen, Montagnards, Rohinghas, the Roma, these are people without a nation that is strong and prosperous. See how miserable collectively their life as a nation less people.

  37. 54 Sam 13 August 2012 at 08:38

    The amount of selfishness and self-centeredness in these comments is astonishing. If everyone put their happiness first and is unwilling to sacrifice for the nation (or collective as you like to call it), then what is the point of having a nation? If there is a war, why should any of us fight for the nation or you for the matter, if we should look after our own happiness first?

    Ironically, our ministers are practicing your “pledge”: They relentlessly pursue economic excellence and largely ignore the needs of the nation because their pay are tied to the GDP itself. There is really no need for the ministers to make sacrifices for you or me, according to your logic.

    If you are not willing to be the “servants of the collective” or “cogs in some nation wheel”, then why should I share the fruits of MY labor with you? You are not part of MY collective, not helping to turn MY wheel. if you are not going to help make US happy, then you are not part of US.

  38. 55 The 13 August 2012 at 10:13

    I think the objectionable part is not the last sentence.

    The questionable part is in the middle of the pledge – to build a democratic society. It would not be a problem if we have built a truly democratic society. The trouble with Singapore is that our democracy is only in name and form; and we are ruled by a Nomenklatura who flourish through the practice of Amakudari.

    If we are truly a democracy where the leaders are chosen freely by the people and not riding on the coat-tails of GRCs and other gimmicks, then the phrase “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation” would not be so objectionable.

    However, because of the existence of Nomenklatura and Amakudari, the fruit of the collective labour is only shared among the elites.

  39. 56 Yonder. 13 August 2012 at 11:00

    I see a correctness in the national pledge: We, the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves … to build … to achieve … for OUR (emphasis mine) nation. From individuals into a nation!

    If it should end into “… for us all” (ie devoid of an identity at a national level), it’ll fail to muster all of us into becoming a nation because basically no one would work hard for the well being of another person other than his own family members and relatives. So I believe it is right to end with the words “… for our nation”.

    This nation that our fathers had worked hard to achieve had been hijacked with the lesser native Singaporeans robbed of their future! Who could have had seen this danger while the pledge was being crafted out?

    The pledge is still a solid one but I cannot bring myself to say it. I will when this nation is rightfully back into the hands of a ruling party which cares for the people and their future.

  40. 57 Alan 13 August 2012 at 12:59

    In the larger context when Ministers are rewarded with obscene salaries while those under-privileged are being questioned as to what do they expect for their 3 meals, the pledge appears to makes us look like fools & idiots, isn’t it ?

    When we witness our Ministers putting their hands to their heart, what do we see for ourselves ? Hypocrites, anyone ?

  41. 58 OldSingaporean 13 August 2012 at 13:23

    This is one of the rare times I don’t entirely agree with you, Alex. I think that the individuals and the collective are mutually dependent. What is important is the correct balance of power/risks/rights/interests/benefits distribution between the two. The problem with Singapore is that the balance is tilted too far in favour of the government to the detriment of the individuals. Therefore signficant correction of the disequilibrium is needed. This is where your article is useful in highlighting the disequilibrium by taking the other extreme.

  42. 59 Joel Tan Dawei 13 August 2012 at 13:34

    The only reason you could view the pledge in this manner is because you differentiate yourself from “nation”. Clearly you do not see yourself to be one with the nation, preferring to believe the nation is a separate entity. When I recite the pledge I know that nation automatically means “all of us”. So what exactly is your point?

    • 60 Joel Tan Dawei 13 August 2012 at 14:28

      The sum of your argument is really just a truth claim that we should strive for personal freedom to achieve happiness. It is no less arrogant than the claim that we are better suited to live by a standard of moral obligation. While you target that which is defined by society, I will point out that we also live by a standard that isn’t defined by us. There really isn’t a way for the individual to live for himself without feeling this moral obligation. Free will allows you to act apart from this obligation, but the happiness you tag to this egocentricity is subject to the nature of the individual, not an absolute truth. We all have our set of constraints that best for our nature, for some of us it is living for others, for others it is living for themselves.

  43. 61 Aie 13 August 2012 at 14:17

    Utter rubbish. Keep it simple and don’t trip over yourself trying to sound convincing. The concept of social contract goes back further than the birth of nations. If you disagree with the pledge, then GTFO of Singapore. Such selfish sense of entitlement makes me think that Singapore can only get worse regardless of the government because it’s the people that’s screwed up.

  44. 62 Edwin Yeo 13 August 2012 at 14:17

    Would you then disagree with JFK’s famous quote, where he said one should ask what they can do for their country?

