Singapore is a harmonious multicultural nation, with advanced First World status. The main racial groups accept their cultural and religious diversities in peaceful co-existence. Social cohesion is achieved through shared values and negotiations. National identity is enforced by accepting English as a neutral administrative and commercial language; Malay as National, and together with Chinese and Tamil as four official languages. The medium of instruction is in Standard English, but pupils are allowed to learn their own mother tongue. It is secular and based on meritocracy, in word and deed, without discrimination of race and religion. In 1965, in the struggle for economic survival, the nation opens the door, with minimal restrictions, to capital flow and talent from all over the world. It advocates a technocratic nationalism above all, with elements of cosmopolitanism. However, due to demographic ratio, multiculturalism in Singapore is a social and geopolitical reality. It is not described a melting pot society, but as a salad bowl, in the sense of mixing together harmoniously without integration. The differences are negotiated in what to add or take away from the common bowl, and each fully aware of the other’s sensitivities. With that introduction we shall examine how the celebration of National Day and the singing of the anthem in Singapore Gaga fit into the image/scene of multiculturalism as stated.
Singapore Gaga is a documentary film (lasting fifty five minutes) of random vignettes, with the themes of sights and sounds/music, around the city state. In its meandering journey of shifting from one scene or performer to another, the viewer has to make the connections to reconstruct in the text in order to obtain an overall understanding and meaning of the film. In GaGa, we are shown the performances of avant-garde pianist, Margaret Tan, and shows of popular street vendor and other marginal art performers, Chinese dialects and Singlish proponents, Madrasah celebratory sports day with colourful tudong lad girls, and the noises of Serangoon in Little India of metropolitan Singapore. The marginal groups and the elderly feel they are neglected or abandoned, and are yearning to belong to this mixed pot, in the fast modernity of the nation. All these selected vignettes impact on the viewers the concept of what constitutes multicultural nationalism in Singapore. The fireworks at the start of the show, and Singapore Airline return flight from overseas to “home”, a global city, where citizens found their common identity.
Home to many Singaporeans meant born and bred locally, and 85% own and lived in HDB, but at least 20% were “foreigners”, and willingly stayed in relocated or recommended residences conducive for multicultural association. However, it is the grand spectacle of National Day parade and the singing of National Anthem by all races and ages at the stadium that take the citizens to an imagined multicultural community which declared as an independent nation. The nation as a historical and cultural construct has to be concretized for identification and shared belonging. The long queue for tickets (and miscellanies) for the spectacular show is a mark of law-fearing “patriotiism”, besides providing entertainment for the festive occasions. It is euphoric for all to observe, above the open sky of the stadium, military helicopters carrying the national flag, with the symbolism of red, white, crescent and stars. The sight of the military is to show the seriousness of the nation in protecting its multicultural society. The national anthem, “Onward Singapore”, blasts and calls for “fellow Singaporeans” to unite as one, despite theirdifferences. Large crowd of participants wear the same national colour of red and white, and the atmosphere of the festive is exuberant. A triumphant Khoo Swee Chow climbs an inflatable mountain to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Thunderous applause vibrates across the stadium, unaware of the artificiality and farce of the propaganda show .Despite being a small nation, the many “Tops” and superlatives are national symbolism of achievement and excellences. The visual images and soundscape of the carnival and the recital of National Pledge embody a collective sense of nationhood and pride to be Singaporean. Tan Pin Pin’s in Singapore Gaga listens to the sound of National Day parade and anthem in the attempt of fostering solidarity among Singapore’s mixed pot society. High cost is spent on orchestrating such grandiose state ritual to show national identity and solidarity. The significance of depicting this iconic scene is interpreted by critics to show the financial autocratic bureaucrats that it will appear ludicrous for the state to “manage” or stage national identity, without consideration that marginal views are of different perception and interpretation. Nationalism as depicted in the film is ambivalent. The sense of belonging and shared values must be seen in the context of spontaneity. High and low culture and binary opposites co-exist in society. Privileging one over the other is suppression and hegemony. Dialogue and consensus among different racial groups or interest groups will be conducive for multicultural understanding. The omniscience is not without social cost in a changing world with changing values. Past mistakes are made, such as blind imitation of western practices or ideas, for instance, the recorder is preferred over harmonica, even though it incurred lower cost for the state, and relatively easier for beginners of music to learn.
Willingness to listen to differences and the ability to negotiate diversities well will be wholesome for social cohesion. The “big” picture in Tan’s GaGa is exploring the social and political reality of nationalism in multicultural Singapore. The government and people will gain if they were willing to attune their ears and hearts to the sound/voice around them. Failure to attune to the “music” will be what Freddie Fender, in the voice of Melvyn Cedello, results in “Wasted Days and Nights”, with citizens left behind. In fact Tan has Cedello plays his music at the beginning and end of the film, in the walkway of MRT station. Victor Khoo and his Charlie, despite sixty years of public service as a ventriloquist (and spoke from his gut) is not honored. Gn Kok Lin, the clog and harmonica juggler, and Liang Yu Tao’s “one dollar” Singlish rendition are petty vendors but still citizens of the state, with same human rights. The significance of multiculturalism, shared diversities or re-negotiated differences, need to be seen in the context of a wider aural ecology that characterized Singapore as a global city, forever evolving to meet future demands.
(1060 words)

1. Laurence Wai-Teng Leong.(2001) Consuming The Nation: National Day Parades In Singapore.National University of Singapore New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 2: pg 5-16. 08-03-2014

2. Yawning Bread. (2006) The sounds we make, the questions they raise. Singapore. 08-03-2014

3. Berylpieces (2012) Singapore: Model of a Pluralistic, Multicultural Society? Cited 08-03-2014

4. Tan Yan Shen el al. (2013) T2d Melting Pot vs Multiculturalism.Wiki Home Cited 08-03-2014

5. Tan Pin Pin. (2006) Singapore GaGa Official Website. Objectisf Film. 08-03-2014
6. Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi. (2012) Documentary filmmaking, civil activism and the new media in Singapore The case of Martyn See Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia. Cultural Interpretation And Social Intervention. David Lim (Eds).USA.Rouledge.
7.See Kam Tan,Jeremy Fernando.(2007)Singapore, in Melte Hjort and duncan J.Petrie (eds).The Cinema of Small Nations. Edinburge University Press.127-143

NB My apology for not providing citation, though the references are cited

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