Cost and Opt-out of NDP Fun Packs 2020

Parliamentary Question, 5 May 2020

https://mothership.sg/2020/05/ndp-2020-fun-pack-opt-out-option/

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister of Defence (i) how much state and sponsorship funds and NSF time will be used in packing and distributing of the increased number of NDP funpacks this year, (ii) whether the Minister has considered specific items that the funds and corporate sponsorship can be used on in a way that brings forth the community spirit of Singaporeans and demonstrate our solidarity and gratitude with the workers on the frontlines of the crisis in tangible ways, (iii) and if a systematic process to ensure citizens can opt-out of receiving the fun packs, and if so, how the savings from these opt-outs can be redirected to more urgent needs in this time of financial prudence, for example redirected to food programs for those who are falling through the cracks of our current support schemes?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: With regards to Question №1, the Member’s question has been addressed in my reply to similar oral Questions 1, 2 and 3, as raised by MPs in this sitting.

Below was the exchange in Parliament:

1 Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Defence (a) what is the projected total cost of producing, packing and distributing the NDP funpacks to each citizen and PR household for NDP 2020; and (b) whether the Government will consider creating an option for those who would like to donate the expense required for their funpack back to the state or to charities.

2 Miss Cheng Li Hui asked the Minister for Defence (a) whether essential and care items can be included in the NDP funpacks to enhance the relevance and usefulness of the funpacks during this challenging period; (b) what items in the NDP funpacks have already been produced for distribution; and © what happens to excess items not distributed or when households opt out of the funpacks.

3 Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng asked the Prime Minister how will Singapore’s National Day commemoration and celebrations differ at the national and local levels in view of the COVID-19 measures.

The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Deputy Speaker, the first three questions on the Order Paper are related to the National Day Parade. For Question No 3 put by Member of Parliament Ms Denise Phua, I will be answering on behalf of the Prime Minister. Can I seek your consent to take these questions together?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Yes, please.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: In Singapore’s relatively short history as a nation, the National Day Parade has always taken centre-stage as we celebrate each year of independence. Members in this House have attended these National Day Parades. And many of you have kindly told me after each parade that it was well done, the mood was lifted, there was a sense of togetherness as Singapore and Singaporeans.

So, I think, in turn, the National Day Parade has served our nation well — both as a rallying call for all Singaporeans to stay united but also a clear statement of our confidence and determination to succeed collectively, no matter the odds. Through thick and thin, good times or bad, it showed Singaporeans celebrating and standing firm as one people, regardless of race, language or religion. I am so used to the mask that I spoke with it; forgot to take it off! That is what COVID-19 has done to us.

How did it come about? Not all countries celebrate their national days the way that we have or put the national day parade as centre-stage.

There is a history to the National Day Parade. The first National Day Parade (NDP) in 1966 was held amid the most testing of times. But that inaugural NDP would set the example for the subsequent 54 years.

On the morning of 9 August 1966, 500,000 school children assembled in schools and sang the new national anthem, Majulah Singapura, Onward Singapore. That first NDP was held at the Padang with 21-gun salute as the President reviewed various contingents that we have become accustomed to the SAF, the Police, NTUC, uniformed youth organisations and so forth.

The military units then marched from the Padang into Chinatown, to waving crowds. Fireworks at that time, took place at the Padang and Fort Canning. It followed the Parade and it adorned the skies. At night, there was an illuminated sea dragon, 150 metres long, 12 metres tall, lit up by 12,500 bulbs. It may be prosaic to us today, but at that time, it was quite spectacular. It sailed across what is today’s Marina Bay.

By all accounts, it was an extraordinary event, especially for a nation that was barely a year old. Could Singapore afford it in 1966? Could the money have been put to better use? Remember that our fledgling nation had a host of unsolved problems — high unemployment, few could afford to own homes, high drop-out rates even at Primary 6, inadequate medical care. I am just naming a few.

Why did the first NDP proceed that way? Because the unity and collective confidence for the future that it engendered among Singaporeans was priceless. It showed to the rest of the world that despite great difficulties, ours was a country that would not be beaten down, ours was a people that will rise and overcome. Without that unity and confidence, Singapore could not have survived, let alone thrived against the challenges that our founding generation faced.

Member of this House will readily recognise that subsequent National Day Parades take reference from and pay homage to that seminal NDP of 1966 — both in spirit and form.

At each National Day, as we did during the first, we are making a conscious act of the will. It is a willful event that we have said we will celebrate, whether individually or as one people, to celebrate each National Day with the same indomitable spirit, never mind the prevailing difficulties and never mind the differences among people.

As Singapore prospered over the years, that focus on survival, overcoming difficulties, even unity, may have inadvertently diminished.

We have had a good run. So, over the years, the NDP has now evolved into softer tones. It has become more individualistic, more of an affirmation of what Singapore is and what being Singaporean means to each citizen. So, you would remember the videos that we played in previous NDPs. They had resonance, Singaporeans liked them because they focused on individuals, differences among our people and yet the unity that we could form from it. That may be today’s zeitgeist but we should never forget that the first NDP and the origin of that spirit remains essential for our nationhood.

