By Matthew Ethan Ramli (21S03F)
In an effort to connect ex-Rafflesians and the public to the institution, the Raffles Archives and Museum (RAM) recently launched its virtual exhibition. This event, as part of a wider countdown, marks the 850th day till RI’s bicentennial.
Visitors to the site are invited into a virtual replica of the museum, captured using 360-degree cameras and digital modelling. Akin to the streetscapes on Google Street View, site-users can navigate through the various exhibits by tapping on the intended location.
Included within the individual exhibits are write-ups and video interviews with Rafflesian principals, teachers, and students, both past and present. These interviews cover diverse aspects of the school’s recent past – from the first principal Mr Lee Fong Seng’s contributions to RJC’s birth, to the class newsletters introduced by long-serving English teacher Mrs Lim Jee Nee.
These interviews bequeath life to otherwise static displays, adding a human touch to shared social memories. Main curator Eugene Teo Rui Xian, then vice-chairman of the Y1-4 RAM Club, led the interview process with the other student members at the end of last year. In deciding which displays to expound upon, the team was guided by the vision of showcasing lesser-known, interesting parts of the school’s past.
The idea of a virtual exhibition has been around for a long time. RAM staff Ms Mary emphasised the need to provide those who want to learn more about RI with a convenient avenue to do so outside of the school website. The coming bicentennial, coupled with pandemic visiting restrictions, created an urgency to have this plan come to life. It is the museum’s hope that ex-Rafflesians, especially those currently overseas, can participate in the celebrations.
Gracing the launch event was former headmaster of RI (1986-1994) Mr Eugene Wijeysingha. Others in attendance include alumni who have contributed to the virtual exhibition, members of the Board of Governors, and current heads of the school administration.
As the person who first conceived the idea of having a fully-fledged school museum, Mr Wijeysingha was a fitting choice for Guest of Honour. He started as a humanities teacher at the Bras Basah campus, back when the staff had a membership of less than 50. In those days, he held the post of Sports Secretary, overseeing the institution’s sporting talent.
It was, too, at the school’s original campus that he was tasked by then acting principal Mr Wee Seong Kang to document the school’s history. Poring through documents dating back to the 19th Century, the research culminated in the publishing of the seminal book The Eagle Breeds A Gryphon. Many of the artefacts which he consulted in the research phase are now displayed at RAM.
With the demolition of the Bras Basah campus to make way for Raffles City Shopping Centre, the school then moved to Grange Road in 1972. Past students and teachers at Grange Road remember Mr Wijeysingha for his strict discipline and eloquent speeches.
As headmaster, he oversaw a second relocation of the school to the current Bishan campus. He championed the idea of establishing the museum and saw to its opening in 1994 before retiring.
“That which I make reference to is the fighting spirit, the never-say-die-till-a-dead-horse-kicks-you syndrome. It is the fire in one’s belly, the verve and dynamism, the grit and the determination that cause a person to rise from the depths of despair and frustration and to ride to the top.”
Mr Wijeysingha opened his speech with his signature self-deprecating humour. “RI has reached a rather questionable time in its long history. For a long time RI had never had any problems identifying a guest of honour.”
“Amongst the decaying leaves they found a decrepit, old principal, yanked him out, and threatened him with bodily harm if he declined,” he continued, inviting chuckles from the guests.
Light-hearted banter was followed by an impassioned question: “Does RI even justify a museum of its own? After all, RI is just another secondary school.” It sent the room into an uneasy silence, interrogating one’s belief in the importance of carrying on the school’s traditions.
To this, Mr Wijeysingha has two answers. “RI has a long history that goes back to the very beginning of modern Singapore”, he first responds, “RI [has grown] scholars that make direct contributions to the well-being of Singaporeans. And on this platform alone, RI has every right to be a national icon.”
His second justification for having a museum is to imbue in current students the school’s “culture of excellence, which gives expression to the philosophy of meritocracy”. It is on this premise that he intended to convert the whole school into a living museum with constant reminders of the legacies of those who have come before. The portraits and plaques of alumni all around the campus serve to inspire students with a vision to excel in anything they pursue, be it in the classroom or on the field.
Of the virtual exhibition, Mr Wijeysingha praised it as elevating the museum to a “supernatural level”, to heights unimagined at RAM’s first conception.
Current principal Mr Frederick Yeo, further added that it is imperative that RAM – in every shape and form — continues capturing a “history that is never static, a history that is dynamic”.
The RAM virtual exhibition can be found here. As the school approaches its Bicentennial in 2023, RAM will strive to use VRAM as an avenue for outreach and in the long run, as a platform for future historical developments regarding the school’s vibrant history.