Because We Love Our Land: War & Nation-building in Singapore

“Training to be soldiers, fight for our land
Once in our lives, two years of our time
Have you ever wondered, why must we serve?
Because we love our land, and we want it to be free, to be free”
Training to be Soldiers, SAF marching song


Despite the fact that sovereign Singapore has engaged in no major military conflicts since its independence in 1965, images and discourses of war and violence are actually so central to the Singaporean state’s nation-building efforts that it pervades many aspects of Singaporean’s life.

By looking at how experiences and memories of war are crafted and remembered, I am in one respect turning to Ernest Renan’s conception of the Nation, when he avows that a nation is one premised on “the common possession of a rich legacy of memories”.[1] From war memorials to the teaching of history in schools, war is deeply embedded in the popular consciousness of modern Singapore.

Yet even Renan, writing in the 1880s, understood that a shared heritage of the past was not enough. There needs also to be “actual consent…to have done great things together and to will that we do them again”.[2] Rituals of nationhood are also integral in building a committed and dedicated citizenry through examples like National Service (NS) in Singapore and the annual National Day Parade (NDP).

By looking at the state’s interpretation of the past, and its subsequent propagation of it, I ultimately argue that spectres of war and violence continually animate the state’s nation-building discourse. War does not only make states; under the right conditions it can make nations as well.

War Memorials

From black-and-white photographs of decapitated heads, to dramatic re-enactments of Japanese soldiers bayoneting infants, the Japanese Occupation is remembered as a traumatic and violent interregnum in Singapore’s modern history. By looking at how frequently war memorials recur in the physical landscapes of Singapore, this section examines how memories of the Japanese Occupation are deliberately retained as part of nation-building efforts by the state.

In the immediate wake of the Second World War, the Singaporean government was actually reluctant to preserve memories of the Japanese Occupation. There was a fear that simmering anti-Japanese resentment from the majority Chinese community would deter much-needed Japanese investment.[3] The demands for a specifically Chinese monument to commemorate victims of the Japanese sook ching massacres also worried a government which urgently wanted to foster a sense of national identity amongst its multicultural and multiracial population.[4]

The state subsequently influenced original plans by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, transforming what had been intended as a “Chinese-style memorial park”, into what eventually became the Civilian War Memorial. The four pillars of the Memorial would represent the four main races, or “cultural streams”, of Singapore: the Chinese, Malay, Indian and “other”. Such abstract symbolism suited a young state wary of inflaming volatile communal tensions undergirding Singapore society, which had exploded into the race riots of 1964.[5]

Inaugurating the Memorial’s opening on 15 February 1967, Lee Kuan Yew declared that the Memorial’s structure symbolised the “common suffering” of “all races and religion who died in Japanese-occupied Singapore” during the War.[6] In describing the fall of Singapore as “what can happen to people caught completely unaware and unprepared for what was in store for them”, Lee effectively and publicly linked the suffering of the sook ching victims to a national, rather than communal cause.[7]

The Civilian War Memorial is not the only site that commemorates victims of the War. In the Civic District alone, there are at least four prominent memorials to the war dead, all within walking distance of each other.  From the Cenotaph honouring the British war dead of the two World Wars; to the Lim Bo Seng Memorial commemorating the “local hero” who “died a martyr” during the Japanese Occupation; to the Indian National Army marker celebrating unknown soldiers who died in World War Two, these recurring reminders of Second World War in the “historic birthplace” of Singapore, reflects a deliberate state attempt to “impress the form of the past onto the visible landscape”, “codifying and naturalising its version of heritage”.[8] [9] [10] The numerous memorials to the war dead in such an accessible and central part of Singapore form a part of a physical “heritagised landscape” upon which state ideologies are inscribed and normalised.[11]

The highly visible existence of war memorials in the heart of Singapore attests to how the state has continued to place a prime emphasis on the remembrance of war traumas. Yet while the state continues to commemorate the war dead, of more interest is what ends these commemorations actually serve, seventy years after the Japanese Occupation’s end. A possible answer to this question can be found in looking at how the Occupation is taught in Singaporean schools.



