On the National Symbols Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

Mr Speaker sir, the National Symbols Bill makes several important changes. It provides formal statutory recognition to our National Symbols and seeks to clarify and broaden use of the National Symbols by Singaporeans to express national pride and solidarity.

The aim of this speech

I support the Bill as making meaningful and necessary changes. I shall focus my speech on the posture which I hope all stakeholders will take towards this law, not only in government, but also those in political parties, civil society groups and citizens at large. And that posture should be to use this law as a reference point for the work of galvanising awareness and respect for our nationhood amongst all citizens. All of us can and should be ambassadors and role models for this work, in ways both large and small.

The importance of symbols and of understanding them

Sir, this Bill is about national symbols. When people speak of something as symbolic, it sometimes means that it is less valuable and less important. Less important, perhaps, than material things – money, resources, healthcare, the proverbial bread and butter issues. The bread and butter issues that, in some narratives, Singaporean public life is fixated on.

Yet symbols matter.

The symbols of our nationhood should be viewed by all Singaporeans as precious. Why? Because they symbolize our hard-fought independence and our national sovereignity.  And why is our national sovereignity important? It is important because it is equivalent to our national freedom – our freedom to choose our destiny, as a people, through the institutions of our democratic society, the democratic society that our Pledge enjoins us to build.

Sir, it is my hope that our schools and other institutions educate the public about the meaning of our national symbols with this in mind. That these symbols are about our freedom. For example, it is said that Zubir Said, when he composed the National Anthem, thought of it as a kind of prayer to be uttered when Singapore attained independence. And here I would like to call for more efforts to be made to educate our people on the meaning of the National Anthem. It is sad that many citizens do not know the words or even what the words mean, simply referring to our anthem as “marikita.”

National Symbols as a unifying force regardless of political affiliation

Sir, our Pledge calls on all of us to be one people regardless of race, language and religion. Today I want to talk about how we should be one people regardless of political views and affiliation as well. Some may find this an uncomfortable subject to talk about in the context of a conversation about national symbols. But I think that this is an important point to make and expand on.

Sir, in my conversations with Singaporeans as an MP and previously as a Workers’ Party volunteer and before that a civil society activist, I have come across the view that displays of national symbols are associated with support for the ruling party, the Establishment, the status quo, however you want to define it. It is a view that has some currency, though much less today than it did in the past, from what I can tell.

In truth, I encounter this view less and less. And I can quite confidently say, from many conversations with Singaporeans, that displaying the flag is not associated with any particular political leaning. My Workers’ Party colleagues and I are incredibly proud to give out flags on National Day, as are members of this House from all parties. And I have met many wonderful Singaporeans who are true patriots who belong to multiple political parties.

I have also encountered the view in some quarters that, if one is a Singaporean who disagrees intensely with some aspects of government policy, or the design of political institutions, one therefore will find the symbols and institutions of this nation alien and unrepresentative.

The people who harbour such sentiments, I would argue, should not be condemned in a very judgemental way. But it is the task of all of us who care about our country and value our democracy to win over such people, to persuade such people to identify with our national symbols.

In fact, many of the people who are disinterested in the symbols of the nation for such reasons do so precisely because they care passionately about certain principles, ideals and values. And that is a good thing. And that is what we need – citizens who care about the greater good and want to play their part in defining it, rather than citizens who do not care about politics or the wider society.

We should recognise that the greater danger for our country may not lie in people who are passionate about particular political ideals, but rather people who don’t care about politics or anything else going on in the wider society, only bothering to form an opinion when something affects them personally and materially.

Sometimes in my house visits, I meet people, and this is more and more rare nowadays, but I meet people who say “I don’t care about politics.” I typically give them a jokey reply – “But politics cares about you.”

I have met some Singaporeans over the years who disagree with certain aspects of policies and politics in Singapore and have decided that they want to migrate for that reason. My reply to them has always been – please let’s stay and fight to change things in our country.

A people who care about politics only in the personal and pecuniary sense, a people who are not invested in the greater good, in what society is and should be, will be a people who are doomed to disappear in the long arc of history.

