A nation at ease with itself - quirks and all

Photographs of the SG50 National Day Parade 2015 at the Padang.
Photographs of the SG50 National Day Parade 2015 at the Padang. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

About two hours into yesterday's National Day Parade, I realised what the most important achievement of our young nation was as it celebrated its 50th birthday.

It was a segment that started with overseas Singaporeans talking about what they miss about their country. Invariably, it started with laksa, nasi lemak and various other local dishes.

They went on to the national pastime of queueing, of "chope-ing" or reserving seats using umbrellas and packets of tissue paper, and Singlish, our unique vernacular, which they said was a sure-fire way to recognise their fellow countrymen wherever they may be.

Then a giant lighted durian was wheeled out onto the giant Padang stage, complete with dancers frolicking around it, followed by a giant bowl of ice kachang. Amid the pulsating soundtrack, someone was chanting "char kway teow", "fish ball mee" and "chicken rice" with all the religious intensity of a monk trying to reach nirvana.

Later the soundtrack changed and classic campaign jingles from the 1970s and 1980s came on. I was amazed that I still knew all the words to the "Courtesy is for free" and "Good, better, best" jingles, and even the Mandarin chorus of the Speak Mandarin Campaign song.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

Someone had definitely turned up the kitsch factor because a giant lighted Singa the Lion was wheeled out on stage. Then the productivity mascot Teamy the Bee. The next bit of wildlife to emerge was, bizarrely, a big squid - with the words "Blur Like Sotong" on it, as the focus shifted to favourite Singlish phrases that Singaporeans use.

By the time singer Corrinne May emerged atop a dragon in the shape of the slides that used to feature in iconic HDB playgrounds of the 1980s, the "rojak" or pastiche of random Singapore symbols was complete.

There is nowhere else on this planet, I think I can safely say, where a packet of tissue paper (with the word "Chope!" on it) would feature as a national symbol in a country's all-important Golden Jubilee celebrations. But there it was, in all its giant lit-up glory - its symbolisation of the national "kiasu" spirit so instantly familiar to Singaporeans.

Finally, the dancers onstage formed themselves in the pattern of a tree, with its "roots in the national identity", said the parade commentators . One by one the lit-up symbols - Singa, Teamy, the bowl of ice kachang, the durian, the sotong and yes, the packet of tissue paper - became the "fruits" at the tip of the tree's branches.

In that borderline madcap moment, as I wondered briefly what this must look like to the foreign dignitaries attending the parade, the significance of Singapore turning 50 suddenly dawned on me.

Crazy as they are, these are some of the key symbols of our national identity. We may have been embarrassed by them at some point, but we are over that now.

We now have enough self-awareness to laugh about them, and even quite fondly accept them as part of our history and our DNA. And we also feel relaxed enough to celebrate them on the national stage in what is arguably the pinnacle of the Golden Jubilee celebrations.

At 50, not only has Singapore created a national identity, but we've also become mature enough to be happy with it.

To be frank, I was a little worried about this year's National Day Parade. I was afraid it was going to be one long history lesson about how the nation was built from nothing and how far it has come.

That it was going to rehash the traumatic events of the 1960s that led to Singapore being part of Malaysia and then separating from it. That we were going to see image after image of HDB estates being built, the start of National Service, the industrialisation of Jurong - you know, the usual events associated with how Singapore went from "Third World to First" in one generation.

We are, after all, at the start of election season and the ruling People's Action Party will want to remind voters again of its pivotal role in Singapore's success, especially that of the Republic's first Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

It is not that the story of how we built the nation is unimportant. It is just that it is one that has been told many times in the run-up to this SG50 year, and most Singaporeans were also reminded of it during the national week of mourning when Mr Lee passed away in March.

Instead, the SG50 National Day Parade focused on the people of Singapore, letting them explain what it is they like about their way of life on this tiny island and how much it has changed over the years.

In line with this, the organisers cleverly weaved into the pomp and pageantry some nice touches.

The mobile column of tanks and trucks that rolled past City Hall, for instance, was the biggest and most impressive display of hardware I had ever seen. But I felt a surge of real pride only right at the end, when nine relatively nondescript vehicles rolled past, with sets of real-life fathers and sons (who were both in the force) saluting the grandstand.

It showed that a country can have the best weapons and tanks that money can buy, but its defence is only as strong as the willingness of subsequent generations of Singaporeans to man them.

A parade like this is also the epitome of seriousness. Everything is done with military precision according to the book. So it was a pleasant surprise to see members of the SAF band put down their instruments in the middle of their segment, whip out fans and do a fan dance to the strains of "zhi ma lui dou", the theme song of the popular Channel 8 drama Neighbours.

A few of the primary school pupils were spotted on television totally out of sync with the music and the others, but they looked like they were having fun.

It was these offbeat moments, as well as other surprises like the "vintage parade" and an out-and-out rave version of Count On Me Singapore, that made NDP 2015 a more playful affair than I thought it would be, and a fitting close to the SG50 nationwide celebrations.

We've come this far as a result of hard work, careful planning and disciplined execution. But if you think this is all that Singapore stands for in the next 50 years, think again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'A nation at ease with itself - quirks and all'. Print Edition | Subscribe