Doing the sums for the SG100 celebration

Doing the sums for the SG100 celebration
F-16 fighter jets forming the number 50 as part of the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s salute to the nation. The unprecedented formation comprises 20 F-16s flying at a speed of 600kmh. The planes are spread two wingspans, or 18m, apart.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

After the nostalgia fest that was most of the Golden Jubilee National Day Parade (NDP) yesterday, one of the final segments, Chapter 6, sought to evoke the future.

At our annual viewing party, my friends and I were amused by how this segment, titled "Onwards", was set to generic techno music - because all young people like electronica, of course - and featured primary school kids in LED hooded suits.

One friend joked that the outfits suggested a future environment rendered so inhospitable by climate change that we would all have to wear these hazmat-like suits.

Part of this segment also had adorable kids telling the camera what they wanted to do when they grow up.

One said he wanted to save the forests. To this, a friend quipped that there might not be anything left to save when the child in question had grown up. Ditto the other jobs that they wanted to do - how many will be made obsolete by technology by the time they enter the workforce?

Rather gloomy wisecracks, perhaps, but ones entirely characteristic of my generation, who have known nothing but peace and prosperity and yet are keenly aware that we stand at what could be a cliff's edge.

What the next 50 years in a chaotic and fast-changing world will bring is as unclear as the neon shapes those children were forming.

The Golden Jubilee celebration was simply spectacular and felt symbolic of some sort of peak, the zenith of a period when everything got bigger and better in one linear direction.

I remember when National Day Parades ended with one fireworks display - fireworks seemed so precious and special that they could be indulged in only once a year, at the NDP.

Last night, there were fireworks after quite a few of the segments, culminating in one long fireworks display at the end. Scarcity is a concept that no longer means anything to a country like ours.

The most moving moments of this period of national celebration have centred on how far Singapore has come to reach this moment.

One army veteran reminisced in a segment last night about an early parade with only 18 tanks in the military column - but oh how proud they were of those 18 tanks.

I don't know how many tanks we have now, but the military display that followed this interview segment showed that it was definitely a lot more than 18.

I can't help but wonder if there might come a day, between now and SG100, when our tank count might drop, and not rise, from year to year.

Could there come a day when we cut back on the fireworks display, a time when we don't have hundreds of millions to spare for celebrations?

Would we still feel the same surge of pride and unity on National Day? Would we still sing Home in unison with tears in our eyes?

Thinking about what my life might look like from now until SG100, when I will be 79 and, fingers crossed, still alive, it occurs to me that Singaporeans have gone 50 years only adding, never subtracting.

There were periods of crisis and economic depression, but these were dwarfed by massive gains over 50 years. We even added land size through reclamation.

This will not be the story of SG100. Some types of adding will never be had by my generation, like the exponential property value appreciation that our parents enjoyed. And there will be subtraction - for the Singapore economy is now at a mature stage, where growth must be eked out - for which it remains to be seen if we are steadfast enough to endure.

But the success story of SG50 was unearned by my generation. We Instagrammed all the best moments from the long weekend, but understood only theoretically the journey that led to here.

We were born into a fast-moving current, buoyed along by the waves others made.

It will be SG100 that's our tale to tell. And when I am 79, the story I hope my grandchildren will hear won't be just one of success, of going from Third World to First.

It will also be about how we held together when things seemed to go backwards, if ever they do. About how our identity and resilience as a people were not contingent on growth and constant addition, but were able to withstand scarcity and subtraction - and strengthen through those periods.

That, to me, would be a centennial to look forward to.

This article was first published on Aug 10, 2015.
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