Bicentennial commemoration in 2019 to dig deep into Singapore's history

A statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, widely considered to be the “founder” of modern Singapore, stands outside the Victoria Theatre. (PHOTO: Reuters)

The history of modern Singapore goes much further back than Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing on the island in 1819. This is one of the messages that the upcoming Singapore Bicentennial commemorative effort hopes to impress upon the public.

Announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon in his 2018 New Year Message on Sunday (31 December), the Bicentennial will mark the 200th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival – widely regarded as the founding of modern Singapore – and will be launched in 2019.

“We should commemorate this bicentennial appropriately, just as we marked the 150th anniversary in 1969. It is an important milestone for Singapore; an occasion for us to reflect on how our nation came into being, how we have come this far since, and how we can go forward together,” said PM Lee.

It will also reach as far back as 1299 to the time of Sang Nila Utama – the Srivijaya prince who led the island’s first city – and examine the multitude of factors that led to the island’s evolution up to 1819 as well as into the current age.

“We hope that through the Bicentennial experience, there will be an expanded view of Singapore’s making and the idea of being Singaporean,” said Gene Tan, executive director of the Singapore Bicentennial Office, at a media briefing last Wednesday.

“This deeper understanding of history, (across) 700 years, will help us understand what really made the Singaporean DNA,” he added.

Gene Tan (far left), executive director of the Singapore Bicentennial Office, along with advisory panel members Sujatha Selvakumar (centre) Professor Tan Tai Yong (second from right) and Yatiman Yusof (far right). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

Overseeing the Bicentennial plans will be Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Josephine Teo. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will serve as an advisor and the effort will also be supported by an advisory panel comprising representatives mainly from the public and private sectors.

These include Professor Tan Tai Yong, president of NUS-Yale College; Yatiman Yusof, non-resident Ambassador to Kenya; filmmaker Kelvin Tong; and Chua Thian Poh, chairman and chief executive of Ho Bee Land.

Over 60 community partners – including cultural, religious and business organisations, as well as schools and government bodies – have also been engaged to help shape the Bicentennial’s content.

Commenting on the impetus for the Bicentennial, Prof Tan said the commemoration offers a good opportunity to share “a lot” of new research that details how the island which later became Singapore played a role in regional trade and politics long before Raffles’ arrival.

“Using the evidence that has been marshalled, we are now able to paint a longer and more complicated story of Singapore,” said Prof Tan.

“This is not a celebratory attempt to paint a rose-tinted version of the last 200 years, but to capture the full essence and full complexities of what happened, so that we can have a better understanding of how we came to be as a country in 1965,” he added.

Held on a smaller scale than 2015’s Singapore50 (SG50) campaign, the campaign will leverage on existing annual events to offer Singaporeans the opportunity to share in the Bicentennial experience. Museums and other organisations, for instance, will be asked to use the Bicentennial as a theme in planning their events.