Max I am standing in front of the National Museum of Singapore. It’s located on Stamford Road, at the heart of the city, with historic Fort Canning Park on one side, and the relatively new Singapore Management University on the other.
Chris That’s Max. He just graduated from NUS with a degree in Geography. But before he flew to London to start a Master’s Degree, I asked him to revisit some research he did for my class a few years ago. That meant returning to the National Museum of Singapore. You see, for many students, home means their residence. The place where they sleep at night. Where their family lives. Where they feel they belong. But what happens when we extend the idea of home to the scale of the nation? Max and his group did this by pointing out how institutions like museums work to convince people that they all belong to the nation, just as they belong to the family. To make their point, Max and his group analysed this museum, which portrays Singapore as one happy community, with a shared past, and a shared future.
Max This museum dates back to 1849, when it was the Raffles Library and Museum. It featured botanical and geological artifacts, plus a massive stamp collection from around the region. In 1887, the museum moved to this majestic building, which was erected for this purpose. In the 130 years since, the nation and the museum have both changed immensely, yet the building remains as stately as ever. Today, the recently restored National Museum of Singapore is open for everyone to learn about this little red dot we call home.
Chris In this episode, we hear from Max. who recently returned to the Singapore National Museum. Some people hate museums. For them, museums are like the curio cabinets in the home of an elderly relative. Obsolete, decaying oddities in glass cases. They must have been valuable at one time, but they’re meaningless junk now. For others, museums are magical time machines, whisking them to another era through the stories associated with each object. For such people, museums stir memories of school field trips, where their eyes were first opened to the joy of learning history. For Max, this museum in particular is fascinating not so much for the exhibits, but for the way those exhibits try to convince all Singaporeans that this island is their home. In this episode, he revisits the museum, introduces some of the exhibits, and then speaks with Professor T C Chang, a geographer at the National University of Singapore, about what it means to imagine the nation as home. I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot. This podcast will explore the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students. Stay tuned.
Max It’s a Tuesday afternoon in August, and the National Museum of Singapore is mostly deserted. A handful of tourists are quietly contemplating the exhibits, and enjoying the air conditioning as the heat index reaches uncomfortable levels outside. Elsewhere, school children dash from room to room, busily scribbling notes on worksheets intended to teach them about the nation they grew up in. As I watch them, I too feel like I’m on a field trip of sorts, relearning the things and places that make Singapore my home.
When I think of home, I think of it not just as the place where I live, sleep, or eat each day. Home can mean something more. Any place we hold close to our hearts, and have a sense of belonging to. This can include the nation we call home. Within that nation are activities, places, and memories we share that make it so homely and familiar. Museums are platforms that show us what we share, and in the process they build a strong sense of home and national identity. However, as I explain in the case of the National Museum of Singapore, no museum can perfectly portray the nation to all citizens, or make them all feel they belong to the national narrative portrayed in its displays.
We can trace the origins of the National Museum to 1823, when Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern-day Singapore, proposed the idea of a museum. However, only in 1849 did a small museum and library emerge within the Raffles Institution building along Bras Basah Road. The museum relocated to the site of present-day Victoria Theatre, near the Padang, before finally settling at its current location near Fort Canning Park as the Raffles Library and Museum in 1887.
The museum initially displayed artifacts from Malaya and Java, as well as botanical and geological collections. It established a Singapore history collection in the early 20th century, featuring portraits and photographs of the country. As its various collections grew, the museum expanded, eventually changing its focus to exclusively Singapore’s culture and history in 1959. Shortly after independence from the British, after several name changes in the decades that followed, it became known as the National Museum of Singapore after completion of renovation work in 2005. Today, its primary role is to showcase exhibits that promote a sense of Singaporean national identity to citizens and tourists alike.
Take the Growing Up: 1955-1965 exhibit. It features many aspects of growing up in that era, including school uniforms and school books. Beyond school, on one wall you find toys and games. Wind-up toys shaped like frogs and squirrels, a toy sword and a handmade slingshot, a paper doll with 3 outfits, plastic insects and military vehicles. The simplicity of those toys amazes me. I can’t believe children had so much fun with these toys, as compared to the Playstation that I grew up with. That said, these toys must spur precious childhood memories for Singaporeans of a certain age. Today, the 50s and the 60s are often referred to as the Kampung Era. Kampung is the Malay word for village, but it also signals the urban slums that predate the public housing developments of post-independence Singapore. Despite this association with slums, today the word kampung indicates a simpler time in Singapore’s history that older generations recall fondly. When everyone was equally poor, people never locked their doors, neighbours were more neighbourly, and kids played with whatever simple toys they had. By exhibiting these toys today, the museum reminds visitors not only of the specific toys of that era, but of the sense of community that came from shared struggles and shared pastimes. For everyone who recalls playing with them, these toys are reminders of how far the nation has come in the decades since.