Loh Kah Seng has incisively observed how the past functions as an “important legitimizing instrument” for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government.[12] While initially circumspect about the teaching of history in schools, changing exigencies compelled the state to write an official “Singapore Story” amenable to state objectives and agendas.[13] The state’s development of the National Education (NE) initiative, and its efforts to “foster national cohesion and instil a sense of national identity among students” are likewise rooted in paradigms of war and violence.[14]

The Singaporean state was initially reluctant to teach history in schools. In a rapidly modernising nation powered by economic policies and foreign investment, the study of history was deemed irrelevant, even disruptive and suspect by state leaders. Devan Nair avowed that “the past is a poor guide…modern man must dream of the world he will make”.[15] The teaching of history in schools was thus minimal, and virtually non-existent at first. As Blackburn and Hack note sardonically, there was “little time for history” in this period.[16]

This would change by the 1980s, however, as a new generation of Singaporeans who had never lived through the Japanese Occupation and the post-war “crisis years” entered the electorate.[17] This increasing detachment with the struggles and sacrifices of earlier generations alarmed state leadership, who feared that younger Singaporeans would be unable to appreciate the “trials and tribulations of nation-building” – nor the contributions and sacrifices of the PAP government.[18]

The state’s response to this increasing detachment was particularly striking: partly with a political agenda in mind, it chose to “reinvigorate war commemoration, albeit more harnessed to state agendas than before”.[19] The teaching of history was also instituted in schools, and in 1984, nearly twenty years after Singapore’s founding, the first official history textbooks were introduced by the Ministry of Education to schools.[20]

In 1997, the Singapore Story was launched in conjunction with the National Education (NE) programme, to “instil a sense of national identity” in younger Singaporeans. NE is not taught as a separate subject, but is “infused with the primary school curriculum”.[21] The Singapore Story, despite being grounded in “verifiable facts”, was not without its agendas.[22] As Loh points out, the Singapore Story inculcates the idea that the nation is “vulnerable”.[23] The military and political themes of the Japanese Occupation are highlighted in the Singapore Story. Furthermore, the post-Independence years are depicted as a “tumultuous period” filled with strikes and communal unrest.[24] Graphic descriptions of Japanese brutality, as well as photographs of bloodstained strikers being carried away, are often included in these lessons, to underscore the chaos and disorder that could erupt if one was not mindful of threats to the country’s sovereignty.

Four “core annual events” are also included in the NE programme: Total Defence Day, International Friendship Day, Racial Harmony Day and National Day.[25] It is striking to note that three of these events are rooted in memories of violence, unrest and war. Total Defence Day on 15 February commemorates the day Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942; Racial Harmony Day on 21 July marks the race riots of 1964, to remind students that “race and religion will always be potential fault-lines in Singapore’s society”.[26] Moreover, National Day observance ceremonies from 1998 onwards also mandate that activities such as the singing of songs be conducted to “enhance the significance of the National Day celebrations”.[27] The call-and-response poem, “Recollections”, read out during these ceremonies, has six of its twelve-stanza structure describing “the Japanese flag in war”; “war and invasion”; and “riots and killings in our streets/ years of hate and fear”.[28] The National Day ceremony is intended to “recount the key phases of Singapore’s history”.[29] It is salient that the “key phases” taught to schoolchildren consistently emphasise so much chaos, blood and violence.

State conceptions of how a sense of national identity should be built, through the teaching of history, and “National Education” are thus heavily premised on discourses and memories of war and violence.


National Conscription

“For every Singaporean son
Must serve his term until he’s done
And every single breath he takes
Comes a bond which cannot break” | Every Singaporean Son, SAF marching song[30]

In 1967, compulsory military service for all able-bodied male citizens above 18 years old was introduced. Then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee argued for introducing compulsory national service in Singapore, citing a need to “safeguard and defend” the country, but also to “accelerate the process of nation-building”.[31] Young Singaporean men from different cultural, social, linguistic and educational backgrounds are forced into an environment where they have to train, live and work together, often for months on end.

In a study on conscription and nation-building in Singapore, Elizabeth Nair declares that conscription has had a “tremendous impact” on the lifestyles of Singaporeans.[32]  NS is so integral to the state’s efforts at nation-building that it has also come to influence other aspects of the Singaporean’s everyday lives. Narratives of NS are deeply intertwined with Singaporean conceptions of national identity, sometimes in a very literal sense. Able-bodied males who enlist in the SAF surrender their Identification Cards at the start of their stint, and are not returned this card until they have completed NS about two years later. Dramatizations and movies of National Service are also consistently well-received in Singapore.

