Now, I know that I have been overwhelming the interweb with posts recently, my sightseeing bonanza created a bit of a backlog, but I’m nearly caught up now so it should go back down to the regular amount very shortly – phew.
This weeks trip was to the National Museum of Singapore, a place I was always destined to visit thanks to my deep and enduring love of history and because it is such a beautiful building. I would’ve taken my own picture of it, but it was raining and I didn’t want to go outside and get wet. So anyway, Cheyenne and I took a trip to the museum on one of our days off to check out the Singapura: 700 Years exhibition, a temporary exhibit charting 700 years of Singaporean history, on display while they prepare a new permanent exhibit. Because the museum is in the process of putting on a new exhibit there were very few actual artefacts in the exhibition, but despite this it was incredibly interesting and very well done.
The exhibition begins back in the mists of time with the ancient island of Temasek, renamed Singa Pura (lion city) by the Sumatran prince Sang Nila Utama, and invaded and ruled over by pretty much every South East Asian nation at some point in history. Although there is historical evidence that Singapore was an important trading post in the 14th century, and probably long before that, its history is a bit murky before the arrival of Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company in 1819, and so the part of the exhibition dedicated to Singapore’s early history is mainly made up of the little that is known about the Malay kings of Singapore and some artefacts discovered by the archaeological digs at Fort Canning Park.
Despite the lack of actual physical historical evidence in the exhibition it is really very well put together, charting the development of the island from the arrival of Raffles and his first treaty with the Singaporean traders through the colonial period into World War II, and on to independence and political tensions, before finally reaching modern day Singapore and the socio-political environment of the island today. Obviously my favourite part of the exhibition was the World War II section, because I’m weird and I love historical wars, and so this is where I will start.
Although the lighting in the WWII part of the exhibition was very cool and atmospheric it made taking pictures horribly difficult, so I’m afraid they’ll all be a bit naff from here on out. This is the first part of the battle for Singapore section and the bicycle wheels hanging from the ceiling represent the Japanese soldiers cycling across Malaysia and into Singapore to defeat the British, which is a hilarious image that was probably less funny at the time. See now, this is why I love history, in the middle of all the blood and carnage there are always weird stories that are all stranger than fiction.
The World War II section of the Singapura exhibition managed to achieve the rare goal of being fairly objective, it outlined the atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers, and the blunders of the British, with very little anger, which is something I didn’t expect to find in a country that had such a rubbish time of it during the war. The most interesting part of this section are the exhibits outlining what the Japanese did after they had taken Singapore. School curriculums were changed to teach Japanese and other subjects that were deemed appropriate, the ordinary citizen was taught Japanese in their daily paper and the entire hierarchy of Singaporean society was shifted. The story about the displacing of one ethnic group for another, hidden away in one corner of the World War II room, makes up the most powerful part of the exhibition. A simple diorama, some drawings and a plaque tell the story of the Sook Ching, a massacre bordering on genocide where the Japanese army rounded up Chinese men, apparently to weed ‘anti-Japanese elements’ from society and disappeared a large proportion of them. Unbelievably, the information about the Sook Ching manages to play it down, and in another section of the museum an exhibition on the war crimes tribunal of the Japanese army is more candid about exactly what happened.
The final part of the World War II section is about the British officers confined to Changi Prison and was probably my favourite part as it features some really interesting, and sometimes surprisingly funny, drawings of day to day life in the prison camp by an inmate. Yes, yes, I know that I love World War II but it was honestly truly fascinating and definitely worth a visit just for that section, where I spent far too much time.
I’ll now whizz through the rest of the exhibition as I’ve covered the best bit, sorry if war history isn’t your thing! The exhibition is usefully organised in chronological order meaning that you know where you are in the grand scheme of things, but also that you get an insight into how Singaporean society developed and dealt with change throughout history. After the war section is a room entitled ‘The Road to Merdeka’ chronicling Singapore’s path to independence between the end of World War II and its eventual granting in 1964. For the fact that this room follows after one about the brutality of invasion and occupation it is surprisingly more morbid than the World War II section and shows mostly the socio-economic and political problems that arose after the war. The one glaring fact you get from this section of the exhibition is that there was no logical way the British could hold onto this island after their humiliating defeat in 1942. Post ‘Merdeka’ is the political development of newly independent Singapore, my second favourite type of history, and the story of the brief and fairly bitter union between Singapore and Malaysia which, to my shame, is something I had no idea about. The exhibition ends with a snapshot of Singapore today which felt to me a little too much like propaganda, but the way it is set up is impressive. in a set of interlinking rooms various aspects of Singaporean life from the end of the 20th century have been recreated. This includes a horribly 70s living room, a children’s park complete with astroturf and a working merry-go-round and a series of videos about modern Singapore. I thought this part was quite jarring with the rest of the exhibition, but literally walking through 700 years of Singaporean history, complete with scenes from the most important parts of its past was a really novel way to enjoy a museum.
Because I’m a geek we took the guided tour, which was well worth the time we spent on it, and then went back around the exhibition in order to get a closer look at everything. Because I’m incredibly unlucky there was a school party also on a trip so I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy the colonial section of the exhibition, which was a shame because the history of empire is fascinating, but the little snippets we were told in the tour make me want to go back, when there aren’t any kids, and have a closer look.
This was my second Singaporean museum and, in terms of which one I liked better, I honestly can’t say, as they were both so completely different and fascinating in their own ways. If you want you can compare my babblings and decide for yourselves. Or, even better, just do both!
Leah Out X