Singapore 1960 @ National Museum of Singapore

June 5th, 2010 14 Commented

We visited the National Museum again on last Wednesday night. It was the opening ceremony for the new exhibition, Singapore 1960, which is currently now on. It’s an exhibition about the lifestyle and trends of Singaporeans during 1960s.

I was greeted by the neon lights, Singapore 1960 as I entered the exhibition hall. As I’d like to preserve the original information as much as possible, most of the text used are provided by the curators. We ought to give them the credit for their timeless efforts of research. :)

Why Singapore 1960?

“My problem was, how to compose a song that would be acceptable to all, in the National Language.” Zubir Said need not have worried. Commissioned in 1959 by the newly-elected government, it took him all but six weeks to re-adapt the melody he had written for the City Council into Singapore’s national anthem. The title “Majulah Singapore” aptly means “Onward Singapore”, and its lyrics were kept simple enough to strike a chord with the people. More importantly, the anthem was symbolic of the times — progressive, dynamic and forward-looking. Similarly, in his first New Year’s Day speech as Prime Minister of Singapore in 1960, Lee Kuan Yew urged the people to “look forward to progress in the year ahead”. As Singapore had achieved self-government the year before, the mood that permeated the streets was buoyant. The people of Singapore believed in a new shared destiny and worked towards a bright future that they were very much part of.

Singapore 1960 does not tell the political struggle of the political parties but celebrates the cultural vibrancy of our past. In spite of our different ethnic cultures, the year 1960 saw the emergence of the beginnings of a Singapore society, a nascent culture that was nurtured by a political ideal rooted in the concept of a common identity for all. In this exhibition gallery, more than 300 artifacts from everyday life fill the recreated cultural spaces of eclectic Haw Par Villa and the neon-lit amusement parks popularly known as the “Worlds”. This lively and colorful space portrays the lives — and certainly the lifestyle — of people of that time. Interwoven with the year’s noteworthy news headlines and stories, this exhibition is first and foremost a sensorial experience — a personal journey that allows us to step back into a time when we saw ourselves as more Malayans, than Singaporeans.

Lee Kuan Yew’s swearing-in as Prime Minister of Singapore on 5 June 1959

Oil on canvas | Lai Kui Fang | 1992

With no photographic records of the event, this painting of the swearing-in of Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959 provides a rare glimpse of that historic moment. It shows a close up of Lee and William Goode — the last Governor of Singapore — as well as an aide-de-camp on the left background.

Zubir Said’s piano

Late 1950s

This 100-year-old Strohmenger grand piano belonged to the late Zubir Said, who had used it to compose Singapore’s National Anthem in 1959. The strains of Majulah Singapore that you hear at this display was recently played and recorded on this very piano, which had not been tuned to keep the authenticity of the mood and the sounds.

The National Pledge


The National Pledge was written by S. Rajaratnam, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, in 1966. Multiculturalism was the key theme in this national pledge of loyalty, particularly with the racial riots of 1964 still vivid in Rajaratnam’s mind.

Table used by public servants, 1950s and 1960s

This table was used at the swearing-in of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on 12 August, 2004.

Briefcase used by S. Rajaratnam


This briefcase belonged to S. Rajaratnam, one of the founding fathers of the PAP and the first Minister for Culture when Singapore achieved self-government in 1959. A strong advocate of multiculturalism, Rajaratnam often led the way in calling for communal barriers to be removed as part of nation-building.

Smith Corona typewriter, 1953

This was a typical typewriter that was used in offices during the 1950s and 1960s.

Poster of Singapore’s first elected assemblymen

MICA collection, courtesy of NAS | 1959

Published by the Ministry of Culture, this poster shows the complete list of assemblymen from Singapore’s first elected government in 1959.

