Aug 9, 2007

The Mandatory National Day Post

A few weeks ago, a free Singapore flag was delivered to my doorstep, wrapped in clear plastic. It's the kind which HDB residents are supposed to hang over their parapets or outside their windows, to exhibit their patriotism to the world, on National Day.

I have a mild adversion about doing such things. I still remember how some citizens, a few years back, were fined for not hanging out their flags properly.

The exact details escape me now. But I think in one case, the chap didn't hang his flag properly, a heavy storm came along, and the flag became crumpled, messy or something like that. The chap didn't bother to tidy up his flag. Later he was fined by the government. Some obscure offence having to do with disrespect to the state flag.

So I looked at my own flag, still in its plastic packaging, and I couldn't decide whether to hang it out or throw it away. Hanging it out would entail a risk of getting fined, a small risk no doubt, but why take any unnecessary risks at all. At the same time, throwing away the flag seemed vaguely wrong and a bit wasteful (I am quite environmentally conscious - I will blog more about this in future). I considered using the flag as a rag, but I was afraid the strong red colour would run.

Unable to decide, I left the flag on the dining table for the time being. A few days later, when I looked around for it, it was gone. I asked Mrs Wang, "Do you know where's that flag?"

"Threw it away," she said.

"You threw it away?"

"Yeah. Down the rubbish chute. Why do you ask? Were you planning to hang it out?"

"No, not really."

"Well then, that's why I threw it away. Our place got too much junk, anything we don't want to use, we just gotta throw it away. Otherwise we kena one big mess, how?"

Mrs Wang is a true blue Singaporean, pragmatic to the bone.


Yesterday my little daughter came back from her playschool with a little national flag painted on her cheek. Apparently the theme in class that day was National Day. All the kids had a little national flag painted on their cheeks or hands.

It was some kind of non-water soluble ink. I was a little annoyed. She looked cute but the ink wouldn't wash off easily. It's still on her face right now. I think it will take another day or two before it comes off completely.

But my mild annoyance really stemmed from the fact that nowadays I doubt whether patriotism is a desirable value to instill in our kids. In fact, I believe that one day, patriotism will become widely viewed as an odd, useless anachronism. Something like the way we regard communism in North Korea and Cuba today.

Globalisation is changing Singapore - and the rest of the world. I see this very clearly in my own work. The world is shrinking quickly and getting more and more interconnected. I believe that the optimal approach would be for the kids to grow up with a very global, international perspective on life. As it is, they are already living in a country heavily populated with non-citizens.
I can easily imagine that in the course of their own adult lifetimes, they may well end up living, studying and working for substantial periods of time in half a dozen different countries. They could easily end up holding multiple citizenships or PR status.

The kids need to grow up being very open and receptive to the idea that they may move and move again. Home will be just any place where they stay for more than three or four years. It is important that they are not handicapped by any dubious concepts like patriotism. By any strange notions that they belong to any particular corner of the planet. By any odd idea that they should be loyal to any specific red dot on the global map.

New horizons would open up for them, if they could see themselves as true citizens of the entire world. They must learn to be able to be comfortable, make friends and interact with people of all sorts of different cultures, anywhere in the world. I'm going to have to scrub harder at that little red-&-white smudge, on my daughter's cheek.


7-8 said...


If somebody were to point out all the stuff that the government says in the papers that doesn't make sense, I'd approve and say that it's a good thing that people ought to be wary and careful. I'd say he was being loyal to his country by doing so.

If somebody were to talk about kooky stuff like thought affects matter I'd just shrug it off and say that it's his blog, he's got the right to talk about fancy stuff.

But if he were to disrespect the flag in such a manner I think that's not right. Throw the flag away, or scrub your daughter's cheek, by all means, but why be so gleeful about it?

Because nationalism will never die. The human need for a home will still be there, regardless of whether that home is forever, and in the time that you are a Singaporean, even if it is not forever, you ought to be patriotic and loyal. Nationalism is only a few hundred years old but it has always existed in its ancestral form which is tribalism.

