Essay on Performativity of Lights in Singapore

Take a stroll down Orchard Road any night and you might notice some of the different kinds of performances that are happening around you. No, I’m not talking about the blind man at the Orchard underpass mangling familiar evergreen hits, nor am I talking about the scarily flexible contortionists dressed in skintight leopard print leotards that attract throngs of people without fail. I am referring to the performance of an “illusion of endless luminosity” that is the street. Spanning almost 2.2km, Orchard Road got its name from the nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards that used to lie on either sides of the street. Today, Orchard Road is a one-way street flanked by distinctive hypermodern shopping malls on both sides of the road. Personally, my favourite inclusion to the ever-burgeoning list of shopping malls littering the street would be ION Orchard. With more than three hundred fashion and gastronomy offerings, “combined with state-of-the-art technology and art, ION Orchard is a multi-sensory experience that will evoke all your senses”[sic] . While the interior of the mall performs the function of materialistic indulgence, the exterior of the mall is a performance in itself that is hard to miss – its signature glass façade doubles up as a giant media screen.

Now, as you stare at the screen in awe, your attention is drawn to the various other building façades and shop fronts. You then realize that you have an endless unblocked view of the street, lit up by hundreds of different kinds of lights. This is all thanks to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) 2006 lighting master plan, assuring us that “good lighting of buildings and public spaces can develop a signature image for the city, create a beautiful nightscape and enliven the visitor’s experience.” In this essay, I will argue that it is justifiable to say that performance is the condition of the modern nation-state of Singapore, focusing on the performative functions of light.

However, before we can talk about the performance of a nation-state, we first have to define it. Many definitions have been proposed, yet, as Tishkov concludes, “all attempts to develop terminological consensus around nation resulted in failure” . However, for the purposes of this essay, I shall focus on the nation-state as being founded on national identity and the mutual reinforcement of this identity by both the individual and the environment that he/she is in. Indeed, both the terms ‘nation’ and ‘national identity’ are social constructs and they “do not exist as essences but as political, cultural inventions and local tactics.” Singapore is a typical example of this. Since gaining sovereignty on 9 August 1965, the state saw a need to create a sense of nationhood and national identity in order to survive in a region amidst hostile neighbours. With the advent of globalization, there was also a further “need to assert a sense of the local and to construct a shared national identity” , before Singaporeans started adopting Western values. This national identity allowed the citizens of Singapore to come together under a commonality of nationalism, rather than the more politically unstable one of ethnicity . Thus, performance can be a useful metaphor since it allows us to look at the ways in which national identity is enacted and reproduced, and in turn constructing a sense of community. This follows closely with Benedict Anderson’s concept of an “imagined community”, which I will elaborate on in the later part of this paper.

Koolhaas has referred to Singapore as an “apparent victim of an out-of-control process of modernization” . This claim might sound a little harsh but our urban society today is indeed characterized by “unprecedented rapid and extensive transformation in the physical structure of the society.” Visitors who were at Orchard Road less than a year ago would be surprised to find that three entirely new shopping malls have sprouted out from the ground seemingly almost overnight! Not only are these malls retail and dining behemoths, they also look less like buildings but more like aesthetically pleasing sculptures organically formed with the environment, designed to “enhance the shopping street by creating a continuous line of shop fronts that are attractive, inviting and engaging”. This is done by letting light perform an aesthetic role, either by installing giant screens on the shop fronts to play advertisements or by using lights to create moving patterns on the buildings themselves. As lighting always has something to do, in one way or another, with a built environment, we could say that it is always architectural. As the build environment increases as Singapore modernizes (the level of light pollution has been increasing since the industrialization of Singapore began in the 1960s) we can conclude that the amount of light used in Singapore is directly proportionate to the level of modernization of the nation-state and in turn, we can say that the performance of light is a condition of modern Singapore.

