A Visit to the National Museum of Singapore

by Ching Yook Ling and Mariko Maruyama

After a chatty and delicious lunch at Equilibrium Restaurant Capitol Plaza, a group of us museum volunteers made our way in the rain to the National Museum of Singapore. The gloomy weather could not dampen our excitement of the special tour organized for us, courtesy of the Friends of Museums. After being warmly greeted by two volunteer guides we were split into two groups; group was led by Sally McHale and she proceeded to guide us to the Singapore History Gallery at Level 1. This gallery narrated the development of our neighbouring country through 4 distinct eras: Singapura, Crown Colony, Shonan-to, and Post-War Singapore including the struggles in the road to self-government and independence, challenges of the future and the successful development of the country.

The Building

Before we entered the gallery, Sally, our guide, gave us a brief account of the building. Opened in 1887, the National Museum of Singapore, originally known as the Raffle’s Library and Museum, is the nation’s oldest museum and it celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2017.

Singapura (1299-1818)

First, we stood in front of a huge digital map the original of which was compiled by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, in 1570. Singapore was already on this map and known as “the land below the winds”. It was strategically located on the trade routes and was part of the Maritime Silk Road from before the British colonisers. Ships from China sailed here, traded and returned home blown by the monsoon winds. Right on cue, the image and sound effect of the seasonal monsoons came on to highlight the significance of the trade winds that were so vital for bringing the merchants to trade in the region.

It is believed the island was already a substantially inhabited trading post even earlier than the 16th century as evidenced by the 3 metres wide and 3 metres high Singapore Stone. This is part of a sandstone boulder, dated between the 10th and 14th centuries, which once stood at the mouth of the Singapore River, near where the present day Fullerton and Merlion are located. Inscription on the boulder is written in Kawi script with some Sanskrit words but it has never been fully deciphered. Even Sir Stamford Raffles made rubbings of the inscription to decode its meaning but to no avail!

The earliest written record said Singapore was called Tamasik or Temasek in the late 14th century before it was called Singapura (City of the Lion in Sanskrit). Tales from Sejarah Melayu told of the first ruler Sang Nila Utama who landed on shores white as a sheet of cloth, spotted a strange lion-like animal, took it as an auspicious sign and named the island Singapura. Exhibits of Chinese coins and fishing hooks placed on the white sands of the 14th century (dug out from the Padang in front of the National Gallery where the first settlement was believed to be) brought to life the legend of Sang Nila Utama stepping on the fine white sand.

Five kings ruled here for 100 years and the last king, Iskandar Shah, fled from Singapura to Melaka and founded the Kingdom of Melaka. Exhibits uncovered on the forbidden hills where royalties resided included gold armlet and earrings, uncovered during the building of a reservoir in the 1920s. On the clasp of the amulet is the head of Kala, a protective deity. Alas, it did not offer much protection to the last king of Singapura as Iskandar Shah had to flee the island. Other trading exhibits displayed show that even after the disappearance of the royal families, trades still flourished along the Singapore River with the existence of Temenggong of Johor Sultanate.

Crown Colony (1819-1941)

Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, was already familiar with this region before he arrived in Singapore in 1819 through his previous postings to Penang and Java. He signed a treaty with his handpicked Sultan of Johor to allow the British East India Company to establish a trade base here and, subsequently, Major William Farquhar opened the port to all nations free of duty thus making the island a springboard to be developed by 1850 into the centre of trade in South East Asia. We were also briefed on how Raffles managed to eliminate the Dutch influence from Singapore and helped to form the new Johor Sultanate in 1819. The first immigrants arrived in Singapore in 1850’s landing near today’s Lau Pa Sat Food Court (we dined there!), where many temples and mosques were built next to each other, giving diversity to the country’s culture. Many immigrants of various ethnicities (the Chinese, Indians and Malays) arrived here particularly after Singapore became a Crown Colony in 1867. Schools, churches and residential areas were built and segregated in accordance with the Jackson Plan promulgated by Raffles to bring order to the city of Singapore. Much of the Jackson Plan still exists today.

The population grew from 1,000 in the 1820’s to 60,000 in the 1850’s. The ratio of men to women was 14 to 1. Most men came alone, resulting in marriage with local women. One community arising from the interracial marriage was the Peranakan. From India, many Sepoy soldiers came in as the workforce of the British government and from 1826 onwards when it became the Straits Settlement, even convicts from the jails of Calcutta were brought in. Today Singapore’s population is composed of 70% Chinese, 15% Indians, and 15% Malays.

Stopping in front of a painting of Abu Bakar, the descendent of Temenggong–derived Sultan of Johor who made his fortune from rubber products, we were told of his interesting life. In England he was known as Albert Baker and was even a good friend of Queen Victoria!

During the 1860’s, huge changes took place with the opening of the Suez Canal and the appearance of steam ships which docked in Singapore. Changes included the increase in the number of Chinese opium addicts who sought temporary comfort to escape from daily hardships and backbreaking jobs. Even newspapers warned and illustrated how even industrious men fell victims to opium addiction. The British government was appealed to make the opium trade illegal, but to no avail, as it was the major source of income for them. It was not until the Japanese occupation that opium was outlawed completely.

