Nationalism: The word that is everything and yet nothing in Singapore

January 6, 2011

As the General election inches nearer with each passing day one thing is sure to follow in its wake – political parties vying to pitch their case for “a better Singapore” will be preoccupied with crafting ever more inventive ways of shaking up the average apathetic Singaporean from their stupor – some may resort to the apparatus of mass assimilation such as the juggernaut MSM; others will leverage on the wonder weapon of the new media through blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

But as all these political actors jockey to get their message across to electorate – one things remains palpably clear – and the aphorism that best sums up this situation is to be found in Leo Tolstoy’s opening lines in Anna Karenina, 

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

That’s another cryptic way of saying that most families are dysfunctional to varying degrees possibly even downright insane and have little to offer except grief – but all of them despite their flaws insist, they have something valuable to offer in the way of holding out the promise of lastinghappiness.

That is at least how I see it. When it comes to how politics is conducted in Singapore.

Observation suggest this to be a truism –  as all the political actors seem to be pitching basically the same message – we will be happier if we all vote for them; this or that which rubs us the wrong way will be banished; the serpents head will be crushed; good will triumph over evil yada yada yada yada yada- granted, there may be subtle variances in terms of what points party A, B or C considers central to their manifesto and or what conditions must first be obtain before happiness can be mass produced before we can all make our way happily to the land of milk and honey – but when one takes a birds eye sweep of what’s really on offer, every political party without a single exception including the ruling party political hegemony are really only selling the same theme – a better tomorrow.

However what remains a cause of concern is how every political party vying for power seem to couch their message by appealing to our sense Nationalism and patriotism – the way I see that’s all well and fine, if what’s at stake is whether Singapore will win the next world cup –  the problem is when Nationalism is regularly invoked in the political discourse – then the first casualty is depth and breadth. And what we end up instead is at best sound bites that provides very little to the electorate to make an informed decision which party they should vote for.

One clue why politicians like to appeal to our sense of Nationalism may have something to do with how presenting solutions to solve the emerging problems of our age these days is getting more complicated. In this respect punctuating the political discourse with liberal lashings of Nationalism serves as an expedient means to convey a basket of appealing ideas without really having to elaborate further – never mind that it fails to inform; or worst, dilutes the seriousness of politics till it has very little to offer to those who may wish to enquire more in terms of details. I am not suggesting for one moment letting politicians ramble on necessarily produces a better or more informative political discourse. But what cannot be denied is whenever politicians regularly appeal to our sense of Nationalism – the danger is they end up aping the form without the content.

If you want prove of what I’ve just mentioned, then go down and check out what the Online Citizen claims to have organized recently as the political event of the year – which incidentally requires not only that you suspend disbelief or happen to be so open minded that your brains are spilling out; as in my assessment TOC’s “event of the year” has as much credence as claiming some sinkhole in Geylang to be the Grand Canyon or trying to sell the idea of a puddle as the Marina Bay – while palpably true that it may have been a feat in itself to get all the political factions except the PAP in one room – if you’ve watched fragments of the coverage, you know what happened. The political discourse came across as superficial and even broken, fragmentary even. You cant dispute at best it was a great diffusion of energy where it all came across as a compressed, dumber, and shriller political discourse, that offered very little. And though we may assign the blame for the advent of sound bite culture stems partly from a collapse in standards or seriousness that should ideally characterize sophisticated and independent styled politicking – what we may witnessing here instead may well be a hazard of how the digital medium fails as a platform as a means of conveying political aspirations to the masses – though much can be said about the wonders of technology, it’s spontaneity along with it’s seemigly long reach as a message goes viral – that same technology through Twitter-sized sound bites has led to a shorter, dumber and wafer thin political discourse. My point is politics wasn’t always that way and here we would do well to consider the limits of whether leveraging on technology is closer to perdition or salvation?

Wonder no more why TOC’s so called political event of the year was as informative as reading a Reader’s Digest version of War and Peace – if you are wondering why it all came across as a muddled collage that’s because that’s precisely what it is: a big nothing! But nonetheless, one theme seems to be reoccur time and again if you all noticed, that’s right, the appeal to our sense of Nationalism.

There are plenty of reasons to distrust sound bite Nationalism. And let me share with you why – for starters, we miss out on the variety and authenticity of hearing people speak at length, and in their own words. Short snippets I don’t deny may summarize issues, but they are at best vignettes and can never hope to provide the coverage of whole disquisitions. In summary, we are left none the wiser.

The perverse effect of what TOC may have succeeded in organizing may not be the political event of the year as it remains inconvertible proof how most political parties including the ruling hegemony are still leveraging heavily on nationalism along with the idea of patriotism, instead of really addressing the emerging challenges of our times.

For me I have nothing against nationalism or patriotism per se; infact, I happen to think its a good thing providing it doesn’t try to be something that it’s not intrinsically suited for – the main problem as I see it is when the idea of nationalism is taken out of context where it’s frequently used a raw material to mythologize so many other things which have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do whether one should vote for party A, B , C or the lunatic fringe – then it becomes a problem – and a casualty of that culture of trying to compress whole meanings into soundbites just creates the perfect conditions for confusion – in this sense when the party political process makes free use of nationalism it’s just evil. 

I understand its curious to hear someone label something as innocuous as nationalism evil – but that may be because you’re not really conscious that we are all hardwired to see ourselves in terms of an ongoing narratives – in this sense, Nationalism provides the perfect tabula rasa to sell any idea; in the same way ducks take to water, birds to the sky or how commercial airlines play blue danube to drown out the drone of ear shattering jet engines while soothing frayed nerves – to paraphrase they appeal to that homily sugary ideal deep in everyone of us. That idea is fine if you’re deciding whether to thousand island dressing to compliment your salad, but I am reminded politics is a serious enterprise that demands both rigor and depth –  and this is why the insidious creep of soundbite culture into politics lately is such a solvent – as all of us, including myself cannot help but find all the set pieces that make up the idea of Nationalism consoling and comforting – I suspect, one reason for its timeless allure lies in how it tugs at the heart strings of our primal desire to seek validation from the tribe and slaking our desire to belong and share a common vision with those we consider our community – this is an old story that goes all the way back to the time when our distant ancestors used to gather around a fire and look up at the starry night sky and listen to Shamans recount the mysteries of the world – to me its old dressed up as new; only these days instead of pelt drums, skulls and chicken feet – we have pyrotechnics, catchy tunes, endless spin doctoring and of course the Internet.

My point is simply this, it pays to be mindful of how our mind tends to take the course of least resistance (that could be one reason why I seem to find ever more inventive excuses not to wake up for my 5.00 am jog) and if possible even treat this predilection as la constation d’un fait (something that is so factually established that you could even consider it ingrained and factual i.e you cant make an omlete unless you are prepared to break eggs.

As I said earlier, I have nothing against Nationalism providing it is pitch in the right scale to lend an accurate perspective to the emerging challenges of our times. I am also reminded run away Nationalism can be oppressive and decadent trapping us in obsolete attitudes where instead of continually searching out for the truth; or at least keeping scrupulously close to the evidence to allow us to make an informed decision – run away Nationalism is none of these things. Instead it is a declaration of faith – and I say this of not only the ruling party political hegemony but also those who may form the opposition – for what they do when they play the Nationalist card is they commit the sin of omitting, bending, exaggerating and contorting the facts to produce a story that satisfies certain primal needs: to slake of sense of identity, to take pride in our card boardish a la Universal Studios heritage (which incidentally is closer to myth than fact).

If anything Nationalism is just a sobriquet term that takes a basket of desires, gripes and aspirations and muddle them to try and sell a hidden agenda to profit political parties that just didn’t bother to do their homework – wonder no more why its the preferred crowbar for crooked politicians to pitch their case to an unsuspecting electorate  – as not only do political aspirants know what buttons to press to pique our interest whenever they invoke the smoke and mirrors of Nationalism – but they even know how to sow the seeds of fear, anxiety and trepidation, along with selling us all the prescriptive cure.

In summary, its a con job!

What must be recognized from the onset is whenever the bullocart of Nationalism is rolled out; its primary aim is not to forward the truth but rather flesh out a crumbly pie in the sky narrative that serves to appeal to the primal instincts of the masses – hence the first order of the day if we are to fight against the pernicious influence of Nationalism masquerading as fact is to recognize it for what it is and to keep it absolutely separate from what’s trully precious and valuable, the truth.

Darkness 2011


“Tell me something Singaporedaddy, why does your tribe begin and end a conversation with the greeting, ‘long live the Brotherhood!”

“That’s an interesting question Al Khaleed old boy (Liaison officer of the Saffron route) perhaps its because none of us really quiet believes someone hasn’t shut us down yet.” 

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