It is in us as a consequence of our being human and no amount of globalisation is going to wash it away.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I just googled around to check the legislation and rules on what can and cannot be done with the national flag. I think I'd better go rub my daughter's cheek a lot harder and get the flag removed completely. It is probably a criminal offence to have a smudged national flag on your cheek.

I am, by the way, not feeling particularly gleeful about anything right now. Just telling two little anecdotes, exactly as they happened, and expressing my thoughts.

Ironically, my daughter has three teachers in her preschool class and two of them are not Singaporean. So nowadays we even have foreigners painting national flags on the cheeks of our kids.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Come to think of it, the notion of punishing people for not displaying their flag properly is in some ways quite similar to the idea of accusing students of racism just because they don't want to wear ethnic costumes.

Pkchukiss said...

Sometimes, I wonder whether the pragmatic government is because that's what we (the voters) are, or if it is the rubbing off from the former to the latter.

But either way, it is unconscionable for us to engage in such lofty ideals as loyalty to country when the government acts with such incongruency.

Millionaire_Minister said...

I simply don't understand why nationalism cannot go away? If according to the logic that nationalism was evolved from tribalism, then why can't nationalism be replaced by internationalism, or globalism?

I think nothing is permanent in this world. Being too cock-sure of personal perceptions and interpretations of concepts, norms and values in any society, where everything is transient, is simply being too narrow and myopic.

le radical galoisien said...

Cultural loyalty, not nationalism. The society you work for has more meaning than superficial lines on a map.

Anonymous said...

What you say is true only of coastal cities of big countries. In the heartland of USA, Spain, France, Japan or Korea, for example, many people do live in the same village/town throughout their entire life. Some may never have ever ventured to the coastal cities of their own country, let alone overseas.

And by definition, these heartlanders are in the majority and the "coastal people" are in the minority, and patriotism is very much alive in these countries.

Also, in these large countries, people may wander to the coast to work (eg. wall street/new york), but when they retire, they may go back to their little charming village/town in the middle of nowhere in texas.

It is thus myopic to take your experience in a small city-state, and then extrapolate it to say that patriotism is no longer of importance all over the world. Patriotism is very much alive everywhere else. It is part of human nature to want to belong to a tribe/village/town/community (anything small, as opposed to the entire world), as the first commentator said.

This little red dot is an anomaly and we really cannot extrapolate much about an anomaly, can we?

Anonymous said...

Having said that, I do not think it is wrong of Mr. Wang to throw away or even to disrepect the flag.

Firstly, this is not the flag of a country. It is the flag of a company - singapore private limited (I dont think I need to go into the diff between a country's and a company's obligation to its citizens/employee, right?). So, what's wrong with throwing away the flag of a company?

Secondly, to be precise, it isn't even the flag of a company. It's the flag of a political party! Com'on, we all know that "country" is synonymous to "political party" in sg, right? So, again, what's wrong with disrespecting the flag of a political party?

So, Mr. Wang would indeed be doing a very wrong thing if this were the flag of a country, but it isn't. It never was.

Philip said...

Hmmm...Mr Wang, am not a Singaporean. But honestly, i would never throw out my country's flag. Never. If nothing, i will fold it neatly and put in a safe place.

This, even if my country will one day be ruled by a military dictator or even a govt that i despise.

For me, my country and her symbols are supreme.

Am not disputing. Just my 2 cents ;)

7-8 said...

It is true that nationalism may go away one day. But I am equally certain that I'll be dead before it happens, and that's why this issue does not concern me.

Even though everything is transient, many transient things are permanent enough that you need to respect it. If you live in a country for 10 years, you'll respect its flag for 10 years. Being too cocksure of interpretations of concepts, norms and values may be myopic, but not as myopic as pretending they don't exist.

Tribalism may have been supplanted by nationalism, but it is not dead. Remember that the government had to have the Speak Mandarin campaign to kill off tribalism.

