Big Island, great show

Singapore sure knows how to party. The spectacular National Day parade at Marina Bay yesterday dazzled the eyes, warmed the heart and unfolded like a Hollywood blockbuster that had elements of Disney, Star Wars and Broadway musicals spliced together to lay on the mother of all shows.

The marching soldiers, sashaying singers and dancers, the military jets and helicopters flying overhead, the patrol boats churning up the waters of the Marina Bay and the big guns booming a thunderous salute all played their part in striking the right chords in the audience, who smiled and sang One People, One Nation, One Singapore and other National Day songs.

Even sitting at home, watching the show on television, I was overcome with emotion.

The defining moments for me were when the cameras closed up on the former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Age lined Goh’s face as he broke into a smile. Lee looked gnomic, inscrutable and fragile, a very old man.

All things must pass. Time and tide wait for no man. That is precisely why we must make the most of every moment, the best of what we have — as the National Day participants did yesterday, celebrating with abandon, as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

The defining song for me was Big Island. Some may say it’s wishful thinking, that Singapore’s no big island but a little red dot, a speck in the sea. Even the lyrics acknowledge Big Island is pure moonshine. As the chorus sings:

Big Island, Big Island,
Big, Big Island,
Bigger, Bigger!
Bigger than it can be! Yeah!

The words of the song reminded me of Singapore’s spectacular growth, which even Singaporeans now regret, saying the island has grown too populous, too fast, prompting the government to moderate the pace and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to invoke the mantra of sustainable growth.

The economy is expected to grow 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent this year — not the growth rate that made Singapore an Asian tiger.

This tiger has aged — like the leaders in charge of it. The ministers at the parade looked fit and happy, but there’s no getting away from the fact that they are getting on in years, veterans who have celebrated many a National Day in the past.

The National Day parade has a rich history, beginning the year after independence. The military display goes back to times when nations put on a show of strength to fortify themselves. The most widely reported such event used to be the former Soviet Union’s Red Army parade, which used to make headlines around the world, when military and political analysts looked at the Soviet arsenal and tried to make sense of who stood where in the Soviet leadership — who was in and who, out of power.

The National Day parade shows a colonial legacy. The skirling bagpipes go back to times when Singapore was part of the British empire and the colourful costumes of the singers and dancers recalled old musicals about the exotic Orient such as The King and I.

The National Day parade is grand theatre. But to appreciate it best, you have to belong. How tight and close was the circle that gathered to cheer at the National Day parade was borne home when the audience sang Chan Mali Chan with the singers and dancers. You have to be an honest-to-goodness Singaporean to do that or know Malay.

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