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Tracing the Footsteps of History: National Gallery Singapore

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Panoramic view of the National Gallery. (Credit: Claire Chan)

For some, a national monument. For others, a new Instagram-worthy spot.

Beyond the glitz and glamour of the National Gallery Singapore, its marble steps carries the weight of Singapore’s history to where she is today. When it opened last December, I took it upon myself to step into the largess of history and explore this once unknown space.

The National Gallery (Credit: Claire Chan)

Even before 2011 when construction for the Gallery first started, the Old Supreme Court Building and City Hall were long gazetted as national monuments for their role in history. It was the venue for the official surrender ceremony of the Japanese forces in 1945, where former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared Singapore’s independence in 1965, and where the first National Day Parade in 1966 was held.

General Itagaki and the Japanese contingent being escorted up the steps of the Municipal Building for the surrender ceremony, source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (CF 719).
General Itagaki and the Japanese contingent being escorted up the steps of the Municipal Building for the surrender ceremony. Credit: Imperial War Museums © IWM (CF 719)

Rain or shine, British colony or Malaysian state, these concrete grounds have carried the weight of thousands – from heavy and sombre marching, to light and joyous dancing.

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Inside the Gallery: Glass and metal intertwined with concrete. (Credit: Shao Kai)

But gone is the humid and warm air that surrounded barristers and judges in the past – the Gallery has since taken on modern features of air-conditioning and fluorescent lights, with both historical monuments bridged by steelworks and shielded from the ravages of Singapore’s weather. And its administrative and governmental purposes are now forgone, replaced with aesthetics and nostalgia.

As I wandered into this chimera of modernity and history, I wondered if and when we would ever open the time capsule sealed by our British colonial masters, or leave it there for visitors to imagine their contents whilst taking photos of it.

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Old Supreme Court foundation stone and time capsule marked for Year 3000 beneath. (Credit: Shao Kai)

Reimagining history in the Old Supreme Court

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Courtroom refurnished with paintings. (Credit: Shao Kai)

One can’t help but imagine the unfolding of history in this hollow giant: judges laying out sentences through the chambers, to politicians revisiting laws in the rotunda. But no longer does the place hold such gravitas, as such weight can only linger in the shadows and echoes through the walkways of one’s mind. As I fooled around taking selfies in this cell, I wondered if this was the place where criminals took their last meal before going away forever.

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Old Supreme Court prison cell (Credit: Shao Kai)

Despite the ravages of time and space, the immaculate architecture and design remain immortal. Originally designed by Frank Dorrington Ward (Old Supreme Court), and A. Gordans and F. D. Meadows (City Hall), these buildings were meant to last beyond generations and, given history, even empires.

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A courtroom with a podium, with the Chief Justice’s office behind. (Credit: Shao Kai)

The concrete footsteps and marble floors, which were well-crafted and sculpted to perfection, spoke of British ingenuity and labourers’ sweat. The woodwork and craftsmanship were one of a kind, shaping the arenas of legislature and politicking in the contours of benches, rotunda and tables. As I cautiously walked into the magnificent hallways, the sheer grandeur and vastness sent a tingling in my heart.

City Hall: The cradle of Singapore’s birth

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City Hall Chambers today. (Credit: Shao Kai)

As I stepped into the vastness of the City Hall Chambers, I was again amazed by the enduring presence of history. These Chambers once held monumental events that shifted power from one nation to another, jumpstarting the birth of Singapore. The pillars that remained firm, the wooden floors that held the weight of giants – these were enduring markers of history older than most – if not all – of us.

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Japanese Surrender, 12 September 1945. (Credit: Imperial War Museums © IWM (A 30495))

Although we would never be able to grasp its entirety, the events that happened here were the ones that shaped the nature of our country today. The Japanese and British both held control over this building as the apex of power during their rule; and in 1959, it was the new leaders of independent Singapore who found their footing here too.

As I slowly sauntered around the memory of yesterday, I realised that this would be the closest I would ever get to experiencing the earth-shaking moments that defined the rise of Singapore.

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The swearing-in of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister in City Hall on 5 June 1959, drawn by artist Lai Kui Fang.

Bridging the artist and public

Beyond its historical grandeur and importance, the Gallery is now home to the largest collection of Southeast Asian artworks in the world, including over 8,000 pieces featuring colonial-era works to modern art. The historical site’s interior is largely occupied by notable works chronicling the region’s dynamic change from a quiet agrarian land to a booming cultural hub.

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Painting ‘Port Scene’ by artist Mori Kinsen

What impressed me the most was not only how the space between the public and artists is bridged by such an institution, but the rawness of Singaporean artists and how they swayed away from political correctness towards their version of truths. Herein lies the hearts and minds of Singaporean artists in the past decades who were not afraid to speak of what they felt.

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“Don’t Give Money to the Arts” by Tang Da Wu, 1995. Mixed media.

These works today, like the Old Supreme Court and City Hall, are no longer something foreign and distant; they are just a walk away at the National Gallery Singapore. To me, this represents the changing times of our society as one that is beginning to mature.

Moving up, the once sealed-off rooftop is now converted into a gourmet paradise, with top-notch restaurants and bars surveying the Padang and the Central Business District, along with an impressive work of art that functioned as a children’s play area. What was once a private area is now a public space, where one can see both the colonial beginnings of Singapore with the view of the rotunda, and the modern growth of Singapore, with the Supreme Court building seen in the background.

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The rooftop’s view (Credit: Shao Kai)

In preserving Singapore’s history, perhaps what we lack in space is compensated by our ability to merge different eras together, creating a unique ground for everyone to enjoy. You may be an Instagram addict, a history geek, or just a plain student like me – but one can’t help but feel awe at the grandeur of this building.

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Walking down memory lane. (Credit: Shao Kai)

The National Gallery Singapore does more than just restoring the façade of history hidden behind our lives, or displaying countless works of art for people to enjoy. It has become a cultural institution itself, immortalising the past and exploring the future, while bridging the spaces between our memories and citizens.

I look forward to walking on the footsteps of history once again.

Shao Kai Chng
Chng Shao Kai is a first-year History major. On weekdays, he mugs, drinks milo-ping, takes his love on adventures, and saves snails. On weekends, he works at a bookshop, sells The Shadow Of The Wind like hotcakes, and drinks teh-ping. He is only as strong as his weakest knee.