New committees to be formed to help collect Singapore's oral history

Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim (right) chatting with guests at the National Library Building's Contributing to Singapore's History event.
Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim (right) chatting with guests at the National Library Building's Contributing to Singapore's History event.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

SINGAPORE - At the height of the 1997 financial crisis, Mr Heng Chye Yam bought over a business which made moulds for small paper products, such as carpark coupons. Although he faced initial challenges due to poor economic conditions, his risky decision paid off.

"We realised that the business was going to be sustainable. Because of the crisis, there were more orders for smaller products, instead of larger items. The demand for packaging increased," said Mr Heng, 63, managing director of industrial equipment supplier Metalwood.

He was one in more than 4,500 interviewees who have their stories recorded in the National Archives of Singapore's (NAS) Oral History Centre. And the centre wants to seek help from the community to record more interviews like these.

It announced on Thursday (June 15) that it will start forming community oral history committees for Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians in Singapore.

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The committees will work closely with community stakeholders, such as heritage centres, to develop Singapore's oral history collection so that it is comprehensive and representative of its society.

Previously, the oral history interviews were conducted by NAS staff, but now, the committee will be getting volunteer interviewers to collect people's oral histories too. The volunteer interviewers will receive training from NAS Oral History Centre.

The centre has already collected more than 23,000 hours' worth of interviews, over some 30 projects, since 1979. They cover a wide range of topics, from politics and the civil service, to vanishing trades, the performing arts, broadcasting and medical services.

The community oral history committees will be reviewed on a two-year basis. The Malay committee has already been formed, while committees for the other racial groups are still being finalised.

The oral histories are available to the public through the NAS' Archives Online portal.

NAS oral history specialist Mark Wong said: "By forming these committees, we want to let people know that oral histories are important, and that anyone can collect them."

Going forward, the NAS is planning to accept more oral history donations from the public, but its focus will remain on collecting them through its interviews, said Mr Wong.

Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim told reporters at the National Library Building's Contributing to Singapore's History event: "Our oral history tradition is very rich and the Archives and Oral History Centre has been doing a lot of work to interview key personalities in our history.

"But we recognise there are gaps, and we want to make the collection a lot richer. We're setting up the committees to help identify new interviewees, to fill the gaps in our oral history."