Commentary: NDP a uniquely Singapore phenomenon
Holding the National Day Parade in these coronavirus times has seen some debate but it’s worth keeping in mind that the parade is meaningful to many Singaporeans and participants, says Judith d’Silva.
SINGAPORE: The National Day Parade (NDP) is a Singaporean event that stirs up emotions and sometimes much discussion about how it should be conducted and what the fun pack should contain.
This year, as Singapore’s fight against the coronavirus continues, the discussion has been more robust than usual.
I confess – I am an NDP fan. I have been one since Singapore’s first on Aug 9, 1966, when I was a young police cadet marching in a contingent carrying flags.
Even now I remember the awe of standing in the Padang, among thousands of other participants in their respective contingents.
Then in 1969, on Singapore’s fourth National Day, I found myself sitting on the steps of City Hall. I was in the combined choir selected to sing the National Anthem. It was also the 150th anniversary since Stamford Raffles established a trading post in Singapore, and foreign dignitaries were invited.
I will always remember my excitement, taking in the panoramic view I had of the parade.
It was the first time a mobile column, led by the Singapore Armed Forces’ first shipment of AMX-13 tanks, rumbled down St Andrews Road past City Hall. It raised goosebumps all round. The display of armour did not go unnoticed both in Singapore and elsewhere.
A SHOW OF CONFIDENCE, A REMINDER TO KEEP LOOKING UP
To understand the significance, we must remember that we were a young nation then. We were grappling with a host of economic, racial, security and diplomatic issues arising from our separation with Malaysia, the impending British military withdrawal, and the hanging of the Indonesian saboteurs who bombed MacDonald House during Confrontation.
The air was thick with anxiety and fear. Suddenly cut loose from our hinterland, the question on everyone’s mind was whether we could go it alone and survive.
In such a time, NDP was a show of strength and confidence that instilled a sense of nationhood, patriotism and pride in being Singaporean. It encouraged us to imagine a brighter future, even if that scenario seemed far from the current reality.
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As Singapore grew and prospered, NDP has been a platform to also showcase and celebrate our nation's progress, and draw strength from our achievements as we rally ourselves to prepare for the future.
MARKING MILESTONES IN OUR SINGAPORE STORY
NDP still is all these things.
In 2015, our Golden Jubilee, we marked 50 years as a sovereign independent nation in perhaps the most memorable parade ever at the Padang. It was the largest national day parade to date.
It was a beautiful celebration of our resolve to survive and our progress as a nation over the last 50 years. It evoked pride in our nation, as it reminded us of how far we had come and encouraged us to look forward to our future.
From the showcasing of our pioneer generation and the colourful display of our identity and diverse cultures, to the spectacular parade, mobile column and flypast in the shape of 50, it encapsulated our spirit and energy.
A poignant moment that touched everyone was the tribute segment in the parade dedicated to the life and accomplishments of Mr Lee Kuan Yew who died five months earlier.
Regardless of our political persuasions, most Singaporeans recognised the crucial role he had played in the development of Singapore and wanted to show our appreciation.
Just last year, we celebrated our 54th year of independence. It was special because it was also our bicentennial. It was held at the Padang, although we do parades there only once every five years, because of the Padang’s historical significance.
The show took us back to our past to appreciate how far we had come and how we got here. It instilled confidence as we looked forward and girded ourselves to face new problems in an uncertain world.
A RALLYING POINT IN HARD TIMES
NDPs have also served to rally Singaporeans in the face of crises and difficult economic times. This happened in 1985 when, after almost 20 years of uninterrupted growth, Singapore suffered its first recession.
Affected by a worldwide slowdown, our economy registered zero growth. The mood was sombre. There were no floats and no fireworks.
But there was an NDP. They may have been downcast, but Singaporeans gave their best to put up a good show. It was cause to be confident that we would turn adversity into success, even as we set our sights ahead to a new vision for our country.
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The next hit came in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis swept the region. Singapore sank into a deep recession in 1998. It was the first of many crises in the following decade when we had to contend with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and then the global financial crisis in 2008.
In those years, budgets were tight but we held the NDP without fail. Participants and spectators regardless of race, language or religion came together as one nation to reaffirm our commitment to doing more for this country in unity and harmony.
The 2003 NDP, for instance, was held at a time when SARS and the terrorist threat after 911 heightened health and security concerns for Singapore. But everyone rose to the occasion.
The heroes in the battle against SARS were remembered and honoured at the parade. Spirits were lifted. Singaporeans understood the meaning of tenacity, commitment and resilience.
NDP 2009 was also held amid most challenging circumstances. Singapore was in our deepest recession since independence and the local spread of the influenza A (H1N1) virus was peaking. There were calls for the parade to be cancelled, postponed or scaled down.
Undaunted, the NDP organisers went all out to engage as many people as possible, working with a wide range of organisations and embarking on a massive social media effort, to execute the 8.22pm Pledge Moment. They understood the power of drawing Singaporeans together to reaffirm their commitment to our country.
It was a very special and meaningful moment when the hearts and minds of all Singaporeans tuned in to one message – we stick together through rough times.
OUR BIGGEST CRISIS EVER
This year we face our toughest crisis yet. COVID-19 has threatened our lives and livelihoods. It has brought the entire country to almost a standstill.
Singapore is now slowly and cautiously trying to get back on our feet. Some Singaporeans think that money spent on the NDP could be better used to help the needy.
But we have never cancelled any NDP, no matter how dark the times. Doing so now would be like surrendering to the coronavirus.
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I have always seen the NDP as more than a celebration of nationhood and Singapore’s progress. It is a demonstration – to the world and ourselves – of the determination and resilience that keeps us going no matter what hits us, of our confidence in our future, and of our pride in our unity.
Every segment of the parade and show reminds us that we helped to build this, our, nation, reaffirms our can-do spirit, and spurs us on to greater success.
Creative directors may change from year to year, but the theme is always the Singapore Story – how we overcame challenges in the past, how far we have come, and what our future could be if we remain united and true to our beliefs.
This is why the NDP is so special and important to us. It is a reaffirmation that we can, and we will, all stand together to face the challenges to our nation and our countrymen.
Some may even say, like Ivan Heng who was NDP creative director in 2009, that the NDP is a “uniquely Singapore phenomenon”. This phrase jumped out at me. How does one describe an event that reinforces our unity and recharges our spirits?
This is the time we need the NDP most.
In the last 10 years until I retired, I had been involved in the NDP Executive Committee. I looked forward to every rehearsal. It never failed to amaze me how hard and quickly the organisers and participants worked to solve problems so that each rehearsal was better than the one before, culminating in a spectacular show on the big day.
I could tell that their dedication and commitment and what drove them to perfection came simply from a love for this country that is our home. This is priceless.
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Judith d’Silva retired from the civil service in 2019.