PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Opening Celebrations of the National Gallery Singapore

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 23 November 2015

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Opening Celebrations of the National Gallery Singapore on 23 November 2015.


Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, Chairman, National Gallery of Singapore, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am very happy to be here this evening in this new old building, to celebrate the official opening of the National Gallery. If you visit the great cities in the world – New York, Paris, Shanghai, London, Mumbai – you will find that arts and culture are an integral part of the cities. Paris has the Louvre, New York has the Met, Shanghai has the Shanghai Museum, Tokyo has the Tokyo National Museum and Mumbai has the CSMVS, the Chhartrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, which was previously named the Prince of Wales Museum.

These cities are not just business or transportation hubs or dense conurbations of people. They are cities with a sense of history and identity – bridging the old and the new. You see this in their cultural institutions – places that are rich with art and history that hold a significant place in the life of the city and the hearts of residents. Where residents and tourists can visit, learn and appreciate the culture and the heritage of the place, the spirit and the genius of the people. Because arts and culture are a window to who they are as a people, where they have been and where they are in.

In fact, it is not just the great cities but many other smaller ones, which have an identity and a civic pride of their own, which have built niche art institutions, both public and private. In China, almost every city, even second or third-tier cities, is building new museums – almost 4,000 museums and growing! When I visit Japan, even in small towns far from great cities like Tokyo or Osaka, I often come across art galleries, often funded by some wealthy philanthropist. He has found a beautiful piece of land, forested areas and trees, and he has built a little architectural jewel there, to display a small collection of art works that is shared with the public.

In Singapore we have a few such museums and galleries. We are progressively developing and upgrading them, and improving their programming to reach out to more Singaporeans. We have just refreshed the permanent galleries at the National Museum which presents our Singapore story. We have also just completed the first phase of the Asian Civilisation Museum revamp across the road, complete with two elegant new wings, one of them housing the Tang shipwreck collection. We have museums that celebrate our diversity, like the Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Glam, the newly opened Indian Heritage Centre in Little India, and the soon to be completed Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre at the conference hall. We have the Singapore Art Museum at the old St Joseph’s Institution, along with 8Q@SAM, which was the old Catholic High School.

But up till now, we have not had a dedicated visual arts museum of this scale. You want something, or at least you imagine something, like the National Gallery in London in Trafalgar Square, or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A museum that we can point to and say: “This is truly a National Gallery”.

So today, we will open our very own National Gallery of Singapore in two historic buildings, the old Supreme Court and City Hall. These buildings are part of the collective memory of Singaporeans. They have witnessed defining moments in our nation’s history. In September 1945, the Japanese forces in Southeast Asia under Count Terauchi surrendered to the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, here in the City Hall Chambers. In June 1959, when Singa¬pore attained self-government, Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressed a massive rally from the City Hall steps, and he said:

“Once in a long while in the history of a people, there comes a moment of great change. Tonight is such a moment in our lives… We begin a new chapter in the history of Singapore.”

In front of this building on the Padang, every year on August 9th, for many years after independence, we held our National Day Parades, and still in special years, like this year’s SG50, we come back here and hold a special National Day Parade, reviewed by the President on the steps of City Hall. That is why we gazetted the Supreme Court and City Hall buildings as National Monuments many years ago. But National Monuments too, need to be kept up and refurbished. Ten years ago, they needed to be done up again so we moved out the Supreme Court and the Government agencies that were here to new places, and they were very happy to go out.

The question then was what do we do with these important buildings? We could have left them just as buildings for people to walk through, because previously access had been limited. We could have used them for government offices, or released them for commercial use, for example, to build a heritage hotel like the Fullerton. In fact, we seriously considered that option, because no government ministry or department wanted to occupy these buildings. It is much easier to start with an empty rectangle and put whatever computers and cables you need in, but here everything is untouchable, sacred and very difficult to use. Even for a museum, from a practical point of view, it might have been cheaper and easier to build a new museum on a greenfield site, rather than renovate these old buildings to a new purpose. But these old buildings in front of the Padang are a treasure. Fortunately, after we thought it over carefully, the Cabinet decided that we would start a National Gallery and put it in these buildings. Today, this is the result.

In large part, this was thanks to Dr Lee Boon Yang. Then, he was Minister in charge of the arts. He made a persuasive and compelling case and worked hard to convince his colleagues, including me, despite considerable scepticism – not whether you can redo the buildings, but what art you can put into the buildings – because it is the contents and programming that makes the museum come to life. He convinced us that we did have the collections, we did have the heritage, we could build it up and we needed this. I am glad he succeeded in persuading us, and we are now here. I am very glad that even now in a different capacity, as Chairman of Keppel, Dr Lee continues to support the Arts, with Keppel’s generous donation to the Gallery.

