The Greatest Showmen

Kelvin directing the NDP show at the
Padang in 2007

Singapore’s National Day is always an occasion to which Singaporeans look forward. We are not only treated to a visual spectacle that pays tribute to our country’s progress and achievements through the years, but are also reminded of our long journey together as a people of varied races, religions and experiences in building a nation we can be proud of.

This is very much so the case for two members of the local Methodist community, who could not have been more different in their occupational backgrounds and life experiences.

Quek Koh Eng, who is Area Director and Operations Director in the Methodist Missions Society and worships at Charis Methodist Church, is a retired Colonel of the Singapore Armed Forces. He had the privilege of being involved in the organising of several National Day Parades (NDPs) from the ’70s to the ’80s, when Singapore was just a young nation finding its footing in the world.

Kelvin Tan, who works in the creative industry and attends Trinity MC, contributed his time and skills to NDPs over a span of 22 years from the late ’70s to the early 2000s, half of which in the capacity of creative director.

Witnessing the development of a nation

As a young officer in the Singapore Armed Forces in the ’70s, Col Quek Koh Eng found himself quickly placed in a position that allowed him to steer the direction of several NDPs for much of the next decade, an important period in Singapore’s early history as the parades were a way to get Singaporeans united behind a collective vision of nation-building.

He started as the Organising Secretary for the 1976 NDP at the National Stadium.

“As the Organising Secretary, my roles were to organise the meetings for the Chairman and assist him to coordinate and follow-up on all actions related to the agencies and institutions involved in the parade.” Being in such a position allowed Col Quek to have a good picture of just what was involved in making a NDP a memorable experience for the citizen. It also honed his operational skills, which would put him in good stead for parades in the future.

After getting his feet wet in 1976, Col Quek went on to chair the NDP Organising Committee in 1979, during which he oversaw one of the many decentralised parades that were a feature of the year.

“My role as Organising Chairman was to crystalise the concepts and themes of the Parade and seek approval from the higher authorities,” described Col Quek. “There was a lot of coordination between the various sub-committees, whose jobs were to manage the flypast, invitations, crowd control, security, fireworks, rehearsals and the general table of events.”

Col Quek cited that one of the toughest challenges in organising an event the scale of a NDP is getting the varied timings within the Parade precisely right, especially the firing of the 21-gun salute to the President and the flypast display by the military aircraft. He did such a good job that he was re-appointed as the Chairperson of the Organising Committee for two more NDPs in 1980 and 1983.

“One of my best memories of my involvement with the NDPs was the one in 1980 when we introduced the feu de joie, performed by the Guard of Honour, which is now a standard fixture at the NDP. As blank rounds were used, we had to affix every rifle with a blank attachment and carry out rigorous inspections to ensure that no mishap occurred,” recalled Col Quek.

Injecting vibrancy from one century to the next

Kelvin Tan found himself in a unique position to organise, conceptualise and oversee the creative presentations of NDPs that straddled the 20th and 21st centuries.

For a little more than two decades, Kelvin helmed various appointments, the biggest of which was as the NDP’s Creative Director. He felt that the NDP in 1984 was the turning point with regards to the parade’s creative direction.

“From 1984 and onwards, we were told to make the parade more attractive and less militaristic by changing the format to include display items. The parade was then divided into two major portions, the Parade and Ceremonial aspect, which comprises mainly the marching displays and military hardware, and the second being the Display segment, which features different performing groups showcasing mass displays along a particular theme,” recounted Kelvin. “This template is still used today.”

As expected of an event of its magnitude, planning for each NDP took place well in advance before the next parade, often from October the previous year.

 Having seen through his fair share of NDPs through the years, Kelvin noted that the NDPs in recent years have opted for more theatrics than the ones before, making the viewing experience a much more dramatic affair.

He counted the 1998 NDP as one of his more memorable outings. “In 1998, the economy was badly affected, and we pulled together a moving parade that engaged the active participation of all in the audience. It was a party from the start, and the melancholic mood of an economic depression was lifted. The parade then closed with a spectacular fireworks display, a feature that is still being used today.”

“It was [always] a deliberate attempt on my part to make the content every year as varied as possible, to ensure that no one would be able to make a comparison to what was before. Each year would showcase certain technological advances and therefore create memories that would be hard to forget.”

Col (Ret) Quek Koh Eng
The largest Singapore flag (formed by 8,667 volunteers holding umbrellas), according to the Singapore Book of Records, being formed on National Day 2007 at the Padang in an NDP show directed by Kelvin Tan

Jason Woo is the Communications Executive at MCS Comms. / Photos courtesy of Col (Ret) Quek Koh Eng and Kelvin Tan