History, Place and Singapore


The architect of the Republic of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew died¬†on 23 March 2015, in the fiftieth year of the island nation’s independence. Yvonne Perkins recently interviewed Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn, an historian who has been working in Singapore for over twenty years. Her post reveals how history is evolving in the state over which Lee Kuan Yew had such close control until 2011.

Since receiving his doctorate at the University of Queensland Blackburn has been based at Singapore’s National Institute of Education researching the experiences of Australians, Singaporeans and Malaysians during the Second World War. He has an interest in heritage and oral history.

The practice of history can vary substantially around the world, as it is dependent on the archives available to the historian, discourse in the public sphere and the regulatory environment in which the historian works. As Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn explains, Singapore presents some challenges to historians wishing to research there.

The conditions for the exercise of historical skills in Singapore are not easy because many of the records of the state are closed. For the release of Singapore state records, there is no fixed period of time after which state documents must be declassified and made available for public access.

(Blackburn 2013, p. 449).

Blackburn expanded on these comments for readers of the PHA NSW blog.

‘Historians cannot access Cabinet, Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Defence records’, he said. ‘While Education and Health records are lodged with the National Archives, in order to access these historians have to request that these records are declassified. The Departments are not obliged to release any documents.’ Access to historical records in Singapore is a matter of negotiation rather than a simple request.

The National Archives of Singapore sees their role quite differently to similar archives in Australia.¬†¬†‘They want to interpret the past for the public’, Blackburn said, noting that the Archives publish many books drawing on the archives and have an exhibition program. Likewise the Internal Security Department does not allow any access to their historic documents, but interprets the past for the public through their own heritage centre.

Noting Ian Willis’ recent post about the role of historians in public debates about planning, I asked Blackburn what role historians play in such public debates in Singapore. Blackburn explained that historians avoid politics and don’t get involved in debates about planning decisions. Access to archives is a matter of delicate negotiation that can be upset by public criticism of government planning decisions. However the Singapore Heritage Society, an organisation to which many of Singapore’s historians belong, acts as an advocacy group on history and heritage issues.

Visitors to Singapore are aware that it is a global city which features high density housing, tall office blocks and a shortage of space. They are pleasantly surprised by the amount of open space and gardens that feature in Singapore. Despite Singapore setting an example to the world in urban planning it is very difficult for historians to access historic records about the urban development of Singapore.¬†¬†‘Technocrats are not comfortable about having their decisions examined’, observed Blackburn.

However, changes are gradually developing in the public sphere. ‘In the past the government would threaten defamation and that would quieten people’, said Blackburn. ‘Now government wants to win arguments.’

Blackburn noted that a movement seeking more preservation of the past is developing through social media, blogs in particular. Most Singapore history blogs are about nostalgia and memories. They generally avoid openly challenging the government. Even so, Blackburn believes that bloggers are bringing about change.

About ten years ago bodies at the historic Bidadari Cemetery were exhumed in preparation for the construction of a major public housing development. Now the debate has moved onto a significant cemetery for the Chinese Diaspora, the Bukit Brown Cemetery. Hosting approximately 100,000 graves and possibly the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, a number of blogs have emerged in support of its preservation. The enthusiasm of the bloggers has been picked up by the influential pro-government newspaper, The Straits Times and the UN Rapporteur of Cultural Rights has noted the importance of this site as well as the need for strong community participation in plans about its future. The cemetery is currently on the World Monuments Watch list which is a list of significant cultural heritage sites around the world the World Monuments Fund regard as threatened.

Singapore Turns 50

History and nation are intricately entwined. This is most evident during the charged public debates about national history that erupt whenever a nation is having an anniversary. Australia witnessed this in 1988. Singapore is experiencing such a debate this year, its fiftieth year as an independent nation.

Even a casual reader of The Straits Times will be aware of the government complaints about ‚Äėrevisionist historians‚Äô, and the government‚Äôs energetic defence of past policies and actions concerning internal security in the early years of independence. This debate has spilled over into an Australian publication, New Mandala, which late last year featured an oft-cited article by the High Commissioner of Singapore to Australia that rebutted criticism of the Singaporean government‚Äôs position.

Such debates and the varying interpretations about Singapore‚Äôs history are seen by Blackburn as a positive sign of the development of public discourse in Singapore.¬†¬†‘It may be that full “democratisation” only arrives when a state‚Äôs history is being questioned, complemented, and discussed by ordinary people’, Blackburn observed two years ago (Blackburn: 2013, p. 454).

In Singapore’s fiftieth anniversary year, historians around the world will be able to observe the growing prominence of historical issues in Singapore’s current affairs.


