Men in work-stained clothes and yellow safety helmets walk towards me, smiling. Behind them looms a port. Close by is an unappealing construction site where more men are tinkering with gigantic machines spewing smoke and ash; columns of steel and slabs of stone are seen and, in the far background high-rises reach into the blue sky.

The scene could be Chennai in 2014 or any city — caught in a frenzy of modernisation. Time seems to have stood still and deja vu takes on a new meaning. But this is Singapore. The scenes are vividly depicted in oil paintings at an exhibition titled ‘A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s and 1970s’ at the National Museum of Singapore. The paintings described are Shipyard by Lee Boon Wang and Construction of Sheares Bridge by Lai Kui Fang and is curated by Daniel Tham and Szan Tan. The exhibition, which ends on March 16, attempts at unfolding a narrative of the transformation Singapore went through in the mid 20th Century.

“While the exhibition focuses on the local context, many of the themes have regional and global relevance. The context of decolonisation and nationalism in the 1950s in Singapore must be situated, for example, in the wider worldwide movement of post-War decolonisation. The changes associated with industrialisation and urbanisation are also global phenomena,” Daniel Tham says.

Occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, Singapore attained independence from the British in 1959. It was a time of riots, strikes and political uncertainty. The island-state merged with Malaysia in 1963 and, in 1965, declared its political independence. This period of flux — political changes, nationalism, anti-colonialism, income and class inequality, the march to freedom, economic changes and, finally, stability — is represented.

Tham explains, “We divided the exhibition into two main sections – Contexts and Conditions, and Emerging Modernities. Contexts and Conditions establishes the geographical context and socio-political conditions that Singapore artists grappled with in the immediate post-War period, while Emerging Modernities explores the idea of modernity both in the development of art as well as in Singapore’s own modernisation process in the context of political independence and rapid industrialisation and urbanisation from the 1960s.”

The exhibition explores three decades of changes in Singapore’s public life through art and depicts construction and destruction, euphoria and fear, natural beauty and urban development, the traditional and the modern, old and young, immigrants and natives, rich, poor and middle class.

There are over 120 paintings, drawings, prints, woodcuts and sculptures from the national collection. The exhibition covers styles ranging from Social Realism to Cubism to Op Art to Chinese paintings.

Tham says it is difficult to single out a single definitive work but one painting that introduces the main themes explored at the exhibition is Liu Kang’s National Day .

“Its hopeful and optimistic perspective reflects the artist’s own views on the newly-formed nation,” Tham explains. “Liu Kang’s depiction of the multi-ethnic composition of Singapore society is one of peaceful co-existence among the people and with Singapore’s colonial past as symbolised by the monumental City Hall and Supreme Court buildings in the background.”“The response so far has been overwhelming, with positive responses from both locals and foreigners seeking to learn more about Singapore and its art history,” he added.

As any visitor to Singapore will testify, it is indeed a changed world from the city of crowded streets, bustling bazaars, native settlements, fishermen colonies, hawkers and peddlers, a plural society with people of different ethnicities, a charged political environment, migrant workers, labour unrest, industrial development and much more.

Artists Many Singaporean artists were first-generation immigrants whose works reveal the influences of Social Realism through themes that speak of everyday hardships and attempt to forge a sense of community. Wang’s Shipyard and Kui’s Construction of Sheares Bridge portray realistic everyday scenes. Ong Kim Seng uses water colours, which had become a cheaper alternative to oils by the 1950s. His work stemmed from personal experience. His Jalan Bukit Merah Block 106 is a water colour rendition of the street his family was resettled to from a kampong (community houses of the Malays), with details of the scaffolding, a few construction workers but little normal activity.

Then there is Indian Workers Clearing a Jungle by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ founding principal Lim Hak Tai. The semi-abstract painting is dark and brooding, with strong lines suggesting grim realities. Just like Ong, Lim is paying tribute to the workers who, in his painting, are literally paving the way to the future.

Local Problems Apart from development and urbanisation, there are also tragic themes such as fires in kampongs and riots during nationalist movements. A woodcut titled Scene of Bukit Ho Swee Fire by Koeh Sia Yong of the most destructive fire, which destroyed 2,200 homes and left 2,833 families homeless in a kampong in post-War Singapore, leaves one stunned with its harsh black and white tone capturing the cruel reality of loss.

On the positive side, themes of empowerment are also featured. 1950s saw the emergence of a partnership between Chinese middle-school students and left-wing trade unions. There was the rise of Malayan consciousness with questions about deciding a national language, and issues of identity and language gaining prominence. Paintings such as Riot by Lim Hak Tai, Epic Poem of Malaya and National Language Class by Chua Mia Tee depict a class that was not only aware of political struggles but also participated in such debates. There is also Lim’s cubist inspired Riots , which collapses several events such as the Chinese students’ demonstrations and left-wing union strikes into one dark and chaotic canvas.

Yet another surrealist work, the face of the exhibition, is Ho Koe Ho’s A Conversation , which shows young boys from the military chatting in a desert. Ho’s young sons were drafted into the army to serve the two years of compulsory national service. While the painting, his response to the event, betrays his unhappiness with such forceful conscription it also reveals hope and happiness for his children.

A Tome If carefully observed, ‘A Changed World’ is like a history lesson. For a tourist, not very familiar with the precise turn of events in Singapore’s history, this exhibition was an eye-opener.

In no time I was drawing parallels between Singapore and Chennai. My Singaporean friend, who accompanied me to the exhibition, asked: “Why do you want to see this? It is like a history class.” (I am told many of these paintings are featured in Singapore’s history text books).

I told her there is nothing better than a beautiful enigmatic mixture of history and art.

And as I was leaving, near the entrance, I once again saw Chua Mia Tee’s painting A Road Construction Worker . Chua’s portrait of a nameless worker is astounding. The worker stares at me, the protruding veins on his hands, his slacking posture and his lost eyes all telling me he has perhaps given up. Resigned to his simple fate. Little does he know, his face now represents thousands of others like him telling people 50 years later, that he too was instrumental in this nation’s progress.

(The writer was recently in Singapore on a holiday.)