SINGAPORE — It was an experience akin to being in the Upside Down, that otherworldly alternate dimension in popular Netflix series Stranger Things, where everything looks familiar, but nothing is quite what it seems.
All the old favourites were present and accounted for at National Day Parade 2020, from the Red Lions to the mobile column in the heartlands to a military parade at the Padang, albeit scaled down and spread out across different venues, in light of the ongoing pandemic. Overarching the Padang event was the comforting bass tones of veteran deejay William Xavier, who has been the parade announcer multiple times.
But in light of safe management measures, the audience at the Padang – comprising COVID-19 frontliners, essential workers, political office holders and Members of Parliament – was only 150-strong. They were even told not to sing out loud, but instead to “show our respect by singing the national anthem in our hearts”, as co-emcee Shauna Caroline Santa Maria put it.
The usual annoyingly upbeat emcees, who are always eager to instruct the audience in how to display their patriotism, were somewhat downcast this time. Even the sound of applause was conspicuously missing, with the audience instead told to wave their little Singapore flags to welcome the entrance of President Halimah Yacob.
The result – a strange, surreal and subdued event that did not quite satisfy anyone – at least not this reporter.
I have covered NDP multiple times since 2009, alongside tens of thousands of onlookers. More often than not, the proceedings skew towards the camp and the garish in a manner that is invariably divisive. But as I observed proceedings in the baking heat at the Padang, this year’s edition seemed eerily mundane by comparison.
Something to celebrate
In Stranger Things, the Upside Down is haunted by a monster called the Mind Flayer, which corrupts everything it touches. We too have our own monster to deal with in the shape of the maddening, mysterious coronavirus, which has consumed just about every aspect of our lives.
There is no question that 2020 has been an awful year, with billions suffering all over the world. The socio-economic impact will be felt for a long time to come, while hundreds of thousands of migrant workers remain largely confined to their dormitories in Singapore. Meanwhile, the vexing question of our leadership succession in still up in the air.
But even though the budget for NDP – and sometimes its very existence – has often been questioned, it was clear that Singaporeans were in a celebratory mood. Perhaps they had simply had enough of all the doom and gloom, and needed a break from it all.
They lined the roads in their thousands to welcome the mobile column, with scant regard for the one-metre rule or the warnings of safe distancing ambassadors. Reports on social media even said that some ambassadors were booed for trying to enforce the rules.
Meanwhile, many Singaporeans held their own gatherings at home where they watched the live broadcast, while others flocked to the 10 islandwide locations where fireworks were set off. Again, safe distancing was nowhere in sight for the latter.
Perhaps Lawrence Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, was right. When asked last month about the raucous crowds that gathered on Polling Night, he told reporters, “No amount of enforcement can work if the whole country wants to go for a celebration. How? What amount of enforcement will be effective if everyone is in a celebratory mood and want to go out and have a big party?
Why have an NDP at all?
Back in May, NDP ExCo chair Brigadier-General Frederick Choo had declared that NDP would be an “unyielding reminder” that Singapore will keep going even amid the ongoing pandemic. “We believe that as long as there's a Singapore, there will be an NDP, and NDP is our way of saying in a firm manner that Singapore will keep going on. COVID-19 will not deter us.”
Pandemic fatigue has already set in. With no end in sight to safe distancing or contact tracing and a case count that continues to go up by the day – more than 55,000 in Singapore infected as of 10 August – there is a danger of Singaporeans becoming reckless and throwing caution to the wind.
The NDP has historically been the largest nationalistic event of the year, with a budget running into the tens of millions. It serves to reinforce the age-old historical narrative of Singapore, and to enhance the legitimacy of the only ruling party that the country has ever known. It is a celebration for the whole country, and a point of pride for people to be reminded of how far Singapore has come.
In these pandemic times, NDP2020 was more than politically expedient. It was a necessary, and comforting, reminder of better times.
The ones keeping us safe
Ultimately, it was only right that this year’s parade was dedicated to frontline and essential workers: Healthcare personnel, transport workers, supermarket staff and more.
In his National Day message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to them and the thousands of ordinary Singaporeans who volunteered to serve on the frontlines. “These selfless acts have made all the difference to our response to COVID-19,” said Lee.
Nirmala Nair, 62, a senior nurse manager at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic who was present at the Padang, told reporters that the tribute paid to frontline workers was a “special moment” which she would treasure for years to come. Nair, who attends to potential COVID-19 patients showing respiratory symptoms, has been in the profession for 40 years.
“Many out there have been keeping our country safe (behind the scenes), and I feel so proud to be one of them.”
I asked if she was hoping for a more tangible tribute to healthcare workers, like higher pay. Stressing that she was of a “different generation” and only speaking for herself, Nair said emphatically, “Never. I never did. Nothing can trade off the saving of lives. No money can.”
There is a long way more to go before normalcy returns to our lives. But just as NDP harkens to a shared community, Lee’s allusion to a “shared ordeal” that will toughen a whole population and unite a people struck a chord.
Nevertheless, perhaps it is best to leave the last word to a netizen who – referring to the growing number of COVID-19 cases here – cheekily commented, “Well done 55k, happy 55th birthday Singapore”.
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