When the NDP Executive Committee (Exco) revealed some details for NDP 2020, some Singaporeans felt that these celebrations were wasteful and that the same resources ought to be spent elsewhere, especially in light of the impact that COVID-19 had on our economy and jobs. We have had four Budgets, and each time, we dig into our reserves, to make sure that we protect lives and protect livelihoods and jobs.

I appreciate that point of view and agree fully with them that we ought to be prudent. The final cost figures are not yet in, but at very least, this year’s NDP should be able to reduce the usual budget by a third, with savings from the cost of infrastructure that would have been built if we had held it in the usual way at the Padang or the Float @ Marina Bay.

I am all for prudence. I think Members of Parliament know me. But we should guard against the mood of despondency overcoming us or allow individual preferences to divide us. If we allow despair to prevail in our national psyche, particularly in this COVID-19 pandemic, then, I say that would be the greatest harm to the future of Singapore — much more devastating than the economic impact, the loss of jobs and businesses.

Indeed, through every troubled period of Singapore’s history — whether it was the British withdrawal in 1971, the recession of 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, SARS in 2003, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 — the drumbeat of the National Day Parade that Singaporeans marched to, neither faltered nor reduced in intensity. Even through those difficult years, Singaporeans chose to celebrate the National Day Parade as we have always done, and rallied together. Because of that hope and optimism, Singapore emerged stronger.

It has been five months since COVID-19 struck our nation. It is, by any account, the most severe disruption globally for at least a century. In fact, experts have to go very far back to find events that matched the equivalent magnitude of the impact. Events like World War I, the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, World War II are cited.

For tiny Singapore alone, the infections will last many more months. But the impact of disrupted lives and livelihoods will last even longer.

If at this early stage, Singaporeans lose their mettle, their inner strength and equanimity, lose their resolve, weaken their resilience, sharpen their differences, then, we are already in trouble.

This is not the Singapore that you and I know. This is not the Singapore spirit that has ensured our survival through many previous hardships. So, I say, despite the difficulties and indeed, because of the more challenging times that are ahead, we should celebrate this year’s NDP as we have done before and just as our founding generation did during the first NDP. That, for us, is the most important aspect for this year’s NDP.

The Exco for NDP 2020 has stayed true to its roots, but has adapted the format to reduce the risk of infection in the face of an imminent threat from COVID-19. Their concept, which Ms Denise Phua asked about, is a simple one. Not being able to hold the NDP at a central location with large crowds should not prevent Singaporeans from expressing their pride and love for Singapore and the call for unity.

NDP 2020 will be celebrated in the safety and comfort of every household in Singapore. We may be physically apart, but we want to join in spirit as one people with that same confidence and optimism and unity that the founding generation fostered despite harsher and grim circumstances.

Most elements will follow the traditions of past NDPs, but some items will be new. The morning segment will begin with the Prime Minister’s National Day message. To remind us of that founding Singapore spirit of that first NDP and to gear Singapore up to face difficulties ahead, it is only right that a parade be held at the Padang. The President will be the Reviewing Officer but for a much smaller scale parade comprising only SAF and Home Team contingents. This will be telecast live. SAF helicopters carrying the Singapore flag will fly over the Padang and also make their way across the housing estates through Singapore.

When the Anthem is played at the Padang, flag-raising ceremonies around the island will take place concurrently, so that Singaporeans across the island, whether in their constituencies, camps, workplaces or elsewhere will be singing Majulah Singapura in unison.

In past NDPs that Members of this House have enjoyed, the SAF aircraft could fly only over the NDP site, whether at the Padang or the Float. With Changi Airport being one of the busiest in the world, that was all the air space and the air time that we could be allocated for NDP. We expect air travel to pick up in the months ahead and I know that MOT and CAAS are working very hard. But this year, let us turn this into an opportunity so that the SAF aircraft can fly in formation over the heartlands of Singapore, so that Singaporeans can watch it from their homes.

Mobile columns from the SAF and Home Team will also travel through various parts of the island. With them will be the frontline heroes and heroines who have shown exemplary sacrifice and courage in fighting this COVID-19 pandemic. I know that Singaporeans want to thank them personally. The NDP will be a good occasion from a safe distance for Singaporeans to cheer them on and show them their much deserved appreciation.

Instead of an NDP show with thousands of participants, there will be a boutique studio show at night, with performances by some local artistes and talents which will be broadcasted live. There will be interactive elements for Singaporeans to sing along, join in the Pledge during the show.

And as we do each year, there will be fireworks across a few sites in Singapore to cap the day’s and night’s events over the Singapore skyline, both in the Central Business District and the HDB heartlands. The fireworks will not be as long or spectacular as recent centralised NDPs, but I hope that it will lift the spirits of Singaporeans all across the island.

To facilitate Singaporeans joining in as one people and one nation, the NDP Exco provides what they call a “Singapore Together Pack”. Mr Leon Perera and Miss Cheng Li Hui asked about this. The Exco had engaged various groups in designing this pack and has also taken in public feedback. Full details are still being worked out but let me share what I can.

Singaporeans will find the bag for the pack useful as a reusable grocery bag; it is practical, foldable into a small pouch. The designs on the bag are by local artists with disabilities and some of our Primary 5 pupils — each design an expression of their feelings for their country and fellow citizens, and their hopes for the future.

