Ordinary lives in the spotlight on $50,000 NUS History Prize shortlist

Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore and Sembawang are part of a star-studded shortlist of six for the $50,000 prize.
Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore and Sembawang are part of a star-studded shortlist of six for the $50,000 prize.PHOTOS: MARSHALL CAVENDISH

SINGAPORE - The stories of average Singaporeans take centre stage on the shortlist of this year's National University of Singapore (NUS) History Prize.

The shortlist of six for the $50,000 prize includes historical tome Seven Hundred Years: A History Of Singapore (2019, available here) by Kwa Chong Guan, Tan Tai Yong, Peter Borschberg and Derek Heng, and also novels and non-fiction with a personal slant.

The mix of academic work and historical fiction forgoes the traditional view of history as a record of big movers and shakers, say authors.

In the running is Kamaladevi Aravindan's novel Sembawang (2020, available here), which details life in the estate of the same name across five decades.

National Institute of Education senior lecturer Anitha Devi Pillai helped her mother Kamaladevi research and translate the novel from Tamil.

"This story looks at history and historical events from a layperson's perspective because to us history is not only what happened and how it happened, but also what events meant to average people," says Dr Anitha, who is in her 40s.

Sembawang is up against another novel, the Singapore Literature Prize-winner State Of Emergency (2017, available here), which follows an extended family living through the leftist political movements and detentions of Singapore and Malaysia.

The shortlisting came as a surprise to New York-based author Jeremy Tiang as his book was published four years ago.

The 2021 prize is open to non-fiction and fiction works in English, written or translated, that were published from January 2017 to May 30 this year.

"The 1950s feel like a particularly exciting time in Singapore's history, in that the country's future seemed up for grabs," says Tiang, 44, in an e-mail interview.

"I think it's good to look at the circumstances that led us to where we are today, and to consider how things could have been different."

The shortlist also features non-fiction work with a personal slant, such as Leluhur: Singapore's Kampong Gelam (2019, available here) by Hidayah Amin, which shines a light on the history of a place many now know only as a tourist attraction.

Hidayah, 48, was born in Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion), a heritage royal building at the heart of Kampong Glam.

She says: "As someone born and raised in Kampong Gelam and whose family's history is deeply rooted there since the 1840s, I felt that I was the right person to introduce readers to the rich history and anthropological stories of Kampong Gelam residents."


State of Emergency and Hidayah Amin with Leluhur: Singapore's Kampong Gelam. PHOTOS: HIDAYAH AMIN, EPIGRAM BOOKS

Eminent NUS historian Wang Gungwu, 90, is nominated for his memoir, Home Is Where We Are (2020, available here), which was written with his late wife Margaret and looks back on their youth in Singapore and Malaysia. Mrs Wang died last year a few months before the book's launch.

"I am happy to hear that the period that Margaret and I lived through and wrote about, the 1950s and 1960s, is of interest today. We were then very young and hopeful and eager to help in our own way," says Prof Wang.

Some of the shortlisted titles are also in the running for other prizes.

Imperial Creatures (2019, available here) by Timothy P. Barnard, which looks at the relationship between humans and animals in colonial Singapore, is a finalist for the British Society for the History of Science's Hughes Prize.

Sembawang and Home Is Where We Are are up for the Singapore Book Awards.

The NUS History Prize was created in 2014 and is awarded every three years. The inaugural prize went in 2018 to archaeologist John Miksic for his book Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800.


Home Is Where We Are and Imperial Creatures. PHOTOS: NUS PRESS

NUS Asia Research Institute distinguished fellow Kishore Mahbubani, who mooted the prize in a Straits Times column, says: "The famous American social scientist, Benedict Anderson, said that nations are 'imagined communities'. A shared imagination, especially in history, is a critical glue holding societies today.

"Singapore has just begun its journey of discovering its long history. The Singapore History Prize is playing a critical nation-building role by presenting Singaporeans with insightful new understandings of their long and rich history."

The prize's nominating committee, which reviewed 31 books submitted by publishers, comprised Associate Professor Ian Gordon, former head of the NUS Department of History; Assistant Professor Seng Guo Quan; educator Beatrice Chong; curator Suhaili Osman; and playwright Alfian Sa'at.

The winner of the prize will be chosen by a jury chaired by Mr Mahbubani and announced in October.

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