Sparking joy and fearing shame: The irony of Singapore's National Day Parade

American writer Mark Twain once wrote, “Dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s Heaven on Earth.”

This free-spirited, cast-your-care attitude hardly describes Singapore, but for just one day of the year it actually does – at the National Day Parade (NDP).

Singapore loves to show the world we can host events on a global scale, but we save the best for ourselves. The NDP is the biggest party by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and the organizers make sure we know it. My ex-classmate was one of the 25,000 spectators who knows this and even towed his new Canadian wife to the parade so he could show Singapore off.

But there are many who don’t attend or watch the NDP. Fear of crowds? Unimpressed by the same old, same old but enhanced story line? Or have they simply stopped believing? Nonetheless, there’s no denying the NDP hype lives on, so much so that many ballot for tickets just to watch the previews. So, all this got me thinking: "Is the NDP hype a form of patriotism we are embarrassed to admit, or is it just one big party of an excuse for family time?"

I think the answer is all of the above, but also in the unspoken. 

I am a media consultant and counsellor, which gives me ringside seats to the thinking behind strategic messaging but also its impact. I can’t think of any other event or occasion in Singapore than the NDP which elicits such unadulterated joy. Just listen to the lyrics of the most popular NDP theme song "Home," written by Dick Lee, which captures some of this joy:

Whenever I am feeling low 
I look around me and I know
There's a place that will stay within me

Can you see how the opening line already makes this song a winner? Singer Kit Chan tells us it’s perfectly alright to feel down. It’s okay to feel you are not enough because you are not alone and can always count on Singapore.

The NDP is that one evening of the year when we can truly celebrate our achievements, but also feel accepted and belonged, because Singapore is home truly and it’s where I know I must be. "Home" and the NDP celebrates our vulnerability and the courage to be imperfect.

All this is accompanied by a deep, warm voice describing our rise to economic success, set against the backdrop of military might, multimedia wizardry, and rousing songs on nation building. Then, it climaxes with fireworks exploding in the night sky, followed by gasps of awe. The NDP is the birthplace of belonging and acceptance, and transforms Singapore into heaven on earth.

 POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE. Singaporeans watch helicopters holding up the national flag on Singapore National Day.

But where is the sense of belonging and acceptance the rest of the year? Are there remnants of this joy or variants of it after the music dies, the fireworks fizzle out, and the realities of living in Singapore kick in? What emotions are evoked when the chips are down?

On complaints made against our unreliable national rail, we are told there is still a need to raise transport fares because it has financially burdened the operators and the government. On fears of the expiring 99-year lease on Housing Development Board (HBD) flats, we are reminded how HDB and upgrading is already heavily subsidized. On frustrations of the rising costs of living, we are told there is still a need to raise the Goods and Services Tax (GST) because there is a gap despite our reserves doubling, and we should just use public Wi-fi. And when we actually do well, we are reminded not to get complacent but to strive even harder. 

In the recent case of Singaporean Suriia, whose wife is suffering from late-stage cancer, desperate pleas for the Central Provident Fund (CPF) board to allow him to transfer his savings to save his wife were turned down because they are under 55.

The general motivation suggests prudence and pragmatism, but it also shames. Shame specialist Dr Brene Brown from the University of Texas defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging and acceptance. Brown says it’s hard for us to even talk about shame as there is no language for it, but it’s probably even harder in the Asian context of Singapore, where the pursuit of social class and keeping up with appearances are rampant.

The closest term to describe shame here is “kiasu-ism” or the fear to lose. Brown says that when we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished, or seen as flawed. Could "kiasu-ism" really be the fear of being ridiculed and shamed?

I found out later that my ex-classmate had another motive for attending the NDP. He was planning to sing his own song at the NDP – a swan song to be precise. He chose the NDP to capture his final Kodak moments of Singapore before packing up to Vancouver for good.

I think the NDP sparks joy, no questions asked, no strings attached, and everyone wants a piece of it.

This year’s NDP theme is “Our Singapore,” and it celebrates the collective ownership of the country. Its theme song is “Our Singapore,” also written by Dick Lee. I think it’s going to be another hit. As in "Home," you can find themes of vulnerability and acceptance in the opening line too:

It isn't easy building something out of nothing
Especially when the road ahead's a rocky one
But if we gather all our courage and conviction
And hold our dream up high
The challenge will be won

Filipino Claire Miranda and family are some of the many foreigners who once called Singapore home. She spent 13 years here and counted those days as one of the happiest seasons of her life before giving up her Permanent Resident status in 2013 to care for her ailing in-laws back in Manila. She explains, “I felt belonged and found sanctuary in Singapore’s infrastructure, but I now realize the work of making home is a partnership, and I wonder whether governments could inject some empathy in their nation-building efforts.” 

Despite the disconnect, the NDP will continue to endear. This song could surpass "Home," and the fireworks could outshine last year’s, driving even more to the NDP.  How could it not when all we want is to feel belonged and accepted – even if it’s for just one evening of the year? Many will wish for Singapore to stay strong and united, but my wish is simply for the NDP to show some of that love, belonging, and acceptance the rest of the year too.

Happy 54th Birthday, Singapore! – Rappler.com

Singaporean James Leong is a media consultant for the social service sector, as well as a counsellor who runs his own practice Listen Without Prejudice to address fear and anxiety in the Lion City.