Artefacts of founding fathers give peek into history

Mr Lee Hsien Yang (second from right), with his wife (second from left) Lee Suet Fern, explaining to guests the uses and significance of furniture and exhibits from Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house at the preview of the exhibition. Guests at the preview of th
Guests at the preview of the We Built A Nation exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore. Some of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's personal effects include a writing table from Oxley Road and a red box he used to keep his working documents.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Mr Lee Hsien Yang (second from right), with his wife (second from left) Lee Suet Fern, explaining to guests the uses and significance of furniture and exhibits from Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house at the preview of the exhibition. Guests at the preview of th
Mr Lee Hsien Yang (second from right), with his wife (second from left) Lee Suet Fern, explaining to guests the uses and significance of furniture and exhibits from Mr Lee Kuan Yew's house at the preview of the exhibition. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Display includes 115 items, about half of which come from Mr Lee Kuan Yew's estate

A nondescript formica-topped table from the basement dining room of 38 Oxley Road, where the nation's founding leaders once gathered to discuss how to secure independence from British rule, can now be seen in an exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore.

The executors and trustees of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's estate, his children, Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang, donated the table to the museum's newest showcase called We Built A Nation.

The exhibition chronicles the contributions of the pioneer team of leaders such as Dr Toh Chin Chye, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam, who formed the People's Action Party alongside Mr Lee.

 

It includes 115 artefacts, about half of which come from the Lee estate. Some highlights are Mr Lee's writing table; a red box he used to keep his working documents until Feb 4, a day before he was hospitalised; his desktop computer; and language books he had studied, such as a 1951 publication called Malay Sayings and a 1955 copy of Lessons In The Amoy Vernacular.

It is the largest and most thorough showcase of his personal effects since he died on March 23.

MR LEE KUAN YEW'S PERSONAL DESK

I can still picture him in my mind's eye, regularly working into the wee hours of the night at this desk - reading, writing, thinking.

MR LEE HSIEN YANG, on the writing table that is on display

It is also the first such exhibition to home in on the contributions of Singapore's founding fathers.

The families of the early leaders, who also include Mr E.W. Barker, Mr Hon Sui Sen, Mr Yusof Ishak, Mr Devan Nair and Mr Othman Wok, loaned artefacts for the exhibition.

Among these is a set of recently declassified documents from Dr Goh's "Albatross File", which comprise, among other things, handwritten notes of meetings with Malaysian leaders relating to the separation from Malaysia. Dr Goh explained in a 1980 interview that the Albatross "was Malaysia. By that time, the great expectations that we foolishly had - that Malaysia would bring prosperity, common market, peace, harmony, all that - we were quickly disillusioned. And it became an Albatross round our necks".

The exhibition details the nation's first decade of independence from 1965 to 1975 and is divided into eight sections, beginning with the birth of a nation.

It will be open daily from 10am to 7pm starting today, for a year. Admission is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong, speaking at the opening, said the idea arose after an exhibition in memory of Mr Lee in March drew large crowds.

Mr Wong said the two guiding principles behind it was that it should honour not just one man but also the founding generation of leaders, and it should focus on the ideals and values they stood for. These include integrity, country above self, multiracialism and meritocracy.

"I hope visitors will also take time to reflect on the stories behind the artefacts, and how they speak of the values and ideals that underpin the foundations of our nation," he added.

Other highlights at the showcase include a Seiko gold watch gifted to Mr Rajaratnam; Mr Hon's calculator - one of the first produced in a Hewlett Packard factory here; and a Colt Cobra revolver belonging to the late national development minister Lim Kim San. The gun was issued to ministers to protect themselves in Singapore's tumultuous early years.

Speaking at the exhibition, Mr Lee Hsien Yang said the writing table had once been used by himself, his sister and elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for tuition lessons. It later became the late Mr Lee's personal desk.

Other artefacts from the Lee estate include a model sailing ship presented to Mr Lee by a Hokkien shopkeeper following a "gruelling schedule" of constituency visits from December 1962 to September 1963. Mr Lee treasured it because it represented the moment he could feel the people warming to him as their leader.

Also on show is a scale model of the 100-year-old pre-war Oxley Road bungalow, which might be the only way for the public to have a close look at the historic space. Mr Lee said in his will that he wanted his home demolished immediately after his death or when his daughter moves out of it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Artefacts of founding fathers give peek into history'. Print Edition | Subscribe