Helen Saada-Ching complained in a letter to the Straits Times (Life! section, 27 July 2013) that at a recent performance of Alfian Sa’at’s Cook a pot of curry, many in the audience did not stand up for the national anthem. Then the play ended with a “cheap gimmick” when the stage curtain — the Singapore flag — “came loose and plummeted to the ground”. Quoting another playwright, Eleanor Wong, she lamented the desecration of national symbols.
Helen probably missed a freudian slip within her own letter. Opening her second paragraph, she wrote, “Being programmed by years attending school assemblies, I stood up” when the national anthem was played. (Emphasis mine). I will come back to this later.
Two trends seem to be reinforcing the fetish of worshipping such symbols in Singapore. The rise of opposition politics has seen a need to cling to state symbols to forfend accusations of disloyalty. More recently, the rise of xenophobic politics has likewise made the flag and anthem useful for their reflected legitimacy. I find both these manifestations ironic, for it is the state, or at least the fundamental nature of the Singapore state, that has created the problems which energised these movements. To cling to the symbols of the problematic state while opposing the outcomes of its nature seems inherently contradictory.
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Let’s get something straight: the flag does not represent Singapore as a country. It represents the state, just like all other national flags.
Country and state are not the same thing. It is entirely possible to feel great attachment to a country but at the same time abhor the state. A country’s symbols are seldom formal; they may consist of iconic images of landscape, an immediately recognisable accent, cuisine, architecture, music or some forms of mordant humour. Generally, the collection of symbols would have come together organically.
In contrast, a state’s symbols are almost always invented whether recently or far in the past; if the symbols have deep historical or cultural roots, then they might have been requisitioned by the state for its purposes. An example of the latter is the way the German Federal Republic requisitioned a 1797 work of [correction] Joseph Haydn [/correction] (composed before Germany even came to exist as a state) to be its anthem.
Below is another anthem: Jerusalem, composed by Charles Hubert Parry, with tonal arrangement by Edward Elgar, set to a poem by William Blake.
This is not an official anthem of any state. It is an unofficial anthem, recognised only by the people, to represent England the country (not Britain or the UK). In any event, England does not exist as a state. The text is a powerful amalgam of Christian myth, romantic nostalgia, and soaring vows for a more ethical future.
Ditto with flags. Actually, I can’t immediately think of any flag representing a country; they all represent states. And there’s a reason for that: flags evolved historically from banners carried over masses of soldiers as they marched into battle. Inescapably, flags represent the politico-military structures that underpin states.
The distinction between countries and states is easily illustrated through a brief review of state flags, in the course of which I will re-state my point: it is possible and quite legitimate to bifurcate one’s feelings between country and state.
Above are flags that have flown over Germany and its capital, Berlin. It’s the same country throughout, but different states have occupied the geographical space and ruled over the same people (more or less) in the last 120 years. Each state represented different values, are remembered for markedly different policies and outcomes, and naturally engendered different feelings. Germans can abhor one while being proud of another. In fact, we expect right-thinking people, German or not, to find one among the above set highly objectionable.
At right is another example. These are flags that over the last 100 years have flown over the same geographical area: South Africa. The first of the triplet was when the Union of South Africa was a self-governing part of the British Empire. The British settlers lorded over the Boers while the Black Africans were treated dismissively — as natives were in so many other parts of the empire.
The second flag represented a different, independent South Africa, but one where the Boers — now calling themselves Afrikaaners — were ascendant. The structure of this state they created, however, was heavily identified with the policy of apartheid that disenfranchised Blacks, Indians and mixed-race individuals, brutally suppressing the ensuing opposition for good measure.
So, when all these structures were dismantled in 1990, and new structures created in their place, the result was for all intents and purposes a new state. With it came a new flag — the third in the series.
In the German and South African examples, new states arose after wrenching change. But even when no wrenching change occurs, new flags are still adopted because the people may feel that the old one is too much identified with values and memories they’d rather pack away.
At left are the flags of Canada. The first was for a state that valued its strong linkages with Britain. By the centenary of self-governance — which by then had long evolved into independent statehood — a new flag removing all vestiges of the Union Jack and insignia of the royal family was needed. It was also important to have a flag that French Canadians could identify with.
In other words, as the state evolved, so at some point a new flag was needed.
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The Singapore flag we know today does not represent Singapore the country and its people; it represents the state.
You may point out that the state is not coterminous with the government, even less with the People’s Action Party. It should be possible to be loyal to the state without being subservient to the present government or the PAP.
But I would argue that when a certain government, its policies and ruling style (in other words, a regime) have been in place for a long time, the state becomes indelibly associated with its characteristics. This is true of the historical examples I have cited from Germany, South Africa and Canada. Consequently, it becomes perfectly legitimate for someone to say he opposes not just the PAP, but the myriad state structures that have been created by them, and to wish for a new, reconstituted state with different ethos. If, in his mind, the current Singapore flag represents a state that he finds profoundly objectionable, why should he not burn it?
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Now I come back to Helen Saada-Ching’s freudian slip.
States, being artificial creations, need to artificially create loyalties. Thus the investment in symbols and ritual. Flooding the airwaves, dispensing money to buy loyalty (and armies of foreign workers to string up flags in housing estates), putting up glitzy shows and fireworks are the means that come immediately to mind. But there’s also the use of power over schools and the educational curriculum. Inculcating habits of observance of ritual (and a feeling of shame if one does not fall in with the crowd), together with the shaping of minds towards “national” perspectives — what is known as “programming” — are in fact the primary tools of state propaganda.
The state may also rely on its power of coercion, especially if a lonely instance of demurral is feared to encourage more dissent. Thus we have laws that make it a criminal offence to deface the flag or other symbols of the state.
But by the same token, when a state no longer represents the aspirations of the people, resistance to the state and its symbols is the noble course of action.
We should see clearly that laws compelling loyalty or “respect” for symbols of a state are no different from laws against blasphemy, lese majeste or “scandalising the court”. These are laws that forbid rejection and criticism, and demand fealty on pain of state-sanctioned punishment. Not only do they violate a plain and simple dictum — respect has to be earned, not compelled — true liberty must include the freedom of conscience and expression.
It is undeniable that there are states in this world that deserve no respect and that should be opposed and extinguished. Whether you think the Singapore state is among them is a matter for each person’s conscientious opinion. The test for forming that opinion, however, may well be whether the same Singapore state protects your right to freedom of expression, should you wish to say it is.