As families will be at home, there is no need for single-use water bottles, neither plastic clappers nor packaging. These have been done away with, to reduce waste. There will be items that express our collective love and wishes for Singapore like the National flag — a full-sized cloth flag, a handheld one — as well as iron-on patches for your masks, a pledge card and face tattoos. Well-wishing corporations have asked to add to the pack items to express their gratitude for what Singapore has given them, by giving back to Singaporeans. The Exco has decided to include hand sanitisers, thermometers, face masks — I think Miss Cheng asked about this — and a snack and drink from a local F&B company. Companies are also offering vouchers and we have decided to put them as an e-discount booklet. Mr Leon Perera asked about cost — the cost of each Singapore Together Pack will be around $2.40.

For every NDP, the Exco aims to be inclusive and they take in views and accommodate different interests where possible. I think this is good and forward-leaning. But let me just say this as a gentle caution. If every interest group pushes for its own agenda especially during the NDP, then our common ground to celebrate this national event shrinks. Because the Exco simply will never be able to satisfy every request adequately. What the Exco can do this year is to produce fewer Singapore Together Packs, taking into account those who have said that they do not need one. It will therefore produce packs for about 80% of households, which from prior experience should be adequate. All those who want them to celebrate our NDP together can collect them from the CCs.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic will define this generation of Singaporeans, just as the first NDP, those who attended the first NDP, the Merdeka Generation, were defined by the difficulties we had as a newly formed Singapore.

For this generation, our response will determine whether Singapore continues to thrive in the post COVID world. As with every crisis, people have a choice to make — to overcome or be overwhelmed.

As we did at the very first NDP, I urge all Members of this House and all Singaporeans to reaffirm our unity, to reaffirm our resilience, bonded by the same vision and optimism that Singapore will prevail and overcome the challenges that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us. The months ahead will be trying and the difficulties ahead will test our resolve and cohesion. Despite all of this, Singaporeans can, and Singapore will, celebrate NDP 2020 with confidence and hope for a brighter future. [Applause.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Miss Cheng Li Hui.

Miss Cheng Li Hui (Tampines): I thank the Minister. I have four supplementary questions. The Minister mentioned that the total number of packs is for 80% of the households. How did the 80% come about? What was the redemption percentage for SG50 packs? Is 80% sufficient to cater to the anticipated demand? What happens to the unredeemed items?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Let me thank Miss Cheng Li Hui for her questions. Our past experiences show that 80% will be enough. It is actually less than what we produce usually. We produce usually about 90% of households, sometimes 95%,but we have taken into account those who said they do not need one. I would like to believe that they feel that we are confident enough to celebrate and to join other Singaporeans without all these facilitative things — the flag, tattoos, the iron-on and your masks. We will leave them as they wish and so we will produce 80% which should be adequate.

The difficulty that the NDP Exco had is trying to shoot a moving target. They started planning this in March. So, when they presented to me the plans, they had a number of scenarios. One scenario was — this was before circuit breaker — the normal NDP, the usual, thousands upon thousands. An interim scenario is where you can have crowds of 50 or even 500. When I saw the plans, I said “Let us dispense with Options A and B. Don’t waste time about it. Let us go to Option C. Let us just assume the worst that COVID-19 will bring”.

You can come out of the circuit breaker but in August, suppose something happens and we have to reimpose the circuit breaker. The mood will be down, Singaporeans will become despondent and that is the time when we say, “Come together, have this National Parade even despite your fears, come out and celebrate” — not come out literally, because you must stay at home; but come out in spirit and celebrate.

We have had two months off circuit breaker. The psychological effects are there. Some people actually like it; they find working from home more productive and they found a sweet spot. For others, there is actually fear, fear to come out, fear to join others. So, when I read notes that say why do we not be prudent, I completely agree with them. But I want to make sure that this is not despondency or fear.

If Members of Parliament, judging by the conditions, want to organise events near 9 August for your constituencies and you want us to facilitate with more bags, let me know, and if we can, we will produce more. I promise you this. Because for many heartlanders, these are physical touch points, commonalities, that when they wave the flag, it is the same flag, when they have tattoos, it is a physical token for them to latch on to. Never dismiss these symbols even though the cost is little.

So, I make this pledge to you. If you hand in your request and you know there are groups that will want it, whether it is various groups, please let MINDEF know and we will try to facilitate for more.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Leon Perera.

Mr Leon Perera (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the hon Minister for his detailed explanation. I am sure we can all agree that it is important for the country to rally together to have a keynote that underlines our unity during this difficult time.

I just have two supplementary questions.

Firstly, when this funpack was announced, I did sense that many Singaporeans felt that at a time when public finances are stretched, and many citizens and micro businesses are facing a lot of difficulty and uncertainty, perhaps the resources to give a pack to every household could be diverted to those who are more in need at this particular time. The Minister has explained the plan with the funpack. But my question is, really, for something like a funpack to serve a purpose that it is intended for, consultation and buy-in from the public may be useful to understand whether most people would really want to have this and whether it would serve that purpose of banishing the despondency, raising the spirits, rallying and unifying everyone. So, learning from this experience, I wonder whether there could be a bigger role for consultation in future before a very large or elaborate logistical exercise, such as distributing packs for everyone, is undertaken. That would be my first question.