So we should recognise that people who are suspicious of our national symbols may have the best of motives. They may be passionate idealists. And that should not be dismissed.

Rather I would like to argue today that all of us who value our democratic society, including all of us in this House, should work towards galvanising respect for our national symbols among our fellow Singaporeans, of all views and shades of political opinion.

It is possible for reasonable citizens to disagree about the design of our national institutions – for example, some facets of our electoral system. Or the design of national practices – for example, some citizens may disagree that the public expense incurred for the National Day parade is fully justified. I would argue that there can be reasonable points of view on all sides of these questions. And that is exactly how we should resolve such questions. Reasonably. Respectfully.  Democratically.

But when it comes to our national symbols – such as our flag, our Pledge, our anthem and so on – it is my hope and I am sure it is the hope of all members here that all of us who believe in this democratic society would serve as advocates and role models for the view that our national symbols should be respected by all citizens, across the political spectrum and across the spectrum of views on other matters as well.

Government policies, political ideas, political practices, institutional design – all of these things are subject to the immutable law of change. All these things will evolve with time and will be decided democratically now and, one hopes, by future generations of Singaporeans. The ideas that future generations debate, the technologies and economic arrangements, the big public questions…all of this will evolve and change, probably in ways that we cannot completely foresee now. But it must be our collective hope that the symbols of our nation endure along with our nation’s sovereignity.

Enforcing this law

And we should seek this respect for our national symbols not primarily through heavy handed legal means. And at this point, I would like to express the hope that the authorities take a light touch in enforcing the provisions of this law, show compassion and take cognisance of the individual circumstances associated with each offence – for example where ignorance, mental illness or momentary emotions come into play. 

Rather we should seek this respect for our national symbols primarily by inspiring citizens with what Singapore is and what it can be, not primarily through law enforcement, though the latter inevitably has its place as well.

Inspiring Singaporeans about our national symbols – pitfalls to avoid

How do we inspire citizens in this way? How do we ourselves ensure that we remain inspired by this Singapore story and this Singapore cause, so as to be able to inspire others?

Not mainly through prioritizing outward, ostentatious displays of national symbols devoid of the real feeling, the heart, the passion. Not that way. It is possible to fall into the trap of ritualistic homage to symbols, while the real passion for what those things symbolizes atrophies and dies away.

So we should not fall into the trap of saying that certain HDB blocks are more patriotic because they display more flags and others less so because they display fewer. This may not be the case. And there could be various reasons why some blocks have more flags than others.

We should not inspire love of our symbols by counterposing our nation against another and cultivating resentment towards other countries. For it is said that patriotism is the love of one’s people, nationalism is the hatred of others. I hope that ours can be a patriotism that does not seek to validate itself through juxtaposition against some “other” nation. Hatred is a form of energy that can bind a nation, but to the wrong end. Rather we should show the world that Singaporeans want to better ourselves and the world without putting anyone else down.

Conclusion: a personal take on inspiring Singaporeans about our national symbols

So how do we inspire our fellow Singaporeans to respect our national symbols? I would like to conclude my speech with a humble attempt to answer this question, in the spirit of encouraging every citizen to find their own answer to it.

I think we inspire our citizens and ourselves to respect these precious national symbols by showing the world, through our deeds and words, that these symbols represent, not a perfect country in its finished form, not a creed set in stone, as many ideas that govern public life will evolve over time. Rather these symbols represent something far more precious. And that something is HOPE.  The hope that lives in our heart.

What sort of hope? Hope that this place, this land, this people will always strive to get better and better and better in achieving the high ideals of our Pledge, even if those ideals never become perfectly embodied in our national life…like how, in mathematics, the line of an asymptote infinitely approaches the axis but never quite touches it.

Hope that we, as a people, will always be free to choose our destiny. Many Singaporeans would argue, and I include myself here, that aspects of our democratic system are in need of reform. But that is why we stay and fight to make things better. Our Pledge does not say we already are a democratic society. Our Pledge calls on us to BUILD a democratic society. It is a work in progress, this building and defending what has been built. It is a work that will never end. And it needs all of us to be builders.

