By Dr Wong Wee Nam
02 August 2012
All adult Singapore citizens have learned to say the Pledge. However, a lot still cannot recite it with complete accuracy. Quite a good number do not really know what it means.
When asked what the Pledge means to us as citizens on this National Day, some say it means “one united people” or some variation of this, and others say “it’s about multi-racialism” or something about religious tolerance. So far, I have yet to hear someone saying that the Pledge is a solemn vow by the person reciting it to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.
To most people, the National Pledge seems to read something like this: “We, the citizens of Singapore pledge to be one united people, and live harmoniously with people of different races and religions, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.” This is vocabulary that has been ingrained in their minds in spite of having recited it for the 12 years when they were in school. No one remembers the vow to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.
Why is this so? This is because as we went through the motion of reciting the Pledge, we were not mindful of what we were pledging. We only grasped a few key words like “one united people”, “regardless of race, language or religion” and “achieve happiness, prosperity and progress”. As a result, many people thought that the Pledge is only about all these. Concepts like democracy, justice and equality are never taught in school, and hence they are too abstract for de-politicised Singaporeans to understand.
When Mr S Rajaratnam crafted the National Pledge, I believe he wrote it with a certain conviction. After being suffocated by the turbulent years in Malaysia, he did not want Singaporeans to go through all that again.
At that time, we lived under authoritarianism. We were ruled by a government with such an overwhelming majority that it could easily, and did, brow-beat its opponents. We lived under a government with a more than two-thirds parliamentary majority which it could use to push through any law it wanted. It was a government that cared more for its political base than the general population.
Singaporeans were made to feel like second class citizens and we could do nothing about it. True, there were elections, but that does not mean there was democracy.
The Press and the Media at that time were also very biased and pro-Alliance.
Such conditions are really not unfamiliar to Singaporeans living after Malaysia. Therefore all Singaporeans should be able to relate to these experiences. There is then, no reason why the younger Singaporeans cannot understand the significance of the Pledge.
When we were booted out from Malaysia, the purported intention was to let our citizens breathe the air of freedom in a just and equal society. The Pledge was designed as a vow so that Singaporeans would continue to remember to fight for a just and equal society.
Thus, the National Pledge is not just about unity and multi-racialism. It is also about working towards social and economic justice. It is about doing away with an authoritarian system and building a more democratic society.
This year we are celebrating our 47th year of independence. We will be reciting the Pledge. While doing do, let us remember we have not arrived yet at what we have been pledging to do. There is still a long way to achieving a democratic society based on justice and equality as long as the Internal Security Act is still hanging around like the Sword of Damocles, the climate of fear still chills many citizens, the level of the political playing field remains uneven, the media is still state-controlled, there is still a large income disparity, and leaders still believe that too much democracy is the formula for unhappiness, economic slowdown and regression.
On 9th of August, towards the end of the National Day Parade, it is likely that the TV cameras will be capturing the ordinary folks decked out mostly in red and the elites standing out from the crowd in their whites, together, reciting our National Pledge. We may hear what is said and see the fists on the chests. But it is impossible to know whether the heart is in sync with the words except for those caught fiddling with their smartphones.
When reciting the National Pledge, we citizens should resolve to put our heart where the mouth is. Otherwise it would sound like an empty promise.