Museum to Indians’ contribution to Singapore

March 3rd, 2009 - 2:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Singapore, March 3 (IANS) The contribution of the Indian diaspora to the Singapore growth story will be the focus of a new landmark museum that is being set up in the city-state, according to a senior minister here.

The Indian Heritage Centre, to be funded almost entirely by the Singapore government, will trace the history of early Indians who came to Singapore as traders, soldiers and plantation workers more than two centuries ago, and will open a window to the diversity of the Indian diaspora in the island republic.

Despite the ongoing recession, the Singapore government will provide 95 percent of the funding for the multi-million dollar museum to be built in the city’s Little India district, Senior Minister for Foreign Affairs Balaji Sadasivan said.

The remaining five percent will be contributed by the Indian community in Singapore so that they too will be stakeholders in the enterprise, Sadasivan said.

This centre will present a record of the heritage of those who came to Singapore, settled here, were assimilated and have become part of Singapore. “The story of the Indians (in Singapore) is one of hardships and struggle against all odds to build a life here,” Sadasivan told IANS in an interview.

From the Nattukottai Chettiyar traders and moneylenders from Tamil Nadu, Sikh soldiers, rubber plantation workers and Gujarati businessmen, Indian immigrants who reached Singapore’s shores over the last two centuries have assimilated and prospered, many of them assuming important roles in Singaporean society, in politics and as entrepreneurs. It is their story - an integral part of the Singapore success story - that the heritage centre will present to visitors.

The Singapore government has earmarked a 2,000-square-metre plot in Little India, appointed a high-powered steering committee headed by Sadasivan to oversee the project, and named other committees for fund-raising and constructing the building. A third committee, comprising leading South Asia experts, professional curators and museum specialists, will direct the conceptualisation and content of the centre.

According to Sadasivan, the Indian centre is part of Singapore’s constant efforts to remain at the cutting edge as one of the most liveable cities in the world. “In the competition between cities, what matters are factors such as the quality of the air, the ambience, how green the city is, its parks, cultural institutions and museums,” he says.

He discounts the impact of the economic downturn that has hit Singapore, saying rather than in boom times when costs are high, “a recession is the best time to invest in infrastructure.”

“This is the time the government is going to invest in infrastructure, when construction costs are low. So, although we are in a recession, we have not stopped investing in our city,” Sadasivan told IANS.

When the centre opens to the public in 2012, the Singapore government will foot 99 percent of its operational costs, he adds.

Many Indians who migrated did so with the intention that they would eventually return to their homeland. But, says Sadasivan, many of them ended up settling here and their children have grown up away from India. “We hope the centre will also educate the next generation about their roots and let them know what their cultural heritage is,” he says.

The aim is to expose people to the rich, deep-rooted and diverse nature of India’s cultural heritage. “Not just Indian Singaporeans but others too will understand and appreciate India’s rich cultural heritage. This will allow for cross-cultural understanding,” says the minister, adding that it would also “add to people-to-people interaction that we hope will have the greatest impact, the greatest value”.

Indian tourists will see similarities with traditions and rituals that they practise back home, but with new influences. “Essentially they will see that Indian culture has survived and is thriving in a different environment.”

Singapore’s experience with the Chinese and Malay centres is that these institutions have resulted in greater appreciation of Asian culture which these migrants carried with them and how these have blended and evolved.

Singapore has a decade-long record of cooperation with Indian museums and cultural institutions. Last year, the island’s prestigious Asian Cultural Museum held an extensively-curated exhibition called “On the Nalanda Trail” on ancient India’s links through Buddhism with China, Japan and the Southeast Asian region. The new Heritage Centre will draw on India for help although what form of assistance they would seek has not been defined. “Everybody gains by understanding how our cultures are inter-related,” said the minister.

The centre will also have a section on Subhas Chandra Bose and the role that Singapore played in India’s freedom struggle. A few members from Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) are still living in Singapore and an aural history section presenting their eyewitness accounts could also be on the cards.

Another historical landmark, Farrer Park, from where Netaji gave his rallying speech to the INA, is a mere 100 metres from the site where the Heritage Centre will be located, Sadasivan pointed out.

(Nirmala George can be contacted at nirmala.george@gmail.com)

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