Towards a Citizenship and Constitution Day
By Dansong on 19 Aug 2007 12:39 PM
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Yesterday, 155 immigrants joined us as citizens of our nation. Warmest welcome! It is a good choice and I wish you the conviction to carry out your responsibilities and uphold your rights together with the rest of us who have been caring as old citizens.

That's that, and moving on to a related topic then: Citizenship Day. If this was supposed to be a significant day for the old citizens, there was hardly any splash except for the perfunctory publicity flashlights of the press. We can't expect the latter to ask any hard questions because of systemic sycophantism. So, how shall we evaluate Citizenship Day? Who cares?

Well, we have to, since it refers to us, citizens. If we don't care, it is analogous to Christians not caring about Good Friday, Muslims not caring about Hari Raya Puasa and the Chinese not caring about Chinese New Year. But worse, since this is a day dedicated to every Singaporean not a constituent community. However, citizens already cared for National Day, and many have already been emotionally exhausted by the effervescent celebrations. True, which is why Citizenship Day, if it is to be effective and to become significant in the long run, should not be placed so close to National Day.

Why is it placed so close to National Day? Some may say that it is an attempt to sustain the momentum of governmental sentiment cultivation that begins with Racial Harmony Day, then reaching a crescendo on National Day, and given an emphatic finale with the National Day Rally. After that, we are back to the rational business of making Singapore work. Citizenship Day keeps the audience prepped, but only just. Well, if this is true, this instrumental use of Citizenship Day is pretty dumb. After National Day, everyone is already too tired to feel as a citizen and any didactic message being broadcast about multiracialism, meritocracy, kampung spirit, city of whatever, instantly falls on fireworks-deafened ears or instinctly drops away as propagandistic pronouncements. I wonder whether it preps or turns people off the National Day Rally. System overload, and Citizenship Day is buried in the emotional climax of red and white streamers.

Next, content: a citizenship ceremony where the deputy prime minister delivers a predictable speech and awards citizenship to worthy immigrants. I question neither, it sounds perfunctorily traditional enough - after decades of this rendition, the public has come to expect such ceremonious enactments. But surely, on a day with such a heavy symbolic load as Citizenship Day, more can be expected? To leave the content as it is would mean Citizenship Day could be merely interpreted as New Citizens Day, dedicated to those who aspire to be citizens and those will make it during the ceremony. In a climate where Singapore citizenship is coming under public questioning and scrutiny by the old citizens because of the government's "foreign talent" and "stayer or quitter" policies, to leave the content as it is also runs the risk of old citizens dismissing Citizenship Day as a day for the government to legitimate and justify its immigration policies by ritual fiat. Propaganda undertone, and Citizenship Day is wrecked on lethargic cynicism.

Thus, my argument: move the Day and deepen its content. Questions are, when and how? My proposal is rather straightforward. Change the Citizenship Day to Citizenship and Constitution Day. The justification is simple and logical, citizenship is not linked to the state giving us that status, but it is a status secured by the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. The state, with the Constitution as its basis, is a custodian of citizenship not the absolute sovereign giving and taking away rights by arbitrary or policy fiat. Furthermore, to be a good citizen is not to be simply law-abiding but to know the Constitution and the rights and responsibilities it establishes for the citizen to be and act as a citizen. Thus, instead of an arbitrary meaningless date, 18 August, the dates can be moved to either 10 July, when the Constitution was first enacted within the Federation of Malaysia in 1964, or 22 December, when the it was amended together with the enactment of the Republic of Singapore Independence Act in 1965.

Which date? My argument is for 10 July, for a few reasons. First, it can start off a month of civic celebrations and education, especially for our young students, and what an appropriate starting point it will be. The Constitution is the basis of our nation-state, the Alpha of our Singaporean-ness. It makes sense too since we had no nation to begin with, we had to build our national consciousness from scratch, first within the Malaysian Federation, then after Separation. The Constitution was the bedrock for us to begin our imaginative building of the nation.

Second, Racial Harmony Day on 21 July will follow Citizenship and Constitution Day, which is a most appropriate sequence, because we will anchor the civic celebrations in the key historical moment of our founding: when our dream of a Malaysian Malaysia was wrecked on politicized racial feelings. This will address the complaints that Singaporeans lack a sense of history - work that sense of history into the very core of our civic celebrations and the colors of ethnic costumes and fireworks will cease to be superficial gloss. Besides, it will put Racial Harmony Day into proper perspective: it is not natural racial enmity that is the problem we have to tackle but the politicization of race or the racialization of politics that is the problem.

Third, all these will culminate in National Day, when we celebrate what we have achieved, and then capped by the National Day Rally, when the Prime Minister will set forth the vision for the coming year. Other than the aesthetics of nicely spaced out memorials, what we have will be a most coherent civic programme: understanding what makes us Singapore (the Constitution; not hawker food or some elite colonial building, please!) leading to reflection of what happens when that understanding breaks down (Racial Harmony Day), then to a celebration of achievements (N Day) and, finally, a solemn debate on the tasks ahead (N Day Rally).

Lastly, content. I think this is even simpler. We can continue to have the ceremony to award citizenship to new immigrants. In fact, it is more meaningful to give citizenship to them before 9 August, for both old and new citizens, as the new citizens can then join the old citizens in the celebrations that follow. As it stands now, the new citizens are invited only after the party. But the main activities that mark Constitution Day should be reflections and debates on the Constitution and the rights and responsibilities secured therein.

