On October 18th, my new book, SINGAPORE 1819 – A LIVING LEGACY launches. This is my third book, and it comes some three years after the first two.
I’m immensely pleased that it’s finally done, given that it is pretty much a year late, and the last few months, when I was busy coping with my job as well as finishing up the book, had been particularly challenging.
The book is what I would describe as a “big-picture take” on Singapore history and heritage. One that acknowledges and has as its starting point, the fact that Singapore history and heritage have always been global; that this phenomenon of Singapore has never existed in isolation from global geopolitics and the global economy of the day.We begin the story at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) – for a very natural reason, and not just because I am the Director of the Museum (heehee) – in that the museum literally sits at the mouth of the Singapore River; and the River itself is the birthplace not just of modern Singapore, but also – so suggests the archaeological record – that of ancient Singapore.
From that vantage point, a global perspective on history and heritage is easy. I take on some 56 different aspects/chapters of our heritage, from People & Places, to Monuments & Architecture, Cultures & Communities, Arts & Leisure, and finally, Flora & Fauna.
For each of these aspects/chapters, my approach is the same – to uncover something new or forgotten about this particular “piece” of heritage, using a lens that is inevitably ACM-ish, which is to say it is a global, cross-cultural and art-historical lens. I believe that in so doing – because no one has really applied such an eccentric lens to Singapore heritage – the resulting book will prove to be a serendipitous read and a rather more contemporary take on very familiar issues.For example, many visitors to the National of Museum of Singapore don’t know that the iconic portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles has barely anything to do with Singapore at all. It commemorates his achievements in Java when he was its Lieutenant-Governor in 1811 – 1815.
The portrait is painted in the Regency style – referring to the period when the future King George IV reigned as Regent in the stead of his father, the mad King George III. Raffles is portrayed as a man of letters – an allusion to his being the author of the seminal History of Java. Raffles has, for a backdrop, with a utopian landscape of Java. Beside him, sit two Hindu-Buddhist sculptures, alluding to his achievements in relation to “re-discovering” Borobudur and Prambanan – Java’s two most important Hindu-Buddhist monuments
While he was sitting for this portrait, he wouldn’t yet have known, that his greatest achievement – the founding of modern Singapore – had yet to come.Another distinguishing feature of the book is that it is the first to feature ALL aspects of heritage from built to intangible, cultural to natural, with museum collections thrown in to add colour to the mix.
So we have everything from portraits of important personages, to a discussion on architectural styles, to forms of traditional arts and sports, and I even throw in the city-state’s increasingly ubiquitous Asiatic smooth-coated otters as a tongue-in-cheek way of closing the whole narrative.
The book isn’t by any means comprehensive – in the process of curating what goes into the book, I either dropped or “merged” many aspects of heritage, opting for a sort of harmonious and elegant composition of 5 main chapters containing within them, either 10 or 12 “nuggets” of heritage.
The resulting product is just about right in length and depth – enough to provoke new ways of thinking about age-old things, but never once overstaying its welcome.
That it is beautifully designed – I am also MOST PLEASED with the design, and so a BIG thank you is due to TALISMAN, my publishers for this!! – with almost 200 mostly archival images is a plus.The title SINGAPORE 1819 – is a reference to founding of modern Singapore as a British trading settlement and port city. This reference to 1819 is deliberate – not quite because in 2019, Singapore commemorates the 200th anniversary of its founding by Raffles – this is incidental to my book, it was never meant as a commemorative effort.
The reference to 1819 was important because I wanted to make the point that colonial-era, British heritage is very much still an integral part of Singapore’s heritage. Who we are today is inextricable from who we were in the aftermath of 1819, when that most doughty official of the Honourable (English) East India Company planted the Union Jack on our shores.
That might seem obvious, given that Singapore – unlike many of its Southeast Asian and Asian neighbours – has retained much of its colonial heritage in its urban landscape and way of life (high tea, anyone?); and it (wisely) did not choose a violently anti-colonial path to statehood.
But there is an increasing discomfort with anything that is colonial, and an unwillingness to re-examine this aspect of our past critically to extract values and glean learning points that will prove to still be relevant today.
That is a shame, because if there’s one unique and distinguishing feature of Singapore and its recent history, it is that we have stood apart from every other nation-state in Asia in reconciling ourselves with and assimilating the colonial past as part of OUR past. This acceptance of the East-West character of our history and our identity is what has made us an exception and exceptional in Asia, and even the world.
And so therefore, chapters on “The British (and Other Europeans)”, and “Cricket in Singapore” appear alongside more readily accepted aspects of our European colonial heritage – those numerous neo-classical buildings that have been immaculately preserved as National Monuments.In the meantime, the rest of the aspects / chapters of heritage pay deep homage to – and lean strongly towards – our local, pre-colonial, MALAY heritage and identity.
This is yet another aspect of Singapore’s heritage that we have increasingly, conveniently forgotten, as we have leapfrogged Southeast Asia to become more North American and North Asian (read: Chinese and Korean) in outlook.
I felt I very much needed to emphasise our Malay roots, in terms of archaeology, folklore, myth and legend, historic sites, literary epics, arts and material culture – in order to maintain a firm equilibrium between the colonial and local; between West and East, but also to, once again, make a point that we cannot escape our geography.
Malay-ness, also doesn’t automatically equate Malay-Muslim. In parts of the book, I reach back further, to a time when the Malay Archipelago was a Hindu-Buddhist archipelago. Traces of that past remain in Java today in the form of the sacred temple-mountains of Borobudur and Prambanan, and the Javanese tradition of wayang kulit or shadow puppetry, which is based on the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Incidentally, the Ramayana, and wayang kulit also form parts of Singapore’s own heritage, and the traces of the Hindu-Buddhist past also remain in the form of that enigmatic (and enigmatically named) “Majapahit Gold” that sits in the galleries of the National Museum of Singapore.Given that the book follows THE ROMANCE OF THE GRAND TOUR – 100 YEARS OF TRAVEL IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, which told the tale of colonial port cities in Southeast Asia, the central thesis of the book (obliquely expressed in the introduction strategically named “SINGAPORE – PORT CITY”), is to uncover and understand the “ingredients” that made Singapore a vibrant, cosmopolitan, colonial Asian port city then; and to explore just how many of these port-city “ingredients” continue to remain today.
I am happy to say that the port city of the 1800s and 1900s, and perhaps even the older, pre-colonial port settlement buried deep within the recesses of Fort Canning and Empress Place, still rears its colourful, global, cross-cultural head up in today’s gleaming, hyper-modern, super-efficient city-state.
The spirit and legacy of Singapore 1819 lives on.
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