Fact file

Five books became 50 volumes

When your boss asks that you do 10 times the work you had anticipated, you have quite a challenge on your hands.

That was what public communications expert Arun Mahizhnan, 70, faced after he recommended that his workplace, the National University of Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), commemorate Singapore's Jubilee Year by publishing five books on such topics as national identity and community-building.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, he said his boss Janadas Devan, who is IPS' director as well as the Government's communications chief, decided that it should be 50 volumes instead.

Mr Devan also said that these should be shaped into a series, comprising factual and objective primers on, as Mr Devan says, "what makes Singapore Singapore".

To Messrs Devan, Mahizhnan and IPS' Board of Advisors, that ranged from Singapore's Constitution, heritage and legal and education systems to the Central Provident Fund, food and literature.

Mahizhnan enlisted Asad Latif, 58, a leader writer for, and former journalist of, The Straits Times as the Chronicles' project consultant.

"Asad has immense experience... and extraordinary language skills," says Mahizhnan. Among many other books, Asad is the co-editor of the book George Yeo On Bonsai, Banyan And The Tao and biographer of Singapore pioneer Lim Kim San.

Mahizhnan roped in Sim Jui Liang, 41, a research assistant at IPS who had worked at a publishing house, to play "good cop, bad cop" with the authors, chasing them to meet the series' strict publishing deadlines.

IPS' Board of Advisors, chaired by diplomat Tommy Koh, then sifted through the list of 80 topics suggested by IPS scholars and whittled it down to 50. In this, there were sometimes curious consequences, such as the dropping of Performing Arts. In its place are books on Literature, Visual Arts and Theatre.

As to who would write them, Mahizhnan recalls: "We got domain experts in the field. Their peers then reviewed the books, without knowing who wrote each book." Given the brief, they did not confine these experts to academics, but also included civil servants and journalists with long, deep views on past and present Singapore.

Mahizhnan, who has been at IPS since 1991, is its former deputy director and is now its special research adviser, which means that, among other things, he drives special projects such as the Chronicles, of which he is lead editor.

He was senior producer of current affairs programmes at Radio Television Singapore, then public affairs manager at Mobil Oil Singapore, then chief executive of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. As he puts it, having worked with the Government for 45 years, he has a "ringside seat" on Singapore history. It will, he says, cost "close to $1 million" to create all the Chronicles, including a cash grant from the SG50 Committee's Jubilee celebration fund.

From the outset, the team decided that it would not bust its guts producing all 50 volumes at once. Which was just as well, he muses, because he and his teammates found it "a constant vigil" to get the manuscripts polished enough for publication.

And he found that he and his teammates were not the only ones to find the Singapore Chronicles project daunting.

He says that, in general, publishers here "still have a paucity of experience in so many areas", including copy-editing. "I hope publishers improve our game. We have to gear up for large-scale productions," he adds.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story stated that there would not be a book on Theatre. However, there will be books on Literature, Visual Arts and Theatre. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Five books became 50 volumes'. Print Edition | Subscribe