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Can national symbols better rally Singaporeans?

07 Aug 2021

Straits Times, 7 Aug 2021, Can national symbols better rally Singaporeans?

Apart from their quality of football, Italian players during the European Football Championship this year were noted by fans worldwide for another admirable quality - the way they belted out their national anthem in unison.

Although their voices were drowned out by the shouts of hostile fans many times their number - some even took to booing - the players defiantly held their ground through the Il Canto degli Italiani, The Song Of The Italians.

Partly fired up by this boost to their adrenaline, they prevailed to win their second European title, setting Rome alight.

Sports is fertile ground for patriotism, as has been on show throughout the Tokyo Olympics.

The national anthem resounding throughout the stadium as the gold medallist takes the podium is a powerful moment. The national flag of the winning athlete also flies higher than those of other countries; in so light an object, so much weight.

But how can the national flag, now seen flying at Housing Board blocks and elsewhere across the nation as Singapore's 56th birthday approaches, retain its emotional significance in ordinary times?

Can it inspire in difficult moments, such as amid Covid-19?

A citizen workgroup first convened in January set out to explore this. After a debate lasting four months, it recommended to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth last month that national symbols be made more pervasive and more omnipresent in people's daily lives.

A piece of common feedback it received was that people had little opportunity to recite the national anthem or sing the national pledge after their schooling years.

The anthem is played at the annual National Day Parade (NDP) - which has been postponed to Aug 21 this year - but people still miss hearing it, Mr Benjamin Tan, 31, who is part of the workgroup and one of the creative producers of this year's NDP, told The Straits Times.

Retired history teacher Jensrani Thangavel, 65, has concrete proposals. She thinks grassroots organisations can incorporate the singing of the national anthem into their events, for example, by having participants sing it before they begin activities. There can even be routine quizzes, a roadshow or a national symbols week to push the images and tunes which represent Singapore to the fore of people's minds, she said.

Asked if the constant bombardment of national symbols might instead make encounters less special, both disagreed.

Mr Tan believes it is only through everyday interactions with national symbols that people can forge meaningful personal connections with them. These private meanings make the singing more emotional and the recital more heartfelt on a grand occasion like National Day.

Without these, he added, the attempt at top-down building of loyalty with a parade and celebrations falls flat. "It only works if people feel the symbols belong to them."

Madam Jensrani said encounters need not take place every day, and more interactions with national symbols can only be positive. "It is so that they don't lose touch."

More creative use
But increasing the volume of national symbols is only part of what the workgroup is proposing. It suggests that another way to build familiarity with national symbols is, ironically, to change their form.

One of its more exciting proposals involves the Government relooking how people can more creatively use national symbols. Examples include giving the national anthem another register, as rock icon Ramli Sarip did with his more soulful rendition in 2019, or incorporating the national flag into art works and commercial products.

It is a call to loosen the rules governing the use of national symbols that were already relaxed once last year, when the timeframe for people to display the flag was extended from its usual July 1 to Sept 30 period to April 25 to Sept 30.

The Government then said it was so people could use it as a rallying symbol during the tough months of Covid-19 curbs. The workgroup said this can be done again, and further relaxed so people are less apprehensive about using the symbols in everyday elements like in food, fashion, street art and new media.

Mr Syarifuddin Azhar Rosli, who at 25 is one of the youngest members in the workgroup, said it is time people were allowed to reinterpret national symbols to reflect what they mean to them - echoing Mr Tan's point about the significance of private, personal meanings.

"For my generation, the symbols were given to us. We inherited them," Mr Syarifuddin said. "We want to be given a chance to input our own meanings and redefine what these things mean."

For him, relationships with national symbols are not taught but experienced. Even among those who are older, he has found that certain symbols may resonate more.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design first-year student does active work with former offenders, and said that despite the formal meanings of the national anthem, it is the line "Dengan semangat yang baru", or "in a new spirit", that particularly speaks to them.

"It encapsulates their effort of reintegrating into society, and their focus on personal and family rebuilding," he said, adding that some of these connotations can be expressed if more creative uses of the national anthem were allowed.

Singapore Management University (SMU) Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan, a former Nominated MP, however, cautioned against a "slow descent into banal nationalism".

Any increase in usage must be matched by an increase in people's appreciation for the national symbols, without which the result may be that the values those symbols stand for are instead undermined.

"An example of a banal use would be the use of the national flag or state crest on mugs or clothing such as undergarments," he said.

"Even as the Government seeks new strategies of boosting patriotic sentiments, the constant, indiscriminate and distasteful flagging of the nation in our daily lives can also cheapen those symbols."

The workgroup is not recommending that national symbols be used unchecked. An online reporting platform can be set up to ensure dignified and proper use, it said.

Increase accessibility
A third way to increase the volume of national symbols is through increasing accessibility to them, in particular to text-based ones that might preclude communities unfamiliar with the language from accessing them.

The workgroup recommended that pledge-taking ceremonies in schools, National Day observance ceremonies and the National Day Parade be conducted in more official languages. Hand-signing should also be added to better include the hearing-impaired community, it said.

More can also be done to reach out to fringe communities, such as migrant communities and new citizens. The building of personal relationships with symbols should not be limited by language.

Currently, the pledge has English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil versions. The official version of the national anthem is in Malay, and there are translations of its lyrics in the other languages.

Ms Jensrani, who last taught in Fuhua Secondary School, said Tamil pledge-taking ceremonies were held despite there being very few Indian pupils. Beyond accessibility, its point is also symbolic as "it sends the message to Indian students that all races are equal".

"Singapore has four official languages, so we should also give importance to other languages. It might be hard for some schools to carry this out but it'd be good if they try," she said.

Nominated MP Mark Chay, who is chairman of the Singapore National Olympic Council's Athletes' Commission, said one additional area to focus on is tertiary institutions, who should increase their efforts in National Education.

He noted how when he was studying in the United States, he saw a sense of pride when people there spoke about their country.

"They sang the national anthem before every game and hung their flags everywhere. Maybe we need a more relatable and organic symbol, like the kangaroos with boxing gloves that Australian athletes carry around," he said. "Or maybe we just need more time."

For a young country now feeling slightly more distant from the memories of its founding, it remains to be seen if the workgroup's recommendations will be enough to keep interest in the national symbols high.

SMU's Prof Tan said this interest must be self-driven for it to be sustainable and genuine. Perhaps the best way to do so is to give more agency to Singaporeans so they feel a greater sense of ownership over the national symbols.

Through exposure, understanding and even reinterpretation, these symbols can stay relevant for the next 60 years, and more.