We are Singapore: A look back at NDP celebrations in tough times

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What does NDP mean to you? The obvious answer would be fireworks, freebies and performances. But more than just that, NDP is a show of strength, confidence, resilience and pride in being Singaporean. After all, Singapore has a strong history of banding together to celebrate even during tough times.

Here are some historical NDP celebrations which took place during times of crisis.

NDP 1985 - Singapore's first recession

After nearly 20 years of uninterrupted growth, Singapore faced its first economic recession in 1985. To mitigate the effects of the recession, the government implemented cost-cutting measures such as tax rebates and lower interest rates for loans, and also adopted policies of privatisation and deregulation to ensure the private sector would become the new driver for economic growth going forward.

As a result of these efforts, our economy was able to make a swift recovery by mid-1986.

Although the uncertainty created a sombre mood, Singaporeans nonetheless rallied together for NDP that year, confident that we would be able to overcome this new hardship.

The theme song for that year, Stand Up for Singapore, was sung as part of the parade's finale, with 2,000 balloons released as the song was performed.

NDP 1998 - Asian Financial Crisis hits Singapore

In 1998, Singapore was once again facing financial difficulties, this time due to the effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis having reached our country, resulting in a deep recession that year.

In response, the government introduced measures to lower business costs as well as provide relief to both individuals and households, such as a 15 per cent property tax rebate for commercial and industrial properties, a 5 per cent personal income tax rebate, and economic packages to cushion the impact of the recession. Some of these measures remained in place until 1999 or even 2000, and Singapore's economy began to recover by early 1999.

Despite the tight budget involved, the 1998 NDP was nonetheless a memorable affair, not least because it saw the debut of Dick Lee's Home, which became an instant favourite not just that year but in the years to come (the song was voted Singapore's favourite National Day song in a 2013 poll by The Straits Times).

NDP 2003 - Sars

2003 marked the spread of the global Sars outbreak to Singapore, with a total of 238 cases and 33 deaths, with 40.8 per cent of cases occurring among healthcare workers.

To curb the spread of the outbreak, various stringent measures were implemented such as home quarantine, school closures and blanket screening of incoming travellers.

Enhanced infection control measures such as protective gear for healthcare staff and daily temperature screenings were also implemented to minimise further transmission in hospitals.

Despite the atmosphere of fear created by the outbreak, Singaporeans embraced the community spirit during this crisis, with volunteers stepping up to conduct temperature checks at public events or help those who had been subjected to home quarantine.

The Courage Fund was also established that year to help both healthcare workers and Sars victims, with individuals and organisations alike donating generously to help their fellow citizens.

At NDP that year, which took place just three months after the outbreak had ended in Singapore, the crowd paid tribute to the frontline heroes in the fight against Sars, with 240 healthcare workers taking part in the parade while bearing glowing hearts in honour of the courage and sacrifice of our frontliners.

NDP 2009 - H1N1

2009 saw yet another outbreak, this time of the H1N1 influenza strain. While most cases of H1N1 infection here were mild, Singapore saw up to 18 deaths due to H1N1, with an estimate of around 415,000 Singaporeans having been infected by H1N1 by the time the local outbreak ended in early 2010.

The Ministry of Health took precautionary health measures to contain the spread of the virus, such as contact tracing, Home Quarantine Orders, travel advisories and temperature screenings in public.

In addition, over 400 family clinics were made H1N1-ready to ensure Singaporeans would have access to prompt medical assessment and treatment for mild cases of the virus. Mass vaccinations against H1N1 subsequently began in November 2009, with a million vaccine doses available by the end of the year.

Despite calls for that year's NDP to be postponed, scaled down or even cancelled, the 2009 NDP organisers pulled out all stops to engage the community.

Working closely with several organisations and making use of social media, they were able to execute the 8.22 pm Pledge Moment, where SCDF sirens sounded across the island and Singaporeans from all walks of life (including several thousand overseas) recited the Pledge simultaneously, reaffirming our commitment to standing together as one united people.

NDP 2020 - Covid-19

Of course, the 2020 NDP needs no introduction. Taking place after nearly a year of battling Covid-19, the 2020 NDP marked 55 years of Singapore's independence and 55 years of the Army's commitment and dedication to Singapore's defence.

Although the ongoing Covid-19 situation prevented the usual parade from being held, it didn't stop us from celebrating in spirit.

A smaller parade was held at the Padang, with a salute to the frontliners who went beyond the call of duty in the battle against Covid-19.

The NDP spirit also brought the festivities to our doorsteps through a range of events such as a Roar of Unity flypast by our F-15SG fighter planes, mobile columns which travelled through the heartlands, as well as localised fireworks displays taking place in various neighbourhoods.

NDP2021 - still Covid-19

Last but not least, last year's NDP. Although we were still dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the outbreak didn't dampen our spirits any more than previous hardships did to NDP celebrations of the past.

While a ceremonial parade was held on Aug 9 at the Padang just like in 2020, we also had an actual parade, albeit postponed to Aug 21 instead.

The parade was a centralised, in-person event at the Marina Bay floating platform, with live performers undergoing antigen rapid testing before every rehearsal and spectators comprising frontliners and people in essential roles rather than the usual public ballot for tickets.

Why hold a live performance despite the ongoing outbreak, you might ask? Well, to quote Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen, the 2021 show was part of learning to live with Covid-19 as an endemic disease. And most importantly, "NDP is... about each Singaporean using the occasion to affirm together what we value about Singapore".

The 2021 theme song The Road Ahead goes: "We did it before, and we'll do it again". And so we did: We stood together and celebrated our 56th NDP as a nation, regardless of our new normal.

ALSO READ: Let's hear it for Singapore: Our honest thoughts on NDP songs through the years

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.