Photography by the author.
Once upon a time, celebrating National Day was about painting the town red. Literally.
HDB blocks all over the country would be decked out in national colours, as residents proudly hung the national flag outside their bedroom windows or along the corridors. The unabashed display of patriotism ensured that Singapore’s birthday didn’t simply feel like an exclusive affair for the pro-establishment folk.
Neither would it, in the words of a few sceptics, feel like a “wayang parade”.
Back then, you hung the flag because you felt proud to do so. In those days, we would return home from a half-day of National Day celebrations in school, eagerly telling our parents that we should put a flag outside our window because “ it was the right thing to do ” .
And even though it meant an additional household chore to keep the cloth in pristine condition, most parents would still relent. How could you tell a child that being patriotic was burdensome or wrong?
There were probably a few residents who felt pressured to conform or be singled out as the black sheep on the block. But you could still feel the community spirit in the air, and it was clear that National Education was indeed a success.
Today, no one seems to give a shit about National Day anymore. Flags are hung so sporadically that, if not for the National Day-themed buns at BreadTalk and the loud red polo tees at Giordano, you may perhaps start to question the existence of August 9 as a public holiday.
You would be hard-pressed to find an HDB block that has even a quarter of units sticking to old traditions. Estates that are still gloriously decorated by flags are no longer the artistic work of the residents, but the task of Residents’ Committees (RCs) which are part of the People’s Association. Even then, it’s only those blocks with long common corridors that are selected for decorations, and these are typically found in the more mature estates.
Step inside Punggol and you would be forgiven for thinking the new BTO estates are a breakaway state. Apart from a few pathetic banners and flagpoles by the side of the road, there ’ s hardly any love for what is supposed to be the most momentous occasion in the country.
Moreover, I observed that most of the residents who put up flags on their own are the elderly who have been doing so for so many years. For them, digging the flag out from the storeroom in July is almost instinctual. When I asked an elderly man living in Kembangan why he ’ s continued the habit after all these years, he simply replied, “ Of course you put up the flag for National Day, it ’ s what Singaporeans should do. Don ’ t ask stupid questions. ”
Before I could ask about what he thought of his neighbours who didn’t care, he slams the door in my face.
In the past, RCs used to loan out flags to residents, which would then be returned after the designated flag display period. That practice has since stopped, and although one could easily buy a flag off online stores like Qoo10 for just around $2 , Singaporeans are more likely to check out a basket of ASOS sales items than national memorabilia.
Maybe it’s the thought of having to wash the flag, or the annoying flapping of the cloth in strong wind conditions that puts people off hanging one. Or maybe Singaporeans today do not want their homes – their most private space – to be so publicly associated with any ideology. We proudly wear red, white and pink when out on Orchard Road, but hanging a flag outside a window attracts too much attention.
Or maybe we’re just a lazy people who expect the RCs and town councils to do everything for us. (It ’ s worth noting that some landed estates are more enthusiastic about putting up flags than HDB ones.)
Or it could be that how much we love our country shouldn’t be based on how many flags we put up. Perhaps, just perhaps, Singaporeans already understand that patriotism transcends (often empty) national symbols, and that we should be the change we want to see.
Punggol may be a sea of dull and lukewarm concrete, but who’s to say that the individuals living in these flats do not show their patriotism in less visible ways?
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