Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow – Experience 170 years of Singapore History

Come witness Singapore’s defining moments as told through articles, headlines and photographs that made Straits Times headlines since 1845.

2015 is a special year in that it not only marks Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, but also The Straits Times’ 170th anniversary since its first publication in July 15, 1845. STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow is an exhibition put up by the State’s main English daily that looks back at the headline-grabbing victories and struggles that rocked the country while contemplating her present and future. The exhibition runs till October 4, 2015 (see other event listings here).

Ask anyone how they feel about The Straits Times and you will probably get a varied response like “Propaganda lor“, “Garment’s mouthpiece la” or “My daily essential” (it’s mine at least – I read the news faithfully everyday). But beyond what we think or feel, I would say that The Straits Times and its 170-year-old archive of photos and stories is every bit an irreplaceable piece of Singapore’s history, culture and art, in a sense. Quote The Monuments Men.IMG_0961

“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for.”
– Frank Stokes (George Clooney), The Monuments Men (2014)

The exhibition is categorised into six themes; Business, World, Home, Sport, Life and Forum which mirrors The Straits Times’ current core segments. As a writer and journalist of sorts, needless to say I was really looking forward to the exhibition. And I was not disappointed.

In the beginning… IMG_0964 Did you know that The Straits Times was first launched as a weekly and its founder-owner was Catchick Moses, an Armenian? The Armenians also built the Armenian Church, the first Church in Singapore.

Dedication to Growth and Progress

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Are you ready to know your country’s history? All throughout the exhibition, I was amazed by the stories and photos of Singapore that I never knew of. For instance, Singapore was always ahead of her competition in trade and commerce since the 1800s. Did you know that our Government was so aggressive in pushing for foreign investment and development that back in 1969, $6 million Texas Instruments Plant was set up in the Kallang Basin Industrial Estate in just 50 days? How amazing is that. Such is Singapore’s efficiency and fervent endeavour to bring in foreign investments into this tiny island country.

Opportunities to Succeed

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This dorky-spectacled guy is Sim Wong Hoo, founder of Creative Technologies and one of Singapore’s richest man at present. The country’s push for technological development in the 80s created opportunities for Singaporean entrepreneurs such as Sim to make his multi-millions.

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I mentioned in my previous article that one of the best ways to truly enjoy and appreciate an exhibition is to join the curator tours (if any). The two curators leading the curator tours are Straits Times correspondent Huang Lijie and ArtScience Museum project manager Julia Vasko. How fortunate was I to have made it for Vasko’s tour.

I found it rather amusing that an ‘ang-moh’ is giving the mostly Singaporean crowd a tour of the exhibition. Not to take away any credit from her, her ample knowledge that was the result of countless hours of research shined through, helping us Singaporeans know our Singapore better (Laughs). I also like it that she use the possessive adjective ‘Our’ instead of ‘Their’ or ‘Your’. That showed how Singapore has done a pretty good job in attracting talented individuals to make a home in Singapore.

Personally, I thought that she looked a lot like Natalie Dormer’s Cressida in The Hunger Games (Margery Tyrell in Game of Thrones). She even looked in my direction for this photo! I think I’m in love, she has left me spellbound. Just kidding. Or am I?

Moving on, Straits Times also saw the citizens through their transition from attap houses and villages to modern HDB flats. IMG_0980IMG_0983 It may be hard to imagine now but there was a time Singaporeans were extremely opposed to living in HDB flats, preferring to stay in their attap houses because of inconvenience in moving house, rent, etc.

Children and Education

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Back in the old days, children are conceived for the purpose of helping the family with work and household chores. Education was never a primary priority. But when that was deprived of them during World War II, the end of the war saw many children, and even women clamouring for a spot in schools in a bid to catch up with their education. Back then, it goes against social norms for women to be educated.

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It is unheard of now but back in the 1960s, brushing was not common among Singaporeans. In fact, many did not even own a toothbrush. The Ministry of Health stepped in, enforcing daily mandatory toothbrushing drills in schools. I overheard quite a few adults like the lady in this picture reminiscing and recounting those moments to their children (Laughs).

Transport, a contentious topic since 1960s

IMG_0991 Complaints has spurred the public transport industry to do better in the past, and possibly till this day (Laughs). Back then, buses were so crowded, ‘people-packers’ were hired to push people into buses.

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Two Taiwanese at the exhibition. The exhibition’s opening weekend was a big hit with both the locals and foreigners.

Rethinking about Singapore’s ‘Allies’

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Who could have thought that neighbouring country Indonesia would be so upset about the Malaysia-Singapore merger that they would be the mastermind behind some 80 bomb attacks in the country?

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Despite the tensions, Singapore’s boot out of Malaysia was sudden and swift. Late prime minister Tengku Abdul Rahman initiated the separation and spoke out on sponsoring Singapore’s admission into the United Nations, perhaps as a form of pity and restitution. I wonder will he jump out of the grave if he saw the state of his country and Singapore’s today?

