About two weeks ago, I was pretty much like a tourist in my own country. The benefits of being a student is that it allows you to visit museums for FREE! (If you are a student, please make use of this privilege!) In three days, I visited a total of FIVE museums! They were all very awesome. But in this post, I’ll just focus on the National Museum of Singapore.
The museum has been renovated many years ago. But it was only two weeks ago that I finally got a chance to visit it – after so long!
What’s new about the not-so-brand-new museum is that they’ve added an extension to the back of the entire building. I really like what the architects have done. It’s a very beautiful mix of neo-classicism architecture with contemporary design. I think that this must have been a really difficult feat which the architects have successfully pulled off. I’ve seen some not so successful attempts at other buildings before.
What’s really amazing about the new extension wing is that there is a huge underground floor that’s dedicated to the history of Singapore. It’s really really huge, and very well done!
Unfortunately, many people in my age group have allergies to Singapore history due to bad experiences with “Social Studies”. Social studies was a subject which the government came up with. Unfortunately, far from achieving its intended purpose, it made people equate Singapore history with government propaganda. This has made many people suspicious of anything related to national education, especially the country’s history.
I think it’s a huge tragedy.
Singapore history is actually quite interesting and fun, but those bad experiences which many of us (and the younger generation) had experienced has made so many of us cynical about how this could be interesting without any brain-washing elements (this was what we have always complained about back in secondary school all the way till today).
So before, proceeding further, I would say – give it a chance. You really don’t know what you are missing out!
It’s true that the narrative is, in some ways, controlled by the ruling government. BUT… This happens in national museums all over the world. It’s unavoidable. Governments want a particular story to be told for a purpose. We do it all the time too. We leave out information which we deem irrelevant and include only those that are required to make the point. And as much as we might want to give an objective account of our own history, we can’t help but have certain biases for/against some things. This affects the narrative which we share with others.
Bias accounts are unavoidable. But that being said, this awareness that we have of biases in historical accounts can and should help us to filter through these biases to still learn a lot of interesting things!
In fact, I think the people who designed the gallery have made it a point to be as objective as possible. Some of the things presented are somewhat surprising/controversial things that you will never hear in a classroom. It’s really exciting and worth the time and money to go visit!
Anyway, back to the point!
We had to walk a really long spiral slope down to the basement. Thankfully, there’s a really beautiful scenic view as you descend into the huge basement gallery!
Eventually, you’ll enter this really huge panaromic theatre that’s about 2-3 storeys high! It was quite an amazing sight!
As you descend even further down the slope, you’ll finally reach the entrance of the super huge underground gallery!
Personally, it was really thrilling to see the exhibits in the museum. Last semester, I did a Singapore studies module where the professor covered everything from 14th century Singapore to present day. On this day, I was able to see many of those things that the professor showed us on the lecture screen. It was quite incredible!
Unfortunately, there’s too many things to photograph and it wouldn’t make sense uploading everything here either. I do hope that by showing you a bit of what’s there, you’d want to make a trip down to see the awesome things yourself!
Well, here’s a great historical treasure:
It’s called the Singapore Stone. There was this huge gigantic stone pillar at the mouth of the Singapore River with inscriptions on it. No one really knew what it said since no one could make out what language the carvings were in. For all you know, it might just be ancient vandalism, where some pirate with too much free time might have thought it to be fun to inscribe, “I was here!”, or something like that.
Anyway, the stone pillar was blown into pieces by the British during the colonial era because its location made it impossible for big ships to enter into the Singapore River. This stone was a remnant of what was recovered.
Here’s some ancient artifacts recovered from Pan-tsu 班卒 (present day Fort Canning) which used to be a village of a royal tribe. Notice the presence of ancient Chinese coins! The Chinese have stepped foot onto Singapore since the 14th century!
Fast forward to the 19th century, this was the treatise made between Sir Stamford Raffles and the Sultan to handover Singapore to the East India Company.
