50 YEARS OF NDP

Daytime parade posed challenge

Mr Wong (centre, in uniform) talking to then First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Goh Chok Tong and Second Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong during an NDP rehearsal. Mr Wong, 65, at the new National Stadium. In 1989, he was the ch
Mr Wong, 65, at the new National Stadium. In 1989, he was the chairman of the NDP executive committee and had the rare challenge of organising a daytime parade at the old National Stadium.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Mr Wong (centre, in uniform) talking to then First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Goh Chok Tong and Second Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong during an NDP rehearsal. Mr Wong, 65, at the new National Stadium. In 1989, he was the ch
Mr Wong (centre, in uniform) talking to then First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Goh Chok Tong and Second Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong during an NDP rehearsal.PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEPHEN WONG

It was not easy to organise a birthday party for 60,000 people at a sports stadium.

But what seemed like a logistical nightmare turned into a career highlight for Mr Stephen Wong, then Lieutenant-Colonel and Commander of the Second Singapore Infantry Brigade, when he was appointed chairman of the 1989 National Day Parade executive committee.

The official letter from the Ministry of Defence came by mail about a year before. It put him in charge of a main committee with 40 sub-committees that oversaw various aspects of the parade, from publicity and ushering to the actual parade ceremony and show at the old National Stadium.

As if it were not already a big enough job, he also had the unique challenge of organising a daytime parade.

The organisers kept the surprise item - the first daylight fireworks since 1966 - under wraps for weeks. A string of 20 successive smoke patterns taking the shape of chrysanthemums, palms and willows, was timed to coincide with a 75-second climax of the grand finale.

MANUAL APPROACH

Everything had to be done manually. If there were changes to the sequence, we had to type new pages, print them out and distribute (them) to everybody. If someone paged you, you had to look for a public phone or a landline to call back.

MR STEPHEN WONG, chairman of the 1989 NDP executive committee, on the lack of technology back then.

"We went to Korea to have a look at it. To be honest, it was not as beautiful as night fireworks but, at that point of time, that was the best we could get," said Mr Wong, now 65 and retired.

 

To the head honcho, only the best was good enough for the nation's annual celebration of independence, one he saw as "a showcase of our past and future to Singaporeans and the rest of the world".

Singapore's 24th birthday was also the debut of the Singapore Armed Forces parachute team as a formal team. The 24 free-falling commandos jumped from three helicopters 1,800m above the stadium with streamers strapped to their legs. Now known as the Red Lions, the name was adopted in 1996 for team identity.

A birthday party would not be complete without a birthday cake, candles and a Happy Birthday song, so the stadium was dressed up like a birthday cake.

"If you looked from the top, you would see the words 'Happy Birthday' on the roof. The four floodlights that illuminated the stadium were clad in red. On the ground, we had participants forming a huge '24'. Twenty-four big candles were rolled in and lit up electronically while everyone waved and sang a birthday song," Mr Wong reminisced with a smile.

More than 100 soldiers took just one minute to assemble a mobile stage for the grand finale and party after the parade, so that people could stay and have fun to "compensate for the so-called disadvantages of having a daylight parade".

Like a sleek pit stop during a Formula One race, there was no room for error. In order to ensure precision timing, countless hours went into planning so that everything proceeded smoothly and seamlessly.

In an era of cassette tapes, pagers and floppy disks, coordinating every detail was not as simple as sending an e-mail or forming a WhatsApp group. "Everything had to be done manually. If there were changes to the sequence, we had to type new pages, print them out and distribute (them) to everybody. If someone paged you, you had to look for a public phone or a landline to call back," he mused.

On the bright side, there were no mobiles phones to distract people during meetings.

Highlighting the fact that a National Day Parade is organised "by the people, for the people", Mr Wong paid tribute to the unsung heroes of every parade, from ushers, medics and liaison officers, to marshals and police, to the broadcast crew and the people behind the fireworks, among many others.

While he acknowledged that improvements in technology bring about new opportunities to make parades exciting, Mr Wong said it also becomes increasingly difficult to create something different and exciting every year.

There was no fancy lighting or multimedia equipment in 1989. Instead, spectators were given a pair of oversized green and orange PVC gloves which they used to wave at then President Wee Kim Wee, who was driven around the stadium in a Land Rover so he could get closer to the people.

Sponsored by the Singapore Press Holdings, the gloves measured 50cm by 36cm and were used at various stages of the parade to liven up the atmosphere.

A pair was presented to Mr Wong by his executive committee, together with an album of photographs, as everyone went their own way after the parade.

The "Big Hands" are still in a frame on the wall of his study as a cheerful reminder of the giant birthday party he made happen all those years ago.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Daytime parade posed challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe