A history of Singapore in 50 objects

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 17, 2013

If you were asked to pick an object to represent Singapore, what would you choose? Tiger beer or Tiger Balm? An SIA kebaya or an Army T-shirt? The Merlion or Singa the Courtesy Lion?

Taking a cue from the popular British Museum's 2010 radio series and book, A History Of The World In 100 Objects, (newspapers such as the New York Times also launched a similar project), MELISSA SIM scoured the museums, ploughed through archives and dug through personal collections to help piece together a history of Singapore.

A list of this nature cannot be exhaustive. Tell us what items you think could help tell the history of Singapore. E-mail suntimes@sph.com.sg and use the header 50 objects.

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1 1700 onwards: Durian

The spiky fruit, indigenous to South East Asia, is popularly dubbed the king of fruit in Singapore.

Durian fans wax lyrical about the rich custard-like flesh and engage in passionate debate about the merits of the different varieties such as D24 and Mao Shang Wang.

It is banned on the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) because the pungent odour can linger in enclosed spaces for days.

Commercial cultivation is believed to have started in the early 20th century.

Today, the fruit is used to make cream puffs, cakes, ice cream, chocolates, milkshakes and even mooncakes.

The scientific name for durian is Durio zibethinus. The word Durio was established in 1763 and comes from the Malay word "duri" which means "thorns". Zibethinus, established in 1774, comes from "zibetto", which is Italian for "civet cat" and a reference to the fruit's strong odour.

In 1869, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described the taste of the fruit in his book The Malay Archipelago: "It is like a buttery custard flavoured with almonds, intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities."

Source: Singapore: The Encyclopedia; Singapore Infopedia

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2 1800s: Malay coin of satu keping (one denomination)

This coin is one of many found near the former Sultan's residence in Kampong Gelam, what is now the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam.

Such coins indicate the history of Singapore as a vibrant trading centre in the Malay world.

The coin is inscribed with a date from the Islamic Hijri calendar, 1219, which is equivalent to 1804 in the Gregorian calendar. The coin could be an original piece produced by the British East India Company in 1804 for use in Sumatra and neighbouring areas such as Singapore.

But it also could be a merchant token - a private coin issued by traders in times of acute shortage of official coins.

Such tokens, produced from 1828, were widely accepted and used in the region until the 1850s.

Source: Malay Heritage Centre

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3 1800s: Coolie trousers

Trousers like these were worn by coolies, who formed the backbone of early Singapore's labour force.

The coolies were engaged mainly in hard physical labour and worked in the ports, plantations, construction sites and also as rickshaw pullers.

Although they came to seek their fortune from the 19th to the 20th century, many served as indentured and unskilled labourers.

The word "coolie" is believed to have come from the Hindi term Kuli, the name of a native tribe of Gujerat in western India.

It is believed that the Kulis were among the first coolies as they were easy to recruit because they lived on the northern Indian coast. The word "kuli" also means "hire" in Tamil.

Source: Asian Civilisations Museum; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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4 1880s to 1987: Night soil bucket

Before modern sewage was introduced, toilets were rudimentary outfits - no more than a wooden shack with a galvanised metal bucket. Waste was collected and transferred to plantations on the outskirts of the city.

The euphemistically named night soil man and his "32-door limousine" - the vehicle used to collect human waste - were an everyday sight on the streets of Singapore. Some who remember the night soil collectors say they would put off going to the toilet till the night soil bucket was changed; others claimed they took up smoking to kill the stench in the toilets.

Attempts to introduce a town sewage system made little progress until the 1920s due to financial and technical challenges. Night soil collection was present in Singapore until as recently as 1987, when the last two night soil buckets were decommissioned.

Source: The Straits Times; National Museum of Singapore; National Heritage Board; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News

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5 1819: Treaty between Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman (fascimile)

On Feb 6, 1819 , a number of tents were erected on the Padang in preparation for the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. The treaty stated that Sultan Hussein would receive an annual salary of 5,000 Spanish dollars, while the Temenggong would receive 3,000 Spanish dollars a year.

