Waving a Singapore Flag during the National Day Parade (Photo by Square Box Photos from Shutterstock).

Sparking joy and fearing shame: The irony of Singapore’s National Day parade

by James Leong

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. NDP is the biggest party by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and the organisers make sure we know it. My ex-classmate was one of the 25,000 spectators who knows this and even towed his newly married Canadian wife to the parade so he could show Singapore off.

But there are many who don’t attend nor watch the NDP. Fear of crowds? Unimpressed by the same old, same old but enhanced storyline? Or have they simply stopped believing? Nonetheless, there’s no denying the NDP hype lives on, so much so that many ballots 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 ok 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 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 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 finally climaxes as fireworks explode into the night sky followed by gasps of awe. NDP is the birthplace of belonging and acceptance and transforms Singapore into heaven on earth.

But where is a 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 HDB flats, we are reminded how HDB and upgrading are already heavily subsidised.

On frustrations of the rising costs of living, we are told there is still a need to raise GST because there is a gap despite our reserves doubling, and we should just use public Wifi. And when we actually do well, we are reminded not to get complacent but to strive even harder. In a recent case of Singaporean Suriia, whose wife is suffering from late-stage cancer, desperate pleas for the CPF board to allow him to transfer his savings to save his wife were turned down because they are under 55.

Singapore’s best hope for the gold medal was dashed when runner Soh Rui Yong was excluded from the coming Philippines SEA Games, after ruffling the feathers of the Singapore National Olympic Council.

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 “kia-su-ism” really be the fear of being ridiculed and shamed?

I find 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 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

Despite the disconnect, the NDP will continue to endear. This song could surpass Home, the fireworks 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 NDP to show some of that love, belonging and acceptance to the rest of the year too.

Happy 54th Birthday, Singapore!

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