National Day Parade in the 1960s: How it happened, from those who were there

SINGAPORE - Hours before the Ministers and VIPs arrived at 9am, the marching contingents stood in neat rows under the morning sun at the Padang.

Some 23,000 took part in the National Day Parade in 1966, just a year after Singapore's independence.

For Mr Chia Hearn Meng of the People's Defence Force, whose memories were mentioned by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on his Facebook page, the day started at 2am, when he collected and cleaned his rifle from the armoury.

The students had to assemble at 5am, and they were still practising on the Padang before the parade started.

For many, marching was something new, and they had spent months making sure their steps were synchronised. Some participants, tired and hungry, collapsed on the Padang as they waited in the sun.

Here are snippets from the 1966 Parade from four people who were there:

"Marching practices were chaotic, because many only spoke dialects."

Mr Chia Hearn Meng, then a 29-year-old construction supervisor, heeded the call to join the People's Defence Force (PDF) after he saw how racial riots rent the nation.

He was assigned to the 3rd PDF, which was stationed at Pearl's Hill.

"There were many labourers and cleaners; we were all grouped together," he told The Straits Times. "Marching practices were chaotic, because many of the workers only spoke dialects.

"When the NCO gave commands in Malay and sometimes English, they would shout for the instructions to be given in Cantonese or Hokkien."

Just learning how to march took them many months, due to the difficulties of communication.

"Some cannot differentiate kiri (left in Malay) and kanan (right in Malay)," he said. "When they turn they will face each other."

Each weekend, they would rehearse in the hot sun wearing thick uniforms, steel helmets and heavy leather boots.

"In the old days, the uniform was very thick and we had to swing our arms upright. My armpits had bruises!" he recalled.

Mr Chia, now 78, took part in five parades, and he remembers the routine clearly:

At 2am, they collected their Mark 4 rifles and blank bullets from Pearl's Hill, then cleaned and checked them, he said.

After that they fell in and waited for the army clerk to lead them to Beach Road where the contingents assembled. At 6am, they marched to the Padang.

"It took us about an hour, and we would wait from 7am till the VIPs arrived," he said.

After the march past at the City Hall, they continued to High Street, South Bridge Road, Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar, Neil Road, Outram Park and Queenstown, he said.

Along the way, people jammed the streets and cheered.

"It would be pretty awesome if I can march alongside my son and my grandson in this year's parade. That will make three generations of soldiers serving Singapore," said Mr Chia.

"We slept in school classrooms the night before"

The night of August 8, 1966, the boys from the St Gabriel's Secondary School brass band slept in their classrooms to make sure they would not be late for the Parade.

They had to assemble at the Merdeka Bridge at 5am.

"We disturbed each other, and didn't get much sleep," said Mr Bernard Chiang, who played the baritone.

Then 15 years old, Mr Chiang and his friends were excited to be performing for the inaugural National Day.

They had trained hard - with sessions of three to four hours at least twice a week- to perfect their marching and their music.

"We sacrificed many hours practising foot drills and our formations to sharpen our precision and synchrony in marching and playing the instruments," he wrote in an email to The Straits Times.

It was tough because they had just set up the school band a year before, and there was a lot to learn.

After assembling at Merdeka Bridge, they marched down to the Padang.

"While we were positioned at the Padang,we still had to go through few rounds of practices to ensure that the parade was ready and perfect," he wrote.

That was when some participants started to collapse and they were carried away on stretchers, he said.

"It was probably due to long hours of standing under the hot sun, lack of sleep, dehydration and no proper breakfast," he said, adding that this was the first NDP and they were better prepared for later parades.

Still, this was nothing compared to the torrential downpour in 1968, he recalled.

"The instrument was frozen and waterlogged, we couldn't blow it," he said. The dyes on their uniforms ran in the rain.

They marched a longer route that year too, all the way to Queenstown.

"Our uniforms got wet, and we marched till they dried in the sun, then they got wet again from our sweat," he laughed.

He was quick to add that they were proud to be pioneers in the NDP, and the camaraderie forged then has stayed with them for a lifetime. He still meets up with his band mates, the 64-year-old florist said.

"We had no cameras, no phones back then to take videos!"

Mr Ramadas Palanisamy, now 85, was nominated to represent the former Woodbridge Hospital in the nurses' contingent.

The nursing officer, then 36, joined dozens of others from local hospitals including Singapore General Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and the now-defunct Toa Payoh Hospital.

"I was very happy and excited to be nominated," he said, being one of only two representatives from Woodbridge.

The training took about three months, and an army officer taught them how to march at first, he said. Later, one of the nursing staff took over.

On the day of the Parade, they had to "go early in the morning and stand there", he said. All the nurses were neatly turned out in their freshly-ironed uniforms and white shoes.

"Everybody was in a joyous mood, and it went fantastically," he recalled fondly. "The only thing was, I couldn't watch the parades. We had no cameras, no phones back then to take videos!"

He took part in the Parade from 1966 to 1968, but when he was nominated again in 1969, he decided to let others have a chance, he said.

"I saw Lee Kuan Yew and the cabinet ministers sitting on the City Hall steps"

Mr S. Sivakolunthu, 78, was with the first People's Defence Force, but he was "on loan" to the Tamil Teachers' Union for the 1966 National Day Parade.

The teacher, who taught Tamil and English, was a volunteer soldier for three years. He marched in the PDF contingents in the 1967 and 1968 parades.

For the 1966 parade, the lance corporal helped to train about 70 Tamil teachers at Monk's Hill Secondary School every Saturday, he said.

"I had six months of training with the PDF,and it was tough, but I could do the marching," he said. "There were teachers in uniformed groups, and they helped too."

He recalls leading the contingent of teachers in their march past the City Hall.

"I saw Lee Kuan Yew and the cabinet ministers sitting on the City Hall steps," he said.

The retiree, who is still active in community work, said he has watched the National Day Parade on television every year since.