13 August 2013

Time to ditch the NDP

First ever parade at the Padang Red Square

We bring to your attention Channelnewsasia's report on the 2013 Singapore National Day Parade, and its figure of 27,000 celebrants.

Figures on attendance and participation in previous years' NDPs have not been officially collated; nonetheless a rough gauge can be gleaned from the headlines and reports from The Straits Times. In 1966, the participant figure was 23,000. In 1969, 30,000. In 1986, it swelled to 70,000 at the National Stadium. In 1997, ST decided to report only on the spectators (as opposed to everyone at the NDP, including the contingent and performers), which they pegged at 60,000.

From these numbers, a few statistical observations emerge.

Singapore's population has increased from 1.65 million in 1966 to over 5 million in 2012. Yet the attendance at its National Day Parade appears to have plateaued on the eve of the Asian Financial Crisis and declined steadily since, and shrinking to early independence era numbers. As a percentage of total population, attendance figures haven't just returned to early independence era figures; they have plummeted far below that.

Despite the NDP being telecast on every free-to-air channel ever since its inception, the Media Development Authority and its predecessors do not publish viewership figures. We only have anecdotal reports that people have been tuning in to the NDP far less these days.

Since 2002, the cost of putting up the National Day Parade has increased almost every year. We're not certain if the punchline ought to be this: As fewer people (both absolute and as a percentage of total population) turn up each year to watch the NDP, the cost of the NDP has been going up (both absolute and per audience).

Ditch the NDP now, I say!

Why watch the NDP anyway?

People need to question why NDP has so much military hardware porn
"No need lah. It's the same every year." - anonymous

"My preoccupation wasn't the audience at the parade. They were the converted... It's actually the rest of the Singaporeans who are thinking, 'Ah, another propaganda event.'" - MP Chan Chun Sing

I have neglected to say that lower audience numbers may be due to declining interest -- or they could be the direct result of venue capacity, or due to an interaction between the two.

But to read MP Chan Chun Sing's thoughts on his 2009 parade, one might come to the idea that the SAF possesses statistics which show a steady tapering off in the numbers of "the converted" which predates the New Normal. But why?

It can't be because the NDP is the same every year. The NDP has to be the same every year. You'll agree too if you see it as a secular ritual commemorating nothing less than the State itself. The ritual serves to recreate the social and political order in mystical and symbolic terms, to reify the official narrative(s) (Singapore: from fishing village to cosmopolis and nation, for example) as a spectacle, an assault on the senses, ready to be consumed by awed and numbed citizen-units whose sole contribution is to stand up to sing the year's NDP song (which fails as a patriotic song if it can't be sung in unison by a crowd).

The sequence of each National Day parade follows the logic of military
protocol: a school choir sings; hundreds of provost guards march; ministers
arrive; spectators stand as the prime minister appears; guards salute as the
president arrives with a fanfare; the national anthem is played; the president
inspects the guards; the show begins with gun salutes, military stunts, fly-past, drive-past, and march-past.

- Leong Wai Teng, "Consuming the nation: National Day Parades in Singapore", New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 2 (December, 2001): 5-16.

Well-travelled observers will no doubt seize on the striking similarities between the military pornography, authoritarian fetish, and spectacle addiction of Singapore's NDP to similar displays in Soviet Russia, the DPRK, and other post-communist relics of the world.

If there is a gradual but terminal decline in interest in Singapore's NDP, it can only be a symptom of a far greater malaise; it could very well be that Singapore has come of age, that top-down secular rituals, mass displays, the performance of grand national narratives are no longer effective means of directing a people towards a shared national consciousness. Perhaps, if the NDP planning committee were sharp and farsighted enough, they'd be asking what kind of national consciousness we'd get if they applied a bottom-up approach instead.

I still won't watch an NDP but I'd watch this

Oh look, even the Russians do reenactment spectacles these days

If the priestess of Ise were in charge of the NDP planning committee, I'd scrap the NDP entirely. Its time has come and gone.

Instead, I will give you a non-NDP, an anti-NDP. Imagine from dawn till dusk, several roving camera teams tasked to find out how people are spending their 9 August. As you tune in over the day, you'll see actual people, actual events actually happening right now on national day...