Education also became a forefront of the country’s development. Locals began to influence the social and economic development of the country. A major benefactor of education was Tan Kah Kee, a billionaire who made his fortunes from rubber and pineapple trading. Eunos Abdullah, one of the few Malays educated at the Raffles Institution and the only Malay representative on the Straits Settlements Legislative Council, was an editor of Utusan Melayu, an influential Malay Paper.

A sense of nationalism was beginning to rise in the 1920s/30’s.The Malays started to question the right of the British rule as did the Chinese. The “Singapore Mutiny” led by Bengali-Muslim regiments showed that cracks were beginning to appear in the British Administration. The all-Muslim unit feared being sent to fight against their fellow Muslim Turks during World War I. 39 mutineers were executed in public, watched by 15,000 residents. However no one knew that an even worse “winter was coming”.

Shonan-to (“Island of the Light of the South” 1942-945)

In December 1941, Singapore was bombed by the Japanese and that was the start of World War II in Asia Pacific. After landing on the Peninsular of Malaya on 8th December 1941, they came down to Singapore by bicycles and defeated the British capturing Singapore and the Peninsular within 70 days. The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill called the stunning defeat “the biggest calamity the British Empire has ever seen”. Japan is a country with scarce important resources such as oil, gold and coal, all of which however were abundant in Malaysia and Indonesia. The main purpose of their invasion was to take over the huge British naval base in Singapore and get access to these natural resources.

The chart comparing the might of the Japanese armed forces and artillery and that of the British brought home how well prepared and equipped the Japanese were. In terms of army planes, tank regiments and soldiers, the British were outnumbered completely. The pride of the British navy battle ships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, were sunk at early stage of the war. The British resources were stretched due to the war in Europe. Airplanes were obsolete and not suitable to tropical conditions. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival was forced to surrender in February 1942 faced with the fact that 1 million people, soldiers and civilians were crammed in the heart of the island with the Japanese having taken control of the water and food supply.

After capturing the island, the Japanese immediately started the Sook Ching (Cleansing) Massacre. Chinese aged between 18-50 suspected of being involved in anti-Japanese activities, boycotting Japanese goods, sabotaging Japanese companies and sending money to the Chinese in China to support their fight against the Japanese were all screened. Once they were identified to be involved, confirmed or otherwise, they were sent to remote areas such as Changi Beach where they were never seen again. It was poignant seeing one of the blue doors of Changi prison behind where soldiers were held, rail man’s whistle, watches, doctor’s stethoscope, eye glasses, pens of the victims of Sook Ching which were uncovered during the 1960s when there were lots of building works in the city outskirts. The belongings suggested women were victims as well as men. The Japanese admitted to 5,000 deaths but excavations suggest 25,000 victims.

Post-war Singapore (1946-Present)

The British returned in 1945 after the war. The 1940’s and the early 1950’s were tough days because of shortage of food, necessities, jobs, schools, etc. There were also natural disasters such as floods. Many were left homeless. Trade unions were formed and riots occurred all of which were threats to the British government. To deal with these problems, David Marshall, the first Chief Minister and a lawyer, sought for more freedom and subsequently self-government for the people of Singapore. Although his goal was not successful in early stages, Singapore gradually attained full self-government, which was finally granted in 1958. In the 1959 election, the Peoples’ Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won the polls in a landslide victory and he became the first prime minister. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaysia to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, the merger was an uneasy one. We watched a video of an emotional Lee in tears when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia in 1965 due to the conflict of policies adopted by two countries. Singapore became independent on 9 August of the same year, now celebrated as National Day.

Many things such as new bank notes, national anthem and national service had to be created for the new nation to establish the identity of the Singaporeans. Economic and educational plans were also implemented, from establishing the Jurong Industrial Estate where multinational companies could invest in, to sending Singaporeans abroad for higher education. Our attention was drawn to an old Setron television set which stood as a symbol of success in transforming old industries to modern ones. The factory manufacturing the TV set was originally processing coffee beans from Indonesia. Supply was cut short due to Indonesia’s “unhappiness” with Singapore joining the Federation, thus forcing the factory to take a gamble to switch to manufacturing of electrical goods. An impressive feat was the social welfare systems such as house ownership scheme by the Housing Development Board, which built 10,000 units for the population within 5 years and improvement of infrastructures. Today Singapore is known as the City in a Garden with strong green policies of planting trees within specified distances contributing to the creation of images of a green city. Assisted by many capable men, Lee brought great success to the Singapore we see today.

We expressed our sincere gratitude to the two guides after the one and a half hour tour, which ended all too soon. The visit to the museum indeed gave us an insight to our neighbour country, Singapore.


National Museum of Singapore Guide

The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Vol 16, The Rulers of Malaysia

もっと知りたいシンガポールー弘文社 History of Singapore https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Singapore


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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