It is true that the flag represents the Singapore government. But it also represents the Singapore people and that's why you need to respect it. Unless you're telling me that Singaporean people do not have a flag which is not something I can accept. The wrong idea is to throw away the flag. The right idea is to capture it back from the government.

Vogon, Singapore said...

The symbolism/significance of the flag draws from the feelings people feel about the nation. It is not inherently sacred in itself. People are practical, if belonging to a special group doesn't bring benefits (e.g. voting rights) commensurate with your membership costs (e.g. NS), then I don't think it's strange that they don't want to belong to that collective. And somemore they keep being told that they are small, insignificant and indefensible. Doesn't make much economic sense. Unless you are have lots of pay to make up for everything else.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I didn't throw away the flag. My wife did. Today I told her about the comments that you guys have left on my blog. She laughed and said:

"Don't be silly. Don't you know that the government only gives free flags to HDB residents who stay in certain blocks?

Those are the blocks which face the main road or are conspicuously located such that many people outside can see them.

If these flags were really about patriotism, all HDB households in Singapore would have received a flag each. The fact that only selected HDB flats get the flags show that it's really all just for show, just like NDP."

Jevon Louis said...

Well, whether the flags are for show or not, I believe that our national flag is independent of the ruling party. I don't have any particular love for the ruling party but somehow, I feel that to throw away the flag like that is disrespectful. Put it in a corner if you must and never display it, but don't throw it away.

It seems that there is this prevalent view that patriotism, or nationalism is intrinsically linked with political allegiances, which should not be the case.

Also, are you sure that there are no repercussions for throwing away the national flag like that?

Utama said...

I love Temasek!

7-8 said...

What's wrong with flags being on show? What is a flag for if not for show?

Anyway I did not mean to criticise what you actually did with your flag, but rather what I perceived to be your attitude towards it. (which matters, because otherwise the flag's just a piece of cloth.)

小肥与阿宝 said...

I've got to agree with Mrs Wang on the last point. I think the NDP has been blown out of proportion. The Chinese daily put out the "Figures of NDP" some days ago, stating the amount expended in various categories such as meals and goodie bags. The figures point to an indecently huge amount of money spent.

Call me a cynic, but to me these parades are at best a showcase of diverse talents and, at worst, cheesy (and may I add juvenile as well) slap sticks of the same old stories re-told, over and over and over again. Do people not ever get sick of these stories? I did watch the just-over NDP, where, horror of horrors, military and civil defence personnel charged out of their vehicles to POSE for less than ten seconds before retreating the way an orchestra conductor would bow to his audience prior to exiting the stage, and who can forgive the joke made out of soldiers branding rifles and milling their way through the civilians? In the army, the number one rule governing the use of the rifle is you are never to point it at anyone except your enemy! Even if the rifles used in the parade were not the real stuff, it is just so wrong. It really made me wonder aloud: just what is the grand point of this all?


Recruit Ong said...

The reason nationalism is not going to go away is becos of National Service. Male Sgians must continue to do National Service blindly without realising they are being exploited and marginalised by foreigners and the FT policy.

Anonymous said...

I teach in a Montessori school in NZ. When the children want to make a flag of any nationality , we emphasise that it's not just a colouring activity. We follow the colours on the actual flag. We explain that it represents a nation of people and that the people there would be very sad if we did not respect their flag by choosing our own colours. By that token , I believe throwing away a flag is disrespectful to the people, regardless of how we feel about the ruling party. Just my perspective. Thanks for your honesty and candid posts Mr Wang.

Liquidfuel said...

A flag is just a symbol. And Mrs Wang is true to her nature - a pragmatic Singaporean. Just as the government is a pragmatic government implementing pragmatic policies.

And Singaporeans are unique in the fact that many don't give a damn about it.

Just check out the number of flags strewn on the floor after National Day parade.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

LOL - Happy Anachronism Day.

And now - back to our normal programming. Questions, questions -

1. What do you do, if you have gotten a free, unsolicited national flag every year, for the past 10 years? Keep them all?

