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Looking Back

Philippine history in Singapore

SINGAPORE IS a short bus-ride from Kuala Lumpur, and I am tempted to hop on one for a change of pace. A four- to five-hour trip is about the same time a bus-ride takes from Manila to Baguio, the only difference being that the de-luxe, double-deck buses in Singapore are very comfortable and have everything from lounge and food to movies and wi-fi for those who find boring the sight of a continuous landscape of rubber trees along the route. While most Filipinos go to Singapore for work or shopping, I’m drawn to the so-called Lion City by its food, museums and history. Three years ago, with the president of Singapore, S.R. Nathan, we unveiled a memorial to Rizal on a patch of green outside the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) that commemorates Rizal’s five visits in the late 19th-century, further underscoring the fact that the historic relations between the Philippines and Singapore antedate the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. As a result of this Rizal connection, there was a Philippine Festival organized in Singapore two years ago with landmark exhibits on the Philippines at the ACM, Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and the Philatelic Museum.

Unknown to many, Singapore has been quietly acquiring materials on Southeast Asia such that it will be a future regional hub for culture and arts research. SAM has an impressive collection of Philippine paintings—from Fabian de la Rosa to younger contemporary Filipino artists. They only need paintings of the 19th century masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo to complete the set. I typed out my name at the online public access catalogue (OPAC) of the National Library of Singapore and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had all of my books, including some obscure forgettable titles, which means they have been buying Filipiniana titles for some years now. I was also told that their Film Archive also boasts of a representative collection of Filipino films. All the films of Mike de Leon, for example, are deposited there—clean and with director’s notes. I cannot imagine what else they have. Decades ago, I used to wonder why a Filipino historian had to travel abroad to consult primary source materials on his own country. One day Singapore will be a research destination as well, but in the wired and digital age I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some time, much Philippine material will be available online.


The digital age is making the world a smaller place, and the materials available online could be better utilized and appreciated except that the lure of Facebook and porn is far greater than research. Now that Singapore has honored Rizal, maybe we could look up other historical connections.

Few people know that Emilio Aguinaldo sought refuge in Singapore in 1898, to escape a lawsuit in Hong Kong filed by greedy individuals who wanted the funds paid in accordance with the Pact of Biak-na-Bato to be liquidated and distributed among themselves. Aguinaldo deposited the funds in two banks, the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation, the grandpa of today’s HSBC, and Chartered Bank, insisting that the principal be preserved and that they live on interest. These funds were later used to re-ignite the revolution against Spain when it did not do its part of the agreement concluded in Biak-na-Bato.


It is significant that when Rizal and Aguinaldo visited Singapore, theirs was a country yet to be born. At the time of these visits, both the Philippines and Singapore were under foreign flags. Those visits gain relevance today simply because they provide a historical link, often underused in Philippine diplomacy, that antedates the births of our countries as free and independent nations.

Rizal visited the famous Singapore Botanical Garden not once but thrice, and one can only presume yet another marker is on the way. But one would wish the site of the house where Aguinaldo stayed, or perhaps the site where he met with a US consul and decided to return to the Philippines and continue the war of independence against Spain can be located, and a simple but appropriate marker will be installed there. After all, another revolutionist and father of his country, Ho Chi Minh, is also commemorated by a marker in Singapore.

One last obscure footnote to conclude today’s column concerns the generous donation of Singapore of the original documents relating to an unsuccessful attempt by Rizal’s friends, principally Regidor in London, to save him from trial and execution. Not well-known is the fact that the steamer that took Rizal back to the Philippines made a brief stopover in Singapore. The game plan was for a lawyer to argue in the Supreme Court of Singapore for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in favor of Rizal. He would then be offloaded from the steamer and presented bodily in court. This done, he was to be a free man. Unfortunately, the petition filed in October 1896 was not acted upon favorably, and Rizal met his fate in Bagumbayan on Dec. 30, 1896.

The original documents are preserved in the National Library of the Philippines now under the able stewardship of lawyer Antonio Santos, formerly of the UP Law Center Library. Surely these documents can be given a new interpretation by interested legal scholars and presented anytime during the Rizal@150 events.

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TAGS: Diplomacy, Emilio Aguinaldo, Foreign affairs & international relations, historical marker, Jose Rizal, monuments & heritage sites, Singapore
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