Singapore’s first National Day celebrations
In 1966, Singapore celebrated its 9 August National Day for the first time. It was a week-long string of festivities that included a big parade, fireworks displays, cultural shows, and dinner parties. It was actually Singapore’s second National Day. The very first had been on 9 August 1965 when Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaysia to go its own way. On this day, it was simultaneously announced in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that henceforth, Singapore would be "a sovereign, democratic and independent nation".1
As Singapore recovered from the shock of the separation,2 its immediate priority was to gain international recognition as an independent republic.3 Between 1965 and 1966, Singapore became a member of several important global organisations, and was recognised as an independent nation both regionally and internationally.4 The nation's efforts to assert itself as an independent nation were affirmed on its first National Day in 1966 when congratulatory messages were received from 29 countries.5
The very first National Day Parade (NDP) was on the theme of "National Pride and Confidence in the Future".6 It was to be the first of what would develop into a much-anticipated national event with mass participation from all quarters. However, this first National Day celebrations did not enjoy wholehearted support from everyone.
Opposition parties, including Singapore UMNO boycotted the morning parade at the Padang. Only a contingent of the ruling party, People’s Action Party (PAP), was at the parade. On the evening of 9 August, Barisan Sosialis and Party Rakyat held their own meetings in Geylang Serai to condemn the waste of public money used to celebrate a "phony independence".7
The first National Day Parade
Singapore's first National Day Parade (NDP) was held at the Padang on the morning of 9 August 1966. While the parade was going on, some 500,000 schoolchildren assembled in their schools to hear the National Day message of the Minister for Education, Ong Pang Boon, being read out by their principals. Schools held flag-raising ceremonies, sang the national anthem, and organised concerts or exhibitions.8
The parade at the Padang began at 9 am with the arrival of then President Yusof bin Ishak, who was greeted by then Defence Minister and Colonel of the Artillery Goh Keng Swee on the steps of City Hall. Seated on the steps were the cabinet ministers, members of parliament, VIPs and invited guests.9 The playing of the national anthem was followed by the presidential salute and a 21-gun salute that thundered out from the grounds of Raffles Institution and the president’s review of the parade.10
Then came the 90-minute march-past of 23,000 men, women and children. The march-past was led by six contingents from the People's Defence Force (PDF), which was on public parade for the first time. In the PDF contingents were four ministers – then Minister for Labour Jek Yeun Thong, then Minister for Education Ong Pang Boon, then Minister for Culture and Social Affairs Othman Wok, and then Minister of State for Defence Wee Toon Boon11 – wearing for the first time the uniform of officer cadets. Also in the PDF contingents were parliamentary secretaries and members of parliament.12
The military detachments were followed by uniformed youth groups and performances by students of the major Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English schools to represent the four main cultures of Singapore. Marching next were the PAP contingent, followed by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) contingent. The thundering finale of crashing cymbals, gongs and drums was a display by 60 lions and dragons – the biggest assembly of lion and dragon dancers ever in Singapore.13 The lion and dragon dance troupes dispersed at 10.30 am – seven minutes before the rain fell.
Spirits were not dampened by the rain. The military units continued their route march through heavily populated Chinatown towards Tanjong Pagar and were greeted by cheering crowds. To let thousands more catch the celebrations, the parade was televised ‘live’.14 The day's celebrations continued with a fireworks display at 4 pm at the Padang organised by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. A second fireworks display was held at Fort Canning Rise that night, a display that could be seen by the 1,000 guests at the Istana garden cocktail party hosted by President Ishak and the First Lady, Puan Noor Aishah.15
One of the highlights on the night of 9 August was an illuminated "sea dragon" measuring 500 ft (152 m) in length and standing 40 ft (12 m) high and lit by 12,500 light bulbs. It could be viewed off Princess Elizabeth Walk between 8.30 and 11.30 pm, and was towed by six lighters across the waterfront from Telok Ayer Basin to Tanjong Rhu.16 Variety shows and dinners were also held throughout the island to celebrate the occasion.17 Special commemorative stamps were also issued for sale at the general post office.18
Several national days
The 1966 National Day celebrations was not the first such celebration for the gaining of national freedom. The withdrawal of the British from Malaya and Singapore had left Singapore with several such independence markers. Between 1960 and 1963, Singapore's national day was celebrated on 3 June to commemorate the day in 1959 when Singapore attained self-government.19
This was followed by 31 August 1963, the date when Singapore declared de facto independence, the choice of date being that celebrating the independence of the Federation of Malaya. This was in anticipation of merger with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia. When merger did finally happen and the Federation of Malaysia became official, it was on 16 September 1963. Singapore remained in Malaysia for under three years. Political differences between the Federal government in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore plus the threat of more racial violence ended the merger. It left Singapore with 9 August as its National Day.20
Confidence in years ahead
On the eve of Singapore's first National Day, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew addressed the nation at a National Day Rally. After reviewing Singapore's progress over the past year, Lee expressed confidence that the year ahead would become easier, "as the shape of things is becoming clearer to everyone".21 In his speech, he outlined the core competencies that Singaporeans had to develop to progress.
