The centrepiece of the bicentennial commemoration this year is The Bicentennial Experience, which is on at the Fort Canning Centre until Sept 15.
But what exactly is this experience? The quick answer: It is a potted pop history, packaged in easily digestible nuggets for mass consumption.
This is no bad thing as the show’s creative directors Beatrice Chia- Richmond and Michael Chiang have done the heavy reading for the audience.
Divided into five acts spread over two levels of the Fort Canning Centre, the hour-long installation cannily uses theatrical staging, theme-park mechanics and multimedia projections to immerse visitors in a brisk recap of Singapore’s history.
It might be called The Bicentennial Experience, but the narrative reaches farther back in time over a thousand years.
The prologue, an installation of “rain” which falls “up”, talks about a climate change which brought about monsoons and a rise in port cities in the South-east Asian region.
This theme of inclement weather, and rain, is picked up to good effect at the end of the show.
Act 1 offers adventure and battles in a dramatic staging that clearly engaged the audience of schoolboys in the session this reporter attended.
Actors playing the roles of historical figures such as Parameswara, Sang Nila Utama and 17th-century Dutch explorer Jacob van Heemskerk strode along a moving travelator behind a translucent scrim.
Dynamic projections of attacking warriors and naval battles retold the historic battles fought by South-east Asian and Western empires over the island of Singapore.
One of the schoolboys exclaimed at the end of this action-packed sequence: “That was great.”
The next act slowed down the pace, but upped the effects ante with a revolving platform and a wraparound screen. While it is no rollicking theme park ride, the ushers warned audience members prone to motion sickness to avoid the first two rows of seats.
This section takes audiences to the deck of the Indiana, the ship on which Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles arrived in 1819.
The platform rotates as Act 3 tells stories of early immigrants who built Singapore’s early prosperity as a colonial port.
BOOK IT / FROM SINGAPORE TO SINGAPOREAN: THE BICENTENNIAL EXPERIENCE
WHERE: Fort Canning Centre, 5 Cox Terrace
WHEN: Till Sept 15. Tickets for next month will be available from Wednesday
ADMISSION: Free. Register for tickets at www.bicentennial.sg/the-bicentennial-experience. Tickets are fully booked till the end of the month INFO: Go to www.bicentennial.sg/#timeline or bit.ly/339hxeP
The audience is then led into a darker period of Singapore history.
A claustrophobic bunker heralds the Japanese invasion and the heroic tale of Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, who died in the battle to defend Pasir Panjang Ridge, is told in a dramatic voiceover.
Stories of the Japanese invasion, British surrender and the Sook Ching massacre unfold as the audience moves through a tunnel to another room.
Audience members are then handed umbrellas and ushered into the last act, where rain falls from the ceiling.
The effect ties in nicely with Singapore’s history. Singapore’s first National Day parade was drenched in a downpour, as was the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral procession in 2015.
At the end of the show, audiences are asked to vote for the most important quality – self-determination, openness or multiculturalism – which they think will serve Singapore well in the future.
For audiences who want to explore further, there is the Pathfinder section in the park.
Several open pavilions cover a number of topics, from old maps of Singapore to a seed conservatory.
The Emporium of the East pavilion, featuring reproductions of artefacts traded in Singapore between the 14th and 16th centuries, fares poorly. The accompanying QR codes meant to offer visitors information about the items are difficult to scan as they are tucked in awkward places or behind blue plastic boxes.
The lively recreations of historic events at the Experience offer memorable tableaux likely to stick in the minds of the young.
Its popularity – tickets are fully booked till the end of this month – is a measure of the creators’ success in reaching an audience, nearly 300,000 by end-July. Slickly packaged, this is actually a good way to teach the uninitiated about Singapore’s lengthy history and its links to the region.
The show’s run is slated to end on Sept 15. A spokesman for the Bicentennial office says: “We have received many requests to extend the show so that more Singaporeans and visitors can experience this. We are currently reviewing this.”
The show should remain as a permanent installation, given its success in drawing foot traffic to a venue that has struggled to find a purpose in recent years.
A history lesson that can earn praise from a schoolboy should be lauded.