In return, the Malay rulers allowed the British to set up a trading port and agreed not to form alliances with other nations.

After the treaty was signed, the Union Jack was raised on the beach and the East India Company officers and the Malay leaders celebrated with a banquet.

This treaty marks the founding of modern Singapore.

Source: Singapore A Biography; National Museum of Singapore

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6 1820 to 1860s: Brick from an old jail which housed Indian convicts

Back in the 19th century, Indian convicts were sent from India to Singapore and used as free labour to construct buildings, lighthouses and roads in Singapore.

This brick is recovered from the former site of the 19th-century Singapore Convict Jail in Bras Basah.

The convicts sent to Singapore were murderers, thugs, robbers and political prisoners.

There were six classes of convicts. The first class, the least threatening, were allowed to leave the jail, while the 5th class had no allowance.

Source: National Museum of Singapore

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7 1820s: Opium pipe

As early as the 1820s, opium smoking was rife in Singapore.

Resident William Farquhar farmed out licences to sell opium in return for a fee, and the local consumption was also heavily taxed, making it a profitable business for the colonial masters.

In 1848, it was estimated that about 21.5 per cent of the population were opium-smokers. Many of the users were rickshaw pullers and coolies who found relief for their physical pain by smoking opium.

Only in the 1920s, partly due to the strengthening anti-opium sentiment in the West, did the British limit the sale of opium.

In 1934, the colonial government banned possession of the drug, except for those who could prove it was necessary for their health with a medical practitioner's certificate.

Source: National Museum of Singapore; Singapore A Biography; A History Of Singapore

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 8 1822: First Singapore town plan

Dissatisfied with the haphazard growth of the settlement under Resident William Farquhar, Raffles formed a Town Committee to assist him in planning a new settlement.

This plan of the new settlement was drawn by Lieutenant P. Jackson, who was an executive engineer and surveyor.

According to this plan, the different migrant communities in Singapore - the Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Bugis - were placed in separate ethnic enclaves.

 However, the migrants did not keep to their enclaves. For example, one can see Hindu temples in Chinatown.

 Source: National Museum of Singapore

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9 1833: Singapore Chronicle

The first newspaper in Singapore was started by Francis James Bernard, the son-in-law of William Farquhar, with the backing of the Resident of Singapore, John Crawfurd, Farquhar's successor. The Resident ruled Singapore on behalf of the British East India Company. The first issue was published on Jan 1, 1824. The paper was initially published every fortnight but with the growth of Singapore, it soon became a weekly publication.

A second newspaper, The Singapore Free Press And Mercantile Advertiser, started in 1835. The competition drove the Singapore Chronicle out of business in 1837.

Source: Singapore Press Holdings; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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10 1844: Earliest photo of Singapore

The dynamism of Singapore's port spurred French customs service officer Alphonse-Eugene-Jules Itier to take this image in 1844. He took this image from Government Hill, now known as Fort Canning.

 This is one of the four earliest photographic images of Singapore, taken just five years after the invention of the daguerreotype photographic process in 1839.

 Source: National Museum of Singapore; Port of Singapore Authority website

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11 1897: Raffles Hotel building plan (reproduction on a postcard)

 The hotel in Beach Road was opened in 1887, and then expanded by the Sarkies Brothers, Armenian businessmen who made their name by establishing luxury hotels in South-east Asia.

The main building, with its three-storey postcard-worthy facade, was designed by R.A.J. Bidwell of Swan & Maclaren and opened in November 1899.

The hotel has become a Singapore landmark and is associated with a signature cocktail called the Singapore Sling. It was created by bar captain Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915. During the 1920s, this grand old dame hosted literary luminaries such as Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and W. Somerset Maugham.

The hotel was gazetted as a national monument in 1987 and later re-gazetted in 1995.

 Source: Singapore: The Encyclopedia; National Heritage Board

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12 Early 1900s: Bak kwa

This smoky, sweet, yet savoury piece of charred meat is a popular snack in Singapore, especially during the Chinese New Year period when queues form around the block at popular bak kwa stalls.