Going onto URA’s ‘Lighting Up Our City Centre’ exhibition website , we see a flash image of the skyline of Singapore, literally glittering and pulsating with ‘light’ (even the website performs!). Upon clicking the ‘enter’ button, visitors are brought onto the next page where four interactive panels (the borders light up when you mouse over them) feature the areas that have been identified by the URA as target areas. Each of the four target areas (Orchard Road, Bras Basah & Bugis, Singapore River and CBD & Marina Bay) has a different proposed lighting plan. For instance, “‘white’ light is proposed along the main arterial roads to differentiate the CBD and Marina Bay as a modern business and financial hub” , as compared to creating “an enticing and inviting ambience along the promenades and river bank” by using warm lighting. The lighting thus performs the role of demarcating zones for the different activities that occur in these areas, enabling citizens to identify them as a place for either work or relaxation.

The lighting at the Singapore River however, performs on a more emotional level by bringing “experiences from the past vividly into the present.” Walking along the Singapore River, you get a heightened sense of the water and attention is drawn to the movement in the river because of the lights in the trees along the river, on the river walls, river taxis and the taxi stops. This not only serves to “create an enticing and captivating nightscape for visitors” , it also performs a sense of nostalgia by looking back on Singapore’s past as a trading port. Older citizens walking along the river at night can soak in this atmosphere of reminiscence as the lighting up of the trees and river taxis perform and enact the scorching sun that used to beat down on the coolies working at the port among the bumboats. The performance of light at the Singapore River today thus “seemed to prise open the contemporary reality of the place and permits [sic] the past to surge into the present.”

We see that just as “memorializing, rituals of commemoration, and site-based performances are all performative practices that function to elicit memory, or anchor it, in relation to place” , light functions in the same way to reinforce the identity of Singaporeans to Singapore by using the different performance of light to foster nostalgia or to imprint the meanings of different spaces into our minds. However, this reinforcement does not only apply to Singapore citizens, but also for any tourists or visitors walking around at night. This performance of light serves to anchor their memory of Singapore as a “vibrant global city” with “an alluring nightscape that is evocative and leaves a lasting impression” , as can be seen in the description of the lighting plan on the main page of the website. This is only possible because the modernization of Singapore led to the gradual departure of focus from industrialization and practicality, towards building up the aesthetics of the area. Therefore, we can say that light functions as a performance for Singapore’s modernity, and creates as well as reinforces the identity for this modern nation state.

We have talked about the performance of light in the context of built environment, but when we talk about the performance of light in itself, one event immediately comes to mind; a fireworks display. These lights perform on the level of a spectacle, which is “characterized by a high degree of display and theatricality” and is designed to create an impact through the use of awe and wonder. As mentioned, Anderson’s concept of an “imagined community” stems from his definition of the nation, being imagined as united by a “deep, horizontal comradeship” because the members of even the smallest nation “will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” . Spectators watching this performance of light inadvertently feel a sense of pride in what the nation has achieved, and it is this sense that binds them in a community, whether imaginary or not. In Singapore, fireworks can only be seen during the annual National Day parades, where “positive feelings of admiration and wonder” are inspired, connoting “triumph and proclaiming [sic] achievement.” As the scale and spectacle of this performance of light increases in tandem with Singapore’s modernization year after year, spectators are drawn to the parades so as to watch the fireworks with their own eyes. Perhaps in the aspect of light, Singapore can be said to be less of an “imagined” community but a performed one, where the performances of light serve to foster the bonds within the community by bringing them together subconsciously through the effect of the spectacle. Such a spectacle leaves “indelible impressions in the minds of spectators” and while there is a sense of celebration, this becomes abstracted, “entering the popular consciousness as evidence of Singapore’s triumph”.

The National Day parades, held on every 9 August since 1966, one year after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, is played out to “legitimate the power, historical grandeur, military might, legal process and institutional apparatus of the nation-state” . The National Day parades essentially fulfill Hobsbawn and Ranger’s theory of an ‘invented tradition’ which is “governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatic implies continuity with the past” . It is a public secular ritual, invented with the intention to strengthen group cohesion and join various individuals into one ‘nation’, by “both demonstrating community solidarity as well as augmenting the reservoir of collective memory”.

