The grand monument stood before us, awe-inspiring in a bright white-washed facade with touches of light grey under the midday sun. The mid-19th century British colonial building was capped with a silverish tiles-clad dome, accentuating its regal appearance. The National Museum of Singapore was our launch point to explore the country – my second time to the city-state and James’ first since 1998 – fittingly so to better understand the history of the small nation, or the Red Dot as some locals affectionately call it after the auspicious color in Chinese culture.
Talking about Singapore’s history would always include the history of the British colonial powers in the East Indies and the Malay archipelago. However it is little known to many that the Lion City’s historical accounts date back all the way to the second century AD where the island saw its first settlements.
Over the course of centuries the tiny island would fall into the influence of the region’s powerful kingdoms: the Sumatra-based Sriwijaya from the 7th to 11th century, and subsequently the Indian Chola Empire, the Java-based Majapahit, the Sultanate of Malacca and the Sultanate of Johor both from the Malay Peninsula. Its strategic location at the main sea trade route connecting China and the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia – to India, the Middle East and eventually to Europe ensured whoever controlled the island would gain economic benefit from the lucrative trade.
Exploring the National Museum of Singapore was like entering a time tunnel, going through chapters of the country’s long history until its establishment as a sovereign state in 1965. The neo-classical rotunda beneath the dome was our starting point where Peggy, a senior citizen, volunteered to be the guide that day.
We walked toward a concourse, a later addition to the museum epitomizing the face of the country itself: modern in many ways but still preserving colonial heritage and traditional cultures. We turned left and entered a massive circular grey column where motion pictures depicting daily life of Singaporeans were displayed on screens all over the dark inner wall. At the bottom of the giant column was the entrance to the galleries of artifacts and treasures, reachable only through a downward spiraling walkway.
A big slab of red sandstone engraved with ancient writing sat in lonesome. No explanation on the inscription as no one has ever managed to decipher the writings, nor has anyone been able to identify the letters carved to the stone, although some believe it was written either in Old Javanese or Sanskrit. It was the Singapore Stone, one of the biggest mysteries in the country’s history, with only fragments of the original stone spared from the destruction by the British to widen the mouth of the Singapore River where the stone was once placed.
We moved to the next gallery, displaying 14th century artifacts retrieved from Bukit Larangan – today Fort Canning Hill – where local and Malay royal families were buried prior to the British colonial rule. Ornate golden jewelry and silver handiwork were a testament to the wealth of the royalties who once ruled Temasek, the fabled sea town just across a narrow strait from the very end of Continental Asia.
Despite the island’s considerably rich history, almost all historical accounts from the 17th to 19th century were lost forever due to a raid by the Portuguese who burned down the settlements, leaving nothing but obscurity. One corridor of the museum was left empty and painted with an abstract image of dark clouds, representing a lost chapter of the nation’s history.
On 6 July 1781, at the other side of the world, one man was born on a ship off the coast of Jamaica, his parents might have never had the slightest thought that their son would eventually become a prominent figure in the East. Many years later in 1819 the then adult man founded a trading post in Southeast Asia which later became Singapore, hence the reference to him as the Father of Singapore. But years before that in a post-Napoleonic Wars period of time when the French conquered Holland, he went to Java to help the British to seize control of the island from the waning Dutch powers.
After successful campaigns against the Dutch, he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor and based himself in the town of Buitenzorg – modern-day Bogor – in western Java. Later on, fueled by the spirit to further exert British influence on the island, he launched unprecedented offensives, including an attack to the Sultan’s palace, or kraton, in Yogyakarta. No European power had ever caused such damage to the powerful Javanese royal house before.
However during the British’s short tenure in Java, and thanks to the Lieutenant-Governor’s interest in the Orient, a large number of ancient monuments on the island were cataloged for the first time, including Borobudur and Prambanan. His extensive accounts on the island, its history and people were then published in a book: The History of Java.
Today most people recall his name as the brand of one of the most iconic hotels in Singapore: Raffles.
Thomas Stamford Raffles laid the foundation of modern-day Singapore as we know today. During his administration on the island churches and schools were established and businesses flourished. In 1823 he drafted the first constitution of Singapore, cementing an even stronger British influence in the colony’s administration and political systems for more than a century.
Singapore put itself not only as an important trade port but also a transit hub, including for pilgrims from all over Southeast Asian archipelago leaving for Mecca. This role as a hub remains palpable in modern-day Singapore, a small island located at the crossroads of the world shipping and aviation routes.
James and I then continued walking to the next gallery where we were welcomed by the sound of a howling siren in the darkened chamber, signifying the time when the entire world was awakened in a shock. On 8 December 1941 the Japanese troops marched towards the Malay Peninsula, meanwhile around the same time a bigger and more dramatic attack was launched by the Imperial Japanese Navy toward Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 – across the International Date Line. The simultaneous attacks eventually brought the world into an unprecedented catastrophe: the World War II.
In the years that followed the Japanese ruthlessly ruled Singapore, culminating in the Sook Ching massacre where more than 50,000 Chinese Singaporeans were killed. Following the surrender of Japan after the war, the British reclaimed sovereignty over Singapore in 1945. Meanwhile at the same time the defeat of the Japanese by the Allied Forces brought a rare momentum for nationalist movements in the region: Indonesia and Vietnam proclaimed their independence in 1945, the Philippines in 1946 and India in 1947. But it was not until almost two decades later when the British eventually relinquished power to the nationalist government in Singapore.
On 31 August 1963 Singapore declared independence from the United Kingdom. But in a popularly supported action Lee Kuan Yew – then the Prime Minister of Singapore – realizing that his country was too small to sustain itself persuaded North Borneo – present-day Sabah – and Sarawak, which also declared independence from Britain in the same year, to join the Federation of Malaya and form a new federation: Malaysia.
The Malaysians, favoring the Bumiputera – local Malays – over other racial groups, proved to be too hostile for the Chinese-majority Singapore. The union didn’t last long for two years later Singapore was expelled from the federation to become probably the only country in the world who gained full sovereignty against its own will.
Time has proved, however, that Singapore not only managed to survive against all odds, but also thrive and even propel itself to be one of Asia’s leading economies. Ingenuity and creativity often stem from limitation, and that is exactly what Singapore did and still does to excel.