My second question is, I understand that REACH set up an online poll to solicit views of Singaporeans about the funpack. I was wondering how long this poll was up for and what the results of this poll showed, if that is available.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am glad that the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) has agreed with me that this is an important time for us to rally together. I agree fully with him that we need to engage groups to see what for them represents a good way to celebrate our National Day Parade. But as I said in my primary answer, while the Exco needs to be open, forward-leaning, consultative, there is a balance. If every group with their individual preferences decide to use the National Day Parade to press for their differences, then I think the Exco has a very difficult task. Because it will never be able to satisfy all groups, it will never be able to be all things to all men. It will have to balance, as we do every year. In previous years, when they, even ourselves, who are conscious about climate change, want to reduce and they press for disposable water bottles, the Exco had to balance the need for elderly and children who need bottled water. The disposable water bottles are actually recyclable but the Exco even looked at giving reusable water bottles, then putting water stands, whether it is at the Floating platform or the stadium or Padang, but they found it was undoable. So, they did the next best thing; instead of two small bottles, they gave one big bottle, which will reduce the amount of plastic, I presume.

It is always these choices to make between different interests. But the more important point is this: for this balance to be struck, how does each individual group want to press for its own interests? We have gone past race, religion and language, I hope — I am talking about the NDP show. But at every NDP show. I am still very careful that there must be proper representation, that even when we carry soft stories that we should represent all of Singapore. But if any interest group decides to say, “My interests are not shown. What you represent as Singapore does not show my narrower sets of preferences or who I am.” If they choose to assert those differences during National Day Parade, it is what it is, it is what it will become, but it will shrink our common space.

I do not know the details of the REACH survey. If Mr Perera wants to know that, he can put it to that Ministry and I am sure that Ministry will give him a full reply.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Louis Ng.

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Thank you, Sir. Let me first thank the Minister for reducing the number of items in the funpack and reaching out to the green groups and listening as well. But could I ask two clarifications?

One, I do understand we are producing 80% of funpacks for the Singapore households. So, there is already a reduction but that is based, as Minister said, on estimations and based on past experience. Would it not be better to just ask Singaporeans whether they want to opt out of receiving the funpack, so that we can get a more accurate figure that will reduce the wastage?

The second clarification is what Member Cheng Li Hui asked previously, what will we be doing with the excess funpacks that are not collected?

Third, let me record my appreciation of thanks to the NDP Exco 2020. I worked with them for the last six months. As what NCMP Leon Perera has asked, we actually have been on the ground for the last six months getting feedback from the green groups and working together with them. In fact, this morning, we had another Zoom call with them to explain why we had a funpack, why we had certain items in there, and it was a very positive conversation that we had. I want to thank the NDP Exco for the forward-thinking, for really listening. It has been a privilege working with the Chairman, Brigadier-General Frederick Choo. In fact, I would suggest that the Minister make him NDP Exco Chairman in 2021 since he did not get to organise a full NDP this year, and he really has done an amazing job trying to find the middle ground and making very difficult decisions.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Let me thank Member Louis Ng for those kind comments. I had known that he had been involved and helped us for the last six months. But I chose not to cite his help in the reply to Mr Leon Perera because, it is better that Mr Ng himself said it. Otherwise, they will say, you know, whatever they will say. I thank Mr Ng for the suggestion that General Choo should be considered to be NDP 2021, in Hokkien, we say, “Ho Gai Siao” or a good recommendation. I am not sure if he would want it, but nonetheless, we will think about it.

Member Mr Ng’s point was more substantial. Why not have, before each NDP, a full public consultation as I think was the point that Mr Perera made. Just for practical purposes — Members of this House lead organisations, you are in businesses or in your organisations, you should know — there is a limit beyond which analysis becomes paralysis. You want to have feedback but you have to ultimately make a decision. Because why just a funpack? I cite this but I am not suggesting you make this an issue, but in terms of carbon production, my fighter planes probably produce more. While we “rah rah” to the zoom of fighter aircraft, jet fuel is being burnt up there.

Why focus just on the funpack? It could be many other things.

So, I think there is a limit to consultation. We will be forward-leaning, we will take in views, but there is a balance to be struck.

There is a time for every activity, a season for everything under the heavens. That is the ecclesiastical injunction.

What is this year a time for? Twenty-twenty. What is this year a time for? We have been divided like never before by a little organism, barely 0.125 microns. Relatives have been separated, grandparents from their grandchildren, couples, even spouses. For the healthcare workers, some were so fearful. They were not fearful about going to work but they were so fearful that they would pass on their infections if they got infected to their families, that they chose to stay away from their families, and the hospitals facilitated and found hotel rooms for them to stay alone.

Never a time have we been so physically divided. Never a time have we been so psychologically affected. And I say this to you not to frighten you, but the months ahead will be harder. This is not a time to show up our divisions. It does not mean we do not ask for feedback. But this is maybe a time, in gentle tones, to put aside some of our differences and come together.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Louis Ng, you have some more clarifications?

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: Sorry, Sir, there really is just a remaining concern which is what will we do with the excess packs? I think I understand we might be donating them or giving them to some other groups. But many are asking what are we doing with the excess funpacks that are not collected.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: I do not know that there will be excess packs. As I said, the mood may change. Let us all hope, maybe come August — given the wonderful job that my colleagues at the Multi-Ministry Task Force have done and Singaporeans taking necessary precautions — that actually come August, there will be a mood to come out of this and people want these packs because they want to join in the celebrations.