The Hokkien delicacy is believed to have originated in Fujian province, where people were poor and meat was reserved as a treat for the new year.

To make the meat last longer, it was marinated with sugar and spices, air-dried and then cooked over a hot plate.

Bak kwa brand Kim Hock Guan was started by Mr Lim Chwee Guan and his brother in Rochor Road in the early 1900s, while MrTeo Swee Ee, who founded Bee Cheng Hiang, peddled his bak kwa in a push-cart in Chinatown in 1933.

Today, bak kwa is sold at the airport and has become a souvenir item for visitors.

Source: The Straits Times; Singapore: The Encyclopedia; Kim Hock Guan website

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 13 1920s onwards: Good Morning Towel

 These iconic white cotton towels with Good Morning printed in red at the edge were often seen draped over the shoulders of rickshaw pullers and labourers who helped build modern Singapore.

These days, the towels are used in hair salons and are often seen on the arms of coffee-shop waiters.

The towel is so popular that it has also popped up in museum gift shops. Instead of the usual hand towel, the plusher souvenir version is a bath towel with the words "Good Morning" embroidered in gold.

 Source: The Straits Times

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14 1920s: A Chettiar's table

The Chettiars were among the few immigrant communities who came with investment capital to Singapore and were the early money-lenders in the island's history.

Members of the Chettiar banking community here often led austere lifestyles and sent most of their income back home to Chettinad in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The men lived collectively in shophouses known as kittangis. They would each rent a small office space, which doubled as their sleeping area at night.

This desk and stool belonged to Mr Ramasamy V.S. Karuppiah Chettiar, a money-lender who lived in Market Street from the 1920s to 1940s. At one time, there were seven kittangis in Market Street, housing about 300 to 400 Chettiar companies.

Source: Asian Civilisations Museum (on loan)

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15 1920s: Tiger Balm

This herbal balm which relieves aches and pains was introduced to Rangoon, Burma, by Chinese herbalist Aw Chu Kin in the late 1870s.

When he died, his sons Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par brought their father's herbal balm to Singapore in the 1920s.

Tiger Balm has since developed into a global brand sold in more than 100 countries including Australia, Sweden, Egypt and Mexico.

The Balm, with its distinctive hexagonal packaging, is also closely associated with Haw Par Villa (formerly known as Tiger Balm Gardens), a villa and gardens built by Mr Aw Boon Haw in 1937. In 1988, the Singapore Tourism Board took over the running of the Tiger Balm Gardens and renamed it Haw Par Villa. The attraction, known for its depiction of the different levels of hell, is still in operation.

Source: Singapore: The Encyclopedia; Haw Par Corporation

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16 1923: Tin trunk belonging to Tang Choon Keng

When Singapore's pioneer retailer Tang Choon Keng arrived in Singapore from Swatow, China, in 1923, he carried a tin trunk and one leather suitcase filled with linen and lace.

He peddled his wares from door to door until he earned enough money to set up his first store along River Valley Road in 1932.

In 1940, he expanded his business and took over six adjacent shops across the street and built a three-storey building. This was the first CK Tang Department Store.

It was only after the war that Mr Tang bought the piece of land on Orchard Road, where the current department store - now known as Tangs and a landmark in Singapore's prime shopping district - still stands. Mr Tang died in 2000.

Source: Once Upon A Tang; CK Tang; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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17 1932: Tiger Beer

Asia Pacific Breweries was established in 1931. It opened its first brewery in Singapore and launched Tiger Beer in 1932. The famous advertising slogan, It's Time For A Tiger, was believed to have been conceived in the 1930s, and in 1946, English writer Anthony Burgess used it for the title of one of his books.

Singapore's first locally brewed beer is now available in more than 60 countries.

Source: The Straits Times; Asia Pacific Breweries website

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18 1942: Tin mug from a Malay Regiment

In 1933, the Malay Regiment - an all-Malay military force - was formed at Port Dickson, Malaya, under the command of British officers.

