Narrating the Nation: Thirty Years of A History of Singapore Conference Report

PJ Thum

2007 marks the 30th anniversary of Prof. Mary Turnbull’s A History of Singapore, a landmark work which has defined the field of Singapore historiography since its publication. On Saturday, 9 June 2007, a conference was held at St Antony’s College, Oxford, sponsored by the Asian Studies Centre, St. Antony’s College, in order to both honour Mary Turnbull and to consider the past and future of the historiography of Singapore.


The conference opened with an informal evening reception attended by the conference participants, who came from Europe, North America, and Singapore. A convivial atmosphere pervaded the reception, which would be reflecting in the friendly and constructive debate which would characterise the presentations the next day.

The conference proper was begun by Mary Turnbull herself, who reflected on the past thirty years and spoke briefly on the circumstances which surrounded the writing of the original edition of the book. Looking forward to the impending publication of the third edition of the book, she began by explaining why she retitled the book A History of Modern Singapore to more accurately reflect the scope of her book in light of growing research into pre-colonial Singapore. Prof. Turnbull then discussed the main revisions to the book, going through the book period by period to discuss changes. The main foci of her revisions are on the beginning, ending, and World War II sections.

Karl Hack (Open University) responded by discussing the position of the book within the historiography of Singapore. Dwelling on the main theme of education in Singapore, he drew upon his own experience as a lecturer in Singapore to discuss how the book was used and how Singaporeans interact with the book, highlighting the importance of education in shaping post-1990s Singapore.

The second panel was opened by Tim Harper (University of Cambridge), who gave an overview of a panoply of voices excluded from the authorised national narrative of Singapore’s history. In particular, he highlighted the voices of the left, arguing that the dominant narrative needed to be challenged and reassessed. He was followed by Nicole Tarulevicz (Cleveland State University) who examined the use of history through a study of the website Seah Su Lyn (University of Cambridge) concluded the panel with a leap back in time to attendance at the multi-racial nature of Anglican church attendance in Singapore.

After lunch, Jason Lim (University of Western Australia) and Sikko Visscher (University of Amsterdam) both presented Chinese perspectives on Singapore history. Keeping with the theme of Singapore as a regional and global city, Lim demonstrated the writing of Singapore history using non-English language and non-Singaporean sources, by delving into Chinese and Taiwanese archives to show the relationship of tea merchants in Singapore to China and Taiwan, and more broadly the Southeast Asian tea trade. Visscher, on the other hand, looked at the rise and fall and rise again of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and its shifting role in Singapore.

The conference than took a turn into the physical world. Lilian Chee (National University of Singapore) took us through architectural history, cultural heritage and shifting notions of identity by discussing two site-specific historical projects – a Straits Chinese shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown, earmarked as a lived-in Peranakan museum and the colonial building of the Malayan Railway Station in Tanjong Pagar. Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells (University of Cambridge) followed up with a short discussion of the convergence between natural science and history.

The final panel of the day again featured minority voices. Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi (Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore) discussed minority agency by looking at Malays in Singapore and Malay discourses in Berita Harian relating to the ‘Ubah Sikup’ (changing attitudes) campaign of the 1970s. Laurent Metzger (University of La Rochelle) also looked at Malay writing, analysing the novels of Shamsuddin Salleh in the 1930s to produce a new dimension to the historical record surrounding the Comintern agent Joseph Ducroux. Through this case study, Metzger suggested ways in which historical novels can add to our knowledge of history. Finally, Karl Hack concluded with a discussion of the newly re-opened Singapore History Museum. After a brief introduction of the renovations, Hack discussed the goals of the Museum’s presentation, its methodology and the resultant impression of history, before concluding with a discussion of its failures and successes.

Hack’s discussion formed, with Prof. Turnbull’s presentation, fitting bookends to the conference as they served as a reminder of the importance and difficulty of communicating and teaching history well, and that the ultimate purpose of history is to expand and broaden the horizons of those who encounter it. The papers presented at the conference and the discussion that ensued served that purpose well. The conference organisers, Emma Reisz (Queen’s University Belfast) and P.J. Thum (University of Oxford) would like to thank all the presenters and attendees as well as everyone who helped make the conference a success.

Thum Ping Tjin is a PhD candidate in Modern History at the University of Oxford, UK. His interests include Chinese migration and the relationship of the Chinese diaspora to colonisation and decolonisation.