The Straits Times says

Keeping alive Singaporeans' stories

Singaporeans should heed the call to enrich oral history by gathering more recollections and perspectives of people from different stations in society. Volunteers from the various communities are needed to help build a representative record of how people have experienced patterns of everyday life, significant changes and stirring events. They might talk about the flavour of disappearing street food, how the humble bicycle got technologically disrupted, competing for jobs against robots, their own home or that of a great historical personality. Historians and state archivists have now come around to acknowledging that the interpretations of ordinary people matter too, as opposed to largely ceding the writing of history to scholars - "the verdict of those who weren't there on those who were", as a novelist put it. If personal and community memories are not collected carefully, they will simply vanish for good.

Collectively, these Singapore stories have the potential of forming a rich tapestry of life here that goes beyond what is traditionally recorded by the mass media, print publishers, various organisations, heritage groups and, in recent decades, social media. While ordinary voices are often captured by these means, the range and depth of such efforts are limited by operational constraints and information is often mediated - typical characteristics of the attention economy. Oral history collections make unfiltered representation possible and often offer micro details that might be lost otherwise.

The National Archives' Oral History Centre has since 1979 captured the voices of 4,100 interviewees on subjects like the Japanese occupation, politics, public service and the performing arts. These represent a primary source that the public can access both online and at the National Archives' building. Many more voices need to be heard to enlarge its overall collection, which includes public records, audio-visual recordings, maps, building plans and photographs.

Authenticity and intimacy matter, if heritage is to have the power to inform and inspire present and future citizens. Hence, people should not shy away from offering their unique contributions, or resist the efforts of those striving to safeguard what holds historical value.

People of different backgrounds can participate in the Citizen Archivist Project, as the National Archives calls it. Volunteers will be trained and techniques are adaptable. As oral history is not "folklore, gossip, hearsay or rumour", as noted by archivists, but a first-person recounting of past experience, interviewers need to ask questions that may have never been asked before. Such a process will assist the community to build a multi-layered understanding of events, people and developments at the heart of the changes that have taken place in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping alive Singaporeans' stories'. Print Edition | Subscribe