Exploring pain

In this profile, the PHA NSW & ACT membership officer, Judith Godden (PhD Macq, BA(Hons) UNE, MPH (a.e.g.) USyd, Dip   Ed. UNE, FACN(hon), MPHA) talks about her forays into medical history.

me GB launch

What is your current position/area of historical interest:

I’m into pain at the moment! I specialise in the history of medicine and my commissioned history, The Australian Pain Society: the first 35 years, will be launched in Brisbane on 15 March 2015.    Although done under the all-too-usual conditions of haste, I had wonderful support from the Society. Two major problems I encountered will be relevant to anyone negotiating a commission involving recent history. First, the Society’s digital photos were designed to be published on the web so were too low a resolution to be of use in the print publication. Consequently the search for high resolution photos became inordinately time-consuming and frustrating. The other problem is one we will all become increasingly familiar with: that of records saved in now obsolete electronic formats.

bonicaFrom 1944 this man was largely responsible for a paradigm shift in our understanding of pain. He helped¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† introduce a radical new emphasis on multi-disciplinary pain treatment. All hail Professor John (Giovanni) Bonica ‚Äď you may not know it, but he made a difference to your life! (Photo courtesy International Association for the Study of Pain.)

A previous commissioned work was on the history of Crown Street Women’s Hospital: it’s the hospital which took in most of the poorest women in Sydney, was a major centre for adoptions and the centre of the thalidomide scandal in Sydney. Unfortunately, since the death of the person who commissioned it, and despite a very supportive Advisory Committee, it remains in publishing limbo. I am indebted to the support of Laila Ellmoos when she was PHA President, in this sadly ongoing saga.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I‚Äôve had a number of careers but keep coming back to history. My specialisation in the history of medicine began with a two-year contract position at the then Institute of Nursing Studies ‚Äď I stayed for over 20 years as it morphed into the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sydney, then had a final three years at the School of Public Health.

Who is the audience for your history?

That depends: my Lucy Osburn, a Lady Displaced. Florence Nightingale‚Äôs Envoy to Australia and Crown Street history were meant to be a scholarly work accessible to anyone (as the former was shortlisted for the National Biography Award, I think I succeeded in that one!), while others have been targeted at a more specialised audience. ¬†One at least has multinational appeal: my (with Carol Helmstadter), Nursing before Nightingale, 1815‚Äď1899 ¬†is on English history, written by a Canadian and an Australian, and won an American award!

What‚Äôs your favourite historical source, book, website or film? Given my experience writing the history of the Australian Pain Society, it‚Äôs any source in an accessible, usable format! Other than that, I love the State Records Special Bundles ‚Äď wonderful that some clerk/s has sorted all the relevant information in a way so suited for a historian. Family historians are another great source, especially when there is reciprocal sharing of information.

If you had a time machine, where would you go? Nowhere unless I was absolutely sure I could get back! I do not want to get sick in the past!

Why is history important today? How can you understand any issue without knowing what led up to it? As the commemorations of World War I show us, a history which seeks to understand another world view is a vital correction to simplistic world views.

[Feature image reproduced under Creative Commons from:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurological_disorder#/media/File:Pyramidal_hippocampal_neuron_40x.jpg ]

Past history


One of my day jobs is teaching plain English to public servants. I encourage them to embrace accuracy, brevity and clarity and therefore to abandon tautologies. I’ve given up suggesting¬†that you can’t have a¬†new initiative and that, if you have to voice an opinion in government writing, it does not have to be personal. To underline the point, I have also asked if ‘past history’ is a tautology. Most say yes but I’m scrapping that phrase because, of course, you can have past history. That’s the beauty of our profession: the story is never complete.

I’ve been prompted to post this thought on our blog by the publicity surrounding Geoffrey Blainey’s most recent book and by the flood of popular material on Gallipoli. In The Story of Australia’s People Volume 1: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia¬† Blainey returns to subjects he first explored in 1975,¬†retelling the story of Australia up until 1850.¬† It is reported that he has changed his view about vital aspects of Indigenous and early British history and has explored¬†other aspects for the first time.¬†Good on him! Controversial as he may still be, this is the approach historians should take, discarding old attitudes and drawing on new evidence. Yes, there can be past history.

It is a shame, therefore, that as we appraoch the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, we are¬†being subjected to so much that is, in the words of historian Peter Stanley, mawkish. He was referring to Channel 9’s mini-series, which has not captured the ratings. Some reviewers have attributed this disappointment to¬†Australian viewers being¬†tired of the story of the carnage. They preferred to watch My Kitchen Rules. The worry is that this will dissuade producers from tackling history on TV. Then again, it may be¬†that Australians are ready for new histories. Let’s see how they react to Deadline Gallipoli ¬†playing on Foxtel in April, which promises a fresh look at the Gallipoli legend from the perspective ¬†of four war correspondents, including ¬†Charles Bean and Keith Murdoch.