Art that defined our time

In Marco Hsu’s book A Brief History of Malayan Art (1963), he described the works by young artists whose works expressed ideas about the newly developing Malayan society. These works set out specifically to promote ideals of a collective consciousness that was deemed beneficial for their viewers. In the second Equator Art Society (EAS) exhibition from 5 to 7 February 1960 at the Victoria Memorial Hall, then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam emphasized the “special responsibility” which local artists had to society: “an artist, unlike say a poet, a dramatist, or even a politician, can communicate his ideas and attitudes directly to a Malayan audience […] For the skilled and sensitive artist can bring to light all the hidden meanings behind the obvious and ordinary things.” Lee Boon Wang, Chairman of EAS, added that “not only do these [works] mark the awakening of a national consciousness, they also reveal a love and aspiration for nation-building. The portraits, landscapes and still life paintings are painted in a realist tenor. The landscape works, especially, express certain feelings for their land.”

This sense of self-worth was important at a time when Singapore was searching for her identity. Works by artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chua Mia Tee, Choo Keng Kwang and Georgette Chen, and photographers such as David Tay and Lee Sow Lim form the legacies of our shared Malayan culture — that of cross-cultural fertilization through tolerance and appreciation of other cultures and practices.

Fashion we called our own

Fashion comes and fashion goes, but the sarong kebaya — already worn by women in Singapore some 190 years ago — received a new lease of life in 1960. In The Straits Times on 3 July 1960, the sub-headlines declared, “From Simple Sarong to the sophisticated high slit and modern kebaya, Now Clothes Reflect the New Unity”. The writer concluded that although the four main racial groups still wore their own costumes, each had borrowed a little influence from the rest, so that Malayan fashions were representative of the citizens of both Singapore and the Federation.

Just as Malayan culture was not meant to be bound by history or tradition but draw on the influences of the present, the sarong kebaya in 1960 underwent some sophisticated alterations which reflected the changing times and the demands of working women. Unlike traditional kebaya suits, the modern ones used the same fabric material for both the kebaya top and sarong bottom. They incorporated modern conveniences such as a buttoned center flap for the kebaya, and for the sarong, a waistband, a zipper at the side and ready-made front pleats. Vicki Dutton, a young fashion designer in Singapore, launched a collection in October that year with an emphasis on modernizing the sarong kebaya to make it look sexy and chic, yet affordable. Although she felt that the classic form of any national dress always looked better than variations, she acknowledged that many young people were beginning to lean towards Western ideas and styles.

This display of sarong kebayas perched on a cresent-shaped bridge is inspired by a film dip featuring Shammi Kappor and Maria Menado dancing amidst sarong kebaya clad beauties of different races at the Haw Par Villa (or Tiger Balm Gardens) from the 1960 Bollywood film Singapore. The kebaya tops featured here are mainly from the 1960s and were worn by Malayan women, many who often could make such clothes for themselves. The kebayas often incorporated stylised floral motifs especially the bunga raya (or hibiscus) found in abundance in Singapore and the Federation. In 1960, the hibiscus was chosen to be the national flower of the Federation by the then Prime Minister of the Federation, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

In this display, the kebaya tops are paired with the classical Javanese-styled sarong bottoms that are distinguished by their stylized motifs running diagonally across the batik cloth and color (indigo or soga brown). The display starts off with a traditional sarong kebaya that uses brooches to secure the kebaya top and progresses to the modern batik sarong kebaya suit with its modern conveniences starting from the mid-1960s. This style likely inspired the uniform designed by Pierre Balmain for the ubiquitous “Singapore Girl”, the iconic flight stewardess symbol of the new Singapore Airlines.

Haw Par Jade Collection

The Aw Boon Haw Jade Collection was donated to the National Museum in 1979 by the Aw family. This donation, comprising of over 300 carvings are carved in various minerals such as jasper, aventurine, cornelian, rose quartz, agate, crystal and jade. These carvings, almost exclusively works from the late Qing period, were amassed by Aw Boon Haw between 1932 to 1939. Initially, the collection was made available for public viewing only every Chinese New Year at Aw’s fabulous home at 3 Nassim Road, also known as the “Jade House”. However, he decided to open the doors of his house to the public on a daily basis, turning the Jade House into a popular tourist spot. Like the Haw Par Villa (or Tiger Balm Gardens), the Jade House was open free-of-charge to the public for their enjoyment. On display here is a selection of over 40 carvings from the collection.

