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Singaporeans celebrate 50th National Day with nostalgic and touching Parade at the Padang

SINGAPORE - Sunday's Golden Jubilee National Day Parade was a melding of old and new. It was both a nostalgic look-back at Singapore's roots as well as a celebration of how far the nation has come in 50 years.

A sea of red and white filled the Padang, where the first post-independence National Day Parade was held in 1966. Some of the 26,000 people there began trickling in as early as 3pm and waited under the sun until the Parade started at 5.40pm.

As Members of Parliament filed to their seats, local pop quartet The Sam Willows kicked off the parade with a folksy rendition of 1998 National Day song Home.

Unfortunately, the much-anticipated Red Lions segment of the Parade was scrapped because of safety concerns.

"The safety of all our Red Lions performers is our foremost concern," said Brigadier-General Melvyn Ong, chairman of the parade.

"Due to the low cloud cover which obstructed their view of the designated landing area, a decision was made to call off the jump to ensure the safety of the jumpers."

The last time the Red Lions had to abort their performance was at the 2013 parade, also because of the weather.

But the no-show didn't dampen the spirits of spectators at the stands. They waved their scarves and flags and sang along to National Day song Our Singapore.

Among the special guests who sat at the steps of the historic City Hall were three People's Action Party stalwarts - Mr Ong Pang Boon, 86, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, 85 and Mr Othman Wok, 90. They are the three surviving Old Guard leaders who signed the official document that marked the independence of Singapore 50 years ago.

Mr Othman, who arrived in a wheelchair, told The Straits Times: "I feel very honoured and touched to be invited to celebrate this landmark event. It's our 50th year of independence - a milestone that is especially meaningful for the generation of people who have seen Singapore grow since we became a sovereign nation."

Heads of states and foreign dignitaries from 18 countries also attended Sunday's Parade, for the first time since 1969. They included Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who is here as Queen Elizabeth's representative.

A combined band and a precision drill squad, which made its debut in the Parade last year, combined rousing military tunes with popular Singapore songs.

The crowd cheered as drum major Muhammad Hafis bin Amrul, 33, spun and caught his baton to end a flawless routine.

Soon after, the audience turned up the noise as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrived.

But immediately after, silence fell over the venue as a video tribute to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was played. Some spectators teared visibly as the video played.

Said manager Magdelene Soh, 59: "The whole tribute was very touching. It's so sad that he's not here today. I only wish (Mr Lee) could be with us every year."

Mr Lee, who died on March 23 aged 91, had attended every National Day Parade since the first one in 1966. Last year, his entrance at the parade had been met by rousing cheers. A sprig of yellow orchids occupied Mr Lee's usual seat, which was left vacant this year in honour of his memory.

At the end of the tribute film, aerial acrobats The Black Knights soared overhead in a "Five Stars" formation, symbolising the ideals of democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality.

The Parade show started proper after this sombre interlude, in a segment featuring how Sang Nila Utama, Singapore's legendary founder, "sailed in" dramatically leading a fleet of ships. Three hundred performers from Republic Polytechnic decked out in elaborate costumes and carrying intricate props, portrayed early migrants, re-enacting Singapore's days as a bustling trading post.

Then it was fast forward to 1965 as the vintage parade started to enthusiastic cheers. The segment was a throwback to the early days of Singapore's independence. It featured 450 participants - including policemen in old-time khaki shorts, firemen in olive-green uniforms, women from the People's Association in knee-high socks and flight attendants from Singapore Airlines (SIA) in their distinctive sarong kebaya. They were wheeled in traditional trishaws manned by soldiers from the 3rd Battalion Singapore Guards.

Video clips of interviews with pioneers preceded each Parade segment reliving the early days of Singapore's modern history for the audience.

As the Singapore Girls rolled past, an SIA Airbus 380 soared overhead, decked out in a special livery of red and white. This was the first time that any SIA craft has taken part in the National Day fly-past. The A-380 is the world's largest passenger aircraft.

"The parade is phenomenal. It's been very nostalgic especially when the veterans marched past during the vintage parade. The fact that they are still willing to come and March despite their age shows their immense love for Singapore," said polytechnic student S. Surrenthiran, 19.

Another first, the Parade featured the largest number of civilian contingents - 16 - in the Parade and Ceremony. There was a total of 37 contingents on parade at the Padang, comprising four Guard of Honour contingents and other uniformed groups.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alvin Tjioe's voice boomed across the Padang, moving with precision the more than 2,000 men and women who were part of the parade. He also announced the arrival of President Tony Tan.

Crowds burst into rapturous applause and cheers as 20 F-16 fighter jets whizzed past the Padang in a 5-0 formation. Six F-16s then executed a "bomb burst", where they fan out in an aerial salute.

After a 21-gun salute from the waters off the Merlion Park, the President Tan inspected the parade, rounded off by the celebratory volleys of a feu de joie - French for "fire of joy".

