Opinion: Are National Day Parades Even Necessary?

ON the fourth of July, US president Donald Trump presided over a military parade to mark his country’s Independence Day. A Salute to America, as he called it, drew some of the sharpest critiques of Mr. Trump in recent months. Many pointed out that having a parade was militaristic and expensive (estimated to cost US$5 million) – with parallels being drawn to authoritarian states like North Korea and China. 

Meanwhile in a few weeks’ time, Singapore will be putting on its own parade. Weirdly though, the yearly National Day Parade (NDP) costs about 5 times more than Mr. Trump’s Independence Day celebration. Yet, most Singaporeans don’t call for the abolishment of NDP. Heck, it has even become a national institution of sorts– August 9thseems incomplete without the accompanying parade. 

So, what’s the cause of this drastic difference in reactions to the parades? And more pressingly, is NDP truly needed? These questions are especially important, considering that there are opportunity costs involved — meaning that the government could use the money spent on the event, elsewhere.  

When states decide to hold military parades, they aren’t just meant to celebrate the armed forces or a national holiday.  They serve different objectives and send signals to different audiences. These signals are also very contextual in nature. Parades are often used as political and diplomatic signalling tools – which explains the differing reactions to NDP and the Salute to America. For a country that spends more on national defence than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany combined, a parade is just excessive. The Americans’ military might is unparalleled, with or without a parade. Also, on the political front, Mr. Trump is facing an uphill presidential election in a few months’ time. Many argue that the parade is meant to act as a political signalling tool to his voter base – paint him as a strong, decisive leader.  

But with that being said, what exactly is Singapore trying to say with its National Day Parades each year?

The need to project military might

National Day Parades have an external military function, which is to deter potential foreign adversaries who might interfere with Singapore’s sovereignty. That is one reason why so much advanced military hardware is on display, with all three wings of the defence force being well-represented. 

This “strategic deterrence” isn’t only employed by Singapore. Authoritarian states like China and North Korea often parade nuclear missiles and other potent weapons that could pose a threat to its enemies during conflict. The aim here is to awe potential adversaries into submission or at least indifference regarding the country’s interests. When China shows off new Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles for example, the message is clear. Its plans on the South and East China Sea should be taken seriously, because any war with the Peoples’ Liberation Army would be destructive. 

While Singapore doesn’t have the sheer firepower to scare its neighbours into compliance, it must show them that it has a competent fighting force that can fend off an invasion. This is precisely why almost half of the parade is focused on showing off the military. More specifically, advancements in military equipment are flaunted – with the advanced intelligence gathering Heron 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) introduced last year, and the brand-new, locally developed Hunter tank, making its debut this year. 

Furthermore, in 2019’s NDP, there seems to be a few seemingly unrelated decisions that bolster this idea of ‘strategic deterrence’. Firstly, it was announced that a mobile column featuring 171 tanks and armoured vehicles from the Singapore Armed Forces will feature in the parade. This is special as the mobile column is only activated for the parades on significant milestone years like SG50. Secondly, Malaysian Prime Minister Mr. Mahathir, Indonesian President Mr. Joko Widodo and Brunei Sultan Mr. Hassanal Bolkiah have been invited to the parade. In other words, Singapore is inviting the premiers of its neighbouring countries, while at the same time, putting on a parade showcasing its latest military advancements. While both decisions were supposed to celebrate Singapore’s Bicentennial, one can’t help but to wonder whether this is also Singapore posturing in light of the recent tensions with Malaysia’s Pakatan government. The message: Singapore is willing and able to fend off threats to its territorial sovereignty and water supply. 

It’s only unclear whether this signalling will be effective.

Defining what it means to be Singaporean

(Source)

Being an accidental country of sorts – with no hinterland, having a polyglot, multi-ethnic population, Singapore has unique fault lines that are often open to abuse by foreign governments. 

Malaysia for example, sometimes believes that Singapore should heed to its interests. The theory goes: if Singapore and Malaysia are so similar in terms of population and culture, why should the older, geographically and demographically larger country give way to the smaller one? Some scholars believe that China feels the same way about Singapore. During a speech in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised the need to “bring together people of Chinese descent around the world” to enjoy the “Chinese dream”. With ethnic Chinese constituting nearly 75 per cent of Singapore’s population, Beijing might expect Singapore to tow the Chinese line, especially on issues like the South China Sea. 

The other, non-military, half of NDP seems to be a rebuttal to all of this.  The cultural aspect of the show places a strong emphasis on a unique Singaporean identity and narrative. Performances often stress how Singapore has defied all odds, developing into a first-world metropolis from a tiny fishing village – and that this was possible only because of Singaporean exceptionalism. Strong emphasis is also placed on Singapore’s multi-culturalism – with songs like Chan Mali Chan (Malay) and Munneru Valiba (Tamil) being included in singalongs throughout the years.  The gesturing here is that Singapore will not be a satellite state of any country, simply because of historical or cultural ties. It is its own country, with its own culture, people and interests to protect.

Costs and benefits

With all of that said, however, there are still questions regarding the show and its costs. Not discounting its geopolitical value, is spending S$30-40 million yearly worth it? Can the same outcomes be achieved if the government holds the parade once in a few years, rather than every year? You see, that’s the problem with this type of soft power. It’s unquantifiable and intangible. We don’t know how effective strategic defenceis for example — and even if we knew it was, it would be impossible to place a dollars and cents value to it.

In other words, we might never know if these parades are truly worth it. 

Featured image from 8 Days.

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