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.
[From L-R: Mark Wong, Fiona Tan, Kevin Khoo]
How did the idea for this exhibition first come about?
K: We were looking at curating a “Treasures of Archives” kind of exhibition to showcase the different materials we have at the National Archives. There was just so much, so we decided to focus on our constitutional records. Coincidentally, the National Gallery heard about our project and offered a really nice and historically related space in their building: the former Chief Justice’s Chambers and Office in the old Supreme Court. The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court are the defenders of Singapore’s constitution and this was perfect for our exhibition.
Why focus on constitutional documents?
F: Many of these documents have never been exhibited before. While images of them have been featured in history textbooks, you don’t get to see their size or paper quality. If you compare the sizes of documents, for instance, you start to see the original items tell a story as well.
K: The constitution is one of the things that is foundational to our country. Our laws and what the government does is shaped by the constitution in one way or another.
The point we want to make is that these are not just words on paper; they have had such an impact on the workings of society and the government. - Mark Wong
K: And also our culture! One of the reasons Singapore and Malaysia separated was over a different approach to politics, and you see that in the first constitution of our republic. The early colonial history explored in the exhibition also shows that having a society structured by laws is not a given.
What were some discoveries in the year-long process of putting this exhibition together?
F: The discoveries were in what we learnt about the documents. It struck me how small “The Proclamation of Singapore” (1965) was as compared to “The Proclamation of Malaysia” (1963), but its historical significance is no less important. The former was printed on a paper that is not even A4 or letter-sized, while the latter is very grand, and even contains gold foil ink. The lack of symbolism in “The Proclamation of Singapore” is precisely symbolic of the sudden circumstances of our independence.
We did not have time to design a large and ornate proclamation. Instead, it was typed out on note paper, punched, stapled and filed away for posterity. This was quite practical. - Fiona Tan
“The Proclamation of Malaysia” and “The Proclamation of Singapore”
M: We’d actually never studied the materiality of these documents as much and we were privileged to see and also touch many for the first time. The “Royal Warrant Assigning Armorial Ensigns for the City of Singapore” (1948) was very interesting to delve into. It contains a coat of arms with the motto “Majulah Singapura”, which was before this motto became the title and chorus of our state anthem in 1959. But the words were used and perceived very differently at first: the original translation was “Let Singapore Flourish”, something very aspirational and hopeful, and later became “Onward Singapore”, which is more sombre and stately. The coat of arms can still be seen around Singapore, such as at the former swimming pool on Mount Emily.
Royal Warrant Assigning Armorial Ensigns for the City of Singapore
K: The “Third Charter of Justice” (1855) really caught my attention for its symbolism. You see the royal coat of arms of the British crown and also among other things, four images representing the virtues of justice, faith, arts and science. These symbols represent that the justice system is a manifestation of the crown’s authority. Only two centuries ago, people understood the world based much more heavily through symbols, and this document stands at a cross-roads to the age in which statistical analysis takes centre stage with the rise of the empirical sciences.
“Third Charter of Justice”
Speaking about text, some of these documents are written in very elaborate calligraphy. How did you decipher them?
K: Through lots of practice! We do have many handwritten records from the colonial period in the archives so reading them is part of our work. As each handwriting is unique, knowing how to read one script doesn’t mean you can read the next. In some cases, there are existing transcripts of such writing already done by historians, so we could quickly learn how to decipher the handwriting by comparing the texts and transcripts. Fortunately, I managed to find a transcript for the “Third Charter of Justice”!
F: Even so, we had to still read the entire document to discover what this was! It actually doesn’t say what it is.
Find out more about the Law of the Land: Highlights of Singapore’s Constitutional Documents exhibition in Part 2!
[Photos of constitutional documents: Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore]