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The importance of depoliticised patriotism

By Benedict Chong

Real patriotism is a willingness to challenge the government when it's wrong. ~ Ron Paul

That human beings are social creatures is a fact long established in the fields of social theory and anthropology. It is only human to desire a sense of belonging, be part of a larger group, to identify with something, and where possible, work together for a purpose. These social groups can take various forms but the most important group of all is one almost every human being is a part of – the modern state and country.

In a globalised world with unprecedented connectivity and means of transportations, change is the only constant where a country’s demographics are concerned.  Whether the reasons for individual relocations are economic or otherwise, governments will seek to control immigration with extensive border policies, the degree depending on a state’s needs as determined by their respective governments.

With regards to emigration, governments will attempt to control/deter the outflow of talent with various policies such as expatriation taxes. Governments will also appeal to the remaining productive workers to stay while commonly referencing patriotism and their respective family roots. But while science of family roots is an a priori concept since most people are born into a family, what is patriotism?

George Orwell, author of the dystopian yet highly prescient book 1984,differentiated nationalism and patriotism in an essay published in 1945. He ascribes patriotism as “a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Patriotism is thus an intangible sentiment without quantifiable values and with broad applications.

Due to its all-encompassing nature, the term “patriotism” has been regularly hijacked by politicians to entail subservience to both state and government, not devotion towards the country as originally interpreted. In the US, the  “unpatriotic”adjective has been repeatedly and incessantly used to describe the offshoring actions of American companies.

Such “unpatriotic” rhetoric by politicians is also meant to divert public attention from their mishandling of the economy, mismanagements which in fact caused these companies to relocate in the first place. Factually speaking, elected officials can themselves be labelled unpatriotic for their inability and/or unwillingness to overhaul the national tax system and de-bureaucratise the regulatory environment towards a more business friendly approach.

American companies are arguably shifting overseas not to desirously show a lack of patriotism but because it makes business sense. Archaic tax systems and draconian regulatory environment have escalated compliance costs to such an extent that financial bottom lines are starting to take severe hits.

A recently de-classified transcript of a legal tussle between Yahoo and the Federal Government highlights one contentious point. While governments are publicly trumpeting their intentions to protect and secure consumer privacy by regulating private businesses, they morph into the true intruders. In an incredible reversal of roles, private businesses are going out of their ways to protect the privacy and security of their consumers’ from state intrusion.

In Singapore, expressions of ‘patriotism’ are most apparent during the National Day period. Arrays of state colours are adorned on public housing blocks and lined along the roadways. Military marches during NDP also accentuate such feelings, with large concurrent assemblies in the country for the sole purpose of state (government) idolatry.

It is here where the differences between true and politicized patriotism are laid bare. While true patriotism takes the form of spontaneously organised rallies and assemblies, private parties and artistic compositions, state-directed patriotism takes that of military marches and a near-total corporatisation of Independence Day.

In addition, military parades are a display of government force and seeing spectators celebrate such exhibitions enthusiastically can only be diagnosed as cognitive dissonance (CD). Are we celebrating a show of force or the anniversary of Singapore’s independence? The ignorance of such distinctions also resulted in many a youth facing no discomfort from CD despite having to forcefully serve National Service in their prime years to combat a hypothetical and non-existent enemy.

A recent lamentation by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on the “loosening” of bonds between the government and people is another stark example of incoherent logic. His attempt at drawing parallels between parenting and governance should be met with immediate disbelief and scepticism. For instance, few individuals have parents who force them to contribute a monthly percentage of their incomes to a national fund (CPF) at the figurative point of a gun.

Minister Goh had then proceeded to deplore the constant criticisms faced by the government when it came to state policies, calling instead for people to “love them” as they would their parents. But this article will argue that it is only patriotic to criticise and vigorously oppose errant state policies.

Policies such as the banning of a locally themed historical film, the pulping of apparently LBGT themed books and wastage of public funds are indeed detrimental to the ‘health’ of the country. To acknowledge a misdeed and do nothing is unpatriotic, though state officials will typically beg to differ and charge activists with treason or proceed to claim libel damages.

John Hornberger, founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation, once said that “the true patriot scrutinizes the actions of his own government with unceasing vigilance. And when his government violates the morality and rightness associated with principles of individual freedom and private property, he immediately rises in opposition to his government.”

However, this does not imply voting out the incumbent party during the next democratic election in favour of opposition parties. Voting in another party in Singapore’s context will only replace one problem with another since most political parties in Singapore are cut from the same cloth.

The primary goal should rather be the edification of people (self or otherwise) to discern the morally correct from that which is wrong. Only then, will this country have an enlightened population able to pursue the changes required for a liberal society. For a start, emphasis should be placed on private self-determination while sanctifying the right to personal liberty and individual freedom based on a non-aggression axiom.

Patriotism has often been directed by the state to look outwards for fear of external threats. But the greatest threat comes from within. Perhaps, now is the time to look inwards and guard against a more ominous threat emanating from the pervasive power of the state and government. Without patriots to defend the borders of freedom and liberty, our homes will never truly be our own.