For students, instead of the National Education floss that falls away from deadened minds, bring the meat of the Constitution to them (of course, we got to get the teachers to read the Constitution first) - it is reinvigorating stuff that will resurrect tired and cynical souls. For old citizens, we can evaluate the present situation in the light of the Constitution so that we can have both achievements to celebrate on 9 August and discrepancies and failures to advocate for during and after the National Day Rally. All the grassroots organizations and other interested organizations or groups of interested citizens can organize thousands of forums, talks and seminars, whether online or real-world, to mark Citizenship and Constitution Day. Civic arts programmes that usually begin with National Day can start earlier to engage the public in reflection and discussion. The civic month will be a month of reflection, celebration and, this is the crux, citizen activism to uphold the Constitution, for this is the very essence of citizenship.

My thanks to spursfan for his email that first sparked my thoughts on Citizenship Day and my wife for scolding the Sunday Times this morning, which inspired this post.

Comments (6)

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ted:

Nice post...but strangely...all these what messages..I'm tuning them out. In fact when I watched the NDP parade, whenever one of the Men in White waved a flag in a vigorously uninspiring manner, I switched to the Channel-News-Asia. That was about the only channel that day that was not broadcasting the NDP in all of Singapore's four official languages...thank heavens for small mercies...blame my family for not subscribing to Cable.

Dan,

Nice attempt to incorporate NE efforts into a coherent whole for all (not merely students) to remind ourselves on who we are -- you beat me to the punch in terms of contribution lol...

In any case, my reflections on Citizenship Day are reflected in the latest post in my blog ;-)

ben:

Oh.. do you think it should be a public holiday since its so important and everything?

:)

Thanks ted, can totally understand, just that I have cable, so got more escape routes =)

I am sick of escaping, denying and letting off steam about N Day. Which brings me to the point in response to spursfan (thanks! and sorry for stealing the punch). These civic holidays should stop being didactic events when the government leaders preach and teach their wisdom of what defines an ideal citizen. Citizens should teach themselves with the ideals enshrined in the Constitution and the leaders can do with quite a bit of teaching about the Constitution from the citizens as well. NE should not be the monopoly of a select group of state ideologues.

Haha, ben, totally. We can then organize Constitution retreats at resorts in our neighboring countries, especially Malaysia, what an irony dripping with historical meaning.

Dan,

I enjoy reading the article. At the expense of sounding a little cynical, I wonder if the present situation in Singapore is more of a consumer-terms of conditions relationship rather than a citizen-constitution one.

Both relationships are similar - and are often debated and changed and almost always quite ignored by people who should read them as you have pointed out. They almost always have responsibilities and rights that are accorded to the citizens or consumers. However, unlike a constitution which is theoretically difficult to amend and change, a terms and conditions sheet almost always have this line

"The management reserve the rights to change the blah blah conditions at any time."

In a sense, new immigrants are like coming to an exclusive shopping club - very much like obtaining an Isetan Shopping Card. Before the shopping center, there was a lack of modernity. After the shopping center was created, there began a story of lights, glitz, happiness and air conditioners. A few years later, even with the shopping center and the constant upgrade of it, a exclusive shopping card is needed for certain benefits. Everything in Singapore becomes cheaper because of the New Citizen Card - from HDB flats to Education subsidies.

Now and then, terms and conditions get a little more tough. Every few years, where the card is up for renewal by the consumers, they are enticed with "Shares" or "Exclusive shopping days for those with the shopping card only."

But of course, consumers main job is to consume - aka losing in the long run? Do many consumers read the terms and conditions before they buy something? Even if they do, when the terms and conditions change suddenly, what can they do? What is the real job of an "information center" in such a shopping center then? To direct consumers to their main wants? Or to send them to the shops who ultimately benefit from these consumers? What about those who are involved in cleaning the shopping centers? Can they ever become a consumer in that shopping center?

Ultimately, what is the point of understanding a paper full of terms and conditions then?

Maybe I just have an overactive imagination =)

Hey Wayne, overactive imaginations are scary for shopping center and technocratic state managers alike =)

I'm afraid that right-reserving line is already somewhat encoded in the Constitution, not just in the subsequent 'contracts', for example:

Freedom of speech, assembly and association
14. --(1) Subject to clauses (2) and (3) --
...
(c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.
(2) Parliament may by law impose --
...
(c) on the right conferred by clause (1) (c), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order or morality.
(3) Restrictions on the right to form associations conferred by clause (1) (c) may also be imposed by any law relating to labour or education.

I think that as much as the PAP leaders want to make and have made Singapore into a factory, a corporation, a theme-park or a shopping center (which I don't think they are or have), Singapore exists in the international arena as a state. As such, citizenship remains the key and primary modus operandi of the people, and this cannot never be lost as long as the international state system is functioning.

Now, true, because of the development of the economy in the neoliberal phase of capitalism and the flexible political liberalization/tightening of the GCT governments, citizens are also workers, shareholders/clients, tourists and consumers. I don't think each of the latter four roles have become in any way dominant, but I agree with you that they have eroded the citizen role to a great extent.

But times are a changing. In fact, in the recent policy moves by our current PM, the emphasis seems to have shifted from the people as shareholders/clients/consumers (under the GCT governments) to citizens. This is inevitable, with increasing immigration and emigration, a highly stratified economy and widening income gap, contradictions concerning citizenship have emerged. The addressing of this neglect in the coming years will be very interesting, and will open up further space for political experimentation. Time, thus, to revive the discourse on Constitution.

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1313 words | Categories: Education, Politics, Society

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