2. What is the intrinsic difference between (a) throwing away a flag, and (b) stuffing it into a rarely-opened drawer and leaving it there for years? Apart from the fact that (b) takes up space.

As the years pass, I do have more and more difficulty thinking of Singapore as a nation. I've alluded to this before, in previous posts. Perhaps that is why I have difficulty seeing the flag as imbued with any special significance.

Think about what a "nation" means, and you'll see that by most traditional notions of "nationhood", Singapore is, well, doing very poorly. See the third definition of "nationhood" here:

"A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language"

Then think of all the people who live on Singapore (foreigners, old citizens and new citizens). We really DON'T share very much in terms of common customs, origins, history or language.

The history is short; few traditional customs survive (we do have a couple of odd new ones such as using tissue paper packets to chope seats in hawker centres); languages/dialects have basically been destroyed or promoted according to the wishes of a few powerful politicians.

Ironically, I saw today in my constituency a big billboard where the backdrop is the national flag, and the foreground shows the image of the five PAP MPs of my GRC constituency. If you look at the legislation, quite arguably it is actually a criminal offence to present the flag like that.

"No graphics or words are permitted to be superimposed on the design of the Flag."

Oh, but then they are from the PAP, so it should be ok. Besides they deserve to be allowed to associate themselves with the national flag, don't they? They're not Opposition politicians, after all.

小肥与阿宝 said...

I served NS only because I was required by law to do so. Likewise, I have returned every year for ICT without fail. Does that make me a true patriot? If we ever go to war, I am not sure if I would fight with my soul and heart to protect this land, whose identity I, like some of the readers who have said here or before, have found harder and harder to be in sync with. For one, I do hope to be able to find work overseas some day and to perhaps explore the possibility of living long term elsewhere. But that is another issue altogether.

I display the flag only because it is National Day. Can I let it continue to look passer-bys in the eye the year in and out? If memory serves me right, it is an offence to not take down the flag after 31 Aug each year.

I love my President and the First Lady, for they are the emblems of our nation, but can I request for their portraits to be hung on a wall of my living room the way government offices do?

Talking about billboards, why do political parties even need to advertise themselves that way? Should it not be their supporters doing it to celebrate their idols, with an addendum stating things such as "Contributed by residents of XYZ Constituency in appreciation of their MPs", much like the Chinese arches of virtue?

I am afraid I have sounded rather trivial, but my question is does patriotism need to be explicitly displayed and if such displays actually point to any true allegiance to the nation?

In the same vein, does the raising of the National Flag, the singing of the National Anthem and the recitation of The Pledge in schools every morning really mean anything to the young? Of course, some will say it is up to the teachers to explore the purpose with their students, but just how far should one have to go? Does singing the Anthem loudly and clearly and with pride show you are loyal and patriotic? Likewise, if you do not sing it, does that make you less loyal? In any case, what makes one patriotic is as subjective as what makes for a good movie.

In all, state symbols are nothing but, yes, symbols if we do not live up to what they encompass.

Anonymous said...

Some 20+ years ago, the US supreme court ruled on cases of flag burning.

Have a look at the judgements of the supreme court judges and compare to our interpretation and legislation on how our flag should be treated.

If the flag is "speech", then what we have happening in Singapore is typical of "speech" in Singapore, isn't it?

Or shall we say, "no speech"?

Or more accurately, "correct speech". Defined by ......?

In that sense, our laws and non-chalant attitudes towards the flag are not wrong. Oh, I don't mean "wrong" as in "morally wrong". I mean "wrong" as in "inaccurate". They all point towards the same conclusion. Same pattern. Same thought. Dead accurate.

Anonymous said...

The proper way of "disposing" a flag is to bring it to the community center. Is that too difficult?

Anonymous said...