But if they are excess bags, 80% is less than what we have usually produced — there will be no shortage of avenues to distribute to, say, to certain homes or institutions, so they would not be wasted.

1 Mr Leon Perera asked the Minister for Defence (a) what is the projected total cost of producing, packing and distributing the NDP funpacks to each citizen and PR household for NDP 2020; and (b) whether the Government will consider creating an option for those who would like to donate the expense required for their funpack back to the state or to charities.

2 Miss Cheng Li Hui asked the Minister for Defence (a) whether essential and care items can be included in the NDP funpacks to enhance the relevance and usefulness of the funpacks during this challenging period; (b) what items in the NDP funpacks have already been produced for distribution; and © what happens to excess items not distributed or when households opt out of the funpacks.

3 Ms Denise Phua Lay Peng asked the Prime Minister how will Singapore’s National Day commemoration and celebrations differ at the national and local levels in view of the COVID-19 measures.

The Minister for Defence (Dr Ng Eng Hen): Mr Deputy Speaker, the first three questions on the Order Paper are related to the National Day Parade. For Question No 3 put by Member of Parliament Ms Denise Phua, I will be answering on behalf of the Prime Minister. Can I seek your consent to take these questions together?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Yes, please.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: In Singapore’s relatively short history as a nation, the National Day Parade has always taken centre-stage as we celebrate each year of independence. Members in this House have attended these National Day Parades. And many of you have kindly told me after each parade that it was well done, the mood was lifted, there was a sense of togetherness as Singapore and Singaporeans.

So, I think, in turn, the National Day Parade has served our nation well — both as a rallying call for all Singaporeans to stay united but also a clear statement of our confidence and determination to succeed collectively, no matter the odds. Through thick and thin, good times or bad, it showed Singaporeans celebrating and standing firm as one people, regardless of race, language or religion. I am so used to the mask that I spoke with it; forgot to take it off! That is what COVID-19 has done to us.

How did it come about? Not all countries celebrate their national days the way that we have or put the national day parade as centre-stage.

There is a history to the National Day Parade. The first National Day Parade (NDP) in 1966 was held amid the most testing of times. But that inaugural NDP would set the example for the subsequent 54 years.

On the morning of 9 August 1966, 500,000 school children assembled in schools and sang the new national anthem, Majulah Singapura, Onward Singapore. That first NDP was held at the Padang with 21-gun salute as the President reviewed various contingents that we have become accustomed to the SAF, the Police, NTUC, uniformed youth organisations and so forth.

The military units then marched from the Padang into Chinatown, to waving crowds. Fireworks at that time, took place at the Padang and Fort Canning. It followed the Parade and it adorned the skies. At night, there was an illuminated sea dragon, 150 metres long, 12 metres tall, lit up by 12,500 bulbs. It may be prosaic to us today, but at that time, it was quite spectacular. It sailed across what is today’s Marina Bay.

By all accounts, it was an extraordinary event, especially for a nation that was barely a year old. Could Singapore afford it in 1966? Could the money have been put to better use? Remember that our fledgling nation had a host of unsolved problems — high unemployment, few could afford to own homes, high drop-out rates even at Primary 6, inadequate medical care. I am just naming a few.

Why did the first NDP proceed that way? Because the unity and collective confidence for the future that it engendered among Singaporeans was priceless. It showed to the rest of the world that despite great difficulties, ours was a country that would not be beaten down, ours was a people that will rise and overcome. Without that unity and confidence, Singapore could not have survived, let alone thrived against the challenges that our founding generation faced.

Member of this House will readily recognise that subsequent National Day Parades take reference from and pay homage to that seminal NDP of 1966 — both in spirit and form.

At each National Day, as we did during the first, we are making a conscious act of the will. It is a willful event that we have said we will celebrate, whether individually or as one people, to celebrate each National Day with the same indomitable spirit, never mind the prevailing difficulties and never mind the differences among people.

As Singapore prospered over the years, that focus on survival, overcoming difficulties, even unity, may have inadvertently diminished.

We have had a good run. So, over the years, the NDP has now evolved into softer tones. It has become more individualistic, more of an affirmation of what Singapore is and what being Singaporean means to each citizen. So, you would remember the videos that we played in previous NDPs. They had resonance, Singaporeans liked them because they focused on individuals, differences among our people and yet the unity that we could form from it. That may be today’s zeitgeist but we should never forget that the first NDP and the origin of that spirit remains essential for our nationhood.

When the NDP Executive Committee (Exco) revealed some details for NDP 2020, some Singaporeans felt that these celebrations were wasteful and that the same resources ought to be spent elsewhere, especially in light of the impact that COVID-19 had on our economy and jobs. We have had four Budgets, and each time, we dig into our reserves, to make sure that we protect lives and protect livelihoods and jobs.

I appreciate that point of view and agree fully with them that we ought to be prudent. The final cost figures are not yet in, but at very least, this year’s NDP should be able to reduce the usual budget by a third, with savings from the cost of infrastructure that would have been built if we had held it in the usual way at the Padang or the Float @ Marina Bay.