The state has also tried to link NS to conceptions of nationhood, most recently in the documentary, “Every Singaporean Son”, which followed a group of recruits through their Basic Military Training phase.[33] There was even a drippingly sentimental theme song to go with the documentary. The title of this documentary is particularly instructive: it links national identity with conscription; it implies that for a “son” to be “Singaporean” he must have served his National Service first. We thus see how intricately linked the Singapore military is to Singaporean nationhood.

Yet what must also be remembered, however, is that this veritable institution of nation-building is inherently centred on the threat of potential destruction, bloodshed, and war. These, ironically, were the very elements that state-sanctioned histories had sought to contrast with the modern prosperous, orderly and peaceful Singapore. The technologically advanced and resource-intensive war machine(s) of the SAF cannot exist without the ever-present threat of war, whether real, potential or imagined, hanging over Singaporean society.

At the core of the Singaporean “crisis mentality” is hence the premise that Singapore could one day come under threat from an adversary so powerful that it would require tremendous warfighting capabilities. Underlying the generally positive and enriching experience of NS is thus the spectral, unsaid presence of potential war, death and destruction.

National Day Parades

The most ostentatious and expensive celebration of the Singaporean nation-state – the annual National Day Parade (NDP), is often held at historically significant venues such as the Padang, the National Stadium, or the Floating Platform at Marina Bay. Even this exuberant celebration of the nation is undergirded by the concept of war. The NDP is a “highly ritualized and stylized event”, requiring eight months of preparation.[34] Today, these parades have been commodified such that they are “partly entertainment”, with the inclusion of flashcard displays, floats and even fireworks.[35] However, Leong also notes that the military presence during the parade is “by far the most significant part…in terms of the numbers involved, visual spectacle, media focus and extent of preparation.”[36]

The NDP is annually directed by colonels from the SAF, coordinated by sergeant-majors, and subsequently assembled, performed and de-staged by soldiers. Planned by military leadership, the parades accordingly follow “the logic of military protocol”, scripted and timed so meticulously that even skydivers parachuting from helicopters; fighter jets overflying at high speeds all arrive on cue.[37]

While there is much fanfare, colour and song, these civilian displays are consistently intertwined with an overwhelming military presence. Singapore Infantry Regiments, Commando units are the mainstays of the military segment of the Parade. Self-propelled howitzers, tanks, jeeps and armoured vehicles form the now-ubiquitous drive-past. Newly acquired Apache helicopters, F15 air-superiority fighters drive home the awesome military prowess of the SAF, even in the skies. Read as text, one can infer the continued significance of the SAF in how the state has chosen to celebrate Singapore: there can be no luxury of superfluous music, glitter and celebration without the calculated, disciplined guarantee of the armed forces.[38]

Singapore’s annual NDP is thus a platform to display the state’s military prowess, and the resources it can muster in the event of a crisis. The highly coordinated nature of military displays attest not only to the technological might of the SAF, but also its strategic sophistication.[39] It is not only a display for outside observers, but a spectacle intended for citizens themselves – the power and precision displayed by the military forces on display during the NDP serve as a “reassurance of safety under the current political leadership”.[40] Moreover, to watch fellow Singaporeans putting up such spectacular and expert displays contributes to an increased sense of pride and imagined community; the sense that the (local) viewer himself is also somehow linked, somehow capable of the feats of military discipline, precision and prowess displayed by other unnamed Singaporeans during the parade.[41]

In the NDP one hence witnesses the most concerted and ostentatious effort by the Singaporean state to craft a sense of national identity in its citizens. In this celebration of “how far we have come”, the extensive displays of military might compel the Singaporean citizen to acknowledge that War – whether symbolically or metaphorically – continues to figure largely in his government’s conception of nationhood, nearly eighty years after the last major military engagement the island’s inhabitants (who were not even legally “Singaporeans” then) experienced.



