By Tan Bah Bah
The buntings are up for the National Day Parade or NDP, as most Singaporeans would refer to the national bash. Once a year, Singaporeans from every section of society get together to celebrate the country’s birthday – with much pomp and glory. But is the dancing, singing, flag-waving getting a little repetitive? Many approach the event with both a burst of pride and patriotism and a sense of déjà vu.
There had always been something stirring about the sight of Lee Kuan Yew (when he was in his ramrod prime) arriving to take his place on the VIP dais. Loud applause would greet him as his motorcade rolled in. Thunderous cheers would break out as he emerged and waved at the crowd. Similar palpable excitement would ripple through the audience, albeit mixed with increasing nostalgia and acceptance of mortality, in the last few years, as a less vigorous but still determined Lee joined his fellow MPs.
In the post-LKY era, the arrivals of the Prime Minister and the President (complete with 21-gun salute), the playing of the national anthem and, lately, the reciting of the National Pledge continue to be some of the highlights of every NDP. The symbols of statehood are reinforced again and again into the national psyche.
NPD also offers an opportunity to showcase many aspects of Singapore life – the reassuring military hardware and capability (the jetfighter flypast, helicoptered flag and precision parachute jumps), the community and civic groups, business fraternity, youths, culture, drills, fireworks and general song and dance.
The big question, 47 NDPs later, is: Do we now squeeze the format into an all too familiar routine – and risk the parade being as exciting as making or drinking
3-in-1 coffee? Or should we let the customers suggest other interesting ways to keep the brew fresh – and let it become something to look forward to, to enjoy every year, instead of an event which may have outlived its usefulness?
We do not necessarily have to settle down into a top-down , centralised, over-controlled, politically correct, picture-perfect parade year in, year out.
Try new approaches. Here are some thoughts and ideas, culled by this writer from Singaporeans who have taken part in the NDP as well as watched and interacted as spectators with their rattles, whistles and torchlights.
- Cut down the propaganda: The NDP is neither the right place nor the occasion to preach productivity or filial piety or trumpet the higher tonnage of PSA container ports.
- Periodically, let the various regional communities organise the parade: Encourage them to bring the flavours of their areas into the NDP. One year, Bukit Timah/Ulu Pandan/Holland Village will perhaps have more English-educated types showing off their Shakespearean talents or international perspectives. At another NDP, Ang Mo Kio/Bishan/Toa Payoh will bring in the heartland colours. At yet during other parades, the Central Zone (CBD) and an extremely vibrant West Coast (universities and Sentosa) will keep the proceedings slightly less predictable .
- Invite elected opposition parties: The party must have a minimum of three elected MPs, including non-constituency ones. This would be a logical development in the new normal. After all, the PAP always has a contingent in the parade. Plus, opposition MPs represent Singaporeans and already take part as VIPs in the grandstands.
- Allow a special sports champions group: All recognized sports, or at last those covered by the Singapore National Olympic Council or Football Association of Singapore.
- Make one year a special “care for the handicapped year:” Let the National Pledge be recited by a group of handicapped persons. This would be a highly visible commitment to the cause of a more caring society.
- Hook up live to Singaporeans around the globe: Examples are our ambassadors, students, the Singapore diaspora (however small), businessmen, travellers in off-the-beaten-track places, such as Mt Everest or Afghanistan. They can just wish the country “happy birthday” or the masters of ceremonies can have a conversation with them.
- Work towards a more relaxed parade: Emphasize on the celebratory part of NDP. It is about time to let go. This cosmopolitan society has enough creative instincts to do a good job of organizing and enjoying a great party.
Happy birthday, Singapore!
Tan Bah Bah is a retired journalist. He was a senior leader writer/columnist with The Straits Times and managing editor of a local magazine company.