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They are merely words on paper, but constitutional documents have provided the foundation that governs this nation and what Singapore stands for. From the colonial era to independence, these powerful pieces of writing have shaped the laws of this land, outlined the rights of a citizen and provided the framework for how the government functions and makes decisions. These documents continue to evolve today. 

Law of the Land: Highlights of Singapore’s Constitutional Documents is an exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore that showcases these legal documents and the rich history around them. The curatorial team from the National Archives of Singapore — Mark Wong (M), Fiona Tan (F), and Kevin Khoo (K) — take us on an insider’s tour. Check out part 1 here!

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One fascinating document in the exhibition is an envelope with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s handwritten notes on the points of merger with Malaysia. What is the story behind this?

F:
The archives periodically gets documents transferred from the different government agencies and this came to us in a package through the Cabinet office several years ago. It actually came inside another government envelope and we could have easily missed it.
 
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There are actually two dates written on this document. It was signed on the 7th of July by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, but there’s also the date of 8th July written on it. We had a lot of discussions about how to date this document as very little has been written about it. We eventually went with the 7th because former Prime Minister Lee mentioned this in his memoirs and also because this date was more prominent on the envelope. We often think we know our history, but until we look at the actual artefact and examine the details, we don’t know what we don’t know. This envelope leads to more questions about what happened to the clauses in the envelope as not all of them made it into the eventual agreement to form Malaysia, signed on 9th July 1963.
 
 Ritz Hotel Envelop (1963)
“Points of Merger” Envelope
 
What are some other stories visitors can find in the exhibition?

K: You can sometimes see the processes that go towards that goes into a constitutional change such as the separation between Malaysia and Singapore. The Tunku actually wrote a letter to persuade Singapore’s then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye, who was not in favour of separation because he had family in Malaysia and always believed the two countries should be together. 
 
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In a draft of the separation agreement, you can actually see there was no signature next to Dr Toh’s name. The blank was a hesitation. Subsequently, he did sign the actual separation document. - Kelvin
 
M: Something that became more apparent to me from working on the exhibition is how important joining Malaysia in 1963 was for the people of Singapore at the time, and how different our present would be if we had remained in Malaysia. Today, of course, we commemorate 1965 as the year we achieved independence as a sovereign republic, but in 1963, joining Malaysia was our way of finally being free from British colonialism, and it was also in Malaysia that our hopes for the future lay as very few believed in the viability of a Singapore independent of Malaysia. So when you look at the “Proclamation of Malaysia” (1963), the “Proclamation of Singapore Joining Malaysia” (1963), and even the video we show of the 1963 Malaysia Day celebrations in Singapore, we begin to understand the importance and joyousness of the occasion, and how dramatic and unexpected the separation two years later must have been.
 
National Gallery-105
 
Some of these documents are over a century old and come in all shapes and paper qualities. What are some challenges in presenting them to the public?

K: Our conservators had to find ways to mount and display these documents without damaging them. For instance, we had to flatten them to be read, but at the same time be careful not to stretch the documents. Other things like humidity and light levels can also impact the document over time.

M: Many of the displays had to be custom made. For instance, the seals from the “Royal Warrant Assigning Armorial Ensigns for the City of Singapore” (1948) are encased in foam to protect them and they are not hung vertically to protect the document from gravity. 
 
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Documents are not the most exciting exhibition artefacts. How did you make them come alive for this exhibition?

F: The exhibition design had to be simple and dignified  so as not to overpower the documents and also to respect the significance of the space. We played around with physical elements like raising certain documents and even adjusting the lighting to make them look more dramatic. Besides the documents, visitors can also view via tablets and QR codes, videos and oral histories that showcase the stories and historical contexts behind these documents.

K: The curatorial approach is also engaging, in the sense that not many people have seen the history of Singapore through the perspective of constitutional documents. Visitors get to see some things that are less known, such as how the laws were like in the colonial period. Even the question of how our parliament, supreme court and cabinet today came about can be traced to the 1867 constitution, which you can see in our exhibition. One of the things that we thought about when working on this exhibition was that every one of us is a citizen, so what does it mean? We hope this exhibition can contribute to a deeper understanding of citizenship. 
 
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Want to hear more from the curators? Sign up for their “Insights Tour: Law of the Land” that happens every Friday evening, except on public holidays. Get more details about this 45-minute tour via GoLibrary. Group tours can also be arranged via NAS_Outreach@nlb.gov.sg 

[Photos of constitutional documents: Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore]

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