  45. 63 WeiHan 13 August 2012 at 18:10

    Because if every individual sacrifice for this collective, then there is a synergistic effect such that the gain of this collective will turn to a gain of all individual that make up this collective.

    On the other hand, if every individual act selfishly, then this collective will suffer and each individual will also suffer individually.

    The key point is synergy. If there is no synergistic value, then of course, there is no point for each individual to stay as a collective.

  46. 64 billychen 13 August 2012 at 18:57

    To make the pledge complete, I would amend “….happiness, prosperity and progress for the nation.” to “….happiness, prosperity and progress for the people and the nation.” That takes into consideration the axiom that the well being of the people and the nation are inseparable and closely intertwined. One does not exist without the other.

    The suggestion by Geoff to add in the “meritocratic” element to the pledge is also good.

  47. 65 K Das 13 August 2012 at 19:16

    Rajaratnam defined the core values for the pledge and LKY and the Cabinet worked around the semantics and approved the present day version without diluting the fundamental attributes spelt out by Raja.

    Raja’s version does not contain the word ’nation’ whereas LKY’ does. Raja is an intellectual and a pragmatist and Singapore (having just become independent) to him, is strictly not a full nation yet but a nation in the making – a long haul work in progress. LKY would not accept this notion. He was wired to political objectives and he wanted nationhood as the basic block to attain his political goals.

    We should be a nation by now since 47 years have passed by. Are we? What is the yard stick to gauge a successful nation? It is the common denominator and that is the status of the common man. Has he got a decent life, is he worried about the present and the future? Going by what I see around and the discourses I have with this segment of people, I am afraid I cannot give thumbs up in clear conscience.

  48. 66 R 14 August 2012 at 01:38

    one of the things that bothered me most, even as a child in primary school was that the pledge never acknowledged gender discrimination.

    “Regardless of race, language or religion…”

    Never addressed the problem of gender inequality or the overwhelmingly sexist male patriarchal system. I remember feeling how odd it was, that in an all-girls school how we recited it so easily every day, never noticing that we were giving up our rights for equal pay, equal benefits and equal right to power that all men experienced.

  49. 67 Joyce 14 August 2012 at 02:05

    I don’t know if it was just me, but I’d always read
    “to achieve happiness, prosperity
    and progress for our nation”
    as 3 separate ideals: achieving happiness and prosperity, as well as “progress for our nation”.

    It may actually make more sense that way. Interesting piece by the author, but I’m not sure if your interpretation of the pledge is justified..

  50. 68 Deja Vu All Over Again 14 August 2012 at 13:49

    Alex Au raises a very important point.
    The individual versus the collective.

    When the collective is deemed more important than the individual, all kinds of bad things happen.
    Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the concept of Deutshcland uber Alles (Germany Above All) being the most extreme example.

    Learn from history.
    This is what patriotism running amok sounds like.

  51. 69 wongyy 15 August 2012 at 11:53

    “so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for us all.”

    Also ” We give of ourselves to these wider causes — and narrower ones, e.g. our own local clan or professional association — to the extent we choose to”

    In this month of fasting, spare a thought for those who are hungry;
    here in Singapore and elsewhere. While we may not be able to solve the challenge of world hunger, good thoughts can be useful.

    At the minimum, our problems are not really that significant over the long-term compared to who are always hungry or are faced with really serious challenges.

    In the words of my son, “all governments are useless”; maybe some
    less so than others.

    We need to search for reasons to be Happy; “so happiness for all”
    is not a naive thought but a positive aspiration.

    How else can we choose?
    Happiness for all except for Mr Jean Valjean, Mr Mao etc who became such partly because of their circumstances.

    Are you Happy?

  52. 70 q 15 August 2012 at 15:47

    Hi Alex

    The pledge has to be read as a whole instead of being cut and diced into their individual sentences. After all part of it does “say based on justice and equality”

    It is an expression of an ideal, not a representative of the current situation. Not to mention English is not a precise language, if it is legal documents would read more like regular documents and not have those convoluted constructions that most people go “Huh?”

    Cheerio

  53. 71 Chanel 16 August 2012 at 17:32

    replace “for our nation” with “for PAP” and everything starts to make sense.

  54. 72 Hazeymoxy 16 August 2012 at 22:58

    I oppose the national pledge and anthem but for different reasons. I find they’re centered around success, prosperity, progress, which are very ‘hard’ values that don’t stir any deep emotions of belonging, love, pride, a land worth defending and fighting for, sacrificing for.

