Reflecting on our past to prepare for our future
Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the launch of “City Hall: If Walls Could Talk” Exhibition, at The Singapore Courtyard, National Gallery Singapore
31 August 2019
Ms Chong Siak Ching
Chief Executive Officer of National Gallery Singapore
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here to launch this exhibition on City Hall. To all former staff of the City Hall building, welcome back!
- Our City Hall is a timeless national monument. Since 1929, the City Hall building has been where our leaders, community representatives, and public officers worked together to chart the future of Singapore. And people of all communities have gathered at the Padang for National Day Parades, from our first in 1966 till our 54th birthday a few weeks ago.
- So I wonder, if these walls could talk, what stories of Singaporeans, our leaders and our past would they yield?
City Hall symbolises our commitment to self-determination
- If these walls could talk, I believe they would speak of how they witnessed the fulfilment of Singaporeans’ desire for self-determination – how we changed from working for the colonial government to governing our own country; our desire to chart our own course, and boldness to shape our nation’s future. These walls would have heard the instructions given by the British administrators, who relied on locals to staff the municipality, given to the business chambers and community leaders to manage their own affairs to some limited extent.
- At the surrender of the Japanese on 12 September 1945, these walls would have resounded with the shouts of joy from crowds from all backgrounds, packing all vantage points around the Padang. Freed from the invaders, would they have murmured whether they could have protected themselves better?
- A decade on, after years of jostling for more say in the governance of the City, on 5 June 1959, the walls witnessed the swearing-in of our first Cabinet of self-governing Singapore City - comprising our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, Ministers Ong Pang Boon, Goh Keng Swee, Kenneth Michael Byrne, Ong Eng Guan, Ahmad Ibrahim, Yong Nyuk Lin and S. Rajaratnam. Two days before, these walls would have heard the strong words and powerful voice of Mr Lee booming across the Padang to address a massive evening rally.
“Once in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight… We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore.”1
- On 3 December 1959, the walls heard “Majulah Singapura” being sung as our national anthem for the first time, during the inauguration of Yusof bin Ishak as the Yang-di-Pertuan Negara, Singapore’s head of state. Singaporeans now had an anthem to call our own, and not the British or the Japanese anthems of the past. That day, our national anthem, flag and crest were unveiled to the nation.
- In August 1965, solemn faces were seen all round, as the sudden news of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia broke to top civil servants.2 Amidst the flurry of activities and hurried footsteps, the political leaders rallied the nation and made the transition to a new future. Thousands gathered on the steps of the City Hall and the Padang a year later to watch our first National Day Parade. These walls pulsed with the heartbeat of a young nation, marching to the theme of “National Pride and Confidence in our Future”. The young nation had realised self-determination.
Remembering the resilience of our early generation of public officers
- Second, if these walls could talk, they would recount the resilience, resourcefulness and vision of our early generation of public officers. City Hall was home to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of National Development, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Law, the then Ministry of Culture, the Public Service Commission, and offices of the Judiciary.3
- In this building, public officers and our founding generation of leaders planned and implemented policies that raised the living standards of all Singaporeans and secured our survival. The government of that day, elected by the people, chose to prioritise national defence, education, housing and job creation.
- The walls would have overheard the daily “morning prayers” of MFA officers in the 1970s, proving their mettle as they briefed senior leaders on regional and global developments. They included the late Mr S. R. Nathan, who was then Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1979 to 1982 and, later the President of Singapore.4 He was known for his uncompromising standards and took service to the nation with utmost seriousness.5 With their dedication, professionalism and wits, the early generation of foreign service officers helped to carve out Singapore’s position in a tumultuous world against the backdrop of the Cold War.
- These walls would have shared the excitement and vision of officers from the Ministry of Culture – the predecessor of my Ministry today - including Juliana Lim and Mabel Wong whose stories are featured in the exhibition. They promoted Singapore’s culture as a young nation state, and organised the early editions of the Singapore Festival of Arts, which later became the Singapore International Festival of Arts, the pinnacle event of our arts calendar today. Juliana recalled, “We worked late every day and joked about feeling guilty if we left seeing the sunset!”
- Yet, it was not all work and no play for them. At 10am and 3pm each day, the trundling of a cart would be heard as a hawker made his way down the long corridors from end to end of the building, selling coffee, tea, and snacks for “unofficial tea breaks”. These walls would have also echoed with the laughter and banter of the officers from the Public Service Commission during Chinese New Year and Christmas gatherings at the Chamber, and they would sit on the steps of the foyer staircase to mingle and eat.6 And I wonder if the walls would have noticed a young woman who visited her father regularly in his office – a small dark office with no window down a narrow corridor. The young person was me, who was looking to hitch ride home after work from my father who was a Director with the Ministry of Culture and Information then.
- While the City Hall has witnessed lighter human moments, I am sure that it was the times of trial and tribulation, tough negotiations and decisions, impossible deadlines and expectations, triumphs of human spirits of resilience and determination that have etched marks on its walks. The stories of grit and resilience of our early public officers – who dreamed and delivered big plans for Singapore despite having almost nothing - still inspire young public officers today.
Conclusion: City Hall inspires Singaporeans to draw on the past to create stories of our future
- As we commemorate our Singapore Bicentennial this year, it is timely to reflect on the enduring values of self-determination, openness and multi-culturalism handed down from one generation to another, through our tangible heritage such as the City Hall. These values defined us as a people during critical moments that shaped modern Singapore.
- Throughout our history, Singaporeans from all communities have congregated within City Hall and on the Padang to rally around our ideas, values, and aspirations as Singaporeans. Just as how a small stream next to an ancient earth wall along Stamford Road has become Stamford Canal today, City Hall has taken on a new life as National Gallery Singapore, a leading arts institution in Singapore and Southeast Asian art.
- As you explore this exhibition, I encourage you to reflect on the stories and enduring values that we share as a nation. If the walls of the City Hall could speak to you, what stories of the past will you share with your children and grandchildren that will prepare them for the future?
- Thank you.