Sunday, August 09, 2009

National Day Parade = a military parade?

As I was watching the National Day Parade earlier on TV just now, I cannot but be reminded, especially by the segment in which a "terrorist attack" was resolved, of an academic article a friend of mine referred me to several months ago.

Specifically, I was reminded of the following passages from "Consuming the Nation: National Day Parades in Singapore" by Dr. Lawrence Leong, which was published in 2001 in the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies...

By far the most significant part of National Day celebration is the parade, significant in terms of the numbers involved, visual spectacle, media focus and extent of preparation. And the parade is overwhelmingly military in emphasis. Indeed, all National Day parades have been a military enterprise, planned annually by colonels and lieutenant-colonels, led by sergeant majors, marched, staged, performed and de-staged by soldiers. Even the glossy souvenir programme is produced by the Ministry of Defence.

The sequence of each National Day parade follows the logic of military protocol: a school choir sings; hundreds of provost guards march; ministers arrive; spectators stand as the prime minister appears; guards salute as the president arrives with a fanfare; the national anthem is played; the president inspects the guards; the show begins with gun salutes, military stunts, fly-past, drive-past, and march-past. In this schema, the highlights are always some military display, while civilians and students trail behind in the last half-hour of floats, show and dance.

Artillery units and armoured regiments rumble the streets with their tanks, mortars, guns, missiles, armoured vehicles and jeeps. In the 1990 drivepast, there were 250 vehicles from the army, police and defence forces. Here there is a demonstration of the state’s monopoly of force. The military emphasis of the parade dramatizes the power dimension of the state, particularly with reference to violence.

Although a sense of oneness is promulgated in the celebration of Singapore’s National Day, the parade institutionalizes separation and hierarchy. The ritual dramatizes roles in clearly differentiated ways: there are officials, participants and spectators. Officials and authorities are not the participants in the marching contingents or the dancing troupes. They are the reviewers, and their position of dominance is marked off from subordinates by an elevated position or platform from which they can look down upon people and comfortably observe the event. And within this viewing stand, there are finer distinctions of status and power spatially given in the seating arrangements.

If the parade were a carnival, the distinctions between reviewer, spectator and contingent would either dissolve or be reversed. If it were a festival, there would not be any clear line between participant and observer.

Clearly, the National Day parade is not a fiesta of the masses, but a display of power and dramatization of hierarchy. Whereas a carnival or festival is a fluctuating and diffuse nucleus of individuals who enter and leave as they please, the National Day parade is a centralised unit ordered and orchestrated temporally from beginning to end and spatially from one corner of the stadium to another.

The rigid hierarchy of the event is further exemplified by the rank-order of the marching contingents: commando battalions, infantry regiments, police force, civil defence brigades, and uniformed school groups (national cadet corps, national police cadet corps). The uniformed school groups are miniature versions of the defence forces. Throughout the parade, the music played is militaristic: infantry brass bands, school military bands and police pipers. The civilian contingents tend to be represented mostly by civil servants and statutory board employees. Private organizations are led by males who are identified by their military designation as reservists.

The military drill and march symbolize the nation in its orderliness, discipline and obedience under a controlling center. In the parade, everyone has to obey the commands of the grand marshal, everything has to be coordinated, every soldier must march or move in turn with the music, following choreographed steps and sequences. Their unique identities submerged and drowned in uniform, the soldiers assume the psyche of a collective conscience as they parade in a series of formations that are artfully coordinated.

The militaristic elements, the rank-ordered hierarchy, and the orderliness and regimentation of the event render the National Day parade similar to the May Day ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square before the Kremlin, Nazi Germany’s military processions, and official rituals in Beijing, Hanoi and Vientiane under communist rule (Scott 1990: 58). In Scott’s aptly-phrased words, the parade is:

"a living tableau of centralized discipline and control. Its logic assumes, by definition, a unified intelligence at the center which directs all movements of the “body” ... The leaders stand above and to the side while, at their direction, their subordinates, ranged in order of precedence from most to least, marching in the same direction and in time to the same music, pass by in review. In its entirety, the scene visibly and forcibly conveys unity and discipline under a single purposeful authority. ... Any evidence of the disorder, divisions, indiscipline, and of everyday informality is banished from the public stage (Scott 1990: 60)"

The resemblance of Singapore’s National Day parades to state rituals in fascist and communist regimes is in large part a consequence of the military dominance of the parade. The military presence has been clearly felt since the first anniversary of Singapore’s independence when the theme was ‘national pride and confidence in the future’ (1966). Militarization has continued to be tied up with the themes of subsequent anniversaries: ‘rugged and vigorous Singapore’ (1967), ‘youth and ruggedness’ (1968), ‘work for security and prosperity’ (1970), and ‘total defence’ (1985).

Why does the defence force occupy center stage in National Day parades? The answer to this question depends very much on the intended audience of such spectacles. Devashayam (1990: 50) argues that National Day represents a symbolic dialogue with Malaysia. In a sense, National Day in Singapore does not connote independence or liberation from colonial rule. The 9th of August 1965 was the day Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation. Given this inauspicious expulsion, the display of military might in National Day parades calls Malaysia’s bluff.

While boasting the strength of its weaponry and defence forces to neighbouring countries signals the viability of the Singaporean nation in the face of adversity, and conveys the message that Singapore is like a small but poisonous fish in the Southeast Asian seas, such military exhibitionism is also targeted to the local population, not only as visual entertainment of the Top Gun and Star Wars epic film variety, but also as reassurance of safety under the current political leadership. How far this reassurance is realistic or not is a moot point, but military exhibitionism usually indicates anxiety rather than security. It is precisely because Singaporeans are still not courteous that courtesy campaigns have been waged for more than twenty years to drum into people the need for behavioural change. So too, thirty years of annual displays of the defence forces serve to instill confidence where this is waning or lacking.

In sum, the militarization of National Day parades renders the parade a ritual of power and hierarchy, dramatizes the state’s monopoly of force, personifies the nation by underscoring values of order, discipline and regimentation, and reassures the populace in the face of anxiety...

For those of you all interested to read the article in its entirety, you all may refer to here.

And here's wishing you all a Happy 44th National Day!


Anonymous said...

The academic article was spot on. I'm glad more Singaporeans are waking up to the propaganda BS that is the annual NDP. I woke up many years ago when the childhood novelty of the fireworks and military pomp wore off.

I would also like to add that the NDP provides employment to many people: the performers, the backstage planners, the logistics folks, both civilian and military. Don't forget the cheap, exploited labour from the conscripts and the numerous burnt weekends for rehearsals.

Don't forget about the parade commander: his military career depends on the damn thing. Screw up and there goes his promotion.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for providing the full article. It shows Leong Wai Teng at his best! Love sociology of Singapore society!

PanzerGrenadier said...

The conscription of both active and reservists for NDP is one of the most wasteful use of human resources.

My fellow NSmen in my reservist battalion had to take part in one of the NDP marching contingents and they served more ICTs than the rest of us (i.e. more than the 7 high key and 3 low key) as many weekends were burnt for NDP.

Majullah Singapura.

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