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.


2 thoughts on “History, Place and Singapore”

  1. A very interesting post. It is always fascinating to see the evolution of public history in other societies, especially one with which we have some shared history. The language of urban planners in Singapore and Sydney is depressingly very similar. With regard to access to archives, older historians will remember more restrictive approaches here not so long ago, and I’m not convinced that the degree of openness we currently have should be taken for granted, and of course that varies across jurisdictions. It doesn’t seem as though the time is yet ripe for a PHA Singapore?

    • I agree Bruce that we should never take access to archives for granted. With budget cuts, some archives in the US have had to drastically cut public access.

      I think that professional history is at an interesting juncture in Singapore. At this stage the Singapore Heritage Society (note, that it is heritage, not history) caters for historians, but maybe with increasing public debate about history and recognition by ordinary Singaporeans of the important role it has in society, opportunities may open up for professional historians in future.

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