About 50,000 watch National Day Parade preview on July 31, 2016. PHOTO NDP2016

Singapore’s  first National Day Parade in 1966 did not impress Lam Qing. But five decades on, the retired nurse looks back and sees how the country’s birthday celebrations at the new National Stadium has evolved – for the better.

Lynda Hong

SINGAPORE’S FIRST National Day Parade (NDP) drove a girl mad – literally.

Madam Lam Qing did not attend Singapore’s celebration of her newly found independence on August 9, 1966, but while she can recall Singaporeans complaining about having to march in the rain that bombarded the Padang that Tuesday morning 50 years ago, a girl’s experience is seared in Madam Lam’s memory.

“The rain was so heavy, it terrified her, and she came to the hospital to seek treatment for manic depression,” says Madam Lam, who was then a nurse working at Woodbridge Hospital (now renamed the Institute of Mental Health).

The Parade at the Sports Hub narrates the legendary story of Badang and the Singapore Stone. PHOTO NDP 2016

The Parade at the Sports Hub narrates the legendary story of Badang and the Singapore Stone. PHOTO NDP 2016


The 80-year-old retiree’s first memory of the NDP was dominated by bullets of rain shooting from clouds above, and it was another skyward display – a much more inspiring one – that captured her attention when she attended the July 31 preview of this year’s edition of the NDP.

“People were falling down from the roof of the stadium,” she gasped.

“And we were wondering why there was a huge stone hanging there, but later it turned out very nice.”

Upon her first glance at the stage the size of nine basketball courts, Madam Lam was intrigued by the large fist-like prop hovering over the stage when she entered the stadium. Is it the greeting sign used by young people nowadays? Some kind of fruit? No. It’s the Singapore Stone, a large slab of sandstone bearing undecipherable inscriptions that was found at the mouth of the Singapore River in 1819. This revelation was unveiled when the rock came apart at the end of first act staging how the legendary Badang, Singapore’s version of Samson in the 14th century, had thrown this boulder into the Singapore river after defeating a strong opponent sent by the ruler of India – a challenge overcome by a Singaporean of those times.

The message was a simple one: Singaporeans have – and will continue – to live through challenges in time to come. With the overarching narrative of the NDP 2016 focusing on the future of Singapore, the audience was inspired of a better future by a glowing unicorn, its weight supported by the stadium’s roof, making its way higher and higher into the night sky.

“This has been a totally different from my previous NDP experience … and I’ve been to a number. This is more on modern technology, which is quite nice for senior citizens who have not seen this before,” she says.

Despite her inauspicious first experience, Madam Lam looks forward to every NDP, and has attended at least one parade at every single venue that has hosted the Republic’s birthday celebrations. From the old National Stadium affectionately known as the Grand Old Dame, to the Padang, the Marina Bay Floating Platform and now the new National Stadium, the senior citizen has seen them all.

NDP's use of technology promises to wow the youth and senior citizens of Singapore. PHOTO NDP 2016

NDP’s use of technology promises to wow the youth and senior citizens of Singapore. PHOTO NDP 2016


Ways of staging NDP have also been revamped, she reminisces. Instead of The Red Lions skydiving into the stadium under their parachutes, high-speed spills from Police Coast Guard vessels, Naval Divers, and the Navy’s gun boats that have featured at previous NDPs, this year’s parade, held for the first time at the new National Stadium, wowed her differently.

Madam Lam was taken by innovative aerial displays and the use of modern technology, and it was not just out on the stage.

“The lighting around the stage was good, and the air-con was just nice, but for me there’s nothing like fresh air,” she says.

The bowl cooling system at the National Stadium is not exactly an air-conditioning system. Patially powered by solar panels, this energy efficient instead pumps cool air from underneath each seat, but its cooling effect clearly feels similar to air-conditioning to Madam Lam, who was still engaged as the night wore on.

A sky city – of iconic buildings around the island, including Changi Airport’s control tower and the Esplanade – rose up from the ground to the top of the National Stadium, reminds Madam Lam of the progress that Singapore has experienced. She recalls NDPs hosted at the Grand Old Dame in the past that did not seem to seat as many as it does now, but maybe “population growth has made Singapore more crowded,” she mulls.

The storyline of this year’s NDP reminds Singaporeans of how the country has reinvented the way city dwellers can live in limited physical space, work with no hinterland, and adapt to a changing landscape. It seems to be a fact reiterated by the facility where the parade is hosted.

The mythological unicorn is one of the key highlights of this year's Parade at the Sports Hub. PHOTO NDP 2016

The mythological unicorn is one of the key highlights of this year’s Parade at the Sports Hub. PHOTO NDP 2016


Madam Lam misses various parts of NDPs of yesteryear, including being able to watch the helicopters fly past with the state flag, but says: “But we depend on the (big screens around the stadium) because we cannot see very well, anyway.”

The closed roof means that fireworks – an all-time favourite for most – around the stadium perimeter is not visible to those within it. And while organisers have added in-stadium fireworks that surround the stage area, it did not go down well with Madam Lam.

“Everything is enclosed … the smell is terrible. And as we come out of the stadium, there is also that smell,” she says. “You young people like all these fireworks and air-con, but maybe I am old, I prefer fresh air.”

Despite her annoyance at the smoky environment, Madam Lam is still swooning over by the technology-driven performances she witnessed, and because of that very same dome, no thunderstorm will drive any performer – or indeed, even any spectator – mad.

Lynda Hong is a senior journalist who has covered previous editions of the National Day Parade for Channel NewsAsia.