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Mr Lee Kuan Yew among 50 influential Peranakans featured in showcase

SINGAPORE — The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew may never have publicly declared his Peranakan roots, but Singapore’s first Prime Minister, who was of Hakka and Chinese Peranakan descent, will be one of the 50 Babas and Nyonyas lauded at a new exhibition at the Peranakan Museum.

SINGAPORE — The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew may never have publicly declared his Peranakan roots, but Singapore’s first Prime Minister, who was of Hakka and Chinese Peranakan descent, will be one of the 50 Babas and Nyonyas lauded at a new exhibition at the Peranakan Museum.

Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives, which will open on Saturday (May 23), shines the spotlight on individuals who have been influential in Singapore’s development.

Divided into three historical periods, spanning from 1819 to 1965, the exhibition includes early pioneers such as businessman Cheang Hong Lim, who dealt in opium, but was responsible for what would become Hong Lim Park; philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, who founded the first hospital for poor Chinese; and See Tiong Wah, founder of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The exhibition also features more contemporary figures such as Mr Lee and his late wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo, as well as Lim Yew Hock, Singapore’s second Chief Minister, and Mr Lee’s fellow People’s Action Party (PAP) stalwarts Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee.

The predominantly male-centric exhibition showcases only six women because of poor documentation and the “cloistered nature” of women in those years, said co-curator John Teo. “But during the later period, Peranakan women were influential in pushing for women’s rights in Singapore.”

Among them were Maggie Lim, a pioneer in family planning, and Chua Seng Kim, the first female opposition Member of Parliament and founding president of the Singapore Women’s Association.

The exhibition comprises more than 200 artefacts, such as letters, personal belongings and portraits, including one of Mr Lee’s swearing-in as Prime Minister in 1959 by artist Lai Kui Fang.

The showcase will include a mobile app and will also be featured on online exhibition aggregator Google Cultural Institute — the first exhibition under a National Heritage Board museum to do so.

“(The exhibition is) an attempt at looking at Singapore history from a particular point of view,” said Dr Alan Chong, director of the Peranakan Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum.

He added that the showcase might help debunk some of the stereotypes that had been associated with Peranakans. For instance, some academics would consider them “collaborators” who aligned themselves with the British colonial government as the “King’s Chinese” or “Queen’s Chinese”.

Mr Lee’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge his Peranakan roots was perhaps owed to this stigma, as much as to the fact that he wanted people to focus on a more national identity.

In fact, at a parliamentary session shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Mr Lee rejected being called a Peranakan, preferring instead to be described as a person from Malaya.

Indeed, during the struggle for independence, many Peranakans supported the idea of Malaya, Dr Chong pointed out. “There was a dissident streak to Peranakans,” he said.

However, they were also nation builders. From businessmen and philanthropists to politicians and activists, the Peranakans “had their fingers in many pies”, said co-curator Ms Maria Khoo Joseph.

Mr Teo reckoned that an overriding quality Peranakans had was their “flexibility”. “They can be many things to many different people, which allowed them to play intermediaries to different communities.”

Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives will run from May 23 to April 3 at the Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street. For more information, visit http://www.peranakanmuseum.sg

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, we referred to the the first female opposition Member of Parliament and founding president of the Singapore Women’s Association as Iris Chua. This is incorrect. Her name is Chua Seng Kim. We apologise for the error.  

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