While we may disagree and debate robustly over what the ideals of our Pledge concretely mean in day to day policies and practice, while we may disagree about many things unconnected to the ideals of the Pledge, we should strive to nurture this HOPE in our own hearts and the hearts of our fellow Singaporeans. All of us. As teachers, colleagues, members of political parties, co-religionists, social media practitioners, opinion leaders, artists, scholars…and as parents, as children, as members of families. This striving should infuse our writing, our social media posts, our scholarship, our words and deeds.

For at the end of the day, while our nation will never be perfect, these symbols represent our hope that the Singaporean people, in this land, will always strive to honour the angels of our better nature.

Mr Speaker sir, in our national language please.

Tuan, saya menyokong Rang Undang-undang Simbol Negara sebagai membuat perubahan yang bermakna dan perlu. Bila bercakap tentang sesuatu sebagai simbolik, kadangkala ia bermakna ia kurang berharga dan kurang penting daripada isu-isu kehidupan seharian. Namun simbol itu penting. Simbol-simbol kenegaraan kita harus dipandang oleh semua rakyat Singapura sebagai berharga.

Kenapa? Kerana ia melambangkan kemerdekaan kita yang telah diperjuangkan dengan keras dan kedaulatan negara kita. Dan mengapa kedaulatan negara kita penting? Ia adalah penting kerana ia serupa dengan kebebasan kita untuk memilih nasib kita, sebagai masyarakat, melalui institusi masyarakat demokratik kita, masyarakat demokratik yang kita sama-sama berikrar untuk bina.

Tuan, ikrar kami menyeru kita semua untuk menjadi satu masyarakat tanpa mengira bangsa, bahasa dan agama. Hari ini saya ingin bercakap tentang bagaimana kita harus menjadi satu rakyat tanpa mengira fahaman politik atau pertalian.

Saya dengan yakin boleh mengatakan, daripada banyak perbualan dengan rakyat Singapura, bahawa mempamerkan bendera tidak dikaitkan dengan mana-mana kecenderungan politik tertentu. Saya dan rakan-rakan Parti Pekerja saya amat berbangga untuk memberikan bendera pada Hari Kebangsaan, begitu juga dengan ahli dewan ini daripada semua pihak. Dan saya telah bertemu dengan ramai rakyat Singapura yang merupakan patriot yang menganggotai pelbagai parti politik.

Adalah menjadi harapan saya agar kita semua yang yakin kepada masyarakat demokratik ini akan menjadi penyokong dan contoh sebagai rakyat yang percaya bahawa simbol negara kita harus dihormati oleh semua, tidak kira kecenderungan politik mereka. Ini boleh dicapai dengan memberi inspirasi kepada rakyat tentang identity sebenar Singapura sekarang dan di masa hadapan, bukan melalui penguatkuasaan undang-undang, walaupun ia pastinya mempunyai peranannya.

Tuan, bagaimanakah kita boleh memberi inspirasi kepada rakyat?

Ia nya bukan melalui paparan simbol-simbol negara secara zahir sahaja tanpa perasaan, jiwa dan semangat.

Ia nya juga bukan dengan mengaitkan dan memupuk kebencian terhadap negara lain.

Bagi saya, kita memberi inspirasi kepada rakyat kita dan diri kita sendiri untuk menghormati simbol negara yang berharga ini dengan menunjukkan kepada dunia bahawa simbol ini menandakan HARAPAN.

Semoga kita sebagai rakyat sentiasa bebas membuat pilihan arah hidup yang kita inginkan. Ikrar kami menyeru kami untuk MEMBINA sebuah masyarakat demokratik. Ini yang sedang diusahakan, dan kita patut terus berusaha dan mempertahankan apa yang telah dibina. Dan ia memerlukan kita semua untuk sama-sama membina.

Walaupun kita mungkin berlainan pendapat dan berdebat dengan teguh tentang apa maksud Ikrar kita secara konkrit dalam polisi seharian, kita harus berusaha untuk memupuk harapan ini dalam hati kita dan hati rakyat Singapura.