During the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942, the regiment showed bravery and loyalty in the Battle of Pasir Panjang, and lost a total of 159 men.

Lieutenant Ibrahim Sidek, who was part of this regiment, was executed in February 1942 for defying Japanese orders as he refused to remove his Malay Regiment uniform. His body was never found. His wife Sharifah Khadijah Hamid treasured this mug as a keepsake of her husband.

Source: Reflections at Bukit Chandu; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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 19 1942-1945: Tapioca

 Food was scarce during the war years and the humble tapioca became a staple food for residents of Singapore.

 As trade routes were disrupted, the Japanese initiated campaigns for people to grow their own crops and become self-sufficient.

 For example, the large rubber plantations between Geylang Serai and Jalan Eunos were cleared to grow tapioca.

 Tapioca was used to make bread and even the skin was not thrown away. It was washed, cut finely and boiled so that it resembled noodles.

 Source: Memories At Old Ford Factory

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20 1942 to 1945: Sook Ching massacre victim’s wallet

Little is known about Dr J.C. Chen of 26 Wilkinson Road, but his wallet and stethoscope were found in the Siglap area along what was formerly known as Jalan Puay Poon, together with items from other victims of the infamous Sook Ching massacre.

The words Sook Ching mean “purge through cleansing” in Chinese and this was what the Japanese occupying forces set out to do.

After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese systematically hunted down Chinese who had organised boycotts and fund-raisers to support China’s war effort against Japan. They also targeted those who had fought against the Japanese.

Those deemed anti-Japanese were taken to Changi, Punggol and Bedok, where they were executed. Many graves were discovered in these areas after the war. The exact death toll is not known. While the Japanese claimed about 5,000 were killed, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce estimated the figure to be around 40,000.

Source: National Museum of Singapore; Memories At Old Ford Factory

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21 1950s: Redifussion set

Before television, there was Redifussion, Singapore’s first cable-transmitted commercial radio station, which provided entertainment for thousands of listeners.

Fans had their own Redifussion sets at home or gathered at coffee shops to listen to their favourite rock ’n’ roll tunes or master storytellers such as Lee Dai Sor and Ong Toh who spun stories in Chinese dialects. These storytellers became household names.

Subscription to the station continued to grow into the 1970s, but that came to a halt when the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in 1979 and Redifussion was required to stop all dialect programmes by 1982. Subscription subsequently plunged.

Redifussion was relaunched this year as an online-based station.

Source: The Straits Times; National Museum of Singapore;Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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22 1950s to 1960s: Ticket to New World Amusement Park

In the post-war years, amusement parks were the places where families went to for after-dark entertainment. Visitors paid admission fees to the parks on top of separate charges for various entertainment offerings.New World Amusement Park was opened in Kitchener Road in 1923 by Peranakan merchant Ong Boon Tat and his younger brother Ong Peng Hock. It was known for its boxing and wrestling matches, open-air theatre and a cabaret. One of the headline cabaret acts was Rose Chan, dubbed the queen of striptease, whose famous act involved dancing with a python. The park closed in 1987 when Shaw Organisation sold it to a property developer.

The two other amusement parks were Great World in Kim Seng Road, which closed in 1964 although the restaurants and cinemas remained till 1978, and Gay World in Geylang, which closed around 2000.

Source: The Straits Times; National Heritage Board; Singapore: The Encyclopedia; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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23 1900s: Zubir Said’s piano

This is the Strohmenger grand piano which belonged to the late Zubir Said, who composed Singapore’s national anthem Majulah Singapura.

The song was originally commissioned by the City Council to commemorate the re-opening of the Victoria Theatre after its renovations in 1958.

It was later adapted and unveiled as the national anthem in December 1959.

Mr Zubir was a self-taught musician who began his career in Malay opera. He composed music for Malay films from the 1940s to 1960s and was a nationalist who believed in music as a galvanising social force.

