Whatever next for future NDPs?

More than 500 performers from the People’s Association put up a lively dance performance incorporating 12 large props showcasing the nation’s unique identity, and things Singaporeans hold close to their hearts.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Fireworks. Aerial flypast. Dazzling props in mass displays.

Yesterday's National Day Parade had all the familiar hallmarks of the annual event that has thrilled spectators every year.

In fact, the three-hour celebration of Singapore's 50th birthday is one for the record books. It boasted the biggest fireworks display, the largest fleet of aircraft flying over the city in almost 40 years and the largest number of show performers.

The 2km-long mobile column of war machines that showcased Singapore's military might also impressed many.

From the minute people started streaming into the Padang, to the second the last firework fizzled out, the crowd was on a high that never dipped.

Clearly, the pomp and pageantry made yesterday's SG50 parade stand out from the 10 that I have covered so far.

One element of the annual celebration has remained more or less the same every year - the familiar mass displays that depict how Singapore survived the odds and evolved from a backwater into a bustling metropolis.

The usual retelling of Singapore's success story has differed more in form than in substance.

In yesterday's show, people were taken back as far as 700 years ago, when Sang Nila Utama discovered the island of Singapore.

The segment, titled Beginnings, was a comprehensive eight-minute history lesson for those who might be unfamiliar with Singapore's transformation. The running commentary by emcees Glenda Chong and William Xavier, paired with performers in dazzling costumes and large props like the 8m-high boats and Chinese junks, offered a grand spectacle.

It is certainly apt to remind ourselves how far we have come in every NDP, and even more so in a show marking the nation's Golden Jubilee. As NDP creative director Dick Lee put it, it is something "you cannot run away from... or else it (NDP) wouldn't seem complete".

But as we hit 50, it is perhaps timely to also relook how this familiar narrative is weaved into the Aug 9 show.

The annual event's popularity is undeniable. Tens of thousands of people still clamour for tickets for the preview and actual day's show, expecting to be wowed by the razzle -dazzle.

But they also use this uniquely Singaporean party to wear their patriotism on their (red) sleeves and celebrate being Singaporean.

Mr Lee, who is helming his third NDP show, would know that. His effort last year drew praise from many for the catchy local ditties and its fun party vibe.

That same atmosphere was also evident last night in the segment, with local music feting Singlish, Singapore's colloquialisms and quirks that got people singing along with gusto.

The less-than-perfect light show put up by primary school pupils also elicited many chuckles on the stands, lending some authenticity to the show.

These moments were reminiscent of previous NDPs that ditched the usual retelling of the Singapore story through a grand mass display.

The 2009 show got spectators laughing with its irreverent take on the Sang Nila Utama story and mocking references to "buayas" and Nonyas.

The 2011 show also stood out for its cheekiness and fully charged atmosphere, with a life-sized Merlion breaking into a rap and spectators taking part in pop quizzes about Singapore's history.

Somehow, it seems better for people to feel the nation's strength on their own rather than be told about it in a grand musical or mass display.

With the NDP moving to the new National Stadium next year, organisers are said to be looking at how to give the 2016 edition a fresh look and feel.

With the venue's domed roof, the Red Lions are unlikely to be able to jump right in front of spectators in the stadium, who will probably be unable to catch the traditional flypast from inside too.

The convoy of war machines might not be able to rumble past spectators either.

But these constraints could also offer an opportunity to look at how to better engage the people on the stands, who are ultimately the ones who make the show sparkle.

This article was first published on August 10, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.