Down the hall is Voices of Singapore: 1975-85, an exhibit featuring photographs of popular public spaces from the past and present. One such place is the Jurong drive-in cinema, which was popular with my parents’ generation, but closed down 32 years ago. This clever exhibit tries to recreate the feeling of a drive-in, with 4 models of cars from the era offering seating to museum visitors. We watch a series of short videos of public spaces like the drive-in itself, from the comfort of these throwback cars. Indeed, I suppose for those who enjoyed the night out at the drive-in, this experience and these images provide a happy walk down the memory lane.
Geographer David Morley once wrote “the idea of home exists at the national level, where people belonging to the nation have a common character”. The National Museum both reflects and creates that common national character through such exhibits about our shared experiences – school days, public spaces, holidays, family gatherings, and major events we all remember. This builds a sense of belonging as members of a nation. Sure, we’ll never meet the millions of other Singaporeans who live here, but we have shared experiences and values, as seen in the museum, that glue us together. This glue is best illustrated by the concept of the ‘imagined community’. I recently had the pleasure to chat with the person who first introduced me to this idea.
T C Chang I’m TC Chang. I’ve been in the Department of Geography… I don’t know how many years, but post-PHD, exactly 20 years. And of course, I teach geography.
Max I learned about the imagined community in Prof Chang’s introductory Geography course nearly 4 years ago. I asked him to explain it again.
Max Could you briefly describe again what an imagined community is, or what it means?
T C Chang I basically think about the concept as people within a community who don’t necessarily know many, many within a community, and yet you feel this sense of bonding, therefore you feel “Hey, this is my community.” How can this be a community when you don’t know most people? You don’t know their names, but yet you imagine that you are all part of this family. So it’s an imagination which is so strong and so powerful, despite the fact- the reality is that you don’t really know members of that group of people who you now call members of one community. So it’s imagination at work. And in a way, that pulls people together as a group and as a family.
Max The historian Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities” in his 1983 book of the same name. For Anderson, a nation is a community imagined by all people who perceive themselves to be part of it. I quote: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. In other words, the nation is a community created through people’s common beliefs and ways of life.
In fact, Singapore is one of the smallest countries, both in terms of population and geographic size. And yet, it is too large for every Singaporean to know each other. So we must rely on our shared values, symbols, and history to give us a common sense of identity, to give the nation meaning, and to make us feel that all Singaporeans are our brothers and sisters. When we don’t really know each other, but we still share the same feeling of attachment, then we can be said to be an imagined community. The National Museum of Singapore is one of many institutions that aim to convince us of our common beliefs and ways of life. Its exhibits depict the Singaporean nation as a cohesive community, to which all residents belong. In this case, through their shared experiences with the toys and public spaces on display. Prof Chang reminded me of other ways that the imagined community of the Singaporean nation is created.
Max I know you do research on cultural heritage, especially in Singapore, so can you tell me about other things that the state or the government does, besides museums, to develop the idea of the nation as a whole?
Max For instance, Prof Chang mentions the importance of music.
T C Chang Every year, there will be a different version of the whole idea of Singapore, people, our home, common future, shared past… Same sort of message!
Max Prof Chang is talking about National Day songs. Each song, we celebrate the country’s founding on 9th August, National Day. National Day is like France’s Bastille Day, or Independence Day in the US. It is an occasion for unchecked patriotism, and celebration of all things Singapore.
Video Person 1 Being Singaporean is very unique and very special. It’s like you have the ability to recognise one another.
Video Person 2 They will say a lot of Singlish la. You can tell, you can hear.
Video Person 3 Immediately you feel this intimacy with them…
Video Person 4 Then I’ll just go straight to them, him or her, and just like “Hey, hello fellow Singaporean, I just wanted to say Hello.
Max In the weeks leading up to National Day, people hang the country’s flag from their balconies, and some even decorate their vehicles in red and white, the colours of our flag. And every year, an official song is commissioned and played for weeks before the National Day parade. You hear it in grocery stores, on the radio, in shops, and on television. These songs usually have simple, catchy melodies and lyrics meant to inspire pride in being Singaporean. As Prof Chang says, they all have the same sort of message, and they build up over time. So instead of only playing one song each year, we hear old favourites from past celebrations too.