He died on Nov 16, 1987, at the age of 80, leaving behind four daughters and a son.

Source: Malay Heritage Centre; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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24 1950s onwards: Chicken rice

If Singaporeans were asked to pick a national dish, chances are they would plump for chicken rice.

The tender poached white chicken on fragrant white rice which reminds Singaporeans abroad of home may be called Hainanese chicken rice, but members of the Hainanese community say the version in Singapore is very different from the version in Hainan.

The original Hainanese chicken rice was actually a ball of cooked rice, about the size of two tennis balls, with a chicken filling. The rice ball was carried by farmers to the fields and was not served with chilli or dark soya sauce.

The Hainanese Chicken Rice dish is said to have taken root in areas such as Middle Road, Purvis Street and Koek Road more than 60 years ago.

Source: The Straits Times; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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25 1955: Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company driver tag

Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s was troubled by riots and industrial unrest and the Hock Lee bus riot was one of the worst.

The drivers, conductors and inspectors from the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company went on strike in April 1955. They were part of the communist-controlled Singapore Bus Workers’ Union and had been dismissed after serving strike notices on the bus company.The strikers locked themselves in the company’s bus garages in Alexandra Road and picketed outside the garages. Violent riots broke out a month later. Chinese school students who supported the strikers joined in the riot. Four people were killed and 31 injured.

The strike was seen as being orchestrated by the communist-led union for political rather than industrial purpose; the union wanted to destabilise the political system and create conditions for a takeover.

Source: Singapore A Biography; The Straits Times; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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26 1960s: Meat safe

Before there were refrigerators, families used these ventilated cupboards to store their provisions.

The cupboards, with a wire mesh to keep flies away, were usually raised or hung from the ceiling to keep pests away from food items.

Source: National Museum of Singapore

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27 1960: HDB key envelope

Getting the key to one’s first Housing Board flat has become something of a rite of passage for many Singaporeans.

These envelopes that hold the keys have been used since 1960, and are still in use today.

Government flats house about 82 per cent of Singaporeans today, but that was not always the case.In 1960, only 9 per cent of Singaporeans lived in government flats. The HDB was set up on Feb 1, 1960, to succeed the Singapore Improvement Trust, and the board was tasked with meeting the nation’s housing needs.

At that time, many people were living in unhygienic slums and crowded squatter settlements. Within 10 years, the HDB had solved Singapore’s housing problem.

Source: The Housing & Development Board; www.hdb.gov.sg

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28 1960: Tan Howe Liang’s Olympic medal

On Sept 8, 1960, weightlifter Tan Howe Liang raised a 155kg weight in the clean and jerk portion of the lightweight competition at the Rome Olympics, clinching Singapore’s first silver Olympic medal.

The 27-year-old had trained in a simple shed with no walls and an attap roof. He also had to pay for his own competition gear and expenses. He is now 80 years old.

Singapore had to wait 52 years for its next individual medal, won at the 2012 Olympics in London by table-tennis player Feng Tianwei when she beat her Japanese opponent to take home a bronze medal for Singapore.

Singapore also has a silver and a bronze Olympics medal, both won by the table-tennis teams, in 2008 and last year.

Source: Singapore Sports Museum, Singapore Sports Council; The Straits Times; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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29 1960: Receipt for the National Theatre Fund

The National Theatre was a theatre built by a people who were stirred by nationalistic feelings and contributed to the building fund.

Four concerts were held in November 1959 to raise funds for the theatre and people could also “buy a brick” in April 1961. The theatre was finally built at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road in 1963. A total of $856,279 was collected from the public for construction. The total cost was estimated at $2.2 million.

The building, which featured a cantilevered roof and an open-air auditorium, was designed by architect Alfred Wong and hosted important events and performances such as National Day rallies, concerts and university convocations.

The theatre was demolished in 1986.

Source: The Straits Times; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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30 1964: Merlion

The Merlion symbol was designed by Fraser Brunner, curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium, in 1964 for the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board – now the Singapore Tourism Board – and was its corporate logo from 1966 to 1997.

