SINGAPORE: National Day celebrations in Singapore began in 1966, a year after its separation from Malaysia. The first National Day Parade was held in the morning, starting at 9am with the arrival of Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president, on the steps of City Hall. Military personnel, a mobile column and contingents from schools and civil groups marched past City Hall onto the city streets, accompanied by music from the military bands.
In the 49 years since then, the National Day Parade (NDP) has evolved into a feast for the senses, with spectacular formations, colourful floats, aerial flypasts, multimedia performances and extravagant firework displays.
Former members of the Catholic High School band recall what happened during the 1968 National Day Parade.
THE DAY IT RAINED ON SINGAPORE'S PARADE
One parade that older Singaporeans would remember is the 1968 one which took place amid a heavy downpour. “According to the weather forecast, it was cloudy with the possibility of rain,” said Major (Retired) Abbas Amin, secretary to the 1968 NDP Executive Committee. “I was a bit worried about what would happen if the rain really came. And it came down very heavily.”
The torrential rain caught everyone by surprise. Participants, dignitaries and audience members alike were drenched, but everyone stood ground and pressed on and the parade went on as planned.
Those who came to watch the National Day Parade were drenched from head to toe.
MARCHING IN THE RAIN
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was one of participants in the 1968 parade, as a member of the Catholic High School Band. In his 2005 National Day Rally speech, he recalled what happened: “Those of you who were there will never forget it. It was a downpour, we froze, we were drenched. Our instruments had to be turned upside down to pour the water out. We watched to see if we stood or if we ran for cover. Nobody ran for cover, we shivered but we stood there and we marched with pride.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong played with the Catholic High School Band in 1968.
Chua Chee Kheng, the Prime Minister’s former bandmate, agreed: “Many of us started shivering and our teeth were chattering, but no one complained, or tried to take shelter. We just endured on, and the whole Padang was blur in our vision.
“As we marched past the City Hall, I was really overwhelmed with the sense of pride when I saw the President standing in the rain too, and the loud cheers from the grandstand literally made me just march taller,” said Mr Chua.
For Yeo Hiok Khoon, another band member, performing during the parade was no different from any other rehearsal: “There was a slogan at that time, so-called "rugged society". Once it started, you just do the usual thing, you just go, you don’t care. We just went through with the whole thing. By then we didn’t care whether our shoes got wet or that our instruments captured water."
Chua Chee Kheng (left) and Yeo Hiok Khoon (right) are former members of the Catholic High School Band that performed during the 1968 parade.
SCHOOL BANDS AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
Before independence, Singapore school bands were rare. But the Ministry of Education (MOE) launched the Band Project in the mid 1960s, as part of the Extra Curricular Activity Programme. Mr David Lim was head of the music department at MOE: “Early 1965, I was called up by the Prime Minister (Lee Kuan Yew), and then he asked me, ‘Can you start bands in schools?'
“At that time, there were only four school bands, and they were not full bands … So I was asked to start the military band, as well as for marching, so for that National Day, we have enough school bands to march around the Padang.”
Mr David Lim was called on by Mr Lee Kuan Yew to start school bands.
Back then, many students who joined the bands had no prior musical knowledge and had to learn to play instruments from scratch. But it was "recognised that a band had great potential to engender group discipline, esprit de corps and a sense of national identity among our youths,” said Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, in a 2012 speech.
Chris Sim is also a former member of the Catholic High School Band.
For Chris Sim, who played the horn in the Catholic High School band, the fact that the 1968 parade went on despite the bucketing rain was a reflection of the nation’s unity. “Even though we are a small nation, we are united as one and we overcame the bad weather. It gave us a sense of energy and determination as a young nation.”
To celebrate SG50, Channel NewsAsia’s special national day series “Reunions” will reunite members of the Catholic High School band that performed in the 1968 National Day Parade. Catch Reunions from 3 Aug, Mon, 8pm (SG/HK), Channel NewsAsia.