Friday, September 18, 2009

The Singapore NDP: A National Day or 'Naughty Diva' Parade?

By now, I think I can claim to be a bit of a Singapore National Day Parade (NDP) connoisseur. The NDP features right at the conclusion of the Singapore History Gallery of NMS in a video installation using that old favourite of exhibition designers ('they're simple and never fail') – mirrors. For a while, the curatorial team, the designers and myself had been stuck for an ending to this gallery and then a friend showed me a documentary called A State of Mind about North Korea's Mass Games. The idea for a visual tour through 40 years of NDPs stuck and we took the treatment – which I'd entitled 'Rites of the Nation' – to local filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who agreed to make it.

Eventually, Pin Pin's film explored a much broader emotional range than I'd expected and it also brought out how much has remained the same in the NDP as well as how much has changed over time. (Although, for an example of Singapore's transition from state-led socialism to state-led consumerism, compare the earlier massed industrial workers carrying hammers and other tools to the later floats featuring bodybuilders modelling the latest lime-green Lycra.)

In my work with Yu-Mei on Singapore: A Biography, the NDP also crops up: it features in the Epilogue to the book and we also trace some of its historical antecedents back to the Japanese Occupation and even earlier to the Royal Visit of 1901 (for more on this, go buy the book!).

The point is, after the former NMS curator Cheryl-Ann Low and Pin Pin herself, I've probably watched footage of more NDPs than anyone I know. And what has struck me about the last decade of NDPs is how gloriously CAMP they've become. In particular, Glen Goei's efforts as Creative Director seemed to fully explore Singapore as a 'Rainbow Nation' in every way.

But surely this year's NDP – a disco-diva celebration of nationhood – took the biscuit! Sure, I tuned in after all the macho, military display (which itself can always be given an alternative reading). All the same, wasn't this NDP rather subversive? I can't have been the only one who clocked the Big Brother eye looking down us at all. But did I really hear, in a nation that still ranks 151st out of 195 nations in terms of press freedom, a small girl vowing to defend Singapore's 'freedom of expression'? Moreover, in a country where (unlike Albania) homosexual sex remains illegal, were those really inflatable pink hearts that the Cabinet and Prime Minister were waving?

My mother-in-law felt I was reading too much into things, but then when the credits rolled I discovered that both Ivan Heng and Alfian Sa'at were the creative minds behind this camp masterpiece. (If you don't know who either is, try Googling them - they both have extensive resumes as dissident voices.) Anyway, this got me thinking about the whole question of dissent in Singapore and whether the brains behind this year's NDP could be seen as belonging to a longer historical tradition of what I call embedded Singaporean dissent.

If you'd like to hear me waffle on some more about this topic then do come to a talk I'm giving at the National Museum of Singapore on 24 October at 2 pm, entitled 'Heroes, Villains and Ordinary Citizens: A short history of Singaporean dissent'.

For further details and registration info, see the National Museum website (or click on the image above).

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