The symbol has a lion head and a fish body, referencing the legend of Prince Sang Nila Utama who saw a lion when he came to Singapore and named the island Singapura or Lion City. The fish tail alludes to Singapore as a port city.

A sculpture of the Merlion, now in the Merlion Park, was created in 1972 by sculptor Lim Nang Seng.

Source: Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board; www.stb.gov.sg; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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31 1965: Setron TV

Setron Limited produced the first locally assembled television sets in September 1965.By the 1970s, it had become a household brand in Singapore, known for the durability and reliability of its television sets.

From producing just 400 TV sets a month in 1966, the company ramped up production to 2,500 sets a month in 1973.In 1986, the company became a subsidiary of Sony Corporation Japan and its name was changed to Sony Singapore.

Products such as the Setron TV exemplified Singapore’s early push into manufacturing.

Source: The Straits Times; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News; National Archives of Singapore Collection

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32 1965: Video recording of Lee Kuan Yew’s press conference announcing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia

This nondescript 1-inch videotape is a recording of the historic press conference held by Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the studios of Radio & Television Singapore to announce Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on Aug 9, 1965.

Singapore had merged with Malaysia in September 1963 as it was believed that this was the only way for it to gain independence from the British and survive economically.

But the union was fraught with problems and disputes which led to racial riots in July 1964.

At the press conference, which took place just before noon on Aug 9, Mr Lee broke down as he recounted the train of events that led to the separation.

The press conference, including Mr Lee’s emotional breakdown, was broadcast on television that evening.

Source: The Straits Times; The Singapore Story: Memoirs Of Lee Kuan Yew; National Archives of Singapore

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33 1966: The Republic of Singapore’s first stamps

Titled Survival In A Challenging Future In A Multi-Racial Society, this set of stamps was issued to mark the country’s first anniversary of independence. The commemorative issue came as a set of three and the design incorporated the three fundamentals of a young nation: Workers, Factory and Housing.

It was designed by the then Ministry of Culture. Before these stamps were issued, Singapore had used British Straits Settlement Stamps, Malaysia stamps and the State of Singapore stamps.

Source: Singapore Philatelic Museum

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34 1966: 4-D ticket

Buying a four-digit lottery number, or what is commonly known as 4-D, is a habit for many Singaporeans who hope that the ticket will be their passport to riches.

4-D was legalised in 1966, in order to thwart illegal gambling operators.

It was derived from an earlier three-digit version, which commenced in January 1962.

Source: Singapore Pools; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News

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35 1968: SIA Kebaya

Designed by French designer Pierre Balmain, the iconic sarong kebaya was unveiled in 1968 as the stewardess’ uniform for Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA).

A special batik design with multi-coloured flowers was used and a border was added for the hems, cuffs, collar and front.

The traditional cut was also updated. The kebaya was form-fitting and had a round collar.

The Singapore Girl’s sarong kebaya comes in four colours, each representing a different rank.

Following the restructuring of MSA in 1972, Malaysian Airline System and Singapore Airlines (SIA) were formed. The sarong kebaya uniforms followed SIA.

The same year, the Singapore Girl – a symbol of grace, hospitality and top-notch service standards – was created and she became the face of the airline.

SIA has evolved from a regional airline into a global brand which flies to 63 destinations in 34 countries.

Source: Singapore Airlines

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36 1960s to 1970s: No Long Hair poster

The hippie subculture in the United States started during the 1960s and spread to many countries.

Posters stating that “Males with long hair will be attended to last” were displayed in all government offices in June 1972.

This was a time when the authorities associated men with long hair with drug-taking hippies in the West and took this unusual step to discourage men from keeping their hair long.

The Ministry of Home Affairs defined long hair as hair falling across the forehead and touching the eyebrows, hair covering the ears or reaching below an ordinary shirt collar.

The posters reflected the mood of a young nation concerned with “corrupting” Western influences.

