Brought to you by National Gallery Singapore

Masterpieces from the Gallery: National Language Class by Chua Mia Tee

PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

NATIONAL LANGUAGE CLASS (1959)

By Chua Mia Tee (b. 1931, China)

Oil on canvas, 112 x 153 cm

Gift of Equator Art Society

Collection of National Gallery Singapore


What does it mean when someone asks you: "What is your name?"

What do you say when someone asks: "Where do you live?"

These were two questions that artist Chua Mia Tee asked himself in 1959, the year he made this painting and also the moment when Singapore gained self-governance from its former colonial masters, the British.

What makes these two questions even more fascinating is that Chua asked them in Malay, the language that would soon become Singapore's national language in the hope of uniting different ethnic groups through a common Malayan identity.

Chua, now 83, was part of a generation of young artists who had participated in Singapore's independence struggles of the 1950s. In the painting, some Chinese students are seated around a table, learning the national language from a Malay teacher. Behind the teacher hangs a blackboard, on which these two basic questions about identity and belonging are written.

Both questions are so simple but powerful, going to the very essence of what it means to belong to a place.

With Singapore having turned 50 this year, would it not be interesting if we asked ourselves these questions again? 

  • This is the first of a six-part series brought to you by the National Gallery Singapore. The Gallery houses the largest public collection of Singapore & South-east Asian art and opens to the public on Nov 24. Go to nationalgallery.sg for more information.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Masterpieces from the Gallery'. Print Edition | Subscribe