The delivery of the National Day Rally Speech and the National Day Message by the prime minister has become the annual occasion when the incumbent prime minister gives an overview of the government's performance, and highlights the nation’s key challenges and its future directions.22
Between 1966 and 1970, the Prime Minister’s National Day Address was held before 9 August. In 1970, the rally was moved to the first or second Sunday after National Day.
National Day honours
The 1966 National Day was also the first time that honours were presented to recognise the meritorious service that individuals have performed for Singapore. The first to receive the Pingat Bakti Chemerlang (Malay for “Distinguished Service Medal”) was Albert Winsemius, adviser to Singapore's Economic Development Board.23 Two hundred people from all walks of life were honoured that day with honours of different levels.24 The national honours have grown to encompass 17 grades of merit as of 2010.25
National Day Parades since 1966
The celebration of National Day with a parade featuring the march-past of military and civilian contingents has continued since 1966. The NDP has evolved into a visual extravaganza featuring laser displays, fireworks and floats, as well as flashcard displays. Up till 1975, the parade was held yearly at the Padang. In 1975, the NDP was decentralised and held at 13 selected centres across Singapore.26 In 1976, the NDP was held at the National Stadium for the first time.27 Thereafter, with the exception of 1977, 1979 and 1981, the NDP was held either at the Padang or the National Stadium.28 When the National Stadium was officially closed in 2007, The Float@Marina Bay became the new home ground for the NDP.29
1. Negara Bebas: First National Day of the Republic of Singapore (Singapore: Malaysian Enterprises, 1966), 20. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 NB)
2. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, Second Reading of the Republic of Singapore Independence Bill, vol. 24 of Debates: Official Reports, 22 December 1965, cols. 451–456. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
3. Negara Bebas, 41.
4. “All-Round Progress in the Economy in First Year,” Straits Times, 9 August 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “N-Day Greetings,” Straits Times, 13 August 1966, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Tan Yi Hui and Nicholas Yong, “Is That the NDP Song?” Straits Times, 27 July 2009, 95. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Day and Night of Joy and Fun in S'pore,” Straits Times, 10 August 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “500,000 at Schools to Launch N-Day Joy,” Straits Times, 8 August 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Tommy Thong Bee Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 369. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
10. “Ministers and MPs Seen in Uniform by the Public for the First Time,” Straits Times, 10 August 1966, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Day and Night of Joy and Fun in S'pore.”
12. Singapore Year Book (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1966), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN)
13. Singapore Year Book, 3.
14. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 369.
15. “Riot of colour in the Night Sky,” Straits Times, 10 August 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Sea Dragon That Throws Out Jewels…,” Straits Times, 8 August 1966, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Day and Night of Joy and Fun in S'pore.”
18. “Singapore National Day Stamps on Sale,” Straits Times, 9 August 1966, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Negara Bebas, 20.
20. Negara Bebas, 20.
21. Singapore Year Book, 2.
22. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 369.
23. Peter, H. L. Lim, ed., Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty Years of Headline
News 1959–2009 (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Library Board, 2009), 81. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
24. “National Day Honours for 200 in S'pore,” Straits Times, 9 August 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “National Day Awards,” Prime Minister’s Office, last updated 21 August 2021.
26. “Parades at 13 Centres to Mark 10th Birthday,” Straits Times, 10 August 1975, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Leslie Fong, et al., “Touch of Style from 12,000…,” Straits Times, 10 August 1976, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. National Archives Singapore, Treasures of Time (Singapore: National Archives Singpaore, 2003), 6. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TT-[HIS])
29. Tay Suan Chiang, “Staying Afloat,” Straits Times, 19 August 2008, 51. (From NewspaperSG)
Lee Kuan Yew, “On Eve on National Day, August 8, 1966,” speech, 8 August 1966, transcript, Ministry of Culture (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. lky19660808a)
Ministry of Culture. “National Day,” press release, 4 August 1966. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. PressR19660804)
Television Corporation of Singapore, NDP 33: Remembering Our Past 33 National Day Parades, Television Corporation of Singapore, 1999, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 394.2695957 NDP-[CUS])
The information in this article is valid as at 9 June 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.