On the left:
Sailing junk with sculpted men at the tiller and rudder, and a little dog sitting beside the mast. (Burmese jade).

On the right:
Boat with an open sail. (Burmese jade).

Literary Works

The stirrings of a national consciousness that had begun to identify itself with the Malayan way of life were perhaps best witnessed in the world of literature. In the variety of literary works that were written — essays, songs, poems and plays — the Malayan theme was omnipresent and the tone, literary expressions and metaphors used indicated that Singapore and Malaya were now regarded as the new homeland. The notion of a common Malayan culture is reinforced by the literary interaction that existed, as seen from the Malay adaptation of a Chinese play, in addition to the Chinese translations of popular Malay folk stories.

Commemorative magazines

Published by organizations such as the unions and school alumni associations, these commemorative magazines celebrated various milestones and events, including anniversaries and fund-raising efforts. They provide an insight into the inner circles of these groups. The workers, for example, were always determined and positive about their future even as they strove for better living and working conditions. These magazines also documented the cultural activities that the masses were involved in, as well as literary works written by union members and plays put up by alumni associations and the Singapore Arts Theater. The bi- or tri-lingual nature of some publications also shows the kind of intercultural interaction that was taking place.

This is a sample of magazine conserved by my wife. She is so proud of it. ;)

Popular music that was played

The kind of popular music that we know today has its roots in the years following the Japanese Occupation, when getai (literally “song stage“) was at the peak of its popularity. Getai troupes performed traditional folk songs and popular songs from China at the three amusement parks — New World, Great World and Happy World — and they attracted audiences from every stratum of society, including businessmen, students and housewives.

As getai began to lose its appeal in the 1960s, popular music took its place. Popular songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan were almost immediately localized as local singers and musicians performed them before a culturally mixed crowd at the “Worlds”. Local popular music reached new heights with singing competitions organized by Rediffusion and government institutions, some of which were held at the National Theater and were competed in the four languages. The winners and runners up often went on to become household names, such as Zhang Xiaoying, Ling Xiao and Huang Qingyuan, and their songs formed an integral part of Malayan culture. Perhaps nobody embodied this multicultural social phenomenon more than Simon Junior, who was reportedly the first Indian in Southeast Asia who sand Chinese popular songs. The vinyl records of the time were also representative of Singapore society at large during the 1960s — an intriguing and colorful mix of various elements that was both modern and organic, yet tied to a common thread that was Malayan in character.

Sounds of the 1960s

These records are a selection of what were available in the local popular music market during the 1960s, a few of them belonging to the six artistes featured here. The soundscape that accompanies the two audio-visual productions is inspired by the records, some parts of which had been used for the soundscape. Records that had been used for production ideas include Teresa Khoo’s Unspoken Words and R. Azmi’s Singapore Lady (Nano Singapura).

Here is another sample of conversation work from my wife. :)

The things we called our own

We live to eat — this was as true of Malayans in 1960 as of Singaporeans in 2010. Displayed in these kopitiam (coffee shop) table-style showcases are a variety of everyday objects from Singapore’s flourishing coffee culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The motifs imprinted onto the crockery and food menus included the ubiquitous coconut trees and attap houses by the sea, and floral patterns evoking indigenous flowers such as the hibiscus (the Malayan national flower). These served to ingrain at a sub-conscious level a Malayan identity that was still in its early formative stage.

In multicultural environments such as Singapore and the Federation, no one could function solely in a self-contained ethnic community. For example, a Chinese Malayan in 1960 was likely to know how to speak some Malay (or at least “bazaar” Malay) to his non-Chinese friends, eat roti prata (an Indian food) and drink kopi (the Malay word for “coffee”) at a road-side stall, as well as wearing a Western-style shirt and pants to work. Looking beyond one’s skin color or religious affiliations, people were encouraged to be no longer simply Chinese, Indian, Malay or Eurasian — but Malayan. In urban amusement parks such as Great World, a wide cross-section of Malayan society could inter-mingle and enjoy being themselves, regardless of race, language or religion. In 1960, the Aneka Ragam Rakyat (People’s Cultural Concerts) were organized by the then Ministry of Culture regularly throughout the island to showcase the richness and variety of one’s culture to the other.

