The Bicentennial shenanigans are just getting started

Earlier this week, the iconic Sir Stamford Raffles statue along the Singapore River “disappeared”. The prank was later revealed to be an optical illusion by local artist Teng Kai Wei, commissioned by the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO) as a statement to “spark fruitful conversations” on the history of Singapore. The message behind it can be loosely construed as wanting to recognise the nation’s milestones, undefined by the British’s arrival in Singapore in 1819. As according to plan, the statue was later restored to its original appearance—though not before spawning a wealth of memes from intrepid netizens, ranging from tongue-in-cheek to politically shady.

Well, the SBO is nowhere done with its gimmicks. Our dear founding coloniser might be back at the Raffles Landing Site, but he’s brought with him some chums too. Unveiled today (Jan 4) were four new statues: Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai. Singaporeans will definitely recognise the Palembang prince, often argued as the true founder of Singapore for having first established our island as the Singapura Kingdom in 1299; as well as philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, the first Asian who served as Justice of Peace, and for whom the Novena-located hospital is named after (if you don’t, our condolences to your primary school Social Studies teacher).

The two lesser-known historical personalities made their own significant contributions to Singapore during their time. Munshi Abdullah was a gifted linguist who served as secretary and interpreter to Sir Stamford Raffles, arriving alongside him in 1819 and teaching the English about Malay language and culture; today he is regarded as a key early literary contributor to the Malay community. As for Naraina Pillai, he too set foot in Singapore in 1819—and eventually became the island’s first Indian building contractor, contributing to the construction of the Sri Mariamman Temple in 1827.


From L to R: Sang Nila Utama, Munshi Abdullah, Tan Tock Seng, Sir Stamford Raffles and Naraina Pillai

The four new statues are meant to represent a wider cast of characters that helped shape the Singapore story in 1819 and before—departing from the textbook-honoured narrative of Raffles being our sole almighty founder. They will be displayed alongside him until Jan 8, after which they will be shifted to different locations along the Singapore River promenade for the rest of 2019.

Is this need to reassure citizens that the Bicentennial is not about celebrating colonialism getting out of hand? Frankly, the introduction of these specific figures seems a little too conveniently aligned with Singapore’s notorious CMIO approach to everything (people can smell insincerity from a mile away). But it’s only the fourth day of the New Year, so we’re holding out hope to see what the SBO has planned for the rest of this momentous year.