SINGAPORE: It started like a sell-out rock concert, with 25,000 spectators and a stage that erupted in flashing lights and a twanging electric guitar solo.
Only it wasn’t a rock concert, but the show segment of this year’s National Day Parade (NDP) on Thursday (Aug 9), and the guitar solo was a rendition of the national anthem Majulah Singapura.
The theme of Singapore’s 53rd birthday celebration, We Are Singapore, aims to recognise everyday Singaporeans who share a common identity, and the show managed to drive this home across three acts that proved to be equal parts nostalgia and visual bonanza.
Act One opened with more 600 Institute of Technical Education (ITE) students rushing onto stage, each dressed in a nod to Singapore’s humble beginnings.
Some were samsui women, others were sweaty pushcart sellers peddling steamed chicken - all dancing to a beat that celebrated the Singapore spirit, as they illustrated how our forefathers forged the Singapore we know today.
The students were also joined by real workers of the present - cleaners, construction workers, teachers and bus drivers. And the props, including luggage carts, satellite dishes, even gleaming Housing and Development Board blocks, made everything come alive.
If the first act was all about the dynamism, the one that followed was a feast for the eyes.
Against the night sky, a brilliantly illuminated procession of 18 boats and floats sailed in across Marina Bay, which by now was occupied by the watching hundreds who didn’t have tickets.
Fronting the parade were three floats, each carrying one of the nostalgic dragon, dove and pelican playgrounds.
The almost gloomy lights reflected singer Aisyah Aziz’s ethereal vocals, but the mood picked up when 12 sparkling balloon garlands, each 18m long, snaked into the show.
Like jellyfish tentacles flickering in different colours, the garlands reached high into the sky. The spectators obliged, swinging their light bubbles to the vibrant performance.
The performance itself was a visual spectacle - more than 700 primary and secondary school students formed kaleidoscopic patterns with lighted lanterns, in what organisers hope would mirror the hopes and aspirations of the people.
READ: Sprints, heavy balloons and a lot of sweat - what it's like preparing to be an NDP garland performer
But perhaps what tugged at heartstrings the most was the show film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Boo Junfeng, that depicted real-life stories of five Singaporeans - a former samsui woman, ex-Olympic runner, struggling student, visually impaired busker and young social entrepreneur.
The film, woven throughout the three acts seamlessly on giant screens, showed how these individuals overcame challenges to achieve their goals.
The stories were heartwarming, and the feature on the blind busker and his son – a common sight near Tampines MRT – would have identified with many.
READ: NDP show segment to feature film on everyday Singaporeans, giant balloons and nostalgic mascots
Speaking after the show, researcher Ahmad Ahmad, 27, said the film “really captured” the essence of what Singapore is.
“I could relate to it,” said Ahmad, a first-time NDP spectator who got lucky on his first try balloting for tickets.
While the show segment takes the plaudits, the pre-parade segment - always a crowd favourite - deserves high praise as well.
The crowd gasped as they watched - footage captured from the bird’s eye view of unmanned aerial vehicle Heron-1 - eight naval combat divers jump off a helicopter 2,000m in the air. This is the first time that the divers, complete with masks, fins and rifles, are jumping at the NDP.
Hundreds chanted “hooyah!” as the divers, like black dots in the sky, deployed their parachutes and dropped in the water.
Also doing their own jump were the hugely popular Red Lions, this time from 3,800m in the air – the highest ever for an NDP.
While the weather made the jump impossible in 2016, it was all clear skies on Thursday. The wingsuited Red Lions, leaving behind red and white smoke trails, landed in a jog just in front of the stage, to much aplomb. Standing together, the divers and Red Lions saluted the nation.
“I’ve done this 20 times,” host Gurmit Singh said. “It never gets old.”
What also never gets old are all-time favourite National Day songs, and so there was time to get the crowd involved in a little singing competition.
The hosts picked out a few from the crowd and asked each to sing along to a song, before abruptly stopping it mid-sentence. To win, participants had to complete the line, and many gamely guessed correctly, cheered on by those sitting around them.
The melodious and even passionate voices soon turned to the thumps of the parade drums, as Singapore’s armed forces, police and civil defence force rolled onto stage.
Soon it was time for a landmark moment: President Halimah Yacob, in her first NDP holding the nation’s highest office, arrived and waved to cheers from the crowd.
As she inspected the parade, artillery cannons parked on the water volleyed as a mark of respect. The highest honour, however, were the five F-15SG fighter jets that pulled off a bomb burst against the sprawling skyline. With a boom they soared in formation above the crowd, before splitting up and zooming in different directions.
But the Republic of Singapore Air Force, celebrating its 50th jubilee, had more to show. In another impressive aerobatic display, an F-15SG executed a knife edge pass, pulled around the towering Marina Bay Sands, and shot into a gravity-defying vertical climb.
Still, the fireworks, which lit up the sky with loud colours and louder pops, remained the highlight of the show for many spectators.
While regular NDP spectator Huang Zijuan, 35, said she enjoyed the fireworks the most, she added that the performance by the ITE students stood out too.
“The props were very nice,” said Ms Huang, an investor who came with her six-year-old son Gideon.
Ms Huang said she ballots for the NDP every year, and will try again next year because it’s always a fun experience. “It’s one big party,” she added.
Mr Benjamin Cavalli, 45, praised the entire show, but reserved special mention for the fireworks.
This is not the first time that the Swiss banker has attended the NDP with his family, and he didn’t need to answer when asked if he’d try again next year. “Yes,” chimed in his smiling 10-year-old daughter Chiara.
“We’ve been here for more than 18 years,” Mr Cavalli said. “This is home for us.”