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.”
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.