National archives pioneer Lily Tan dies at age 70

Relatives and friends at Mrs Lily Tan's wake yesterday. They recalled her passion for documenting Singapore's history. She spent 33 years with the National Archives of Singapore, including 22 years as its director. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG P
Relatives and friends at Mrs Lily Tan's wake yesterday. They recalled her passion for documenting Singapore's history. She spent 33 years with the National Archives of Singapore, including 22 years as its director. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Colleagues and relatives paid tribute to Mrs Lily Tan yesterday, recalling how the former director of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) had a "great passion" for documenting the Republic's history.

Mrs Tan died at her Bukit Timah home after suffering a heart attack on Sunday. She was 70.

She is known for being one of the archives' major driving forces after spending 33 years with the organisation - including 22 as its director from 1979.

"Mrs Tan was there from the very start as the only local and professionally trained archivist when NAS was set up in 1968," said Ms Julia Chee, deputy director of its Oral History Centre. "The NAS grew from about 10 staff members when it was established to more than 80 members when she left her post as senior director in 2001."

Mrs Tan retired in 2003 after two years as senior director of the National Heritage Board's heritage services department.

Ms Chee said it was a pity she never got to finish recording her own story with the Oral History Centre and talk about the projects she championed.

Mrs Tan helped to raise the archives' profile, fighting for ministry funding for different projects, and eventually securing a home for it at the Old Hill Street Police Station in 1980.

Her second daughter, Diane Tan, 31, told The Straits Times that her mother was involved in oral history related projects after retirement, such as conducting interviews with prominent Singaporean personalities, and had recorded an hour's worth of her own life story with the centre.

Ms Tan, who is a lawyer, said her mother's death came as a shock: "We thought her condition was under control."

Mrs Tan leaves behind another daughter, Ms Karen Tan, 33, who is self-employed. Mrs Tan's husband, librarian Tan Tock Cheow, died seven years ago at age 65.

Ms Diane Tan recalls that the bulk of family dinner conversations centred on the role of history in current affairs.

"My mum was an intellectual with great passion for Singapore's history. We would often have lively conversations about what we can learn from our past," she said.

Mrs Tan received the Long Service Medal in 1993 and silver Public Administration Medal in 1995 for her NAS work.

As a board member of the former Preservation of Monuments Board, she fought for the conservation of buildings like the Armenian Church and the former Thong Chai Medical Institution.

Former NAS director Pitt Kuan Wah, 55, said she was someone who made life easier for future archivists and contributed to the growth of Singapore's archives.

Mrs Tan's wake is being held at 34, Jalan Kakatua. Her cremation will be at 3.45pm tomorrow at Mandai Crematorium Hall 3.

melodyz@sph.com.sg

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