Four years ago, we had ‘SG50’ plastered all over every possible physical and digital space around us. This year, we have the b-word; yes, you guessed it, the word is ‘bicentennial’.
2019 saw many new and recurring Singaporean events jumping on board the ‘Bicentennial edition’ bandwagon. Is it just me, or is the b-word starting to become so overused? If I had a dollar every time “Bicentennial Edition” is said, I’ll probably have enough to buy a S$20 bicentennial note from Carousell’s black market.
I’m not exaggerating here. With the exception of Bicentennial-special events such as the Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman exhibition and The Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Park, many recurring events tend to jump on the Bicentennial bandwagon, albeit their weak links to the Singapore Bicentennial. i Light Singapore, Light to Night Festival, and even Singapore’s iconic Night Festival all claim to have a special ‘Bicentennial Edition’.
Despite the overarching “bicentennial themes” and the convenient locations to celebrate the bicentennial (or perhaps, these locations are not chosen by choice because Singapore is, after all, just a little red dot), these events only incorporate one – or two (if they’re feeling lucky) – historical works that bear some form of relevance to the Bicentennial. Heck, there’s even an online run to commemorate the Bicentennial!
So what exactly is the Bicentennial? Despite all its fanfare, the Singapore Bicentennial is simply a commemoration to mark the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival to Singapore.
I am not surprised if you are simply nodding your heads to whatever ‘bicentennial’ that comes your way. If I had not known what Bicentennial meant, I would have assumed it was an occasion to look back on 200 years of Singapore’s history. If we were to look back, talking about what happens just 200 years ago is merely scratching the surface of our rich history that happened way before 1819.
The only time the term ‘Singapore Bicentennial’ made my head turn was during the commotion over the new S$20 notes, when the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) issued two million pieces of the Singapore Bicentennial S$20 commemorative note and folder on 10 June 2019 (Monday) at the branches of nine major banks in Singapore. In true ‘Kiasuism’ spirit, they were all gone within a week of the launch.
As with all items in Singapore, the continued demand for the S$20 bills led to the rise of scalpers on Carousell. One Carousell user even sold three uncut S$20 notes for a whopping S$1,800!
While MAS have announced an additional two million S$20 bills slated for release later in the year, scalpers are still raking in money till the issuance of the second batch of S$20 notes.
Perhaps, growing up in a technology-driven and successful country like Singapore has inculcated the importance of living in the present, and the value of learning our own past and history has lost its significance somewhere along the line.
In a quiz on Singapore’s history conducted by CNA, it showed that the younger respondents were able to throw out vague textbook answers, while the older ones seemed to display some understanding of the historical situation through personal experience.
To young Singaporeans, these bits of history are just words in a textbook that has been memorised and regurgitated to achieve academic success. The only information we know, apart from those read in books, are stories that we heard from the older generations – which brings us to what could probably be the key factor as to why we do not care for the bicentennial as much as our seniors.
Unlike our parents or grandparents, we have not experienced Singapore’s dramatic growth firsthand. What they have forgotten, we will never know; and what they have lived through, we only can read about. Perhaps it is simply because we are just not as personally invested in the milestones of Singapore’s history as the older generations had been. We read of past Maria Hertogh riots and the Hock Lee Bus riots, but we only feel the severity of it when alcohol consumption in public places is banned at 10pm, a law that was only in effect because of the notorious Little India riots in 2013.
As said most aptly by British’s former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” The commemoration of Singapore’s Bicentennial is a perfect opportunity for us to find personal meaning on it, and to appreciate the diaspora that has shaped the national identity of Singaporeans today.
If you desire to appreciate how far Singapore has come over the years, forget about the elitist, overhyped Bicentennial tales that everyone have been feeding you – just ask the old folks at home.
Photos by Soloman Soh and Goh Jing Wen of the DANAMIC team.