Thinking Aloud

Never been to the NDP? Give every citizen a ticket

It would be a wonderful pledge to the people - as they say, membership has its privileges

I took part in Singapore's first National Day Parade in 1966. I was in Secondary 1 in Raffles Institution (RI) and in the school's contingent, dressed in white, each of us carrying two small flags, red and white.

As we marched past the steps of City Hall, we spelt out the words S-I-N-G-A-P-O-R-E in semaphore, signalling each letter with our flags.

I do not remember much else that happened at the Padang - it was more than 50 years ago and I was 13 at the time. But it must have been quite an occasion celebrating the country's first anniversary at such a historic location. You have to wonder what went through the minds of the organisers with no precedence to guide them.

How did they decide what performance would capture the popular imagination and a young country's sense of nationhood? Who should take part? What did they hope to achieve?

I can hazard an answer to these questions: They did not have time to think about them. In fact, they did not have many choices because Singapore had precious little resources then. They just made do with what they had and took a leap into the unknown.

In Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs, he recounted how, two years earlier in 1964, the country did not even have a brass band of its own. It had wanted to use the police band for one occasion but the request was denied by the federal government in Kuala Lumpur which had control of the police force.


For RI's mass display, the only props we used were the two small flags, and we wore our own all-white school uniform.

The military contingent was made up of volunteers of the People's Defence Force comprising mainly civil servants, MPs and ministers who had just completed a crash course in officer training.

From these humble beginnings, the National Day Parade has evolved over the years into the glittering spectacle that you will see in three days' time on Aug 9, showcasing the technological prowess of the Singapore Armed Forces and the diversity and creativity of the parade performers.

The cost of holding it has also skyrocketed, as have the number of people and the effort involved.

Last year's parade at the National Stadium cost $39.4 million, with a large part of it going to the venue's rental.

It should be cheaper this year at the Marina Bay floating platform, going by what it cost in previous years there - from $16 million to $18 million.

The big show is on Aug 9 but there are also previews, and rehearsals attended by primary school pupils as part of national education.

All in, 275,000 people were able to watch the performance last year, not including those viewing it live on television.


That number will be smaller this year as the floating platform can seat only up to 27,000, or about half the National Stadium's capacity.

Even if, say, 150,000 are able to watch - that's less than 5 per cent of the Singaporean population.

Is it money and time well spent rehearsing and putting up the show when it is watched live by a fraction of the people?

You will get different answers to the question from Singaporeans.

There will be many for whom the parade is a must-have and must-see, the one day in the year when they wear their love and pride for the country on their sleeves standing together with fellow citizens.

If more Singaporeans were able to attend or promised a future ticket, there would be greater support for it. More significant is the thought behind it: that every Singaporean matters and it isn't just an empty pledge.

How do you put a dollar value to a nation coming together to celebrate its independence?

Obviously, the more people participating and feeling that they are part of it, the better the investment.

But getting hold of the parade tickets is akin to winning the lottery as demand always exceeds the numbers available many times over.

The problem is made worse because there are many who get invited every year, such as grassroots leaders and members of the establishment.

As editor of this newspaper, I used to be among the regulars.

I don't think this is right as it deprives others who have never ever attended. It is as much their show as anybody's.

One suggestion: No one should be invited more than twice.

In fact, why not make a promise to all Singaporeans: At some time in your life, you will be given an opportunity to watch the parade or its rehearsals.

As they say, membership has its privileges and wouldn't it be a wonderful pledge to the people?

It will make Singapore the only country in the world able to do this.

Can it be done?

It might be a logistical nightmare and there are many issues to think about, such as how to allocate the tickets and whether to allow people to change dates.

But I am sure if the authorities put their mind to it, they will find a way.

This is important as too many Singaporeans feel no connection with the parade because they have never been to it or have grown tired of it.

In an informal poll I did among my former schoolmates - participants of the first parade in 1966 - that was the majority view.

Some have never been to one (apart from the one they participated in, in 1966), others hadn't in years.

If more Singaporeans were able to attend or promised a future ticket, there would be greater support for it.

More significant is the thought behind it: that every Singaporean matters and it isn't just an empty pledge.

One other suggestion which has to do with the parade's organisers - Mindef, which has done an incredible job for the last 52 years.

NDP wouldn't be what it is today without those men in uniform.

Under them, you can expect military precision, tight organisation and exemplary coordination.

But the military is also unlikely to try out radically new ideas and to depart fundamentally from the tried and tested. This is especially so when the job of helming the parade is given to a rising colonel or general, as is often the case.

It would be too much to expect him to take liberties with such a high-profile task and risk making mistakes.

Would we dare give the job to someone else or some other organisation which does not operate under such constraints and which might have a different approach?

Too much of a leap into the unknown?

But that was exactly what their predecessors did in 1966.

Happy National Day.

  • The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 06, 2017, with the headline 'Never been to the NDP? Give every citizen a ticket'. Print Edition | Subscribe