50 YEARS OF NDP

'I prayed I would not faint'

Mr Chiang with a baritone horn - the instrument he played at the 1966 National Day Parade - in St Gabriel's Secondary School. To ensure punctuality, he and others had stayed overnight at the school and slept on tables. A then 15-year-old Bernard Chia
Mr Chiang with a baritone horn - the instrument he played at the 1966 National Day Parade - in St Gabriel's Secondary School. To ensure punctuality, he and others had stayed overnight at the school and slept on tables. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Mr Chiang with a baritone horn - the instrument he played at the 1966 National Day Parade - in St Gabriel's Secondary School. To ensure punctuality, he and others had stayed overnight at the school and slept on tables. A then 15-year-old Bernard Chia
A then 15-year-old Bernard Chiang (second row, second from right) at a National Day Parade band practice session in 1966 in St Gabriel's Secondary School.PHOTO: COURTESY OF BERNARD CHIANG

It was Aug 8, 1966, the eve of Singapore's first National Day. A group of boys at St Gabriel's Secondary School pulled together wooden tables in a classroom to sleep on, instead of the dirty floor.

Mr Bernard Chiang, then 15, was one of them. They were members of the school's brass band, which was to play at the first parade.

Participants had to assemble at Merdeka Bridge, spanning the mouths of the Kallang River and Rochor River, at 5am the next day.

To be sure they would be on time, more than 30 students who lived some distance away from the school - at the junction of Hillside Drive and Upper Serangoon Road - decided to sleep at the school.

It turned out to be a memorable night. "Boys being boys, there was not much sleeping that night," said Mr Chiang, 65, now a florist.

Some time after midnight, Mr Chiang nodded off for a couple of hours before he had to be up to board the chartered bus.

 

KEEPING HIS FINGERS CROSSED

I was praying hard that I wouldn't faint. A lot of people fainted during the parade probably because they didn't have a proper breakfast or enough sleep.

MR BERNARD CHIANG, on participating in Singapore's first National Day Parade as an independent nation in 1966.

 

"I was praying hard that I wouldn't faint. A lot of people fainted during the parade probably because they didn't have a proper breakfast or enough sleep."

The band marched from the Merdeka Bridge to the Padang, at least 2km away, where all the contingents assembled to wait for President Yusof Ishak to arrive.

"We felt very proud. Proud to be selected for the parade and proud because it was Singapore's first National Day," he said.

While his family was supportive of him joining the school band, Mr Chiang could not say the same of his neighbours. His home was in Kampung Chia Keng, a village located in Yio Chu Kang Road, opposite present-day Serangoon Stadium.

He played the baritone horn, a low-pitched brass instrument, which he would lug home each day to practise.

"I had 20 cents daily for my meals and transport. In order to be able to eat, I walked the 20 minutes between home and school," he said. "I also had to finish homework first before I could practise. Sometimes I played past midnight. Of course the neighbours complained."

The school's brass band was formed in 1965 as part of a move by the Government to encourage bands to develop group discipline and a sense of national identity, and give students a start in learning music. Challenges included a lack of instructors and teachers.

It was very difficult for the beginners, so practice sessions were intensive under the band instructor, Mr Colin Hunter, and his assistant, both from the British Army.

"The instructor was very strict. He would take his conductor's baton and throw it at a student if he was fooling around. We were not allowed to skip any practice, even when we were preparing for our GCE O-level examinations in 1968," said Mr Chiang.

He took part in the first four National Day parades from 1966 to 1969; and in 1974, he was called up again to be part of the national service reservist contingent.

The father of two and grandfather of two still keeps in touch with his bandmates. They reminiscence about youth, the years gone by and that unforgettable parade in 1968, when they shivered in the rain but marched proudly at the Padang.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline ''I prayed I would not faint''. Print Edition | Subscribe