SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): About 25,000 people gathered at the Marina Bay floating platform to mark Singapore's 57th birthday on Tuesday (Aug 9), in a show that recognised the hardships inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic and celebrated a return to relative normalcy.
A human sea of red and white sat elbow to elbow, joining in the Kallang Wave and soaking in the rat-a-tat of rifle salutes at the first ticketed National Day Parade in three years.
About the only thing that signalled how the pandemic is not over was some spectators wearing face masks. Parade organisers had "strongly encouraged" this but it was not mandatory.
This year's parade was a world of difference from 2020 and 2021, when Covid-19 restrictions reduced the NDP to symbolic affairs watched live by only small, safe-distanced audiences.
Last year's show even had to be postponed by two weeks following a resurgence of cases in the community.
Amid the noise of Tuesday's celebrations, a moment of hushed silence was, for many, the most poignant of the night.
At the start of the second act of the show directed by theatre veteran Adrian Pang, a single source of light emerged from the pitch-black stage.
There, standing alone, was singer-songwriter Aisyah Aziz. In a velvety voice, she sang a song of compassion: "Have you ever felt like nobody was there? Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere? Have you ever felt like you could disappear?... You can reach, reach out your hand."
The song, 'You Will Be Found', from American musical Dear Evan Hansen, launched a section of the show about the price exacted by the pandemic.
The theme of this year's NDP, Stronger Together Majulah, was chosen for the need to stick together during these tough times. It is embodied in the logo of two figures holding hands to build a caring and inclusive society.
The celebrations at the floating platform kicked off at about 5.30pm, with hosts Joakim Gomez, Sonia Chew, Siti Khalijah and Rishi Budhrani urging the crowd to wave their lights and flags and do the Kallang Roar.
Among those soaking in the atmosphere was housewife Normala Ahmad, 60. "I miss gathering and celebrating like this," she said. "Let's hope there are no more pandemics."
Teacher Ravindran Rajasekeran, 37, who was also watching at the platform, said: "During the pandemic, a lot of normal things we took for granted were restricted. It's good to see the parade back to normal."
At 6.30pm, 10 parachutists from the Red Lions descended in a spiral from the sky to cheers of delight.
The final parachutist landed heavily and was stretchered off.
In a Facebook post later, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said Third Warrant Officer Jeffrey Heng's condition was "currently stable, alert and conscious" and he was receiving medical attention.
This information was also conveyed to the spectators, who cheered in relief.
Immediately after came the land, sea and air Total Defence display.
The audience was informed on the big screen that "threatening personnel" were encroaching on Singapore's waters. This sparked a high-speed water chase, helicopters performing climbing manoeuvres close to the crowd, troopers raiding a "hijacked" public bus, and tanks firing into the distance.
Gripping and loud, this segment involved at least 50 vehicles from the air force, army, navy, the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Last performed five years ago, a display combining such varied elements is unlikely to be seen again for a while.
This is the last parade to be held at the Marina Bay floating platform as it will be replaced by a permanent structure called NS Square, which will be ready by the end of 2026.
Next year's NDP will be held at the Padang.
In between the defence display, about 2,000 participants marched on stage for the parade, inspected by President Halimah Yacob.
This year is the 55th anniversary of national service, and the parade paid tribute to past and present national servicemen.
The event's master of ceremonies asked those in the audience who had served or were serving NS to stand to receive a salute. There was hesitance and abashed smiles among some men.
But there were those, like Irwan Ramli, who immediately stood up, solemn and straight.
Irwan, 42, who works in logistics operations, served in the Singapore Civil Defence Force. He said of his stint: "We saved lives and learnt a lot of new things every day."
His wife, logistics executive Norlie Ramli, 42, added: "I'm very proud of him for giving back to the country."
Celebrations returned to a high with former Singapore Idol Taufik Batisah's rendition of the theme song Stronger Together, culminating in the national anthem and pledge.
The celebrations struck a chord with Chia Foong Lin, 67, a retiree, who said: "I hope there will be peace and harmony, both at home and in the region, for a long time."