Reflecting on History for A Better Future
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Friends and Colleagues from the National Library Board, National Archives of Singapore
and also the Ministry of Communications and Information,
It is a real pleasure to be with you this Sunday afternoon. First, I want to say that I am very happy to join you all today to celebrate the reopening of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) building. I know that there have been many hands who have been involved in making this happen, and bringing it to fruition – I want to thank all of you for the role that you have played. I also want to extend a special welcome to my colleague, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, who was involved in this from the beginning. The reopening of the National Archives of Singapore in this year, 2019, is apposite for it coincides with the commemoration of our Singapore Bicentennial; a commemoration that comprises a year-long series of events for us to remember and understand our long and diverse history, and to reimagine our future.
2 The archives hold a special place in every society. They are important custodians who preserve records, documents and recollections from our shared past. But even more, they are a treasure trove of our history and heritage that enliven the present and secure our future by informing our identity as a nation. I just returned from a visit to the Republican Archives and State Archives in Turkey. There, I was introduced to the term Hazine-i Evrak, and what it translates to is “Treasury of Documents” – and I thought this term is a fitting description of the importance and mission of the Archives.
Guardians of Our Heritage and History
3 Dr Goh Keng Swee was instrumental in launching the Oral History Centre within the NAS. In the preface to his Collected Speeches, Dr Goh emphasised that the intent was to remind Singaporeans of “the riotous episodes of the past two decades”, and outline the challenges “we experienced, in our quest for a decent living in a not too hospitable environment”.
4 And indeed, since its inception in 1968 as the National Archives and Record Centre, NAS has been quietly and meticulously recording these ‘riotous episodes’ - collecting, documenting, archiving, remembering, promoting and educating Singaporeans on the Singapore Story.
5 Over a span of only fifty years, the NAS collection has grown to number more than 5 million photographs, 200,000 audiovisual items, 44,000 private records, and 7,500 Straits Settlement documents and other volumes. This collection of authentic records built up over 5 decades has played an important role in supporting the government to make informed decisions, including defending our rights under international law.
6 Not many would be aware that the National Archives of Singapore made a significant contribution to our legal claim to Pedra Branca at the International Court of Justice in 2008. From painstakingly locating archival records to scrutinising documents and carefully transcribing manuscripts for the legal team, the hard work that NAS researchers put into supporting the trial spanned many years. Over and above the professionalism of our NAS officers, that experience underscored the critical importance of preserving our public and private archival records.
7 To fulfil its mission, NAS has been building its capabilities in archival preservation. NAS has invested in technology that will better allow us to preserve and digitise a wide range of archival documents, regardless of the medium and the format. The revamped building here also houses conservation laboratories with improved equipment to help our conservators in restoring old records, some predating 1819.
8 The growing expertise and efforts of the NAS has also drawn international attention. For example, I am pleased to share that the inaugural Memorandum of Understanding was recently signed in February to facilitate the digitisation of Turkey-based collections. In fact, just last Wednesday, the Chief Executive Officer of NLB just presented the Turkish State Archives with digital copies of records that chronicle the close ties Singapore and Turkey have developed for 50 years since establishing diplomatic relations in 1969. We look forward to more of such meaningful exchanges.
9 However, beyond conserving the past, NAS has reinvented and rejuvenated itself to keep pace with the times.
Reinventing: Making History Accessible & Relevant
10 The NAS is committed to bringing Singapore’s history beyond the walls of Canning Rise. Researchers and history enthusiasts can now retrieve archival records at the click of a button from their offices or homes. Physical access to records has also been enhanced with the revamped Archives offering newer machines and a research environment that is more conducive to the needs of its users. NAS has also been connecting with Singaporeans through digital channels, such as social media campaigns and audio-visual records broadcast on Toggle. This is important in reaching out to a younger demographic, a younger generation of Singaporeans who are digital natives.
11 Apart from our permanent exhibitions at the Former Ford Factory and the National Gallery on World War II and the history of Singapore’s constitution, NAS has been bringing collections to Singaporeans in the heartlands with the ‘Jubilee Photo Studio’. It is a travelling exhibition featuring photographs that showcase life in Singapore over a span of 100 years, from the 1890s to the 1980s. I urge all Singaporeans to visit the exhibition when it comes to a library near your homes.
12 Another key role of the archives is to give Singaporeans a deeper understanding of the government’s role in the early years of nation-building. To this end, NAS is working hard on declassifying and making many government records and policies relevant to the general public accessible under the Singapore Policy History project. Thirteen policy themes have been curated and we can expect more later this year. I hope Singaporeans will gain a new and valuable perspective on our public policies.
Rejuvenating: Onward to the next Jubilee
13 The NAS is also exploring ways of rejuvenating interest in our history, breathing new life into it with initiatives that will foster in our fellow citizens a stronger sense of ownership of our Singapore Story. Already we have seen active participation in NAS’s public calls for historical materials and volunteers to transcribe and translate old documents. Since the launch of the Citizen Archivist Project, more than 28,000 pages and 1,800 photos have been transcribed and described by some 460 volunteers.
14 Another key initiative is the Community Oral History Committees (COHC), a concerted effort to record different aspects of the Singapore community and fill history gaps with private accounts of major events in our history. These are treasured memories which, unless recorded and preserved in a timely manner, would be lost forever.
15 It is my pleasure today also to launch the NAS publication, 50 Records from History: Highlights from the National Archives of Singapore. The book showcases 50 records from as far back as 1819. It is a fine example of a collaborative effort that brings together our researchers and generous donors, and allows Singaporeans to better appreciate how far we have come as a country.
16 At this point, I also want to recognise and thank Mr Ronni Pinsler. Mr Pinsler very generously donated over 15,000 images from the 1970s to the 1990s, documenting the traditional Taoist practices of the Chinese community in Singapore. This was before a time when there were smartphones, so he was a very dedicated chronicler of the time. We hope we have done justice with his generous donation by immortalising his photographs in a book that we can share with all Singaporeans and friends of Singapore.
17 While the general public’s responses to NAS’s initiatives have been encouraging, it is always a challenge to make history relevant to the younger generation, in this age of social media and the Internet. This is why NAS has also been working closely with schools to introduce programmes that will help our students develop an appreciation for and understanding of Singapore’s history, and connect them in engaging and tangible ways to key historical events. One example is the Reminiscence Exchange Hub project, an intergenerational effort that will connect young people with the elderly using NAS’s collection for group reminiscence work. I am heartened to see our younger generation show keen interest and enthusiasm in our heritage, and look forward to more exciting offerings from the NAS.
18 For the 50 years that have gone by, NAS has remained steadfast in its commitment to safeguard historical records of national significance to Singapore. And there is still much to be accomplished, for as our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew put it, “Human history, wherever it is, whichever part of the world it is, is an unending process.”
19 NAS’s continuing journey in preserving our heritage, while reinventing and rejuvenating itself to serve Singaporeans better, is only possible because of the team behind it. We have a rich repository of resources, but we need to continue to build on it, and also find ways to bring it closer to our people through innovative efforts and channels. The dedication of NAS staff, the generous support of our donors, volunteers and all who have contributed are essential to NAS’s mission. I want to thank all of you for your commitment and dedication to NAS’ mission. With your continued support, I am confident that the National Archives of Singapore will continue to scale greater heights.
20 Once again, my heartiest congratulations to the National Archives of Singapore. It gives me great pleasure to declare the NAS open. Thank you very much.