PM Lee Hsien Loong Chase that rainbow. Show the world what Singapore can be.
Max I grew up on National Day songs such as Home, which was released in 1998, when I was only 6 years old. It is the National Day song that arguably every Singaporean knows best, and most people cannot help but sing along when it comes on the radio. I estimate I’ve heard it at least a few hundred times in my life, and it’s still my favourite. In addition to having a nice melody, it hit on with many of us Singaporeans because it talks about we remember Singapore, and feel an attachment to it no matter how physically distant we may be from our island nation. As the song puts it, “Wherever I may choose to go. I will always recall the city, know every street and shore. Sail down the river which brings us life, winding through my Singapore.”
These words are especially poignant as I prepare to depart in a few days for an extended stay overseas. I know Singapore will continue to feel like home to me. Other lesser-known hits such as “My Island Home” and “We Will Get There” share the same theme. They remind listeners of the shared past, present, and future of Singapore’s people, and that the nation will always be their home. As you can see, these National Day songs comprise another tool used to build the imagined community that is Singapore.
T C Chang You realise then, over the years, that these National Day songs are not just for the fun of it, just for National Day. sometimes it’s not just physical, tangible building-like things that conjure images of home. In this case, familiar sounds. Songs. Hopefully catchy songs. Very often by Singaporean… well-liked Singaporean performers, so from Dick Lee to Kit Chan to Tanya Chua. The words, the ideas are always the same, right? About struggling from the past, or a bright future, togetherness, that sort of stuff. So to me, I think those are very good examples of non-tangible, yet very very important emblems of home. You hear something, it immediately triggers feelings of nationalism, National Day, what you did when you were a young child, and so on and so forth.
Max Like National Day songs, Singapore National Museum exhibits items that aim to tap into a shared feeling of collective past, present, and future. The Museum draws on items and experiences shared by many Singaporeans in the past to help engineer this imagined community, a nation in which all Singaporeans feel at home. But who does this leave out? Who is excluded by the museum? Many of the exhibits will be very familiar to people who lived in the 1950s-80s. But not to younger people like myself. These exhibits are interesting, and my parents have told me about their experiences with the objects and locations depicted in them. But I didn’t live through this era, and neither did my friends. People my age never hung out at the Jurong drive-in cinema, and we never experienced the kampung era, or played with those simple toys. The museum is trying to draw me into this grand narrative of what it means to be Singaporean, but the country may have changed too quickly for me to feel anything but a great gulf between my life and Singaporean life on display.
The museum depicts Singaporean life, but it cannot capture the feeling sand memories of every Singaporean on this little red dot. This is an inherent limitation to all museums, and there is only so much the National Museum can do in appealing to what Singapore means to all of us. It cannot reflect the homes that people think of when they describe their families or shared experiences with their own loved ones. It is difficult for the museum to show everything that suits everybody’s tastes. No museum can be so personalised and relatable to every single person who visits it. This is the challenge all museums face. In building an imagined community, they must decide on what should be displayed. What are the most accurate representations of the lives of people, and do they resonate with their memories or ways of life? Ultimately, when it comes to a place such as the National Museum of Singapore, there will always be Singaporeans who feel unfamiliar and unconnected with the exhibits inside. For them, the museum can never represent their idea of home, no matter how hard it tries. To this end, the National Museum of Singapore represents the Singaporean home for many, but not necessarily for all. This begs the question: To whom is Singapore a home to, and how should it ideally be?
Chris What purpose do museums serve? To teach us about the past? To help us reminisce about a bygone era? To show us how far we’ve come? These are all important, but as Max showed, museums like the National Museum of Singapore also help create the nation itself by trying to make its citizens feel like they all belong to this tiny island. All nations are produced by the people who belong to them. In this way, the nation is just another home. But how do you convince millions of strangers that they share the same values, and belong to the same place? One way is through a museum, which tells a story of a shared past, in an effort to create a sense of belonging that only comes from being home. But the success of this effort depends on the relatability of the exhibits. This creates an ongoing challenge as time passes, and young people like Max feel more distance between their lives and those of previous generations. How will Singapore respond so that Max’s generation continues to feel that this nation is their home?
This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Chan Weng Kin, Tang Hui Jun, and me. Our sound engineers were Ryan Ang, and Tang Hui Jun. Thanks to Max and his group members Joan Lai and Joyce Keoy for the paper that inspired the episode, as well as T C Chang for sharing his insights on museums and National Day songs. You can learn more about this episode by visiting us online at blog.nus.edu.sg/homeonthedot