Each year’s National Day Parade seems to try and outdo its predecessors. But the creative artists involved tell us why the heart of the Parade is not size and spectacle, but the Singaporean story.
TEXT BY JO TAN
Published on 3 August 2015
TEXT BY JO TAN
For a small nation, Singapore is pretty big on ambition, succeeding in having the world’s best airport, the world’s most comprehensive education system (as recently awarded by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and the most desirable city for business expansion (according to a study by communications provider BT).
So it’s no wonder our annual National Day Parade (NDP), a showcase of everything about our country, constantly aims to outdo the previous year’s installment. On our Golden Jubilee, the NDP 2015 team has promised that this edition, themed ‘Majulah Singapura’, will be the biggest NDP ever, with the biggest show segment, the biggest stage constructed, and so on.
But it also promises to be a parade for Singaporeans, by Singaporeans, in its telling of our Singapore story. To many in the organising committee, this is what is most important. Says NDP 2015’s creative director, Dick Lee, a Cultural Medallion recipient who held the same post in 2002, 2010 and 2014: “Every year is the ‘biggest’ where I’m concerned, because every year we have to do something different. Of course, there’s this added expectation since this year is the 50th anniversary of Singapore. But to me, there’s no need to try to live up to that. Nothing can be bigger than the fact that we all made it through 50 years. My aim was to make it significant and meaningful, rather than an ostentatious spectacle.”
Indeed, this year takes the traditional super-spectacles of NDP, such as the parade and mobile column, and assigns them mere parts (albeit super-spectacular parts) of one comprehensive, sincere story of Singapore.
Says Jean Tay, multi-award-winning Singapore playwright and writer for NDP 2015, “We’ve conceptualised NDP as a narrative about Singapore: her beginnings threading through to independence, struggles, nationhood and finally, a look at her future. It’s a story told in six chapters: Beginnings, Progress, Strength, Unity, Identity and Onwards, not necessarily told in text, but through many different voices. Film and multimedia play a large part in linking the narrative. The mobile column features in the chapter on Strength, there will also be music and performances.”
Chief choreographer Zaini Tahir elaborates on his role: “My job is to translate the main message, the main story, through movements. I also assign different parts of the message to different groups, like the Singapore Soka Association and the People’s Association, who are able to express a certain part of the message best. Each group has different choreographers. I’m advising them and putting the main picture together.
“Of course, as a choreographer, I’m itching to adjust the little things for all the other dances as well, but at the end of the day, and especially for the mass numbers, NDP is not about technical brilliance or artistic excellence. It’s about engaging the community — both the performers and the audience. As long as we perform with heart, feeling and joy, you can see that while things aren’t perfect, everybody is enjoying themselves onstage. And that’s the spirit of NDP, whether you’re young or old, you enjoy that.”
Speaking of old, many quintessential elements of Singapore’s past will make an appearance at NDP 2015. Look out for a vintage parade replicating street parades from the early days of independence, complete with uniforms of the first-generation Singapore Armed Forces, the Singapore Police Force in their khaki shorts, and the colourful streamer float from the People’s Association.
The Identity chapter features performances of NDP theme songs from parades past, performed by its original singers, many of whom were musicians rather than celebrities and who are now in their 50s or older. One of these is singer/songwriter/musician Clement Chow, the original velvet-voiced soloist of ‘Count on Me Singapore’.
“It was a big surprise to be asked to sing that song as I recorded it as part of a group,” confesses Chow. “Jeremy Monteiro called me one day and said, ‘We have a national jingle to do.’ I believe I sang my part for the ‘jingle’ within an hour. Then Jeremy says, ‘You know, they want to film you.’ And the next thing you know, you become the face that represents the song.
“The old songs are memorable because they were written during Singapore’s formative years and music was a reaching tool, not a preaching tool. And the songs collect memories and history as they roll through the years.”
Chow adds that this year’s NDP will be extra special for him as singers like Jacintha Abisheganaden, Robert Fernando, Dawn Yip and Douglas Oliveiro will also be getting into the act.
“And then there are the younger ones like The Sam Willows, so many generations together. It’s a unique and special combination.”
This year’s NDP isn’t the only edition to spotlight Singapore’s authentic, non-Photoshop-polished side. “Sometimes, the so-called ‘constraints’ of trying to come up with something different each NDP forces you to try different things,” explains Michael Chiang, playwright and writer of last year’s NDP. “In 2014, we showed the ‘less-than-perfect’ side of Singapore, to acknowledge that there were many people who faced everyday challenges. We showcased a few individuals: an ex-prisoner, a retiree, a mum with a handicapped child, a young man pursuing an arts career against his parents’ wishes. But of course, we juxtaposed these with stories of people who successfully overcame similar obstacles. It turned out great.”
Emphasises playwright/director, Young Artist Award recipient Goh Boon Teck, creative director of NDP 2007 and 2008, “We want to share something meaningful or useful through such a big event, it cannot be just a night of pretty fireworks. My favourite parts of NDP are when I feel proud of my country.”
Fellow Young Artist Award recipient Beatrice Chia, creative director of NDP 2011, agrees. “I made my edition of NDP a musical and hoped Singaporeans could connect with the story of the show and decide for themselves what Singapore means to them. How each and every Singaporean connects with NDP is very personal as it is about their relationship with their country. I suppose that’s why people are often vocal in their opinions about NDP — everyone has a great sense of ownership over this land and a strong sense of belonging.”