The Singaporean state came into existence in difficult circumstances. Faced with an uncertain political and economic future, and a population which had never considered previously itself as “Singaporean”, the government needed to foster a sense of nationhood amongst its people. The state has sought to galvanise this sense of nationhood in Singaporeans. Wartime memory and history were deftly put into the service of a wider national cause by linking the traumatic suffering of different individuals and communities in Singapore to a more contemporary national cause.

Through the NE programme initiated in 1997, students were socialised into appropriate ways of acting and thinking about the nation. Tropes of violence and war were consistently emphasised, and appropriate “lessons learnt” were drawn from the examples of the Japanese Occupation and the post-war era.[42]

Finally, the centrality of military experiences to Singapore citizens across virtually all demographic groups is realised through National Service and national day parades. The SAF remains the “foundation for peace and progress in Singapore”, and conscription is used as another means to nation-building in citizens.

The modern nation-state of Singapore has not engaged in any major military engagement since its independence in 1965. On the contrary, the country has enjoyed five decades of peace, progress and prosperity. It is thus all the more striking to note that formulations and performances of national identity by the Singaporean state – whether in its histories, schools or parades remain so heavily centred on images and discourse of war and violence.

In his seminal work on interstate conflicts, the political scientist Charles Tilly famously concluded that as much as states made war, war also made states.[43] In the case of Singapore, it seems as if the war has also, in a way, made the nation.

Picture taken from:


[1] Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?”. Nation and narration 11 (1990): 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Blackburn, Kevin, and Karl Hack. “Memory and Nation-Building in Singapore.” In War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012: 292

[4] Ibid, p.293

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cornelius-Takahama, Vernon. “Civilian War Memorial.” Civilian War Memorial. 2001. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[8] “Your Guide to the Monument Trail in Empress Place, Esplanade Park and War Memorial Park.” Accessed October 23, 2015.

[9] “Master Plan.” Civic and Cultural District by the Bay. October 22, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[10] Yeoh, Brenda, and Lily Kong. “The notion of place in the construction of history, nostalgia and heritage in Singapore.” Singapore journal of tropical geography 17, no. 1 (1997): 58.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Loh, Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore story: The use and narrative of history in Singapore.” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (1998): 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Launch of National Education – Singapore History.” Launch of National Education – Singapore History. 2014. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[15] Loh, Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore story.” :3.

[16] Blackburn, Kevin, and Karl Hack. “Memory and Nation-Building in Singapore.”: 294

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, my emphasis

[20] Ibid, p. 299

[21] “Launch of National Education – Singapore History.” Launch of National Education – Singapore History. 2014. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[22] Loh, Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore story.”: 6.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Launch of National Education – Singapore History.” Launch of National Education – Singapore History. 2014. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “NATIONAL DAY CEREMONY FOR SCHOOLS.” Ministry of Education Press Release, 23 July 1998. July 22, 2004. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[28] Aitchinson, Jim. ”Recollections”. 1998.

[29] NATIONAL DAY CEREMONY FOR SCHOOLS.” Ministry of Education Press Release, 23 July 1998. July 22, 2004. Accessed October 23, 2015.

[30] Teo, Ngee Kuan. “Every Singaporean Son”. 2010.

[31] Nair, Elizatbeth. “Conscription and Nation-Building in Singapore: A Psychological Analysis.” Journal of Human Values, 1995, 94

[32] Ibid, p. 93

[33] Every Singaporean Son. Directed by Dom Ow. Singapore Ministry of Defence, 2012. Film.

[34] Leong, Laurence Wai-Teng. “Consuming the nation: national day parades in Singapore.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3 (2001): 6.

[35] Ibid, p.7

[36] Ibid, p. 9

[37] Ibid.

[38] Kong, Lily, and Brenda SA Yeoh. “The construction of national identity through the production of ritual and spectacle: an analysis of National Day parades in Singapore.” Political Geography 16, no. 3 (1997): 214.

[39] Ibid, p. 225

[40] Leong, Laurence Wai-Teng. “Consuming the nation”: 11.

[41] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso Books, 2006.

[42] Blackburn, Kevin, and Karl Hack. “Memory and Nation-Building in Singapore.”: 311

[43] Tilly, Charles. Coercion, capital, and European states, AD 990-1992. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.


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