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Roll over the Ocean, Roll over the Sea

Let’s kick this post off with a little game of word association, and a song shall we?

“Singapore. The sea. Malay people”.

Put these phrases together and what comes to mind?


Maybe something like this?

(These are by the way, a series of Sang Nila Utama stamps issued by SingPost in 2014.)

Separation from Malaysia, the bumiputera bogeyman, Singapore’s Chinese-Indian-Malay-Others classifications – these are things we Singaporeans have all grown up with and which have influenced the way we see ourselves and our Malay friends. In many ways, our cultural melting pot has been firmly cast in official narratives; and it’s not often that we get a chance to question these, or to look for alternative ideas of representation.

If the Sang Nila Utama story did indeed pop into your head, and if you’ve ever wondered what the sea had to do with building communities, the new exhibition at the NUS Museum There are too many episodes of people coming here… could well be of interest. It brings together recent curatorial projects of the museum, alongside works by Charles Lim, Dennis Tan and Zai Kuning which deal with Singapore’s surrounding maritime environment. One strong underlying theme of the show is that of Malay identity and culture, presented in different ways for the audience to consider.

Here are some of the works I particularly liked:

First, Charles Lim’s 2016 work  Stealing the Trapeze. It’s a video which shows a method of Malay yacht racing, which was was documented as early as in the late 1800s, and which involved sailors holding their bodies out at right angles to the boat’s side.  In the 1930s however, Sir Peter Scott  laid claim to the invention of the “Trapeze”, which well, looks curiously like the methods of old, employed by Malay yacht racers.

A still from Lim’s video, comparing the two sailing methods.

Here’s another great work by Zai Kuning called Riau (2003), which documents the artist’s search for the Orang Laut, a nomadic community of sea gypsies who live off long dwelling boats, entirely at sea. He’d spent many years trying to obtain this footage but it was incredibly hard; as the subjects didn’t always adhere to timetables and fixed schedules. The work references the multiplicity of “Malay” identities (Kuning himself is classified as “Malay” although he is Buginese –yes folks, “Bugis” is a type of ethnic group and not just a junction near the National Library). The work also shows us our historical connections with the sea – a  connection which indeed continues to persist for the Orang Laut community, in spite of how landbound we are in Singapore.

Zai Kuning, Riau (2003)

There are too many episodes of people coming here… also contains the fascinating remnants of an old Malay shrine, dedicated to Hajjah Siti Mariam, who was known as a protector of sea travelers. The shrine used to be located on the banks of the Kallang River and was taken care of by one Wak Ali, a former diver who later dedicated his life to maintaining the shrine. More on him here. We were told that the shrine was unable to be demolished until the time was “right”, as workers tasked with the demolition kept being struck by strange afflictions. When the shrine finally came down, some remnants were salvaged and brought to the NUS Museum, where they now hang on display. (As an aside, Singapore does seem to enjoy  erasing things and then memorialising them in national institutions – something we talked about more in this older post on Tang Da Wu).

It’s interesting to note that although the shrine was Malay, Chinese-type joss stick offerings were made to the spirit of Hajjah Siti Mariam. The hut which Wak Ali lived in, had apparently also been built with donations from a Chinese businessman.

Remnants of different parts of the Malay shrine –  check out the joss sticks in the pot in the foreground.
What Wak Ali looks like.

Here’s another interesting look at ideas about Malay village life:


This woodcut print by Lim Mu Hue shows a typical Malay kampong scene, but instead of being filled with images of stereotypical “Malay-ness”, we see a Chinese lady feeding her pigs. The woodcut print is also a medium which has roots in Chinese artistic traditions; and this adds another dimension of complexity to the work. There are no overt statements about community integration here. Rather, the woodcut sits as it is, quietly speaking to a blended way of life that existed long before our contemporary narratives on racial integration.

What did I love about the show? Well, it’s simple, but prompts so much deeper thought. For example, the bits of Malay shrine mounted on the museum wall are forlorn, yet defiant in their bright primary colours. Charles Lim’s comparison of Eastern and Western sailing is a straightforward, yet hypnotic juxtaposition. Zai Kuning’s insightful Orang Laut video sits along a corridor, beautifully framed by a half-built sailboat.

Singapore Biennale season is upon us, and so too a number of really excellent shows that we’ll be talking about more in the weeks to come.  If however, you’re overwhelmed by Biennale – related activities and are looking for something that’s a little bit off the beaten path, you might want to pay the NUS Museum a visit.

I have to say, I do have a soft spot for it.

So many contemporary art museums these days refuse to provide visitors with too much information – the view is that this can be limiting, as viewers should aim to draw their own conclusions from the works displayed.

All well and good, if you’re a well-informed international man (or woman) of mystery. If on the other hand you’re a prosaic art world noob (like I am) – see below…


…then I do think you’ll appreciate the approach taken by the NUS Museum curatorial team. Basic wall text and explanations are usually limited to primary archival materials (for example, a quote from the artist himself, or the subject of the piece), which provides a nice, non- prescriptive entry point to the work. But if you’d like to know more, a whole bunch of supplementary material is also readily available for you to peruse in your own time. As a university museum, it aims to mirror what the university does academically. It surveys existing ideas, and uses them as a jumping-off point for new and more exciting developments (as opposed to simply focusing on what’s popular at the moment). It’s a great approach and Plural thoroughly approves!

Someone once told me that when people hear of the “NUS Museum,” they immediately think it’s a kind of trophy room for display of the university’s medals!

Truth is, it’s a treasure trove of cool artefacts and interesting contemporary art. Its collection comes with a fascinating history – it used to be part of the University of Malaya’s collection before Malaysia’s separation from Singapore. (I do wonder how they decided to split the works?)


Let’s play that game again, shall we?

“Singapore. The sea. Malay people.”

Hopefully, different images pop into your head now, and if they don’t – well, visit the exhibition for yourself and see if it manages to change your mind.

(Image credit for stamps : Stamp Community ; Art appreciation image courtesy of Pinterest; video courtesy of Youtube)

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