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The separation meant that Singapore needed to quickly form new alliances. Envoys were quickly named and send to the various organisations to forge an understanding and alliances to secure Singapore’s future which looked bleak back then. Diplomacy was on the mind of the Government at all times, and it paid off.

As I scan through every headline and every photograph in the exhibition, I had a sudden realisation that most of the people in those stories are either in their twilight years or are no longer.

All in the photos and stories strived towards the Singaporean dream and in hindsight, who could have thought that their stories will be exhibited for the next generations to study and appreciate? Morality versus Legacy. And one day, we will no longer be and ours will be exhibited for the next generation as well. All that made the exhibition that much poignant and profound.

Fusion Fashion IMG_1047 A young and volatile nation, Singapore is constantly trying to grasp her identity on what it means to be Singaporean. One of which being the national costume. In the picture, you will find a dress of sorts; a combination from the cultures of the three main races in Singapore. Question: Would any of you ladies wear this out?

Sports that Brought People Together

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Dragonboating, sailing and kayaking may be popular with Singaporeans but did you know that its predecessor pulled in massive crowds back during its heyday? I mean, a tub race! How funny and exciting is that! (Can some water sports enthusiast bring this sport back?)

Hawkers and CoffeeshopsIMG_1040 While an integral part of Singapore’s culture, hawkers in the 1960s congested roads and caused hygiene concerns. The Government took on the mammoth task to relocate hawkers to permanent and hygienic premises. IMG_1057 You want Kopi (Coffee)? Or Kopi Siu Dai (Coffee less sweet)? Or Tak Kiu (Milo)? Watch this humourous video on coffeeshop culture and learn the different terminologies to ordering your preferred beverage at a coffeeshop.

Looking into the Future

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A future with Robocop, Chappie, iRobot, Wall-E (and hopefully no Terminator) is real.

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Contemplating our future. #BuildSG2065 is a campaign by The Straits Times and real estate company CapitaLand that showcases ideas contributed by the public on how Singapore’s future buildings, homes and green spaces will transform the way people live, work and play. The contributors both young and old are actually quite creative. One kiddo envisioned a lunar lift that takes us to the moon for a holiday while a mother envisioned baby cries powering homes and electrical appliances. Very clever.

All in all, I really enjoyed the exhibition. So much that I actually read through every headline and caption in the exhibition (which explains why I spent 4 hours there). Except for a few grammar and typo errors in the texts, the exhibition is perfect in every sense. I like that the exhibition was dissected into categories instead of the usual walk-through-the-timeline.

While curator tours were only available during the opening weekend, you can still join a guided tour by one of the qualified docents or participate in a a letterpressing and typesetting workshop (details at the end of this article).

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There are many interactive exhibits that will keep the kids entertained. I also saw many elderly Singaporeans enjoying themselves as they reminisce of the good old days. It’s guaranteed to be an fun exhibition for the entire family, young or old, local or foreigner.

Each headline, article and photograph was representative of Singapore in that particular time period. Put these pieces and you will find Singapore as she is today, both the good and the not so good. The exhibition was very informative, introspective and well-curated. All that remains is for Singaporeans to pursue our future and dreams, bringing Singapore forward as we look ahead to the next 50 years. RW

Printing from the Past: Letterpress and Typesetting

Saturday, 18 July, 2-3pm
15 August and 9 September, 3.30pm-4.30pm and 5-6pm

Limited to 12pax per session This hands-on workshop provides an introduction to letterpress printing and basic typesetting, introducing tools of the trade and the basics of typography. Participants will learn the stages of typesetting, including layout, lockup, make-ready, ink & colour and packing, and will also get the chance to operate the press, printing their own card in letterpress metal types. S$15 per person. Purchase tickets from Sistic.

Public Guided Tour

Exhibition Entrance

  • English: Sundays from 26 July 2015, 11:30am
  • Mandarin: Saturdays & Sundays from 25 July 2015, 2pm. Friday & Monday, 7 & 10 August 2015, 2pm (SG50 & National Day)

Learn the stories behind the headlines in this revealing tour of Straits Times front pages, spanning 170 years of Singapore history.

Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow

ArtScience Museum Opens 17 July to 4 October 2015

The fascinating and multi-layered stories of Singapore will be told through the lens of the nation’s oldest newspaper The Straits Times, in an upcoming free exhibition Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow. Drawing from the archives of the publication’s 170 years of covering the Republic’s growth, the exhibition will feature hundreds of images and headlines depicting pivotal milestones in Singapore since the newspaper’s launch in 1845 – some 120 years before the nation’s independence – with an eye cast on its future.

