Singapore cannot do without them.
So it’s a shame that the National Museum’s Police Bicentennial (SPF200) Exhibition is such a bore. The brochure promises it will take us on a ‘200-year policing journey’. The reality is less substantial than a fart in gale-force winds. What little history it examines is mostly whitewashed. What remains is a great injustice to the history of justice.
SPF200 notes that he had failed to pay his debt and ‘ran amok’. What it neglects to mention was how Raffles also ‘ran amok’ when he learned of what transpired. Raffles clapped chains on his corpse, strung it up and displayed it in a cage for all to see. For weeks, the poor man served as a blood-and-flesh version of those haiku sign boards which proclaim:
For: Shop Theft.
In this neighbourhood.
Historians have analysed this event in great detail, because it reveals much about the Europeans’ so-called ‘civilising’ mission. The SPF exhibition omits his mutilation entirely, probably because it raises too many uncomfortable questions about the violence and spectacle of early Singaporean justice.
Special Branch, the department responsible for fighting wannabe Trotskyists, gets a quick mention before disappearing into thin air. Despite the many interesting and colourful accounts written about its operations by ex-Special-Branch constables and academics, the only thing which made it into the exhibit was a few whispered mentions of ‘communist insurgency’ and ‘labour unrest’.
Did you know, for example, that LKY was supported by secret societies in the 1957 Tanjong Pagar by-election? It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you, but it’s true. They helped him by canvassing for votes and intimidating rival candidates.
I’m telling you this because SPF200 certainly won’t. The phrase ‘secret society’ is mentioned half a hundred times, but I emerged with no clearer picture of how they operated, or the threat they posed to public order. They rose. They carried ‘membership’ cards. They fell—because of ‘tougher legislation’.
The exhibit also mentions a ‘Phantom Squad’ who brawled with gangsters on the streets and in their strongholds, armed with pistols. They wore coloured armbands to identify each other covertly.
How exciting, I thought, before reading on and reaching an abrupt end just 2 sentences later. Wait, what, that’s it? Surely there must be more to this elite squadron of bad cops than just friendship bracelets? Likewise for Gurkha Force, or the WW2 segment. I wish there was more of everything than the Wikipedia stubs on display.
This would be okay if I was attending a Singapore Police Force Career Fair, but I feel that a bicentennial history exhibition hosted by the National Museum should be held to a higher standard.
Ultimately, my disappointment boils down to this: SPF200 does a disservice to Singapore’s history, by painting everything in shades of black and white, order and chaos, violence and safety—by reducing the fairly complicated issue of law and order into the usual story of upward progress. Even its title ‘Frontier Town To Safest City’ recalls the ‘Fishing Village To Thriving Metropolis’ cliche.
SPF200 strips away the political consciousness at the heart of these events and flattens them into meaningless episodes of chaos and disorder. In doing so, it erases history.
I get it. It’s the SPF’s exhibit. It’s their birthday. There is limited space and budget. However, birthdays are not just celebratory occasions, but also a time to take stock and reflect, no? As it stands, the show is an exercise in strategic amnesia.