The roar of jet engines entering the City saw spectators crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the second aerial display of the Parade.

 

In total, 50 aircraft of various types took part in one of the largest aerial displays ever at the Parade. In particular, the criss-cross manoeuvre of the Black Knights, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's popular aerobatics team, was a crowd favourite.

The soaring finale was performed by a solo F-15SG fighter aircraft making a combat turn over the Padang, showcasing the aircraft's precision and agility. The performance culminates with a dazzling near-vertical climb with afterburners.

In another nod to NDP traditions, the Mobile Column made its return this year after five years. A convoy of 179 vehicles rumbled past the Padang in four segments, making the line-up of this year's Mobile Column the most diverse.

Twenty-six vehicles made their debut, including a combat ambulance, an armoured engineer vehicle used mainly for clearing mines or demolishing wire obstacles, and a latest version of a battle tank. A 22m-long specialised marine craft, which is used for the defence of bases, was also unveiled for the first time.

To pay tribute to the pioneers, a retired colonel Goh Lye Choon, 74, who took part in the first mobile column in 1969, joined others to lead the convoy. He rode alongside the Mobile Column Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Lim Kah Kheng in a Leopard 2SG Main Battle Tank.

A section of the 2km-long convoy also passed through the Marina Bay area in the impressive show of military hardware.

But it was not just the vehicles that featured in the Parade. Nine families who have served in Singapore's security forces made their appearance in the last column.

The first fireworks went off as Singapore pop star Stefanie Sun concluded her performance of NDP songs We Will Get there and One United People.

More than 800 performers from the Singapore Soka Association created a mass display forming words in Singapore's four official languages - unity, progress, success, and ending with Majulah Singapura - Onward Singapore.

Then it was a tribute to all things Singaporean as over 500 performers from the People’s Association put up a lively dance number around a dozen brightly-lit floats that included an ice kachang, a durian, the Changi Airport control tower and national mascots over the years like Singa the courtesy lion. Even Singlish phrases, the use of which the Government once tried to discourage, made an appearance.

The crowd sang along with wild enthusiasm as familiar favourites from Singapore Town to Munneru Valiba were performed. The PA performers ended with a display of a tree that represented our diverse roots to Corrine May's Song For Singapore from the 2010 NDP.

Then, 600 primary school pupils dressed up as stickmen in costumes that resemble space outfits. Their costumes were lit with neon LED colours, which changed from red to blue to green with a touch of a button.

In a sea of lighted stick figures and glowing stars Mandopop superstar JJ Lin, 34, performed this year's NDP song Our Singapore. The segment ended with a bang with an explosive array of fireworks. 

Spectators at the Padang were hit with another jolt of nostalgia when singer Kit Chan came on stage during the finale act to perform the National Day Parade hit, Home. Many people in the stands sang their hearts out, accompanying Ms Chan, who first performed the song at the 1998 parade. Penned by veteran musician Dick Lee, Home was voted by readers of The Straits Times in 2013 as their favourite NDP song. Ms Chan, 42, had told reporters after last week’s preview show that this year’s parade will “likely be her last”, as she wishes to end off in the year of the Golden Jubilee.

The show’s last segment saw performers from the previous acts returning to the stage. Some 1,200 of them formed a mosaic of the national flag and a map of Singapore, as the crowd recited the pledge and sang the national anthem.

As the fireworks began overhead, the crowds rose to their feet to catch the dazzling colours lighting up the Marina Bay area. PM Lee and the ministers got on their feet and joined hands while holding up their “Singapore” scarves, swaying along to the beat of a fast-paced Stand Up for Singapore. This year’s pyrotechnic display is Singapore’s biggest and grandest to date, with more than twice the amount of fireworks set off last year. 

Many craned their necks to catch the five-minute grand finale, which began with a burst of the characters “SG50” in the sky, followed by a special Golden Jubilee shell of gold-coloured fireworks designed for this year’s celebrations. 

A multi-coloured rainbow of fireworks exploded in a fan shape across Marina Bay along a 300m platform, and the display ended with a salute to the nation. 

As President Tan took his leave, he was mobbed by the performers and stopped to take selfies with many of them.

Earlier on Sunday, Singapore heard for the first time a recording of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew reading the Proclamation of Independence.

The recording, made in 2012, was broadcast at 9am on local radio and TV channels, and marked at National Day observance ceremonies islandwide. Participants at the ceremonies also sang the National Anthem and recited the pledge.

The original reading of the Proclamation over Radio Singapore 50 years ago was made by radio anchor Steven Lee on behalf of Mr Lee.

Over in Tanjong Pagar, the ward of the late Mr Lee, residents filed into Lower Delta Road to listen to the recording of the Proclamation. Across the island, from Jurong West to Marine Parade, stadiums and community areas became a sea of red-and-white, people clad in the national colours attended 82 grassroots-led ceremonies.

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