Ticket Pricing: Free

Web Link: Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow

Another Country: Exploring The Inseparable Relationship Between Two Countries

Directed by Singapore’s Ivan Heng and Malaysia’s Jo Kukathas, Another Country takes us on a trip through our shared memories and divergent dreams with the most provocative, humorous and unlikely texts.

Do you have a sibling whom you did love to hate? Whose character and yours’ is a worlds apart despite coming from the same loins? Welcome to Another Country, W!ld Rice’s latest Causeway-spanning production. Another Country runs in the Drama Centre Theatre from 25 June to 11 July 2015.

Connecting the dots between the two rival countries whose culture and values are conjoined in more ways than one, the two-and-a-half hour production was broken up into two segments; Sayang Singapura, a selection of 35 Singapore texts curated by Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, and Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2, a selection of 29 Malaysia texts curated by Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin.

There is a twist though. Instead of Singaporean actors taking on Singapore’s text and Malaysia’s actors on Malaysia’s text, the production had Malaysian actors performing the scenes from Singapore’s most iconic poems, novels, plays and writing, and vice versa.

Another Country by W!LD RICE - Photo Credit Wong Horng Yih courtesy of W!LD RICE 4 copyPhoto Credits: Wong Horng Yih, courtesy of W!ld Rice

The show opens with the Malaysian actors reenacting the most recognisable scene from The Malay Annals where Palembang prince Sang Nila Utama spots the mysterious and majestic orange bodied, black headed and white neck breast creature whom he calls the ‘lion’.

Moving at a steady pace, the actors transit effortlessly from scene to scene, exploring some of Singapore’s most representative yet understated writings and stories. While national service is a stated-funded celebrated affair, there was a time where our boys tried all ways and means to skip national service via Petition to the Colonial Governor for National Service Exemption. Unlike our Western counterparts, we are known for our traditional beliefs and heterosexual standpoints. Even so, there’s more to the seemingly prim and proper Singapore than meets the eye in Michael Chiang’s Private Parts, exploring the dynamics of Singaporeans and sex-change in the city state.

Witness the infamous bribery of Malaysian officers in action, explore Singapore’s fanaticism to one-up each other through the lives of ordinary Singaporean housewives in Arthur Yap’s 2 mothers in a hdb playground, or hear stories from the other side (Lim Chee Siong) in Tan Jing Quee’s LCS: In Memoriam.

Another Country by W!LD RICE pic 1 (taken by Albert Lim KS)Photo Credit: Albert Lim KS, courtesy of W!ld Rice

Forget about the Man in White or the struggle for independence story for a while. Ditching the highly marketable ‘Singapore Story’ narrative that Singapore is known for, Sayang Singapura takes a hard look into the stories and events from the other side of history that make and shape us to who we are today. “It would indeed be a pity if we sidelined many of our stories in the service of a singular triumphalist narrative known as the Singapore Story”, as quoted from Sa’at.

Before the 15 minute intermission, audiences were invited to participate in a round of Tikam-Tikam (Malay for choosing randomly, also a common Malay game) to determine the sequencing of the Malaysian text to be acted out within the hour-long Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2 segment curated by Leow. This also means that no two show is the same with the exact sequence.

Unlike the melancholy and seriousness in the Sa’at’s selection, Leow’s selection of Malaysia’s text was a more lighthearted and humourous one, perhaps highlighting the difference in tonality of both countries’ style of play and governance. Clueless to Malaysian texts, I was a little lost during the second half. But there were also several ‘aha’ moments throughout the show as the actors race through the various scenes in that hour. Didn’t Singapore’s text also have a scene from The Malay Annals? Why is The Chef’s Secret Chicken rice recipe being explained under Malaysia’s section ah? Wait a second, isn’t Emily of Emerald Hill a Singapore play?

Singapore Janice Koh’s monologue performance of a pork-loving toilet cleaner in curator Leow’s Ang Tau Mui hits a raw nerve and revealed the fundamental racial problem that plagues Malaysia till this day. I was particularly amused by Mark Teh’s Daulat: Long Live, denoting the common citizens’ satirical salutation and dig at political leaders in Malaysia which also reminds me of Singapore.

Another Country by W!LD RICE pic 2 (taken by Albert Lim KS)Photo Credit: Albert Lim KS, courtesy of W!ld Rice

Putting together a production piece with a combined total of more than 50 of both countries’ most acclaimed texts into a two-and a-half-hour show is not easy at all. But the immensely talented creative team from both sides of the Causeway made it look simple. The combined cast of Malaysia’s Ghafir Akbar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, Iedil Putra and Singapore’s Sharda Harrison, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Lim Yu-Beng and Siti Khalijah Zainal were phenomenal. Despite the varied intensity and emotions experienced across different excerpts, I found it easy to transit between the different scenes.

