Look Back 2019: Bicentennial relooks Singapore history, with an eye on the future

Visitors taking pictures with the statues of Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai in January. These statues have been installed near the iconic one of Stamford Raffles by the Singapore River. The new statues are part of
Visitors taking pictures with the statues of Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai in January. These statues have been installed near the iconic one of Stamford Raffles by the Singapore River. The new statues are part of a project by the Singapore Bicentennial Office to present a more holistic picture of the island’s history. ST FILE PHOTO
Visitors queueing for the From Singapore To Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Centre in October.
Visitors queueing for the From Singapore To Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Centre in October.PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIANHE ZAOBAO
The Bicentennial Christmas Carols Service presented by St Andrew’s Cathedral earlier this month.
The Bicentennial Christmas Carols Service presented by St Andrew’s Cathedral earlier this month.PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIANHE ZAOBAO
The National Museum of Singapore’s bicentennial exhibition, An Old New World: From The East Indies To The Founding Of Singapore, 1600s-1819, which ends on March 29 next year.
The National Museum of Singapore’s bicentennial exhibition, An Old New World: From The East Indies To The Founding Of Singapore, 1600s-1819, which ends on March 29 next year. PHOTOS: ST FILE, LIANHE ZAOBAO

The year was a rich one for heritage and history buffs, as Singapore marked its bicentennial with a slew of activities and exhibitions

Singapore's bicentennial year started off with a big bang. Four statues were erected along the Singapore River, accompanying the lone figure of Stamford Raffles.

The statues were of early movers and shakers Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai. The aim, said the Singapore Bicentennial Office, was to present a more holistic picture of the island's history.

The office then went on to launch From Singapore To Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Centre, an hour-long indoor cinematic showcase complemented by an outdoor exploratory trail. This managed to chip away at the dated mindset that Singapore came into being only after the British arrived in 1819.

The show, via live actors, depicted Singapura's thriving maritime emporium under Sang Nila Utama and his successors since 1299. The show was so popular that its run, initially scheduled for June 1 to Sept 15, was extended to the end of the year. The initial target was to attract 300,000 visitors, but by Dec 14, 700,000 had visited the show.

Over the year, academics also jumped at the prospect of tearing apart myths about Singapore's history to wider audiences. They published books, acted as consultants for exhibitions, and fronted lectures where they extracted and presented findings from decades of rigorous academic research to deepen conversations on the subject.

Among them was Assistant Professor Imran Tajudeen from the National University of Singapore's Department of Architecture. In a lecture for the SkillsFuture Festival, held in collaboration with the Singapore Bicentennial Office, he pointed out that the Temenggong was in charge of the economic use of land in Singapore up till 1824. The British, in contrast, had jurisdiction only over a limited area from Tanjong Malang to Tanjong Katong.

Little-known facts about Singapore's past also emerged. Among them, swampy land outside the city centre could have once supported rice cultivation in the 1400s, said archaeologist Tai Yew Seng. This was based on his study of a poem by a Chinese army officer who visited Singapore in the early 15th century.

Additionally, trade was thriving so well in the region that the home of the harbour master of 17th-century Singapore could have used an assortment of household goods from beyond the island's shores. He likely owned a China-made cast iron wok for his mee goreng. To keep insects and rain out of his hut, he could have had glass panels, which the Dutch were selling, installed in his windows. He could have had a Dutch-made mirror for grooming himself as well.

All this information surfaced from underwater excavations carried out by maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker over the past 30 years.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) topped up the bicentennial year with the launch of exhibitions such as the National Museum of Singapore's An Old New World: From The East Indies To The Founding Of Singapore, 1600s-1819.

The exhibition, which ends on March 29 next year, looks at the 200 years before 1819 and provides a world stage by which to understand Singapore's historical founding as an entrepot. The kin of Raffles and Singapore's first Resident and Commandant William Farquhar even came to Singapore in September for its launch.

 
 
 

Another major contributor to the bicentennial calendar was the National Library Board, which launched On Paper: Singapore Before 1867 in September. The star of the exhibition is a rare 1600s map that depicts the area around the Singapore Strait as a very busy waterway. Multiple merchant routes, indicated in the form of thin black lines, run along the island.

On other fronts, the Urban Redevelopment Authority celebrated 30 years of conserving Singapore's built heritage, and the NHB ramped up efforts to promote and support the Republic's intangible cultural heritage.

These include the Stewards of Singapore's Intangible Cultural Heritage Award, to recognise master craftsmen and artists, such as Nonya beadwork and embroidery craftsmen or practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, who keep Singapore's living heritage alive.

Why it matters

Dedicating a year to studying and investigating the island's past reflects the nation's eagerness to better understand itself and its position in the region. History, after all, provides a guide to the future.

Key takeaways from its past include how it has always found a way to thrive despite numerous ups and downs, including getting sacked by the Majapahit empire in the 14th century and falling to the Japanese during World War II.b

At the bicentennial showcase, three values - openness, multiculturalism and self-determination - were identified as critical to the island's survival. Apart from drawing lessons from history, sound policies and programmes also need to be in place to protect the island's historical legacies. Many in the heritage and arts circles have, therefore, been heartened by the growing focus on Singapore's intangible cultural heritage.

What lies ahead

The results of Singapore's nomination of its hawker culture for inscription on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity will be announced at the end of next year.

 
 

The public can also look forward to the opening of three new permanent galleries at the Asian Civilisations Museum by the end of March.

In the third quarter of the year, the National Museum of Singapore will be organising Home, Truly, a photographic exhibition featuring archival photos, artefacts and digital interactives on the moments and experiences in Singapore's history from the 1950s.

It will also collaborate with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History to present an exhibition in the later half of the year, commemorating 45 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Mexico.

Additionally, the Changi Chapel and Museum - devoted to Singapore's history during World War II - will reopen later next year after a major redevelopment.

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1945 will see a number of commemorations around the world next year.

FRIDAY: CRIME/LAWS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2019, with the headline 'HERITAGE: Bicentennial relooks S'pore history, with an eye on the future '. Print Edition | Subscribe