Whenever I am feeling low
I look around me and I know
There’s a place that will stay within me…
This is home truly.
Where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me…
So we’ll build our dreams together
Just like we’ve done before
Just like the river which brings us life
There’ll always be Singapore. (Dick Lee- ‘Home’)
Thus begins one of the many songs celebrating Singapore’s national day each August. Particularly symbolic, this year’s National Day Parade (NDP), was held on the Padang (field) close by the state parliament, where the city-state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, hosted the first NPD in 1966. It celebrated the wealthy city’s fiftieth anniversary as an independent republic, that came into inauspicious existence with its expulsion from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. It also commemorated the achievement of Lee Kuan Yew who died in March this year.
‘Home’ sung by boy/girl band The Sam Willows opened this year’s NDP. Penned in 1998 by local legend, Dick Lee, it is one of many ballads composed or commissioned over the years by the government’s Psychological Defence Unit to create, as another song put it, ‘one nation, one people, one Singapore’. These ballads play continually over the state licensed airwaves in the lead up to National Day. Songs, saturated in saccharine, like ‘Count on me Singapore’, ‘Together’, ‘There’s no place I’d rather be’ and ‘Our Singapore’ reinforce ‘people bonding’ and reflect Lee Kuan Yew’s enduring ideology.
In Lee’s view, inherited by his son, Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister and leader of the People’s Action Party ((PAP), that has ruled the city state uninterruptedly over half a century, Singapore cannot allow its increasingly affluent citizens to form their own identity. Instead the party state does it for them. Central to this vision is Singapore united in one harmonious body. The NDP proselytizes the message. Hosted by six hip, but increasingly hysterical, MC’s the spectacle is a curious confection where Eurovision Song Contest meets the Nuremberg rally. The 25,000 spectators, all dressed in the national colours, participate in a carefully rehearsed Padang ‘wave’. The nation then pays tribute to the dead founding father represented by an empty seat.
This year the pageant traced the nation’s history starting with the island’s troubled ‘beginnings’, then its ‘progress’, via its five pillars of ‘total defence’, that gave the island ‘strength’ illustrated by Singapore’s state of the art armed forces. ‘Unity’ and ‘Identity’ follow and the mass rally culminates with ‘Onwards’ as the crowd commits ‘to build a brighter Singapore’. Exploiting the ‘Grand Master’s legacy, Singapore’s Metropolitan Productions staged The LKY Musical in the weeks before and after National Day. This lavishly produced ‘fast paced production’ rehearsed in song and dance the myth that passes for the PAP version of Singapore’s post colonial history. Occupying a towering three storey set, it played to sell-out crowds at the state of the art Marina Sands Theatre. Choreographed by Londoner Steven Dexter and composed by the ubiquitous Dick Lee, the government’s Chief of Communications, Janadas Devan, ‘advised’ on the script. As Tan Shou Chen, who played Deputy Premier Toh Chin Thye, blogged, this reeked of the PAP’s ‘oily propaganda machine’.
LKY manages to distort history and ignore the more controversial aspects of Lee’s long rule. Beginning with the tearful announcement of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, the soap opera takes us back to Singapore’s occupation by the Japanese in 1942, and the struggles Lee (played by Adrian Pang) and his wife Kwa Geok Choo overcame to build utopia. Sharon Au, who ‘channels’ Mrs Lee, described it as ‘Singapore’s very own love story’. Given LKY’s penchant for pragmatism rather than passion, this says a lot about the emotional life of Singaporeans.
In fact, the musical is the story of the man who, knew that ‘There’s a Time to Stand Alone’. Political opponents are reduced to caricatures whilst LKY alone realizes ‘There’s a time to take control…a time to find a way’. As a result, even rickshaw drivers can ‘have big dreams’. The two hour show culminates with a foot tapping number about economic progress followed by a rousing rendition of the national anthem. LKY, from the psychological defence perspective, harnessed disparate races to a collective goal and created Disneyland with the death penalty and the highest GDP per capita in Asia.
Riding the LKY nostalgia wave, Lee’s son dissolved parliament and called an early general election. However, the PAP, under Lee fils, no longer exerts the authority it once did and the popular memory of LKY is not perhaps quite what the PAP assumes. Indeed, the 1997 election apart, the PAP’s share of the popular vote has been in decline since 1984. This is despite the fact that opposition parties are factionalised, and their leaders subject to prosecution under the state’s draconic libel and defamation laws. In 2011 the PAP polled only 60 per cent of the popular vote, but still secured 80 of 87 seats.
Lee Hsien Loong seeks to arrest any further decline. However, trouble is brewing in LKY’s air conditioned paradise. Singapore, like the rest of Asia, has experienced a rapid decline in growth as the China bubble bursts. The middle classes that accepted the party’s omniscient tutelage in return for consistent growth have become increasingly frustrated at the number of foreign workers exerting downward pressure on local wages.
The PAP peers nervously over the border at the scandal unravelling single party rule in Malaysia. Well might they, as a younger generation of first time voters, inured to the good life and western popular culture, chafe at the social controls in the nanny state. The young satirist Joshua Ip admits that in Singapore ‘I hold my own tongue /I eat my own words/ I shut my own trap’. To prove Ip’s point, in March, the party state imprisoned a sixteen year old blogger, Amos Yee, for obscenity. His offence – a critical youtube commentary on LKY.
LKY thought Singapore could not afford the luxury of poetry or freedom of speech. This legacy presents difficulties for the PAP’s political communication in the age of social media. The ruling party faces an unprecedented contest for all constituencies in this year’s election. The party will win, but the loss of a few more seats will see it having to take the people and freedom of expression seriously for the first time in its long political history.
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David Martin Jones formerly lectured at the National University of Singapore.
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