While the entire production felt like an extremely potent Rojah dish, I do wish that there was more time set aside to explore the rich themes behind the texts from both countries. But it’s a two-and a-half-hour show after all and something’s gotta give, right? Also, audiences who do not have any literary background or are not acquainted with literary texts from their own country might experience some difficulty in understanding the play.

As we examine the unique relationship between Singapore and Malaysia, we see two countries with a totally different present. Yet through it all, we continue to share memories through our deeply connected past which so thoroughly weaves both countries together. Yes, we may laugh at each other, but perhaps we could do with a little less (or more) seriousness, or to be more (or less) laid-back. If you are a literary buff, you got to watch Another Country for it will leave you wanting more. RW

Many thanks to W!ld Rice for the media invite.


Drama Centre Theatre

Opens 25 June to 11 July 2015

Ticket Pricing: $45 – $75


Singapura: The Musical – The Singapore Story Gone Wrong

The first Broadway musical to tell Singapore’s story, Singapura: The Musical was every bit of a mistake from beginning to end.

Singapore may be a small maritime nation with a relatively short history, but her rich and tumultuous past leading to independence makes for a good musical. Sadly, Singapura: The Musical isn’t it. The musical which runs from 19 May to 21 June was composed and written by 4th Wall Theatre Company’s composer-creator Ed Gatchalian and scriptwriter Joel Trinidad both hailing from the Philippines. Seeking to tell ‘Singapore’s untold stories’ and even staging the musical in its country of origins, the theatre company was undertaking a colossal project which they unfortunately failed to deliver.

Sitting through Singapura: The Musical was like taking a Skinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) through Singapore’s history. The Hock Lee Bus Riot, Singapore and Malaysia’s merger and separation, everything was touch and go. The musical’s pacing was so rushed, it did not give audiences any breathing space to think and absorb in what it was like to live through what was to be some of the most important milestone in Singapore’s history between 1955 to 1965.


All of a sudden, we are being fed with information that a boy was shot and killed. All of a sudden, the protagonist’s family wants to leave for Melaka. All of a sudden, the man in white (presumably Mr Lee) was petitioning for the country’s merger. All of a sudden, the musical’s protagonist falls in love with an ‘ang-moh’ (Caucasian). The musical simply could not decide their focal point as to which and what Singapore story to tell.

I may understand that the relationship of protagonist Lee May (played by Marian Santiago) and her British officer boyfriend is a metaphor of Singapore’s relationship with her coloniser – if it was ever their intention – but really? Is this necessary to tackle interracial marriage in a musical that sought to tell Singapore’s story?

In their second song item, they performed ‘Kopitiam’, a song that depicts everyday life at Singaporeans’ favourite hangout place. I cringed everytime they sang out the word ‘Kopitiam’. The actors could also certainly sing, but the lyrics and tune were terrible. Forgettable, cringe-worthy tunes mixed in with lyrics that were badly written, I could barely stay on my seat, only sitting through the entire musical as a form of respect to the actors. The cast which were mostly Filipino sang really well, but their attempts to speak Singlish evidently showed that they were far from ready to convince the Singaporean crowd that they are indeed Singaporeans.


There were moments in the musical which showed some promise (and gave me hope that they can salvage the show so that I can applaud for them at the end). One such scene was when the man in white climbed and stood at the top of a two storey ladder. But a few words, some unimpressive singing, and that was it. One of the only few interesting scenes, it was haphazardly portrayed. Their avoidance in tackling political scenes by its horns was also their undoing (they couldn’t explicitly portray Mr Lee since they couldn’t get the rights and permission). My beef is, if you can’t get permission, meaning you also can’t portray the statesman in a way that will do him justice, why bring him into the picture at all?

Archival footage of the late Mr Lee and Tunku Abdul Rahman were screened midway to provide exposition and to give the audiences some bearing of the sentiments during the separation period. But for the musical who’s clearly unclear about their direction, screening those footage did not compliment the two hour long musical. Instead, it made the creative team look extremely lazy for using the footage instead of reenacting their own scenes.

For all the publicity generated on the print and digital media, the musical was a complete letdown and utter disappointment. Maybe you could say that I’m being biased since I am a Singaporean, but for a musical that sought to tell the Singapore story, Singapura: The Musical has missed the mark by more than a mile.

Singapura: The Musical is a titanic scaled production, grossly under-delivering for all that it has promised. But they played theirs cards right to premier in Singapore during her jubilee year. The sales will come, people will flock in by the hundreds to catch the performance. I can only hope that the shows’ creator and composer do some soul-searching, intensify their research into those historical moments and seriously rework the script, before bringing this to the international stage. The Singapore story is not as you have told. RW

Singapura: The Musical

Capitol Theatre (New theatre along Stamford Rd stretch)

Opens 19 May to 28 June 2015

Ticket Pricing: $65 – $175

Web Link: Singapura: The Musical

Photos: Google