The civil service took the advisory against keeping long hair seriously. In 1974, a total of 8,172 male civil servants and national servicemen were warned for sporting long hair. Among them, 11 were fined, three resigned from their jobs and one was dismissed.

Source: The Straits Times

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37 1971: Rain tree

At 9.30am on Nov 7, 1971, Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was the acting prime minister at the time, planted a sapling (the tree now) on the summit of Mount Faber, launching the first Tree Planting Day.

On that day, volunteers planted 8,400 trees and 21,677 shrubs and creepers. While this was the first Tree Planting Day, Singapore had already started on its journey to become a garden city after then-premier Lee Kuan Yew planted a tree at Farrer Circus on June 16, 1963. Dr Goh died on May 14, 2010.

Today, tree-planting activities are still held during Clean And Green Week.

Source: National Parks Board; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board; The Straits Times

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38 1971: Coinafon

This orange public phone, known as a Coinafon, was a common sight in public places in the 1970s.One phone call cost 10 cents.

Introduced in 1971 by the Singapore Telephone Board, there were believed to be tens of thousands of these Coinafon phones in operation in the 1980s.

The Singapore Telephone Board later stopped selling the phones – though it is not known when exactly – and the phones were subsequently sold by other vendors.

Today, the phones have become collector’s items and are displayed in fashionable shops and cafes.

Source: The Straits Times, SingTel

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39 1979: First courtesy campaign poster

The call to make courtesy a way of life was the theme for the first National Courtesy Campaign. The campaign aimed to highlight the importance of graceful and polite behaviour in a Singapore that was increasingly becoming more urban and crowded.

The courtesy campaign was one of many campaigns launched to change the behaviour of Singaporeans. The Stop At Two campaign in the 1970s encouraged Singaporeans to have two children and the ongoing Speak Mandarin campaign, which was also launched in 1979, exhorts Chinese Singaporeans to switch from speaking dialect to Mandarin.

Singapore’s many campaigns and their accompanying radio jingles helped give the country its “nanny state’’ reputation. Since March 2001, the National Courtesy Campaign has been incorporated into the Singapore Kindness Movement.

Source: National Archives of Singapore; The Straits Times; http://kindness.sg; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News

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40 1981: Vanda Miss Joaquim

In a bid to foster national pride and identity, a national flower was named in 1981.

The Vanda Miss Joaquim is a hybrid of two orchids – Vanda hookeriana and Vanda teres.

It was named by the first director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Mr H.N. Ridley, after Miss Agnes Joaquim, who is believed to have created the hybrid in 1893.

Singapore has the distinction of being the only nation to have a hybrid as its national flower.

Source: www.sbg.org.sg; www.nparks.gov.sg; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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41 1986: Report on the collapse of Hotel New World

On the morning of March 15, 1986, the six-storey Lian Yak Building in Serangoon Road collapsed in what has been described as Singapore’s worst civil disaster at that time.

The building was known as Hotel New World, though only three floors were occupied by the hotel. A branch office of the Industrial & Commercial Bank was on the ground floor while a nightclub was on the second floor.

A nation was transfixed by images of rescue workers working around the clock to rescue the scores trapped under the rubble. Thirty-three people died. The tragedy rallied Singaporeans from all walks of life. Companies contributed food and drinks to the rescue teams, while people queued to donate blood.

The panel investigating the incident said the structural design of the building was “grossly inadequate” and had caused the collapse. Nobody was prosecuted.

Source: The Straits Times; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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42 1988: Or Else, The Lightning God

Writer Catherine Lim, 71, was the first Singapore author whose work was selected as a literature text for O-level students worldwide.

Or Else, The Lightning God is a collection of stories about ordinary Singaporeans caught in different situations.

Source: The Straits Times; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News

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43 1992: Chewing gum

Like it or not, foreigners identify Singapore as the country where chewing gum is banned.

But while the 1992 ban restricted the import, sale and manufacture of chewing gum here, there was no actual ban on the act of chewing gum.