I am all for prudence. I think Members of Parliament know me. But we should guard against the mood of despondency overcoming us or allow individual preferences to divide us. If we allow despair to prevail in our national psyche, particularly in this COVID-19 pandemic, then, I say that would be the greatest harm to the future of Singapore — much more devastating than the economic impact, the loss of jobs and businesses.

Indeed, through every troubled period of Singapore’s history — whether it was the British withdrawal in 1971, the recession of 1985, the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, SARS in 2003, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 — the drumbeat of the National Day Parade that Singaporeans marched to, neither faltered nor reduced in intensity. Even through those difficult years, Singaporeans chose to celebrate the National Day Parade as we have always done, and rallied together. Because of that hope and optimism, Singapore emerged stronger.

It has been five months since COVID-19 struck our nation. It is, by any account, the most severe disruption globally for at least a century. In fact, experts have to go very far back to find events that matched the equivalent magnitude of the impact. Events like World War I, the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, World War II are cited.

For tiny Singapore alone, the infections will last many more months. But the impact of disrupted lives and livelihoods will last even longer.

If at this early stage, Singaporeans lose their mettle, their inner strength and equanimity, lose their resolve, weaken their resilience, sharpen their differences, then, we are already in trouble.

This is not the Singapore that you and I know. This is not the Singapore spirit that has ensured our survival through many previous hardships. So, I say, despite the difficulties and indeed, because of the more challenging times that are ahead, we should celebrate this year’s NDP as we have done before and just as our founding generation did during the first NDP. That, for us, is the most important aspect for this year’s NDP.

The Exco for NDP 2020 has stayed true to its roots, but has adapted the format to reduce the risk of infection in the face of an imminent threat from COVID-19. Their concept, which Ms Denise Phua asked about, is a simple one. Not being able to hold the NDP at a central location with large crowds should not prevent Singaporeans from expressing their pride and love for Singapore and the call for unity.

NDP 2020 will be celebrated in the safety and comfort of every household in Singapore. We may be physically apart, but we want to join in spirit as one people with that same confidence and optimism and unity that the founding generation fostered despite harsher and grim circumstances.

Most elements will follow the traditions of past NDPs, but some items will be new. The morning segment will begin with the Prime Minister’s National Day message. To remind us of that founding Singapore spirit of that first NDP and to gear Singapore up to face difficulties ahead, it is only right that a parade be held at the Padang. The President will be the Reviewing Officer but for a much smaller scale parade comprising only SAF and Home Team contingents. This will be telecast live. SAF helicopters carrying the Singapore flag will fly over the Padang and also make their way across the housing estates through Singapore.

When the Anthem is played at the Padang, flag-raising ceremonies around the island will take place concurrently, so that Singaporeans across the island, whether in their constituencies, camps, workplaces or elsewhere will be singing Majulah Singapura in unison.

In past NDPs that Members of this House have enjoyed, the SAF aircraft could fly only over the NDP site, whether at the Padang or the Float. With Changi Airport being one of the busiest in the world, that was all the air space and the air time that we could be allocated for NDP. We expect air travel to pick up in the months ahead and I know that MOT and CAAS are working very hard. But this year, let us turn this into an opportunity so that the SAF aircraft can fly in formation over the heartlands of Singapore, so that Singaporeans can watch it from their homes.

Mobile columns from the SAF and Home Team will also travel through various parts of the island. With them will be the frontline heroes and heroines who have shown exemplary sacrifice and courage in fighting this COVID-19 pandemic. I know that Singaporeans want to thank them personally. The NDP will be a good occasion from a safe distance for Singaporeans to cheer them on and show them their much deserved appreciation.

Instead of an NDP show with thousands of participants, there will be a boutique studio show at night, with performances by some local artistes and talents which will be broadcasted live. There will be interactive elements for Singaporeans to sing along, join in the Pledge during the show.

And as we do each year, there will be fireworks across a few sites in Singapore to cap the day’s and night’s events over the Singapore skyline, both in the Central Business District and the HDB heartlands. The fireworks will not be as long or spectacular as recent centralised NDPs, but I hope that it will lift the spirits of Singaporeans all across the island.

To facilitate Singaporeans joining in as one people and one nation, the NDP Exco provides what they call a “Singapore Together Pack”. Mr Leon Perera and Miss Cheng Li Hui asked about this. The Exco had engaged various groups in designing this pack and has also taken in public feedback. Full details are still being worked out but let me share what I can.

Singaporeans will find the bag for the pack useful as a reusable grocery bag; it is practical, foldable into a small pouch. The designs on the bag are by local artists with disabilities and some of our Primary 5 pupils — each design an expression of their feelings for their country and fellow citizens, and their hopes for the future.

As families will be at home, there is no need for single-use water bottles, neither plastic clappers nor packaging. These have been done away with, to reduce waste. There will be items that express our collective love and wishes for Singapore like the National flag — a full-sized cloth flag, a handheld one — as well as iron-on patches for your masks, a pledge card and face tattoos. Well-wishing corporations have asked to add to the pack items to express their gratitude for what Singapore has given them, by giving back to Singaporeans. The Exco has decided to include hand sanitisers, thermometers, face masks — I think Miss Cheng asked about this — and a snack and drink from a local F&B company. Companies are also offering vouchers and we have decided to put them as an e-discount booklet. Mr Leon Perera asked about cost — the cost of each Singapore Together Pack will be around $2.40.

