Our current set of banknotes, known as the Portrait Series, is the fourth and longest-running set issued in Singapore. First printed on 9 September 1999 to welcome the new millennium, it was preceded by the ship series (1984-1999), the bird series (1976-1984) and the earliest orchid series (1967-1976). The series was illustrated by Eng Siak Loy, the first and only Singaporean artist to date to design our bills.
Most of us would recognise our first president, Yusof Ishak, featured on the front of these bills. But here’s the million-dollar question: do you know what is illustrated on the back of our $2, $5, $10, $50, $100, $1,000 and $10,000 dollar bills, and what each bill’s theme signifies for Singapore?
$2 banknote: Education
Education has always been the backbone of Singapore’s stable growth. Thanks to the foresight and persistence of our founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in pushing for an educated society, Singapore today enjoys one of the highest adult literacy rates in the world at 97%.
The theme of ‘Education’ is represented by the three institutions drawn on this bill: Victoria Bridge School (now known as Victoria School), Old Raffles Institution at Bras Basah Road, and the College of Medicine, Singapore’s first medical school.
Our $2 note may be the smallest denomination, but it is also the most frequently used by Singaporeans. This may be a reminder that education needs to be as widespread as this everyday bill!
$5 banknote: Garden City
The “Garden City” vision was introduced in 1967 by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, to transform Singapore into a liveable city with abundant, lush greenery. In its initial phase, an intensive tree-planting programme saw over 55,000 new trees being planted by the end of 1970. These form the many tree-lined pathways we shuffle under on a warm, sunny day.
Considered the simplest amongst the other designs, this bill features our national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, as well as the best-known tree in Singapore, the leaning Tembusu tree found near the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ Tanglin entrance. Did you know that the Garden, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, is the world’s first and only tropical garden inscribed to the list?
$10 banknote: Sports
Before Olympic gold-medalist Joseph Schooling caught the world’s attention, Singapore has already had a steady record of good performances in regional and international sporting meets. In fact, Tan Howe Liang (left) won Singapore’s first Olympic medal way back in 1960, clinching silver for lightweight weightlifting. Freestyle swimmer Yip Pin Xiu (bottom) also broke waves in 2008 to clinch our first gold medal at the Paralympic Games.
Our $10 banknote — which features athletes sailing, swimming, running, and playing badminton and soccer — pays tribute to the many sportsmen and women who have done us proud over the years.
$50 banknote: Arts
Music and the fine arts take centre stage on our $50 bill to represent our cultural journey. It features four traditional instruments of our dominant ethnic groups: the veena, violin, pipa, and kompang (clockwise from bottom left). While each ethnic group has its own distinctive sound, music groups here can be heard performing each other’s cultural tunes or seen coming together to form fusion ensembles.
The note also features renowned local artists Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Drying Salted Fish’ and Chen Wen Hsi’s ‘Gibbons Fetch the Moon from the Water’. These two art pioneers have been credited as shaping the Singaporean ‘Nanyang’ style of art, which draws influences from Chinese ink and western oil paintings, much like Singapore’s mixed heritage.
$100 banknote: Youth
Our military defence is one of the core Total Defence pillars. When Singapore first gained independence, then-Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee mooted for the conscription of young men to form our military force, as part of national service. The reverse of the $100 bill features a National Service officer with his ceremonial sabre, a symbol of responsibility bestowed to officers after they have graduated from training school.
It is vital for our youth to be aware of Singapore’s vulnerability, and for them to take on a personal responsibility to protect our home. Hence, the banknote also features uniformed youths alongside the officer, and they represent the Singapore Red Cross, the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, the Singapore Scout Association, and the National Police Cadet Corps, which make up a part of our civil defence.
$1,000 banknote: Government
Parliament House, the Istana, and the Old Supreme Court (left to right): these buildings represent our executive, legislative and judiciary systems respectively. Together, they ensure that Singapore’s Government remains just and uncorrupted, by keeping each other in check.
The oldest building of the three, the Istana was built in 1869 and first housed the colonial governor. Today, it is the official residence of our presidents and its beautiful lawns are opened to the public on selected public holidays. The Old Supreme Court, which was completed later in 1939, was Singapore’s former courthouse, later converted into the National Gallery in 2015. The new Parliament House, built to accommodate the fast-growing numbers of parliament members, was completed in 1999– the same year the Portrait Series was released.
$10,000 banknote: Economics
Our $10,000 banknote is the second most valuable note in the world, right after the USD $10,000 note. What our largest tender represents is our big hopes for the economy (#bigmoney, #bigmoney). On its reverse, it features Singapore as a knowledge-based economy, with biotechnology, high-tech components and research laboratories.
In our short independent history, we have quickly progressed from a manufacturing-based economy, to a skill-based economy, and now to an economy that focuses on innovations and breaking new grounds. What are your hopes for Singapore’s economic future?
The next time you take out some money from your wallet, take a look at what is drawn on the paper note and reflect on what a successful Singapore looks like and mean to you.