I would like to also thank the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan, who was Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. He chaired the steering committee overseeing the Gallery’s implementation in its early stages, in fact until he passed away. I am very happy that his wife, Dr Ma Swan Hoo, can join us this evening.

So that is how we embarked on this path. To modernise the buildings but preserve their heritage, to turn them into an understated but high quality museum, in keeping with the ethos of our society. You do not find baroque capitals or gold leaf all over the place. It is quiet, it is plain and simple, but it is historic. If you come in, you will know this is a special place.

I have been to previews and private visits to this place over the last few months, and I have been impressed by the work done and the elegant integration of the two Monuments. The buildings have been immaculately conserved. If you are familiar with how they used to look, you would be able to tell that the architects have maintained the structure of the building thoughtfully, keeping many details intact, even the furniture. And yet they do not look like government departments anymore. We have injected new life and purpose into them, and we should thank the architect, Mr Jean Francois Milou, who is a Singapore PR – unfortunately he is unable to join us this evening – as well as the builders who executed and realised the vision.

The building is a work of art in itself, and is a fitting place to display our national collection. Singapore Art will of course take pride of place in the Singapore Gallery, as these pieces tell the history of our young nation. Southeast Asian Art, where Singapore has one of the most comprehensive collections in the world, will also occupy a significant part of the Gallery, because Singapore is not an island unto ourselves. To understand where we come from, we have to appreciate our neighbourhood and our context. This Gallery will also display works of budding talent as well as established artists.

The Gallery will not just be for art aficionados, but will be for everyone, including families and children. We will have workshops, carnivals, fun activities. The Keppel Centre for Art Education is designed to engage our young visitors and their families. I just had a quick walkthrough just now and I highly recommend it. You will enjoy it twice as much with your grandchildren but you will also enjoy it a lot, even by yourself. We hope that this Gallery will nurture a sense of place, history and also a confidence in our future.

The National Gallery, with 800 pieces in this collection to its name and a few more borrowed from galleries around the region, is nowhere near the scale and riches of the Louvre or the Met, but it will have its own special advantages and charms. We have got a beautiful building to house the art in, which all of us can access and enjoy. When you walk through the galleries, you cannot help but feel a sense of history. And it is also the contents which count. We have a good collection of our own art, by artists like Chua Mia Tee, Liu Kang, Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Iskandar Jalil, Chen Chong Swee, Choy Weng Yang and many others.

The Southeast Asian Art has been enriched by generous donations from renowned artists like 吳冠中. We will gradually build up our own collections over time through acquisitions and donations, but also as our own artists continue to contribute to the arts and culture scene in Singapore.

But more than the building, and the collection, it is the people who make the institution, the community around the Gallery. The artists, who are inspired by our history, our culture, who share with us their thoughts and their ideas through art. I would like to thank their families and the collectors too for making the rich display of artworks possible with their art donations and patronage. I would like to thank the management and staff – the former Chairman, Mr Koh Seow Chuan, the first Chairman. The current Chairman, Hsieh Fu Hua, the CEO, Chong Siak Ching and the Museum Director, Eugene Tan and many others. I had one lunch with Hsieh Fu Hua, he may have forgotten, and he lobbied me. He said he went to the Tate Modern, it was a vibrant place. I said it sounds too modern for me, but he convinced me that the museum needs to have that life, that change, that withitness, that buzz for people to want to come and interact and to go away excited, thrilled and inspired. I think as Chairman, he will make that happen. There are many others too, the volunteers such as docents, researchers, surveyors, gallery hosts, greeters, all of whom make the pieces fit together. I would like to thank the generous donors for their philanthropy – The Development Bank of Singapore, Keppel, Ng Teng Fong family, Singtel, Tote Board, United Overseas Bank, Accenture.

The National Gallery will be shaped by our people, because the measure of success is not how many tourists come, or how our museum ranks internationally, but whether Singaporeans feel that the Gallery belongs to them, visit it to enjoy what it offers, and in time come to love the Gallery. I hope that through the many exhibitions and activities, we will all appreciate better where we come from, discover new perspectives of who we are, and be inspired to paint our own canvases in many mediums for the future. Then this place will become our National Gallery, and the pride of Singapore.

Thank you very much.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Opening Celebrations of the National Gallery Singapore on 23 Nov 2015 (MCI Photo by Kenji Soon)

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