I have watched the telecast parades on television more often than I have been there in person, and I must say that even though one does not feel the atmosphere of the crowd, people who view the parades on television are treated to a visual delight, perhaps more so than the live audiences, as the camera zooms in and out, pans across the stadium and presents us with a bird eye view of the parades. Live audience members watching the show on site are transformed into part of the performance for viewers at home as they light up the torches found in their goodie bags and wave them in the air, with specific instructions of when, and how to do it by the audience ‘interactors’ (people who are planted in the audience to create atmosphere and lead in songs or dance). This not only creates a spectacle of twinkling lights in the night, which serves the function of creating the aforementioned solidarity, where individuals are not highlighted and instead are cohesively seen as hundreds of flickering lights, it also inscribes memory and identity into the bodies of the participants. By demanding stylized and repetitive performances, these movements become part of “social habit memory” , where an affective sense of belonging is bestowed onto the performer. He/she is thus not only performing, they are also inculcating memory and identity into themselves. With the addition of nationalistic songs like “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”, this provides the people watching with a “hypnotic confirmation of the solidarity of a single community” . The lyrics serve to drive home the message of national ideology while the performance of light from the torches across the stadium serve to ‘perform’ community. However, it is dangerous to claim that Singaporeans are ‘hypnotised’ into accepting national ideology against their better judgment, as the fact is that many people are happy to embrace the national identity as promoted by the state and are proud of how modern and advanced Singapore has become. Thus, without running the risk of assuming a Frankfurtian understanding, that the masses are brought together by the parades and are incapable of resisting the overpowering appeal that they communicate, passively consuming ideological messages, we focus on the performance aspect of the lights in the parade as being hypnotically enthralling and performing the condition of modern Singapore.

In this essay, I have talked about how light functions as a performance for Singapore’s modernity, in terms of the built environment and in spectacular rituals like the National Day parades, and how it creates as well as reinforces the identity for this modern nation state. I have also talked about Benedict Anderson’s concept of an “imagined community” and how in the aspect of light, Singapore can be said to be less of an “imagined” community but a performed one. However, we must be careful to note that the use of light is just one aspect of performance and that in order to present a multi-faceted view, we have to think about the other ways in which the nation can be performed, for example in music, theatre, fashion, etc. A specific example in the realm of theatre can be seen in Emily of Emerald Hill, whereby Kenneth Kwok claims that “many elements are intrinsic parts of the Singapore identity – the search for true self, the celebration of our heritage, the fighting spirit to overcome odds thru sheer perseverance and the gritting of teeth.” Thus, without limiting the rich complexity of performance to one field, this paper seeks to identify and isolate the various kinds of performances of light as not only performing Singapore, but also proving that performance is a condition of modern Singapore.

Works Cited

Anderson, B. (1983) “Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism,” Rev. ed. London: Verso.

Edensor, T. (2002) “National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life,” Berg, Oxford International Publishers Ltd.

Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (1983) “The Invention of Tradition,” Oxford: Blackwell.

ION Orchard (2009-2010) “Orchard Road: A Great Street,” Orchard Road Business Association, at:

Kong, L. and Yeoh, B. S. A. (2001 [1997]) “The Construction of National Identity through the Production of Ritual and Spectacle: An Analysis of National Day Parades in Singapore,’ in Garry Rodan (ed.) Singapore. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 375-402

Koolhaas, R. (1995) “Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis … or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa,” in Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau (ed.) S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press, pp. 1008-1089

Lo, J. (2004) “Staging Nation: English Language Theatre in Malaysia and Singapore,” Aberdeen, Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press.

McAuley, G. (2006) “Remembering and Forgetting: Place and Performance in the Memory Process” in Gay McAuley (ed.) Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, pp. 149-176

Tishkov ,V. A. (2000) “Forget the ‘Nation’: Post-nationalist Understanding of Nationalism,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies, pp. 625 – 650

URA (2006-2007) “Lighting Up Our City Centre,” at: 



About Junyi

Having graduated with a Bachelors in Arts with Honours, I traverse the fluff-covered, sometimes pretentious world of the arts, yet would like to think that I'm down to earth, doing things like sipping hot tea at kopitiams and sitting behind a desk during office hours. This website is a portfolio of the writing that I feel can be "aired in public" (and then some). I would like to one day be a journalist for all things lifestyle. Or a full time singer. Or a world-weary traveler. Or a clown. Feel free to look through and leave your thoughts.
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