29 March 2016
50 and Beyond
Wan Wee Pin

“It takes a lot of work to build the future” – so says Mr Wan Wee Pin, Deputy Director (Singapore Future Exhibition) with the Ministry of National Development. Last year, Mr Wan and his team worked to provide a fitting close to Singapore’s Jubilee celebrations through The Future of Us exhibition, a look at the possibilities ahead of us as a nation. On 8 March, the last day of the exhibition, we caught up with Mr Wan as he dashed between his duties, a heavy afternoon downpour having failed to dampen his spirit, or that of his team members and volunteers.

Sketching the Future
Before joining the team in March 2015, I had worked on programming, publishing, marketing and exhibitions at the National Library Board. Once we all got together, we had nine months to conceptualise and realise the exhibition.

We quickly got in touch with various public agencies, companies and organisations; talked to them; envisioned how their ideas and content would be showcased; and put it all together, right down to the details of how each bit of information would be featured.

The actual name for the exhibition, “The Future of Us” came fairly early. A title like “Singapore’s Future” or “The Future of Singapore” can seem definitive, but we wanted something that was more exploratory, inclusive; a name that conveyed how all of us have a stake in what lies beyond SG50.

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Painting the Future
This sense of inclusion was also reflected in how we approached each aspect of the exhibition. One challenge was the sheer number of public agencies, companies and organisations involved – about 150 in all. When we decided that our narrative would focus on painting a picture of what our future could be, they began sharing with us what they were researching or working on for the years and decades ahead. And that was very exciting – when we talk about things to come, we have more space to showcase the possibilities. Ultimately, we decided on a blend of prototypes and dreams of the future, many of which were shared with us by members of the public.

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Experiencing the Future
Another challenge for us was striking a balance between conveying information and making the exhibition an emotional and engaging experience for visitors – this was very tough. We knew there are other avenues and opportunities for the “hard” information to be shared, but if the experience itself didn’t touch people and make them engage with the future, we would have failed.

From a curatorial point of view, we had to be very disciplined. Our priority was to present meaningful content in such a way that even visitors who weren’t conversant in English could understand the visuals and story development. And this was a difficult process. The night before the exhibition opened, we were still refining little things, making sure that ideas and experiences were presented correctly.

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Engineering the Future
Many of the physical structures here are temporary – the domes, for example. But the main aluminium structure is one that we hope to retain. It was shared with us by students and researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design. We felt that as an example of local innovation, design and engineering, the structure expressed the exhibition’s themes very well. It’s a four-storey lattice structure that lets light pass through, and many visitors have found it striking.

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Sharing the Future
At this point, almost 400,000 people have visited the exhibition. It feels surreal now that it’s the last day; it will probably hit us a lot more when the final group of visitors complete the tour tonight and we switch off the lights for the last time and say “Okay, that’s the end.”

But before that, we will have an award ceremony for students and members of the public who took part in an art and video competition related to the exhibition. We wanted to do something special for them, on our very last evening. The rain has been really heavy this afternoon, but the students and their parents say that it will be fine; they will be here.

I have two kids myself, aged eight and four. My son, who’s older, understood the exhibition a bit more; he was excited by the models coming to life and so on. There was a sense of wonderment to it. And, of course, my kids loved the swings.

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The exhibition has also changed my understanding of things. I know the Singapore story and how we built a nation over 50 years, but sometimes, when you are too familiar with something, you may think it was inevitable how things turned out; that we succeeded because of some predetermined plan.

But when I went deep into The Future of Us, I learnt that this isn’t true. What we make of the future depends on our choices now. The future is not determined, but for us to create.

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