Initially, Singapore wasn’t under the direct jurisdiction of the Queen. It was under the administration of Calcutta, India! Because of this, the currency for Singapore followed that of India – the “anna”. Here are the coins that were used in both Singapore and India!
Wait a minute… But wasn’t Singapore a crown colony under the jurisdiction of the Queen? Well, yes, but that was much later. When Raffles and the Sultan signed the treaty, Singapore was under the jurisdiction of the East India Company whose headquarters was located in Calcutta. It was only much much later that the jurisdiction was transferred to the UK.
Anyway, here’s a spooky-looking photo!
What I love about this museum is that they have many sub-exhibits housed in small little rooms to expound on certain details which are not part of the grand narrative. It’s very useful in filling you in with the cultural details of what was happening at that time. The above photo was taken at a room specifically dedicated to Chinese religion and worship. Another room was dedicated to the Secret Societies (triads) that operated in colonial Singapore. Here’s a photo of a wall where they printed the chops of the various triads.
There’s a very odd story of how the first Chinese Protectorate (police) of Singapore got the job. When he was in Penang, he stopped two triad groups from fighting. How? By playing the bagpipes!!! Apparently, both sides were soothed by his bagpipe music that they decided not to fight anymore. Erm… Really? Gee… I don’t know. I think a more plausible story would be that both sides wanted to gang up to kill that guy for making a din with his bagpipes.
Sometimes reality is weirder than fiction!
Anyway… The one thing I really love about colonial Singapore was the state crest. Take a look at how awesome it is:
Here’s a hand-drawn version of the crest with some upgrades! (Compare the bottom photo with the one above) It’s the document granting self-governance to the state, written in beautiful calligraphy! I’m actually very surprised that the motto “Majulah Singapura” (Onward Singapore) has already been in used way before the nation’s Independence in 1965! Look! It’s written at the bottom of the crest!
Sigh… I really wished they retained this crest. It’s a lot more beautiful than the current one:
This was from the treatise for the merger of Singapore with Malaysia.
The crest had to be changed to reflect the relationship between Singapore (the lion) and Malaysia (the tiger).
While Singapore today is no longer a part of Malaysia, it’s interesting that the government has intentionally retained the tiger in the crest meant to reflect the country’s historical, political, and economical links with Malaysia. I’m speculating here, but I do think that this gives us a little insight into the vision that the Singapore government had despite seperation with Malaysia: that it still had a lot of hope in working closely with Malaysia, possibly like a romantic relationship that didn’t work out, and yet with one party hoping that both can still remain the best of friends despite the break-up. This was probably the mentality that called for the retention of the tiger in the crest.
Anyway, the museum covers the major historical events of Singapore with lots of details and interesting sights: (1) The Japanese Occupation; (2) Post-War; (3) The Communist Threat; (4) Singapore’s Independence; and (5) Nation-building. There’s really a lot to see!
What surprised me was this part of the exhibition that was super retro, showcasing all the awesome 60’s futuristic-looking home appliances.
Anyway, Singapore continued to develop and progress further and further as time passed.
However, the nation eventually fell to the Dark Side, and Darth Vader took control of the entire city:
BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER!!!
Darth Vader probably used these light sabers and of course, his lightning to eliminate all opposition!
Haha… Your guess is as good as mine why Darth Vader is in the National Museum of Singapore! I had a very pleasant surprise of being greeted by Darth Vader at the end of the gallery!
Well, truth be told, there was some Economic Development Board exhibition that was boasting about how LucasArts has opened up a studio in Singapore. They had a very good sense of humour putting Darth Vader in front of the gallery exit to greet you as you walk out of Singapore’s past into the present.
Well, that’s my brief tour of the National Museum of Singapore. There are many other side exhibits around that change every now and then. I think it’s definitely a place that’s worth visiting time and time again. Do visit it if you haven’t done so (or haven’t visited it in the last 3 years).