    I haven’t analyzed too many national anthems but a good number of them call for their land to be defended, to be blessed with peace and bestowed with nature’s gifts or brave women and men. That’s something that puts a lump in my throat. Not success or prosperity.

  55. 73 Luddite 17 August 2012 at 10:34

    “…nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York…. This is where most people make a mistake. I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country.”
    K Shanmugam.

    It speaks volume when our very own law minister speaks of Singapore as a city and not a nation… This pledge sounded silly in this context.

  56. 74 Daniel 19 August 2012 at 18:06

    Isn’t the contention on the word “nation” more a difference in perspective than a straight definition. A nation is made up of citizens, so by that definition progress and the rest is for all, together. When we define broadly by individual, the problem is happiness cannot be truly for all, individually, since happiness is different for each.

    The part about our nation folding up is interesting. How does a nation “fold up”? Companies, businesses and organisations can fold up, but a nation? The choice of words is perhaps telling, this intense narrow focus on Singapore as a corporation is still surprising to my naive mind. Will we still get a severance pay when Singapore fold up?

    Thanks for the article, an interesting thinking exercise. Ow my head hurts.

  57. 75 Zachary E. 20 August 2012 at 16:02

    As an American, the one surprising feature of the Singapore pledge is the use of the plural first person, “We”. If a pledge is a promise, how does the “we” promise to do anything? When spoken, it seems awkward to say “we promise to do X, Y, and Z” unless one is a manager speaking on behalf of one’s team.

  58. 76 Passerby 24 August 2012 at 15:18

    The London Olympics got me interested in the British National Anthem. I’ll leave out the second stanza as it’s hardly sung – probably because it’s pretty war-like – and has no relevance here.

    God save our gracious Queen,
    Long live our noble Queen,
    God save The Queen:
    Send her victorious,
    Happy and glorious,
    Long to reign over us:
    God save The Queen.

    Thy choicest gifts in store,
    On her be pleased to pour;
    Long may she reign:
    May she defend our laws,
    And ever give us cause
    To sing with heart and voice
    God save The Queen!

    The first stanza is very focused on the monarch; that she be victorious, happy and glorious as well as to rule over her subjects for many years.

    However, the last stanza includes an expectation of the ruler to maintain the laws as well as to live up to what her subjects expect of her, so that when they sing “God save the Queen”, it will be with heart and voice.

    To me, the reciprocal relationship between the ruler and the subjects is etched into their anthem.

    By contrast, our national pledge is all about working together to achieve happiness for this nebulous entity called “the nation”. How achieving “happiness, prosperity and progress” for this concept we call “the nation” means to us as individuals is unclear. If “the nation” is happy, does it mean we as individuals would be happy too? Or is it only supposed to be happiness for certain individuals?

  59. 77 The 25 August 2012 at 14:22

    The de facto national pledge. This one is already a reality; not just an aspiration.

    We, the citizens of Singapore,
    pledge ourselves as one disunited people,
    conscious of race, language or religion,
    to build a plutocratic society
    based on nomenklatura and amakudari,
    so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
    progress for our rulers.

  60. 78 Jerome 28 August 2012 at 20:50

    Hi there.

    I think this is a very well-writ and well worded passage of ideas. I however, would like to respectfully disagree with you on a few slight areas.

    Firstly, I quote from your passage,

    “the wellbeing of the collective should be a second-order sum of the wellbeing of individuals. We should be striving to make ourselves happy and then consequently, if most or all of us are happy, the collective would as a result be doing well.”

    I disagree with this point. My perspective is similar to that of a very abused and well-used argument regarding the topic of Freedom, and that is where one man’s point of happiness may, and probably will, give rise to another’s unhappiness. I would like to put to you another approach to the issue of attaining happiness and satisfaction in our society. Instead of having a fixed hierarchal approach to the individual’s and the collective’s happiness, why can’t we seek our own happiness, but endeavour to keep the happiness, the satisfaction, the well-being of the collective’s happiness in mind?

    Lastly, I disagree with your general assertion on the “nation” and how we, as the people, are subservient cogs in a greater machine. Such an image is not altogether wrong, but I feel it is rather extreme. Once more, i put it to you. Are we not the nation? Are you and I not part of the collective that you so strongly assert against happiness for, or “servitude” towards? I believe that we, as the electorate, have as much a responsibility towards this country — and i use the word country, and not “nation”– as does our government has to us. We should not be so obstinate as to believe ourselves as mere pleasure seekers. Although, I think the use of the word “pleasure” is too extreme. Yes, we should seek happiness for ourselves, for our loved ones. But let us not forget each other.

    That being said, I do respect your perspective and opinions.

    Thank you.


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