Finding Singapore’s most significant moments

JULY 28 — The other day I travelled back in time. Well, sort of. I went to Fort Canning Park which currently houses the "Bicentennial Experience."

“This multimedia sensory experience brings you back in time to witness key moments in Singapore’s transformation from as far back as 1299,” says the experience website.

2019 marks 200 years since colonial official/adventurer and administrator Stamford Raffles signed the treaty of Singapore with the Sultan and Temenggong of Johor.

The treaty transferred control of Singapore to Britain and with that act, modern Singapore was born.

The Bicentennial explores the journey we’ve taken since from the island of Singapore to modern Singaporeans.  

The experience is certainly very engaging and takes the form of an exhibition/audio visual show with performances, graphics and installations spread over various rooms.

Best of all, it's free to all Singaporeans — though given limited space — you must book your slot in advance. 

Now while I enjoyed the exhibition, I have to say it did leave me with some questions. Firstly, given we are celebrating our bicentennial why did the exhibition begin with the Sang Nila Utama Singapore’s (possibly legendary) 13th century founder. 

Nonetheless, this part was beautifully told with "live" actors and striking visuals. We see the early kingdom, the rise of its second notable ruler Parameswara and his demise at the hands of a foreign fleet.

The story is well known but when you start 700 years back and seek to squeeze centuries of history into around 60 minutes, you lose depth. 

So, we proceed rapidly through the centuries via standard accounts. Raffles, the early colonial administration, Singapore as a trading post etc. 

We do get a bit of a focus on native figures from all races who played a role in the development of the early city. We then get to World War II which is a real highlight – with moving commentary from survivors of the Japanese Occupation bringing the hardships of the time to life.

And after World War II we get to the to the modern era. Independence and the rise of the modern nation. 

The most recent, the most familiar and arguably the richest part of our nation’s journey and yet it’s here the exhibition falters. 

In an atmospheric room with artificial rain, we whiz through the last few decades Singapore’s journey.

There’s little mention of our formal independence and even less attention is paid to our merger with and exit from Malaysia.

No mention is made of any of our elections or political milestones and controversial episodes; Operation Cold Store, bus riots, race riots etc. are completely absent. 

Instead, we cut rapidly to SARS in 2003 — apparently a defining moment in our history as more time is devoted to this outbreak than virtually any other moment in the last four decades.

An odd storytelling decision — is this the "go to" moment when you think of key nation building moments?

Once we move past SARS, we get to Joseph Schooling’s undeniably wonderful Olympic triumph — a clear point of pride for all Singaporeans but more movingly it shows how this one son of Singapore stood on the shoulders of all the other Singaporean sportsmen before him.

Happy to note, the country’s favourite, Fandi Ahmad, was also featured. But considering the limited space and time I felt there was perhaps a disproportionate focus on our nation’s sporting achievements which are great but generally modest. 

It struck me as an incomplete rendition of our country’s modern history. Very little said about founding father Lee Kuan Yew, his life and rise to power. A man who is unequivocally woven into the fabric and story of Singapore.

I would argue he deserved his own room.

Relatedly, no mention of the People's Action Party (PAP) which has been in power since independence. 

The only explanation I can offer for the chosen narrative is that a decision was made to reduce mentions of politics and politicians.

This is a noble sentiment — that Singapore is more than its politicians. But the reality is Singapore (like all nations) is a political entity and if you take away the People's Action Party, there is a hole in the narrative.

And even without going into the politics the creators/curators could surely have touched on the first HDB, the opening of Changi Airport, the first line of the MRT as significant milestones.

A missed opportunity because otherwise the organisers had done a beautiful execution of telling our island’s story in a way that is engrossing, informative and memorable.

I would have very much enjoyed being a fly on the wall of that writer’s room to hear the discussions that would have gone on in determining which moments are significant in the telling of Singapore’s bicentennial tale.

The website names the last room, Destiny — perhaps the point being made is this story is still being told?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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