SINGAPORE: Over the years, the National Day Parade contingents usually reserve their salute for two individuals: The Prime Minister and then the President.
But on Sunday morning (Aug 9), the Padang played host to a different type of National Day Parade, one that has been downsized and adapted for the COVID-19 pandemic. And so it was only apt that a certain group received a salute too.
Against the backdrop of the National Gallery, 16 frontline and essential workers stepped onto the road to face parade commander Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Nicholas Ong. Among the workers were a nurse, ambulance driver and supermarket cashier.
“Hormat senjata!” LTC Ong roared.
President Halimah Yacob watched on as officers in the contingents thrust their rifles to the front as a mark of respect, creating a soft rattle in the largely empty field.
The frontline workers turned to applaud the watching crowd, which waved little Singapore flags in return. The salute was dedicated to all frontline and essential workers who have helped Singapore battle the coronavirus.
To comply with safe distancing, the normally sizeable parade contingents were only made up of personnel from the Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Police Force. The size of each contingent was halved from the usual 72.
Absent were the thousands of spectators singing along to their favourite songs, and tanks and five-tonners rumbling past the National Gallery. Neither were there men and women with parachutes landing with a whoosh.
A total of 150 people, including ministers and incoming Members of Parliament as well as representatives from the general public, watched the parade. The mobile column and Red Lions were moved to the heartlands, as organisers urged the public to watch the celebrations at home.
The parade kicked off a full day of festivities across the island, which will include a maritime sail-past at the Marina Barrage and Marina South Pier, as well as fireworks at 10 locations including Bishan, Punggol, Tampines and Woodlands.
Back at the Padang, the contingents marched in under the morning sun, wearing the usual smart white uniforms and matching white masks. They stood at least 1m apart, instead of the normal 0.5m.
The grandest entrance was accorded to the President. Mdm Halimah alighted and waved to spectators, wearing a brooch and white scarf that were co-created by artists with disabilities and local brands under an SG Enable initiative.
As Mdm Halimah stood on the podium for the National Anthem, the Public Warning System siren rang through the rest of Singapore, a signal for people to sing along in what organisers dubbed the “anthem moment”.
The Singapore flag was raised concurrently in seven other locations representing key national sectors. A Chinook helicopter carried the state flag over the Padang, its first stop in a 55-minute route that includes eastern neighbourhoods like Marine Parade, Bedok and Pasir Ris.
While Mdm Halimah inspected the parade, 25-pounder guns on the other side of the field volleyed raucously and covered the Padang in white smoke, the first time that this has taken place at this venue.
ROAR OF UNITY
But perhaps the biggest tribute, again dedicated to frontline workers, came from the sky.
Six F-15SG fighter jets soared in a tight delta formation over the Padang, their afterburners booming in what organisers called a “roar of unity”. These jets would also go on to make tribute passes around eight hospitals.
Ms Nirmala Nair, a head nurse at Ang Mo Kio polyclinic, said it was an honour to attend her first ever National Day Parade and receive the salute.
“The way that the (salute) this day was done, especially for the frontliners, I’m very touched, I'm very privileged and I'm very, very grateful that there's an honour and recognition given to the frontliners,” said the 62-year-old, who has been a nurse for 40 years.
“It's a special moment, and we will treasure this for many years to come.”
READ: ‘We will need this unity and resilience more than ever’ in fight against COVID-19, says PM Lee in National Day message
Ms Nair, who attends to potential COVID-19 patients showing respiratory symptoms at the polyclinic, said her family and colleagues were watching the parade at home.
“I’m very proud of them because I’m here to represent nursing, and it’s such an honour and privilege to be here ... on behalf of all of them,” she added.
“We have a lot of people who are quietly working behind the scenes, but always never been projected up front and maybe recognised, and I think it is never going to be the same after this year because we know many out there have been keeping our country safe.”
‘MANY MORE WHO MADE SACRIFICES’
Mr Muhammad Ferdauz Abdul Kadir, 39, who ferries COVID-19 patients in buses from hospitals to isolation facilities, said he wishes that his colleagues could be at the parade too.
Mr Ferdauz was one of the first to volunteer for the job amid concerns from his family, and slept in a different room at the start to reduce the risk of infection.
So he said he was very humbled to receive the salute, calling it an “indescribable feeling”.
“There’s a lot more people who actually contributed a lot more and made sacrifices,” he said. “If only they could be here.”
Both Ms Nair and Mr Ferdauz spoke to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong before he left the parade, stating that Mr Lee thanked them for their work.
“I don't think that is anything more rewarding than to see all of us here put our heart and passion upfront,” Ms Nair said. “Because nothing can trade off the saving of lives.”