While LKY was PM, I looked upon the Sg flag with pride. And sang Majulah Singapura in my heart. I loved my country. Then when LKY became SM, I sang the song no more as I began to feel we were changing into a corporation. I cannot accept the idea of a nation being run by a BOD who are virtually self elect. So no feelings for the flag as it is the symbol only. Besides it symbolises a political party now.
I am a proud Singaporean who worked hard and feel proud of the Singapore in my heart. Not proud of Sg Inc and the 5 stars printed on a strip of red anymore.
I am a scratcher turning 62.
Thanks Mr Wang for your blog

Henry Leong said...

It's good that you blog more about environmental issues, now a day it seem that the weather conditions is freaky.

With the industrialisation of China and India, imagine 2 billions people change the habits and their impact on the environment.

China when everywhere around the world the secure more sources of commodities and minerals.

More englightening ideas needed to offset the air pollution, as it will have a serious implications on everyone of us in the future.

A serious discussion will be needed.

Anonymous said...

I love Singapore. Rather, I loved the sense of belonging, togetherness and pure simple pride that I hold that red passport so I am supreme in my own land. That secure feeling is no more.

More and more, I am told by those I (did not get to) elect that foreigners have the same rights in my nation. That I must reach out to them first, even when idiots write letters caliming their right to feeling superior than me in my own country. These very people also tell me, in the media, that foreigners are smarter than my kids, but never released data on how many % of them really excel. Percentage is more telling than "20 non-Singaporean kids made it better than you". How many rotten potatoes did we unearthed, along with 20 pieces of jade stone?

I no longer believe in this "fair" system. 1/3 of my annual work plans are disrupted by "duties to the nation" through ICT and IPPT, RT, and the foreigners must get "equal footing", minus these costs, of course.

Foreigners have every right to threathen to "uproot" if we do not give them what "other countries are giving". Mercenaries are what we have imported, I see. One day, we will die by their swords, stuck on our backs, while we are defending them, and shedding tears over duty lost to our families, which has to be provied by (but explicitly told not) this nation we build.

Anonymous said...

"The proper way of "disposing" a flag is to bring it to the community center. Is that too difficult? "


And when the community centre have 10,000 pcs of unwanted flags after National Day, what do you think they will do with it?

Think they have space for so many flags? Think the flags can last 1 year without turning yellow or attracting moulds, mildews, lizard droppings, moths etc?

This issue that disposing the flag privately into the rubbish bin or recycle as a rag cloth (which I think is more environmentally friendly) is disrespectful is over-hyped. These are private acts and should not be seen as anything but small private inconsequential acts of convenience.

We may as well say if we do not sing the national anthem everyday in our own home, it shows we have no loyalty and respect to the country.

Anonymous said...


I have been wondering about this question for a few days already...

Do Sgeans love the NDP because of Patriotism OR the Fireworks display?

Anonymous said...

May I add that the free goodies bags must have made many a Singaporean patriotic at least for a day !

Anonymous said...

National Day is a non-event for me unfortunately... because it doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean you love or don't love your country, your flag, political party, whatever. But it's a holiday!

What do u guys think the Ministers do with their National Flags? I'm sure they have many by now. Do they keep them nicely in their drawers or do they just pass the burden to their staff so that they don't have to think twice about it? Haha you have to wonder about their level of patriotism when you need to be paid so much money to serve your country.

Anonymous said...

actually you can dispose of the flag just by folding it and wrapping in a black trash bag before disposing of it, no need to bring it to a cc

Anonymous said...

Let me guess what happens if you try to "dispose" of your flag by taking it to the CC. The authorities will take down your IC number and make you fill up a form explaining why you do not wish to be in possession of our national symbol. They will then notify the police and ISD, who will run your personal info through a database of known terrorists and illegal immigrants. If the database search turns up empty, they will then ADD you to the database. They will then charge you with a nebulous offense like "intentionally causing unrest by an act of civil disobedience". You will be found guilty by a judge, and be sentenced to do CWO at Marina Bay by picking up trash after the NDP.

I'd say... just throw the flag down the rubbish chute...

sandy said...

Better to delete the part about someone throwing the flag down the rubbish chute. The police can get one into trouble for "disrepect" to the national flag. No joke.