SINGAPORE - After 16 years, a pair of watches once belonging to the late Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew were reunited in the National Museum of Singapore's (NMS) Singapore History Gallery last year.
Mrs Lee's watch was loaned by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to the museum for display in a section that showcases the founding father's legacy as a lawyer, including his watch and other personal items.
The pair of Rolex watches were gifted by the Singapore Union of Postal and Telecommunications Workers (SUPTW) to the couple in 1953, in appreciation of Mr Lee’s successful representation of 1,000 clerks in a wage dispute arbitration.
Such loans and donations have enabled the National Heritage Board (NHB) to "make heritage relevant to Singaporeans and help shape the future for tomorrow's generations", said Ms Chang Hwee Nee, NHB's chief executive.
She was speaking at a virtual awards ceremony held on Tuesday (Nov 24) to honour heritage supporters at the 2019 Patron of Heritage Awards.
Eighty-eight donors were recognised for their contributions totalling $8.67 million to various heritage causes in 2019. The value of in-kind support, cash donations as well as artefact gifts and loans was about a third higher than in 2018, said the NHB.
Giving the backstory of the pair of Lees' Rolex watches, NMS senior curator Daniel Tham said the SUPTW's wage dispute with their employer, the British colonial government, was over the back-dating of their salary increase and the conversion scale for the payment. He added that Mr Lee donated his watch to the museum in 2011.
Until last year, the watches were separated since 2003, when the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) made a successful bid of $100,000 for Mrs Lee's watch at the Sotheby's-Lee Kuan Yew Family Auction that year. The AUPE then donated the watch to NTUC.
The AUPE was formed in September 1959 and included the SUPTW and the Postal & Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union.
Speaking on behalf of NTUC - one of the patrons honoured by the NHB - Mr Steve Tan, director of NTUC's Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute said the watch represented NTUC and the People's Action Party's (PAP) symbiotic relationship, which lasts till today.
"Besides Mr Lee representing the workers and helping them to be back-paid 28 months' salary each, the watch also symbolises how his involvement with the unions seeded the roots of the PAP, as the 12 unions that supported the PAP after its split with the Barisan Sosialis in 1961 continue to live on through NTUC now," said Mr Tan.
"The unions have been involved in so many parts of Singapore's history, and we would like to continue this journey. I see NTUC's endeavour in preserving heritage as something we must always do," he added.
Calling 2019 a "celebratory year" to mark Singapore's bicentennial, NHB chairman Yeoh Chee Yan highlighted the generous support of patrons to the slew of exhibitions, festivals and initiatives, through donations, in-kind contributions, loan of artefacts and services.
She said the contributions were "vital to our continued efforts to maintain our cultural heritage, ensuring that what we have inherited from the past will continue to become a lasting legacy for future generations".
For instance, the exhibition, An Old New World: From The East Indies To The Founding Of Singapore, 1600s-1819, at the NMS was supported by the donation of letters, memorabilia and books of Sir Stamford Raffles and Lady Raffles by Tang Holdings.
The NHB said the collection was the largest of its kind in private hands until it was donated to the NMS.
The NHB's bicentennial-focused exhibitions and other showcases were also made possible with the support of organisations such as Singapore Airlines, which brought in artefacts for the Asian Civilisations Museum's (ACM) Raffles In Southeast Asia: Revisiting The Scholar And Statesman exhibition, and the NMS' An Old New World showcase.
The NHB also received donations from individuals.
Based in the United Kingdom, the family of Sir Franklin Gimson, the first governor in Singapore after World War II, donated a silver casket and scroll of the Honorary Freedom of the City of Singapore which were presented to Sir Franklin in 1952.
Addressing patrons at the virtual ceremony, the first since the annual awards event started in 2006, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said: "Your support will contribute to the continued enjoyment and appreciation of our diverse heritage.
"Not only will our nation's tapestry of cultural offerings grow, new generations of Singaporeans can also continue to take pride in our shared identity and heritage."
Mr Tong also noted that the support and commitment to safeguarding heritage were especially important amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and acknowledged the efforts of the NHB and other stakeholders in digitalising heritage and culture initiatives.
Mr Paul Supramaniam, who was given a Supporter of Heritage award for loaning family heirlooms to the Indian Heritage Centre, said he made the loans in hopes that the stories of his relatives and ancestors would help to inspire Singapore’s small Sri Lankan Tamil population.
“Everybody is a descendent of someone. We all have a history that is an imprimatur to who we are today, and it’s important that we harness the good from that,” said the lawyer, who loaned medals awarded to his late father Dr James Mark Jeyasebasingam Supramaniam for his World War Two contributions to the heritage centre.