I have to admit I am not a person who likes going to art galleries, which explains why after so many years I have not stepped into the Singapore Art Museum at former SJI. However when the future National Art Gallery had its Open House last weekend, it was a different matter. Visitors like me flocked to the former Supreme Court and City Hall, not to look at artworks, but to learn about the rich history of the two grand national monuments. Quite literally the Open House was a last chance for the public to visit before the two monuments close for redevelopment into the National Art Gallery.
For me it was gate-crashing session on Sunday having only realized the Open House the day before, when I happened to walk past City Hall. I arrived like 1 hours after opening time, unregistered and with only scant knowledge of the day programme. Too late; the organized tours were all fully-booked and as I were to find out the unpleasant way, "self-roaming" was not quite encouraged. Even the goodie bags did not wait for me.
No more goodie bags for me. These are limited to 500 pieces per day on a first-come-first-serve basis.
The NHB team ran like a well-oiled machine, manning booths, entrances and shuttling participants between City Hall and former Supreme Court. Kudos to the organizers who made it happened; the peons too, who volunteered their time and energy to run the programme. I was quite surprised at the number of volunteers NHB managed to rope in, many of them young
Back-door of former Supreme Court, meant for the prisoner. As I was unregistered, I happily trailed this mandarin tour group hoping to "piggyback in". I got a rude shock when this young lady manning the entrance asked for my sticker. Turns out the public cannot just go in like they did for City Hall, they have to be registered first (in City Hall). She must have turned away quite a few people that day.
I was busily shooting the lion head inside City Hall when a Japanese group whizzed past behind me. An idea struck me and I joined the group to catch what the tour guide was saying (in Japanese). She must have covered the surrender history as I could recognize the surrender photos in her plastic file. The coverage must have been brief as her speech was peppered with 'Lee Kuan Yew ga .. Lee Kuan Yew ga' most of the time.
Presumably this was done to minimize embarrassment on the visitors’ part and since they were part of the organized tour, the introduction to City Hall had to be more Singapore-centered. Indeed our MM Lee (then PM Lee) graced the steps of City Hall on three momentous occasions - in 1959 when he was elected Prime Minister; in 1963 when Singapore became part of Malaysia; in 1965 when Singapore achieved full independence.
I stole a glance at this young group of Japanese when their shameless surrender history was recounted: they were emotionless. Perhaps it is true that the guide did not dwell too much on the defeat of Japan; City Hall should be a symbolism for the liberation and independence of Singapore.
Lion head door knocker, on the entrance of City Hall. Was it ever used .. err to wake the jaga up in the middle of the night?
No choice, I was to be my own tour guide, as I jostled for space with the organized tour groups in the City Hall corridors. The guides had probably practiced – the route and facts – to earn their right to lead the sheep. I was a wandering sheep, lost, and unable to recall even the year City Hall was built.
The City Hall Chamber was the most historical part of my tour. Certainly looking from archival photos, it is the most significant space in City Hall after the steps outside the building. Most people remember them as the place where the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. For Open House, the Chamber was transformed into a screening room (hmm, "gas chamber" and "screening room" .. so WWII). They had this video about architecture of former Supreme Court and City Hall running, which unfortunately means I was visiting a darkened chamber. Not much chance for a second shot.
Allied and Japanese chiefs await the arrival of the big boss - Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten - to accept the surrender of Japanese forces (source: Australian War Memorial).
The Chamber also witnessed other important events of our nation like the swearing-in ceremonies of our presidents and ministers and also not so important ones like dinner
Swearing-in of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister in 1963. This would be after the 1963 general elections, when the incumbent PAP kept its mandate after the merger. PM Lee would lead Singapore from third world to first. Note the Yang Di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Bin Ishak, on his left.
Swearing-in of Lee Kuan Yew as Senior Minister in 1990. It was only 31 years ago in 1959 that he was first sworn in as Prime Minister. Note how his hair has grayed. PM Goh Chok Tong and President Wee Kim Wee stand on his right and left.
Swearing-in of Yusof Bin Ishak, Yang Di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore in 1959. On his left is Chief Justice Sir Alan Rose. On his right is PM Lee Kuan Yew. Compare this with the 1963 swearing-in photo of PM Lee above.
The Chamber was also a place for new citizens to take their pledge after presented citizenship certificates. This was taken in 1991.
Ceremonies aside, the Chamber also hosted receptions. Here you see guests at a scholarship awards reception in 1963.
Akan Datang: National Art Gallery Open House - Gather Moments While You May