Singapore history on display

Guests at the preview of the We Built A Nation exhibition at the National Museum.
Guests at the preview of the We Built A Nation exhibition at the National Museum.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

A new exhibition at the National Museum tells the story of the turbulent first decade of Singapore's independence

A new exhibition called We Built A Nation at the National Museum of Singapore showcases artefacts donated by the Estate of Lee Kuan Yew, as well as by the families of the founding leaders of Singapore, such as Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Edmund William Barker.

The artefacts tell the story of the first 10 years of Singapore's independence, from 1965 to 1975.

More than 100 pieces are on show and more than half of them have never been exhibited before.

Furniture and personal items from Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road home (above). These include a wood and formica dining table from the basement dining room, where the first generation of leaders gathered around on Saturday afternoons in the early 1950s to discuss their political opinions and decide the fate of Singapore.


  • Where: National Museum of Singapore, Level 1

    When: Till September next year

    Open: 10am to 7pm daily

    Admission: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents, as well as children younger than six years old


Earthenware water storage jars (mid-20th century, above). These were used in the bathroom of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road home. The family bathed with water stored in these jars until 2003, when a modern heater was installed after Mrs Lee suffered her first stroke.

Mr S. Rajaratnam’s Samsonite leather briefcase (1960s, above). He suffered from dementia in his later years and so inscribed the date of his wife’s death on the inside of the briefcase.The Hungarian-born Mrs Piroska Rajaratnam died at the age of 75 from respiratory failure after contracting pneumonia. The inscription reads: “Piri passed away 1989 - 18 Aug”. He also writes her date of birth “25 Feb, 1915”, twice.

Colt Cobra revolver (above) issued to former Cabinet minister Lim Kim San (1950s to 1960s). This aluminium-framed, double-action short-barrelled revolver features a six-round cylinder chambered for .38 calibre cartridges. All the Cabinet ministers were each issued one for self-protection during the tumultuous nation-building years.

Above: Lessons In The Amoy Vernacular by A.L. Warnshuis (1955, bottom left); and A Practical English-Hokkien Dictionary by Chiang Ker Chiu (1950, second from left). With the help of his tutor Sia Cheng Tit, a senior Hokkien language radio programme officer, Mr Lee Kuan Yew used Hokkien textbooks like these to pick up the dialect in the 1960s.

He was a Hakka and was persuaded by Dr Goh Keng Swee to learn Hokkien in 1961.The communist leaders were fluent Hokkien speakers who could influence the poorly educated masses. As Mr Lee recounted: “The first time I made a Hokkien speech in Hong Lim, the children in the crowd laughed at my mistakes– wrong sounds, wrong tones... But I could not afford to be shy or embarrassed. It was a matter of life and death.”

Mr Sia accompanied Mr Lee on constituency visits, where he noted mistakes in Mr Lee’s speeches. The next day, he would point out the errors to Mr Lee and provide correct phrases, as well as “a few pithy proverbs”.

Letter from Mr S. Rajaratnam to former Education Minister Ong Pang Boon (Feb 18, 1966, above). The national pledge was conceptualised in October 1965–two months after Singapore’s independence– at the suggestion of Mr Ong. He thought a pledge would inculcate national consciousness and patriotism in students. Two versions were drafted and sent to Mr Rajaratnam,who made revisions in his reply.

Recently de-classified top secret Cabinet papers (above) that were kept in a file code-named Albatross. These were personally compiled by Dr Goh Keng Swee and included documents discussing proposed “constitutional re-arrangements” between Malaysia and Singapore. In his 1980 oral history interview, Dr Goh said: “The Albatross was Malaysia. By that time, the great expectations that we foolishly had –that Malaysia would bring prosperity, common market, peace, harmony and all that–we were quickly disillusioned. And it became an Albatross around our necks.”

Singapore’s first Law Minister Edmund William (E.W.) Barker’s horse hair barrister wig (1950s, above left). He was also Speaker of Parliament from 1963 to 1964. The Darjah Seri Pakuka Mahkota Johor regalia (April 8, 1984) next to it was bestowed on Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Barker by Sultan Mahmood Iskandar of Johor in recognition of their contributions in maintaining good relationships between Johor and Singapore. It is Johor state’s highest award.

Above clockwise from top: Sten gun recovered during Konfrontasi (1960s); hand grenade recovered from an underground communist group in Malaysia (1976 to 1977); magnifier with built-in light (1950s to 1960s) used by Special Branch officers to read small print, in particular coded instructions found on tiny scraps of paper which were rolled up and hidden in cigarette packets by communists; propaganda printing plate and booklet (mid-1970s) seized from underground communist cells; booklet (1975) containing list of wanted persons– such booklets were carried by Internal Security Department Officers from 1975, at the height of the Communist Party of Malaya’s renewed underground activities in Singapore.

Looking Back, by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra (1977, above left). This copy of the former prime minister of Malaysia’s memoirs was presented to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1977. The dedication reads: “The friend who had worked so hard to found Malaysia and even harder to break it up.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore history on display'. Print Edition | Subscribe