Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Launch of 'Seekor Singa, Seorang Putera & Sebingkai Cermin' Special Exhibition and Malay Culturefest 2019

Published Date: 11 October 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Member of Parliament, Jalan Besar GRC,

Dr Norshahril Saat, Chairman, Malay Heritage Foundation,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen

1 I am very pleased to be here today at the launch of this Special Exhibition and CultureFest. I want to thank the Malay Heritage Centre for organising the event, and for presenting the rich history, culture, and heritage of Singapore to the larger community.

2 2019 - Singapore’s Bicentennial - has been a meaningful year of reflection of who we are as a people. It has reminded us that the roots of our tiny island state actually run deep and wide, which attests to our strength and resilience. The commemoration helped us realise that amidst our diversity, we are progressively developing a shared Singaporean identity.

3 I witnessed a similar phenomenon when I was in Kazan in Tatarstan for the 2019 WorldSkills Competition recently. Tatarstan is a republic in the eastern part of Russia, about 800 km east of Moscow. Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, sits on the banks of the Volga river.

4 The early inhabitants of the area were the Finno-Ugrian people, who mostly live in Hungary and Finland today, and which explains the similarities between the Hungarian and Finnish languages. Then came the Turkic speaking nomads. They were the fore fathers of the present-day Turkish people and spread across Eastern Europe, Greater Bulgaria and North-west China. The Volga Bulgars then set up the first state in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 13th century came the Mongols. Then in the 1500s, the area was conquered by the troops of Ivan the Terrible, and became part of Russia.

5 So successive waves of people came and each added a layer of history and culture, making Tatarstan what it is today. I met various people when I was in Kazan. Even to my undiscerning eyes, I saw a variety of features – East Asian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian. But they all told me they speak the Tatar language, and they are Tartars.

6 As for Singapore, while we achieved independence 54 years ago and Sir Stamford Raffles landed here 200 years ago, to understand who we are, we need to go back several centuries. Our island was a thoroughfare of the Sino-Indo sea route, and a centre of international trade of the Srivijayan Empire, Melakan Empire and Johor-Riau Kingdom.

7 Because of trade, waves of people from all parts of the world were drawn to our shores. They brought different words, flavours, clothes, traditions, and worldviews. They each added a layer to what it means to be Singaporean and our way of life. Today, they live in us in ways so intuitive that we do not even think about.

8 We celebrate public holidays from Vesak Day and Hari Raya Puasa to Deepavali and Good Friday. We honour and recognise the contributions of pioneers such as Munshi Abdullah, Hajjah Fatima Sulaiman, Tan Tock Seng, Naraina Pillai, Alice Pennefather, Seah Eu Chin – to name a few. We can eat all kinds of food in a day. We eat mee siam for breakfast with a glass of teh tarik; chicken rice for lunch; have a curry puff at tea; and murtabak for dinner… I am not recommending this meal plan. I am just saying that it is possible to eat, within a day, foods that originated hundreds and thousands of miles away but are part of our heritage today.

9 Where we are today also illustrates our multiculturalism. Where we are is the former Istana Kampong Gelam. If you step out of this building, you are surrounded by names of roads – Arab Street, Bussorah Street and Baghdad Street, which co-existed with earlier place names like Kampong Jawa, Kampong Khaji and Kampong Intan. This was a bustling hub of activity for the Malay and Arab communities. Indian and Chinese communities were running businesses here, too. Take another step back into the past, and you have the Portuguese and the Dutch, gem traders like Jacques de Coutre in the 1600s. Go even further back in time and you have the Javanese, Bugis, Minangs and Baweanese who inhabited the area.

10 Today, the historic and the contemporary exist side by side. There are family-run businesses in the shophouses selling handmade perfumes, textiles and carpets; eateries serving Nusantara, Indian Muslim cuisines as well as dim sum and ramen; the last of the sarabat (or tea) stalls that have been here for close to a century; flea markets, advertised through Instagram, and music festivals. This exciting living mosaic is our history in action.

11 This Special Exhibition, Seekor Singa, Seorang Putera & Sebingkai Cermin: Reflecting and Refracting Singapura, and Malay CultureFest bring multiple perspectives to the history of Singapore across seven centuries. It will highlight Singapore’s maritime and cultural significance prior to the British and Dutch occupation and provide authentic narratives of the Malay world. It features a handwritten copy of the Sejarah Melayu, on which Raffles based his argument for setting up British presence in Singapore.

12 Fifty students from Nanyang Polytechnic created a digital installation for this exhibition, in collaboration with local artist Speak Cryptic. The installation presents the legend of the garfish attack on Singapore, and the origins of the name Bukit Merah. The students worked with the Malay Heritage Centre over seven months to develop the idea.

13 Complementing the exhibition, the Malay CultureFest has some very interesting programmes too, including performances showing how communities in the region responded to colonial presence – some with acquiescence, others with defiance. The dancers of the Pakualaman court dress in Dutch military-inspired costumes, but the dance is very Javanese, reminiscent of the Wayang Kulit. In contrast, the dance by communities of the Southern Philippines show how warriors from Sulu and Mindanao fought invaders over the last 400 years.

14 Let me conclude, throughout history, certain cities have established themselves as trade nodes and gateways to regions of the world. In the 17th century, Amsterdam was the world’s largest port, and a gateway to Europe. Since the 19th century, New York has been the entry point to the New World. Singapore is privileged that our geography and history have also put us in that position – as a gateway to Asia and beyond. It has also shaped us into the modern, multicultural nation we are today, with multi-layered identities and plurality concentrated in just a few hundred square kilometres.

15 Singaporeans are proud to be part of this story. So, explore the exhibition and enjoy the performances, find out about your own heritage, and discover the heritage of your neighbours and friends. Our stories are connected, and we are all the richer for it.

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