In Singapore, with Singaporeans working (or having a rest), celebrating (or refusing to, or celebrating something else entirely), taking a break from life or having to deal with life. Singaporean citizens and PRs, FTs and tourists. We'd watch Gilbert Goh's Hong Lim Park celebration, fly to the Botanic Gardens for the Pink Picnic...

Outside Singapore: emigres, expats, exiles. Former guest workers now back in their home countries or working elsewhere.

We'll see the aged grandmother who still needs to sell tissue on National Day, the foreign maid who used to work in Singapore on a pittance, a group of ah bengs hanging out at AMK Central spoiling for a fight, a fever-wracked middle class, middle age man desperate to find a clinic open on National Day. We'll hear from the ra-ra patriots, and maybe say hi to Francis Seow and Tan Wah Piow after all these years.

Imagine all this, in 5 minute segments. It'll be quite literally one Singapore, many stories. And it will be truth in advertising. And I'd watch that.

03 August 2013

The total hypocrisy of Ng Eng Hen on Total Defence

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr goofing around on a US tour.
This is also the image Ng Eng Hen evokes in his speech.

When one takes into account other social engineering campaigns in Singapore, Total Defence seems to have fared not too shabbily. For one, it hasn't been discarded as a policy failure like population control's "Stop at two", derided as horribly deluded like the moral panic infused campaigns against long hair and rock and roll, or treated as benignly irrelevant like the courtesy/kindness campaign and its beleaguered former mascot, which 'announced' its 'retirement' earlier last month.

One cannot blame Singapore leadership's attempt to keep relevant the Total Defence campaign. There might be a bit of inevitable eye-rolling at the laboured DRUMS acronym Ng employed to highlight the threat of misinformation on the internet. It would be churlish to claim that the entire social-psychological positioning of Total Defence is to instill an atmosphere of paranoia ever-readiness in the population, yet this is precisely the riposte of the blogosphere to minister Ng Eng Hen's recent speech on the online threats to Total Defence.

Even I would find it hard to disagree with the defence minister that a campaign of misinformation may bring a nation down on its knees. One would not need to be a student of Clausewitz, Napoleon, Sun Tze, or Soviet Maskirovka to realise that armies have indeed been brought down by disinformation and deception.

No, silly! You can't really bring down a country with disinformation these days

Granted, the minister's speechwriters have not caught up with the idea that modern democracies are not armies. The benefit of an open, mature democracy is its vibrant, free media, whose professional ethics, ideals, and competing political positionings will enable writers and readers to expose manipulations and untruths in any single disinformation campaign.

If the minister were serious about Total Informational Defence, he would be the first to urge Minilee and the MDA to free the internet, to free government control of Singapore's print media, to repeal the infamous Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. In a mature democracy with a robust, open media market, it is nigh impossible to spread disinformation.

Indeed in the modern day, disinformation campaigns are more a tool of authoritarian governments with unfree presses to influence domestic opinion. To which the priestess of Ise will give the same advice: the Total Defence of the citizenry in an authoritarian state depend on having a strong and free press - digital and print.

Ng Eng Hen: Still the wrong man for the job

One hopes perhaps that the amorphous blogosphere and its horde of angry commentators simply reacted this way against Ng because he is the wrong man for the job.

Perhaps netizens do remember that under Ng Eng Hen, the Ministry of Manpower massaged statistics to give the impression of a lower unemployment rate - and was caught out on it by none other than the Financial Times.

Our more perspicacious readers will recall in 2009, ST reporter Li Xueying's reports of Ng Eng Hen heading the PAP's New Media committee to "mount a quiet counter-insurgency" to counter criticism of the party and government in cyberspace - using PAP members and operatives masquerading as members of the public to engage in online forums. They may do well to note that social media professor Kevin Lim called the campaign an astroturf operation. We wonder if the current crop of "Internet Brigades" on facebook are the current face of that very same counter-insurgency whose mendacious actions seem to have written the manual on DRUMS.

Having overseen such disinformation operations (some of which are still ongoing) himself at the Manpower ministry and the PAP New Media counter-insurgency, Ng Eng Hen is the last person on earth who should deliver a lecture on how disinformation online can destroy a country. The blogosphere will NOT be lectured on disinformation, rumours, untruths, misinformation, and smears by this man. Not now, not ever.