Unveiling Siapa Nama Kamu? Singapore’s journey through artistic identity

Published on 14 March 2024
By Team Catch

Who are we? Where do we come from, and where do we want to go? As Singapore marks its 58th year, it is timely to mull over questions of national identity

As Singapore hits the milestone of its 58th year, let's dive into the vibrant tapestry of our national identity.

The local arts scene—be it visual arts, theatre, or music—can be a fertile ground for this. If you’re looking to be inspired, the National Gallery Singapore’s long-running exhibition, Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century, may be a good place to start. 

A national identity 

Since its inception in 2015, this captivating exhibition boasts around 300 artworks spanning from the 19th century to contemporary modernity. 

It takes its name from Siapa Nama Kamu? (What is your name?), a question scribbled on a blackboard in National Language Class (1959), Chua Mia Tee’s famous oil painting of students learning Malay.

Artist Chua Mia Tee’s 1959 oil painting of National Language Class featured in National Gallery Singapore

Catch this exhibition and learn more of Singapore’s artistic history!

In the painting, a boy stands up to read from a book while his cikgu (teacher) and classmates from different backgrounds—some in school uniforms, others in Western-style dress or traditional samfulook on.


It is an extraordinarily life-like piece of work. If you look closely enough, you may realise that the boy has a mourning cloth pinned to his left sleeve, and the young lady on the far right is none other than Chua’s wife Lee Boon Ngan. 

Siapa Nama Kamu? What is your name? The answer might seem straightforward. But in 1959, the year Singapore achieved self-governance, it would have touched a nerve as the fraught topic of national identity—“Who am I? Who are we?”—weighed on people’s minds.

Southern Seas, social realities

Chua’s painting is just one of many masterpieces on display in Siapa Nama Kamu? The exhibition, a helpful survey of Singapore’s art history from colonial to more recent times, has a wide selection of paintings, sculptures and other fascinating works.


Artist Liu Kang’s 1975 Life by the River, an oil on canvas, featured in National Gallery Singapore

Find beautiful artworks that reflect Singapore’s past realities.

They range from Nanyang-style (“Southern Seas”) ink paintings by artists such as Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi who migrated to the region from China, to the social realist paintings that defined many works from the 1950s onwards; and from abstract, minimalist works to performance art that broke out of the conventional “white cube” gallery space. 


As you wander through the gallery, you may find yourself swept up in nostalgia, reflecting on a time where calligraphers and ice kacang vendors were still a common sight on the streets. 

Other works reminisce about Singapore's early days of nation-building and the social realities of the time. These include the male labourer and samsui woman in Lai Foong Moi’s Lunch Break (1965), and the unlicensed hawkers hurrying away from the police in Koeh Sia Yong’s Here They Come! (1965). Lai Kui Fang’s Construction of Sheares Bridge (1976), meanwhile, offers a view of a construction site with skyscrapers looming in the distance.

Siapa Nama Kamu? is an opportunity for visitors to think about how far Singapore has progressed in terms of development, and what it might have lost in this journey. But it also raises other questions: What is the role of art in society? What is art? 

Maybe this is what it means to look back on our art history: to recognise that our stories of ourselves and our past are neither static nor definitive, but in a constant state of change.

Siapa Nama Kamu? Explore this question and more at the National Gallery Singapore’s DBS Singapore Gallery, open daily from 10am to 7pm. Admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

All images are credited to National Gallery Singapore.

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