The Government said the ban was imposed because spent chewing gum had disrupted MRT train operations.

Source: The Straits Times; Singapore: The Encyclopedia

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44 1995: Army T-shirt

Apart from a bald head, the army T-shirt symbolises the Singapore male's rite of passage into national service.

The T-shirt, known officially as the Round Neck Utility Shirt, or more commonly called the Admin Tee, is worn by Singapore men long after they have completed their compulsory national service.

Each army recruit is issued three Admin Tees, which are worn while doing fatigue work such as weapons cleaning and maintenance. They are also sometimes worn during physical training.

Full-time national service was introduced in 1967.

Source: Singapore Ministry of Defence; Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board

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45 1997: In-Vehicle Unit

A short beep from this innocuous little grey box, also known as the In-Vehicle Unit, on your windscreen means just one thing. You have paid a toll for using the road.

The Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system was launched on the East Coast Parkway (ECP) in April 1998. The charge was $1 or $2, depending on the time of travel.

All vehicles had to be fitted with the In-Vehicle Unit (IU) for tolls to be deducted. Singapore was one of the first countries in the world to introduce electronic road pricing and the gantries now dot major expressways and roads all over the island.

The ERP system is a more efficient and convenient way of collecting road tolls. It replaced the Area Licensing Scheme which required car owners to buy coupons to enter a restricted area. The Government collected $160 million in 2008.

Source: The Straits Times; The Business Times; Chronicle Of Singapore: Fifty Years Of Headline News


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46 2000 onwards: Tissue paper packet

Tissue packets are sold the world over, but nowhere else in the world are they used as markers to reserve – also known as “chope” – a seat in a food court or hawker centre.

It is not known when this practice started or how it came about, but news articles about this quirky method of reserving a seat have been written over the last 10 years.

Some have branded it typical Singapore “kiasu” behaviour, while others have praised it, saying it is a creative way to let others know a seat is taken.

Source: The Straits Times

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47 2002: EZ-Link card

Instead of fiddling with coins to pay for a bus or train ride, commuters here use a contactless stored-value card, which was introduced in April 2002.

There are about 15 million EZ-Link cards in circulation and the cards can also be used at restaurants, shops, community centres and in taxis. The card symbolises Singapore's push towards a cashless society.

Source: EZ-Link

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48 2003: Newater

Some call it recycled water, others call it reclaimed water, but Singaporeans know it as Newater.

Introduced in 2003, Newater is treated waste water and one of the four sources of water in Singapore. The other three sources are water from local catchment areas, imported water and desalinated water.

The successful reclamation of waste water has put Singapore on the world map and the country now shares its expertise with countries such as China, India, Australia and the United States. Newater meets 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs – about 400 million gallons a day. There are plans to increase Newater production to meet 40 per cent of the country’s water supply by 2020, and 50 per cent in the future.

Source: Public Utilities Board; The Straits Times

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49 2003: Forehead thermometer

The thermometer is a grim reminder of the dark three-month period in Singapore when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) virus hit Singapore’s shores in March 2003. The symptoms include fever and dry cough.

Students from primary school to junior college were taught to take their temperature as part of a national effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

The economy took a beating as people stayed home and shunned restaurants, shops and public transport for fear of infection.

The virus infected 238 people here and claimed 33 lives, including those of medical workers. Singapore was declared Sars-free on May 30.

Source: The Straits Times

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50 2013: N95 mask

N95 masks flew off the shelves and became a household necessity when the haze hit a record Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) level of 401 on June 21 this year.

A PSI of between 201 and 300 is considered "very unhealthy", and anything above 300 is hazardous.

The previous record was 226 in 1997.

The N95 masks are the only commercially available masks that can filter out the microscopic PM2.5 particles which can infiltrate the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled.

The haze is due to a land-clearing technique called slash-and-burn, which is cheap and effective and used widely in Sumatra.

Source: The Straits Times

Let us know what items you think could help tell the history of Singapore. E-mail suntimes@sph.com.sg with the header "50 objects".