For every NDP, the Exco aims to be inclusive and they take in views and accommodate different interests where possible. I think this is good and forward-leaning. But let me just say this as a gentle caution. If every interest group pushes for its own agenda especially during the NDP, then our common ground to celebrate this national event shrinks. Because the Exco simply will never be able to satisfy every request adequately. What the Exco can do this year is to produce fewer Singapore Together Packs, taking into account those who have said that they do not need one. It will therefore produce packs for about 80% of households, which from prior experience should be adequate. All those who want them to celebrate our NDP together can collect them from the CCs.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic will define this generation of Singaporeans, just as the first NDP, those who attended the first NDP, the Merdeka Generation, were defined by the difficulties we had as a newly formed Singapore.

For this generation, our response will determine whether Singapore continues to thrive in the post COVID world. As with every crisis, people have a choice to make — to overcome or be overwhelmed.

As we did at the very first NDP, I urge all Members of this House and all Singaporeans to reaffirm our unity, to reaffirm our resilience, bonded by the same vision and optimism that Singapore will prevail and overcome the challenges that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon us. The months ahead will be trying and the difficulties ahead will test our resolve and cohesion. Despite all of this, Singaporeans can, and Singapore will, celebrate NDP 2020 with confidence and hope for a brighter future. [Applause.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Miss Cheng Li Hui.

Miss Cheng Li Hui (Tampines): I thank the Minister. I have four supplementary questions. The Minister mentioned that the total number of packs is for 80% of the households. How did the 80% come about? What was the redemption percentage for SG50 packs? Is 80% sufficient to cater to the anticipated demand? What happens to the unredeemed items?

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Let me thank Miss Cheng Li Hui for her questions. Our past experiences show that 80% will be enough. It is actually less than what we produce usually. We produce usually about 90% of households, sometimes 95%,but we have taken into account those who said they do not need one. I would like to believe that they feel that we are confident enough to celebrate and to join other Singaporeans without all these facilitative things — the flag, tattoos, the iron-on and your masks. We will leave them as they wish and so we will produce 80% which should be adequate.

The difficulty that the NDP Exco had is trying to shoot a moving target. They started planning this in March. So, when they presented to me the plans, they had a number of scenarios. One scenario was — this was before circuit breaker — the normal NDP, the usual, thousands upon thousands. An interim scenario is where you can have crowds of 50 or even 500. When I saw the plans, I said “Let us dispense with Options A and B. Don’t waste time about it. Let us go to Option C. Let us just assume the worst that COVID-19 will bring”.

You can come out of the circuit breaker but in August, suppose something happens and we have to reimpose the circuit breaker. The mood will be down, Singaporeans will become despondent and that is the time when we say, “Come together, have this National Parade even despite your fears, come out and celebrate” — not come out literally, because you must stay at home; but come out in spirit and celebrate.

We have had two months off circuit breaker. The psychological effects are there. Some people actually like it; they find working from home more productive and they found a sweet spot. For others, there is actually fear, fear to come out, fear to join others. So, when I read notes that say why do we not be prudent, I completely agree with them. But I want to make sure that this is not despondency or fear.

If Members of Parliament, judging by the conditions, want to organise events near 9 August for your constituencies and you want us to facilitate with more bags, let me know, and if we can, we will produce more. I promise you this. Because for many heartlanders, these are physical touch points, commonalities, that when they wave the flag, it is the same flag, when they have tattoos, it is a physical token for them to latch on to. Never dismiss these symbols even though the cost is little.

So, I make this pledge to you. If you hand in your request and you know there are groups that will want it, whether it is various groups, please let MINDEF know and we will try to facilitate for more.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Leon Perera.

Mr Leon Perera (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the hon Minister for his detailed explanation. I am sure we can all agree that it is important for the country to rally together to have a keynote that underlines our unity during this difficult time.

I just have two supplementary questions.

Firstly, when this funpack was announced, I did sense that many Singaporeans felt that at a time when public finances are stretched, and many citizens and micro businesses are facing a lot of difficulty and uncertainty, perhaps the resources to give a pack to every household could be diverted to those who are more in need at this particular time. The Minister has explained the plan with the funpack. But my question is, really, for something like a funpack to serve a purpose that it is intended for, consultation and buy-in from the public may be useful to understand whether most people would really want to have this and whether it would serve that purpose of banishing the despondency, raising the spirits, rallying and unifying everyone. So, learning from this experience, I wonder whether there could be a bigger role for consultation in future before a very large or elaborate logistical exercise, such as distributing packs for everyone, is undertaken. That would be my first question.

