Published on 07 Aug 2023

Takeaways from the National Day Parade

Watching a rehearsal reminded my family that we need to pick ourselves up after a fall and stay committed to one another. I finally got to attend a National Day Parade (NDP) rehearsal this year after balloting for tickets in the past without success. My elder boy is serving at the parade as part of his national service duties, so our family was able to get tickets to watch a parade rehearsal in June. The event is back at the Padang again after years of being held at the floating platform. The location is significant on two counts. Singapore's first NDP was celebrated there.On a more personal level, my wife and I had our first long conversation on the steps of what is today the National Gallery Singapore, overlooking the Padang, while we were dating.


Never could I imagine that 25 years later, we would be at the Padang for an NDP rehearsal with our two grown boys.The theme of the parade is Onward As One, which is brought to life by the visual spectacle of the march-pasts, aerial displays and musical acts put on by the 2,500 performers. There were three takeaways which stood out for us as a family.

Getting up after a fall

Many viewers of 2022's parade will remember that Third Warrant Officer Jeffrey Heng had a hard landing after parachuting onto the floating platform due to volatile wind conditions. He was stretchered off to the collective gasp of spectators watching in-person and on-screen. He had made 1,100 jumps before, but experience does not prevent mishaps. His experience did allow him to execute a safety drill from muscle memory, which helped him avoid far more serious injuries. The safety review following the incident also made recommendations on enhanced safety for future jumps. It is heartening to see the Red Lions jumping at this National Day. Seeing the successful jumps at the rehearsal and remembering last year's fall choked me up. Similar to jumping out of a plane, there will always be risks that Singapore faces as a country: a looming global recession, impending job losses as the economy faces headwinds and the existential threat of artificial intelligence. For us, the lesson to be drawn is to accept that there will be risks in the future. And no matter how much preparation, education and experience we have, falling is a real possibility. As we have seen with the Red Lions, the key is to pick ourselves up after a fall, assess what can be done better and keep moving onwards.

Leading by example

The Padang was the site of Singapore's first NDP celebration in 1966. The Parliament, just beside it, was where Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made many fiery speeches. A decade ago, Mr Lee went to Parliament on his 90th birthday, against his doctor's wishes, to remind the country's leaders that Singapore must remain clean and incorruptible. He made it clear that MPs and ministers had a duty to lead by example. The late Professor Samuel Huntington, a Harvard University political scientist, who authored the famous book The Clash Of Civilizations And The Remaking Of World Order (1996), wrote that Mr Lee "was determined to make Singapore as uncorrupt as possible and succeeded".

However, he was doubtful as to "how uncorrupt Singapore will remain after Lee Kuan Yew is no longer there". Singapore has been seen as a well-governed incorruptible nation. It is one of the country's key pillars of success. Yet the country finds itself in the midst of what Time magazine has billed as the nation's "most serious graft probe since 1986", referring to Transport Minister S. Iswaran's investigation by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. Poignantly, at Mr Lee's passing, the Padang was where tens of thousands of people, myself included, queued for hours through the night to pay our last respects to him. We did that because his greatest satisfaction in life was to have built a meritocratic, corruption-free Singapore, equal for all races. For us, this year's NDP is an opportunity to renew our commitment to the clean and incorruptible country that Mr Lee spent his life building, and which he hoped would be his legacy for generations to come.

Building character through a school band

There is a special segment put on by the marching band and dancers of Deyi Secondary School for NDP. I was enthralled by how the drum major spun his mace as he led the band through its complex dance and musical movements. And I had a chance to observe the school's NDP preparations and talk to the staff and students for this column. The 150 kids involved in Deyi's NDP item would have had more than 40 combined practices under the blazing afternoon sun by the time Aug 9 rolls around. This does not include the numerous other training sessions where the students practise in smaller groups. The goal of the sessions is to hone the students' music and movement, with the intent of locking everything into muscle memory for the actual day. As I talked with student leaders about their sacrifice, they told me that persevering through the training has made them tougher. The coordination and planning of the NDP preparation have been organised by the band director, Mrs Chee-Say Ken Shen, and a handful of teachers. The feat of marching, playing music and dancing would not be possible without the help of 26 Deyi alumni who returned to help out. Mrs Chee-Say told me that the origin story of the Deyi band is linked to Mr Lee. According to the National Library's Music SG digital archive, Singapore's Band Project was launched in 1965 when Mr Lee decided that bands should be formed in all schools to build group discipline, esprit de corps and a sense of national identity among students. He felt that school bands would have a positive effect on public morale when they performed at outdoor functions. For Mrs Chee-Say, the band is not merely a co-curricular activity in school. She joined 43 years ago as its founding band director and clearly loves the school and its students. Generations of band alumni come back to help with the Deyi band because of the connection to Mrs Chee-Say and the close bonds that they have formed in their years training and performing together.

She continues to keep in touch with her students after they graduate. She arranged for me to meet band alumnus Eric Chua Wee Meng, who shared how the school band changed his life. He was a Deyi student in the early 1990s. At the time, the area around the school was quite poor and there were many unsavoury characters who hung around the vicinity. He said there were ample opportunities for him to be mixed up with bad company. Today, Mr Chua is the vice-chair of the citizens' consultative committee of his constituency and the chairman of the residents' committee in his neighbourhood. These are in addition to him being a senior executive in one of the top sound companies in the region. He told me that he would not be where he was today, if not for Mrs Chee-Say, Deyi and the band. That is why he is still volunteering with the band more than 30 years after graduating from the school. Through the band, Mr Lee's legacy lives on long after his death. I am confident that Deyi's item during NDP will fully deliver a positive effect on public morale.

The  principal of Deyi, Mrs Lim Ai Poo, shared with me the slogan of her school: "Today you are proud of Deyi, tomorrow Deyi will be proud of you." It speaks of the commitment the school has to its students and, in turn, the students have a commitment to the school, their families and the community at large. Such is the nature of foundational commitments. Our children learn it at school, alongside their responsibility to take care of their family and serve the country. What a timely reminder when a few elected leaders have fallen short.

For our family, watching the NDP on Aug 9 is a reminder to pick ourselves up after a fall, lead by example, and renew our commitments to one another and to the country.

Source : The Straits Times

Abel Ang is an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.