Call for more room for creative uses of national symbols

To check abuses, citizen workgroup proposes one-stop online reporting platform

The Citizens' Workgroup for National Symbols found that Singaporeans continue to hold the national flag in high regard and care about its proper display, although they are more open to its use in artwork and commercial products.
The Citizens' Workgroup for National Symbols found that Singaporeans continue to hold the national flag in high regard and care about its proper display, although they are more open to its use in artwork and commercial products.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

A citizen workgroup has recommended that the Government relook at how people can more creatively use national symbols such as the national anthem and flag - while continuing to prevent their abuse through a one-stop online reporting platform.

It also suggests that flag-raising ceremonies be conducted in more official languages, and that the National Day Parade (NDP) incorporate hand signing for the national pledge and the anthem to better include the hearing-impaired community.

The Citizens' Workgroup for National Symbols, comprising 47 Singaporeans who are representative of the population, presented its findings to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) this week.

The 40-page report comes after a debate over four months that ranged from whether to remove the line "Regardless of race, language or religion" in the pledge to adding more official national symbols. The report settled on keeping the pledge as it is and decided against adding more official national symbols, although it said local icons, like the Gardens by the Bay, can be more formally recognised for their role in promoting international recognition.

MCCY has said the findings will inform an expected Amendment Bill in Parliament next year. It will issue a response to the workgroup's report by September.

The findings come ahead of National Day next month and after incidents like rock icon Ramli Sarip's soulful rendition of the anthem in 2019 sparked debate about whether more unorthodox uses of national symbols by individuals with good intentions should be allowed.

Currently, there are guidelines surrounding the use of five national symbols, all of which the workgroup looked at. They are: the Singapore flag, the national anthem, the national pledge, the national coat of arms and the lion head symbol, introduced in 1986.

The workgroup also examined the national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, and the Merlion.

Among the key findings are that Singaporeans continue to hold the national flag in high regard and care about its proper display, although they are more open to its use in artwork and commercial products.

The workgroup also found that people's understanding of the lyrics of the national anthem could be strengthened and that the pledge has strong potential to prompt conversations on national identity.

National symbols should have more prominence in people's daily lives after their schooling years, the report said. The Government should collaborate with the community to express interpretations of the national symbols through everyday elements like food, fashion, street art and new media.

Mr Syarifuddin Azhar Rosli, 25, a member of the workgroup, said a digital platform which the workgroup proposed for the reporting of misuse makes the relaxing of display rules viable.

"The one-stop platform should have the official versions of all the symbols. People should be able to ask if something they come across is being correctly used. With this guidance, the national pledge can be made into a song and remixed, as long as the integrity of the words is there and the message is consistent. It should be something that is encouraged."

The incoming engineering freshman at the Singapore University of Technology and Design was part of the team that debated whether to remove the line "Regardless of race, language or religion" in the pledge.

He said those who wanted it removed thought the listing of Singaporeans' differences is too specific and might preclude other differences. They also thought the line's removal would not detract from the pledge, since the acceptance of differences is already encapsulated in the clause, "Pledge ourselves as one united people".

The workgroup finally decided to keep the words "because by removing it we might send the message that we are not acknowledging these differences".

Moreover, it agreed that differences should not be limited to the three elements spelled out. Education should convey the spirit of the line: that all Singaporeans are different from one another in some way and that this should not stop them from coming together to build Singapore.

Another workgroup member, Ms Jensrani Thangavel, a retired history teacher, emphasised the importance of education: "I used to tell my students about stateless people and the plight of places like Northern Ireland. Teaching them about national symbols properly is very important because as long as they know some of it later on and love Singapore, it's good enough.

"We want these national symbols to stay for another 60 years," the 65-year-old said.

Mr Benjamin Tan, 31, who is also part of the workgroup and one of the creative producers of this year's NDP, said everyday exposure to the national symbols is key. "More touchpoints in their daily lives will help boost these symbols at large-scale events like the NDP, where there is a grander context and a build-up of emotions.

"The moment of unity and pride only works if they feel these symbols belong to them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2021, with the headline 'Call for more room for creative uses of national symbols'. Subscribe