Ramping up efforts to capture rich oral history

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim at the Contributing to Singapore's History event held by the National Library yesterday. The minister is holding a picture of the Singapore team which won the 1977 Malaysia Cup. Dollah Kassim, who was part of that team, was one of t
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim at the Contributing to Singapore's History event held by the National Library yesterday. The minister is holding a picture of the Singapore team which won the 1977 Malaysia Cup. Dollah Kassim, who was part of that team, was one of the more than 4,500 interviewees who have had their stories recorded in the Oral History Centre. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim at the Contributing to Singapore's History event held by the National Library yesterday. The minister is holding a picture of the Singapore team which won the 1977 Malaysia Cup. Dollah Kassim, who was part of that team, was one of t
Mr Heng Chye Yam (above), 63, is one of the interviewees who have had their stories recorded, while Mr Ujagar Singh Gill, 88, helped to make the nation's first TV broadcast possible.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim at the Contributing to Singapore's History event held by the National Library yesterday. The minister is holding a picture of the Singapore team which won the 1977 Malaysia Cup. Dollah Kassim, who was part of that team, was one of t
Mr Heng Chye Yam, 63, is one of the interviewees who have had their stories recorded, while Mr Ujagar Singh Gill (above), 88, helped to make the nation's first TV broadcast possible.

Communities to play a key role in collecting Singapore stories

At the height of the 1997 financial crisis, Mr Heng Chye Yam bought a local business that made moulds for small paper products.

He faced challenges at first because of the poor economic conditions, but his risky decision paid off.

"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. Over the following 20 years, it became a major producer of parking-coupon moulds.

Mr Heng is among more than 4,500 interviewees who have had their stories recorded in the Oral History Centre of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS). And the centre is seeking help from the community to record more such interviews.

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It has announced that it will start forming oral history committees for Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians in Singapore. The committees will work closely with community stakeholders, such as heritage centres, to develop Singapore's oral history collection into a comprehensive one that is representative of its society.

Previously, interviews were done by NAS staff, but now, they will be done by volunteer interviewers selected by committee members. These volunteers will receive training from the Oral History Centre.

Since 1979, it has collected more than 23,000 hours worth of interviews, during some 30 projects. They cover a wide range of topics, from politics and the civil service to vanishing trades, the performing arts and medical services.

  • 23k

    Number of hours of interviews that the Oral History Centre has collected, during some 30 projects, since 1979.

Each committee will consist of at least one chairman and two members, who will be formally appointed by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim. It will also have an adviser, and will be reviewed on a two-year basis. The Malay committee has already been formed; those for 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."

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

Dr Yaacob told reporters at Contributing to Singapore's History, an event held by the National Library: "Our oral history tradition is very rich, and the Archives and Oral History Centre have 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."

Said Mr Ujagar Singh Gill, 88, who made Singapore's first television broadcast possible, together with Mr Sim Choon Hin: "Such recordings allow us to share with our grandchildren and the younger generation things from the past, in comparison with what's new."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Ramping up efforts to capture rich oral history'. Print Edition | Subscribe