Dou Pen, Feng Mao (Snow Cape, Wind Cap) – on the left

Fully sequined costume in silver and pink | 1930s – 1950s

This densely sequined cape with a floral motif that looks like a hibiscus, is usually paired with a wind cap. It could be worn to indicate that the character in the opera is traveling during winter or outdoors late in the night.

Ying Kao (Grand Armor) – on the center

Fully sequined costume in gold, silver with elongated beads | 1930s – 1950s

A Grand Armour is a resplendent Chinese opera costume conveying importance and worn by lead actors performing the role of generals or military officials or actresses portraying lady warriors. Designed and modeled after the ancient armor, triangular pennants of command are mounted on the wearers back, heightening the costume’s dramatic effect. This set of densely sequined costume with six triangular pennants weighs over 20kg when fully assembled.

Diorama depicting the 1962 Merger Referendum

Mixed media | 1983

A diorama is a three dimensional representation of a scene or moment in history and was a popular museological device used by history museums in the 1980s. This scene depicts the people of Singapore discussing the Merger issues with the Federation on the streets. On Referendum Day, 1 September 1962, 71% of the people voted to join Malaysia under the conditions proposed by the PAP government. On 16 September 1963, Singapore became a part of Malaysia.

Of course, it’s impossible for me to cover the entire exhibition in a post. I urge that you make a visit down to the museum soon and experience it! personally.

National Museum of Singapore Official Website

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14 responses to “Singapore 1960 @ National Museum of Singapore”

  1. Fabrice says:

    Oh very nice,
    man how i wish i was there -.-
    im sure schools must have gone on field trip to visit.

    • softz says:

      I believe so too. There were several groups of students in the last exhibition I visited not long ago. I guess it’s something for us to learn about. I, too, gained a lot from it :)

  2. chubbybots says:

    Fwah, didn’t realize we had such a rich history for our own country. Thanks for sharing this man :D Will take a trip down to see it for myself!

    • softz says:

      Good to see you back. Yep, do make it down to the museum soon. If possible, bring your parents, it’ll definitely bring back some fond memories.

  3. Yi says:

    OMG I love those kebaya tops and sarong bottoms. The textures are lovely and the cut gorgeous.

    Anyways, thanks for the post on Singapore culture. I had no idea about any of this.

    • softz says:

      I’m always happy to share cultures and history with you all. In fact, I didn’t know that Singapore has such rich cultures too.

  4. heathorn says:

    another coverage that I love, thx for sharing this with us!
    When I read the name S Rajaratnam, I still remember him from ASEAN declaration :D

  5. ari says:

    i visited the exhibition and found it very enjoyable. this peice is very interesting, thank you. I was wondering if you could help me with something. On the far right hand side of the exhibition, there was a large screen that showed images from the musical singapore. there was a specific track that was playing and i dont know what it is. ive looked at the list of songs from the musical and its not one of them. i was wondering if you knew the name of the song?

    • meatymama says:

      idk either. Hahahahaaa lol who are you anyway??
      I love YOG:D

    • softz says:


      Thank you for visiting my humble blog. I went to the museum check out the musical again. There are actually three tracks being played. I can’t figure out what they are too. Anyway, I’ve tried to ask the curator in-charge. I hope he gets back to me soon and probably, I’ll be able to answer your question then. Sorry for not being to at this moment.

    • softz says:


      Finally, we have the answer from the curator himself. I guess that answers your question with regards to the songs. Kudos to him :)

  6. Curator-in-charge says:

    Hi there, I’m one of the curators of the exhibition. The sound tracks we used for the exhibition were composed specially for the exhibition by a talented Singapore dj Ramesh krishnan who got inspiration fr songs of the 60s we selected. He of cos also went to do his own research. I personally love the original songs from the musical but we had wanted to infuse a contemporary remix with the old footage hence our decision to work w him. Hope this helps!

    • softz says:

      Hi Jason,

      Thank you for responding to the question. You guys have done a great job for the exhibition. I never knew visiting museum have such fun. I’ll be looking forward for more upcoming exhibitions. Great job and keep it up!

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