My second question is, I understand that REACH set up an online poll to solicit views of Singaporeans about the funpack. I was wondering how long this poll was up for and what the results of this poll showed, if that is available.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am glad that the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) has agreed with me that this is an important time for us to rally together. I agree fully with him that we need to engage groups to see what for them represents a good way to celebrate our National Day Parade. But as I said in my primary answer, while the Exco needs to be open, forward-leaning, consultative, there is a balance. If every group with their individual preferences decide to use the National Day Parade to press for their differences, then I think the Exco has a very difficult task. Because it will never be able to satisfy all groups, it will never be able to be all things to all men. It will have to balance, as we do every year. In previous years, when they, even ourselves, who are conscious about climate change, want to reduce and they press for disposable water bottles, the Exco had to balance the need for elderly and children who need bottled water. The disposable water bottles are actually recyclable but the Exco even looked at giving reusable water bottles, then putting water stands, whether it is at the Floating platform or the stadium or Padang, but they found it was undoable. So, they did the next best thing; instead of two small bottles, they gave one big bottle, which will reduce the amount of plastic, I presume.

It is always these choices to make between different interests. But the more important point is this: for this balance to be struck, how does each individual group want to press for its own interests? We have gone past race, religion and language, I hope — I am talking about the NDP show. But at every NDP show. I am still very careful that there must be proper representation, that even when we carry soft stories that we should represent all of Singapore. But if any interest group decides to say, “My interests are not shown. What you represent as Singapore does not show my narrower sets of preferences or who I am.” If they choose to assert those differences during National Day Parade, it is what it is, it is what it will become, but it will shrink our common space.

I do not know the details of the REACH survey. If Mr Perera wants to know that, he can put it to that Ministry and I am sure that Ministry will give him a full reply.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Louis Ng.

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang (Nee Soon): Thank you, Sir. Let me first thank the Minister for reducing the number of items in the funpack and reaching out to the green groups and listening as well. But could I ask two clarifications?

One, I do understand we are producing 80% of funpacks for the Singapore households. So, there is already a reduction but that is based, as Minister said, on estimations and based on past experience. Would it not be better to just ask Singaporeans whether they want to opt out of receiving the funpack, so that we can get a more accurate figure that will reduce the wastage?

The second clarification is what Member Cheng Li Hui asked previously, what will we be doing with the excess funpacks that are not collected?

Third, let me record my appreciation of thanks to the NDP Exco 2020. I worked with them for the last six months. As what NCMP Leon Perera has asked, we actually have been on the ground for the last six months getting feedback from the green groups and working together with them. In fact, this morning, we had another Zoom call with them to explain why we had a funpack, why we had certain items in there, and it was a very positive conversation that we had. I want to thank the NDP Exco for the forward-thinking, for really listening. It has been a privilege working with the Chairman, Brigadier-General Frederick Choo. In fact, I would suggest that the Minister make him NDP Exco Chairman in 2021 since he did not get to organise a full NDP this year, and he really has done an amazing job trying to find the middle ground and making very difficult decisions.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: Let me thank Member Louis Ng for those kind comments. I had known that he had been involved and helped us for the last six months. But I chose not to cite his help in the reply to Mr Leon Perera because, it is better that Mr Ng himself said it. Otherwise, they will say, you know, whatever they will say. I thank Mr Ng for the suggestion that General Choo should be considered to be NDP 2021, in Hokkien, we say, “Ho Gai Siao” or a good recommendation. I am not sure if he would want it, but nonetheless, we will think about it.

Member Mr Ng’s point was more substantial. Why not have, before each NDP, a full public consultation as I think was the point that Mr Perera made. Just for practical purposes — Members of this House lead organisations, you are in businesses or in your organisations, you should know — there is a limit beyond which analysis becomes paralysis. You want to have feedback but you have to ultimately make a decision. Because why just a funpack? I cite this but I am not suggesting you make this an issue, but in terms of carbon production, my fighter planes probably produce more. While we “rah rah” to the zoom of fighter aircraft, jet fuel is being burnt up there.

Why focus just on the funpack? It could be many other things.

So, I think there is a limit to consultation. We will be forward-leaning, we will take in views, but there is a balance to be struck.

There is a time for every activity, a season for everything under the heavens. That is the ecclesiastical injunction.

What is this year a time for? Twenty-twenty. What is this year a time for? We have been divided like never before by a little organism, barely 0.125 microns. Relatives have been separated, grandparents from their grandchildren, couples, even spouses. For the healthcare workers, some were so fearful. They were not fearful about going to work but they were so fearful that they would pass on their infections if they got infected to their families, that they chose to stay away from their families, and the hospitals facilitated and found hotel rooms for them to stay alone.

Never a time have we been so physically divided. Never a time have we been so psychologically affected. And I say this to you not to frighten you, but the months ahead will be harder. This is not a time to show up our divisions. It does not mean we do not ask for feedback. But this is maybe a time, in gentle tones, to put aside some of our differences and come together.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Louis Ng, you have some more clarifications?

Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: Sorry, Sir, there really is just a remaining concern which is what will we do with the excess packs? I think I understand we might be donating them or giving them to some other groups. But many are asking what are we doing with the excess funpacks that are not collected.

Dr Ng Eng Hen: I do not know that there will be excess packs. As I said, the mood may change. Let us all hope, maybe come August — given the wonderful job that my colleagues at the Multi-Ministry Task Force have done and Singaporeans taking necessary precautions — that actually come August, there will be a mood to come out of this and people want these packs because they want to join in the celebrations.

But if they are excess bags, 80% is less than what we have usually produced — there will be no shortage of avenues to distribute to, say, to certain homes or institutions, so they would not be wasted.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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