Book Review of Memories & Reflections

Loh Kah Seng

National Archives of Singapore. Memories & Reflections: The Singapore Experience: Documenting a Nation’s History Through Oral History. 2nd edition. Singapore: Oral History Centre, 2007. vii, 194 pp.

The collection of social memories, in a forward-looking nation-state where the vast majority of households are nuclear families without grandparents living with them, is particularly important to ensure that the experiences of elderly Singaporeans are passed down to the younger generations. One institution in Singapore which has been undertaking this task for nearly three decades is the oral history department of the National Archives of Singapore. Memories & Reflections substantially updates its original 1988 oral history manual (slightly revised in 1992) and is three times the former length. Understandably so – in 1988, the Oral History Department had conducted 4,698 hours of interview but by 2007, the Oral History Centre (OHC), its present-day moniker, had completed about 16,000 hours.

Memories & Reflections contains two new sections. While substantial portions retain or have expanded on the original text, the book discusses the OHC’s adoption of digital recording technology in 2004. Moreover, the 1988 work was plainly titled Oral History Manual, while the 2007 publication incorporates a ‘self-critical examination…[which] has been the guiding principle behind the revision of this manual’ (p. ii). This approach, evident in the title and throughout the text, is commendable and underlines a ‘coming of age’ self-confidence towards the Centre’s accomplished work.

The book essentially remains an oral history manual, augmented by reflections on the OHC’s practical experience over three decades. Following an introduction to oral history and the role of the Centre, the volume covers such major aspects of its oral history work as planning a project, conducting and recording an interview and transcribing, preserving and disseminating the completed interview. There is also an important chapter on ethics agreements, briefly covered in the 1988 book but which have since become increasingly important in interview research within and beyond Singapore. Chapter 6 discussed the relative merits of analogue and digital audio recording and also of digital video recording, which represents the latest innovation in oral history work. Given the fact that the present-day OHC management began in the 1980s with recording equipment that weighed 3.8 kg, it reflects a deep commitment to oral history that they are willing to explore and embrace emerging technology to collect the voices of the past.

The book serves well as a guide for oral history practitioners, including specialists and students. There are useful tips on the role of the interviewer, illustrated by positive and negative examples from the OHC’s own oral history work. These highlight, for instance, the importance of active listening and suggest ways to deal with common problems encountered in an interview, such as encouraging a reticent informant to open up and, conversely, managing an interview which is going off-tangent. The annexes are substantial and include balanced reviews of sample OHC interviews.

The oral history programme in Singapore, it must also be remembered, was the creation of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and -Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee in 1979. Collecting the memories of the older generation, Lee explained, was intended ‘to help our young understand how we got here so that when they face new problems, they will have some inkling of how our people responded’ (see Parliamentary Debates of Singapore: Official Reports, 25 March 1981, pp. 1202-1203). The book provides a window into the principles and practices underlying the OHC’s work and the historical context within which it has been carried out. One major issue in oral history in Singapore is speaking to well-known personalities who are comfortable with the microphone but are also likely to provide politically correct responses. The book makes several suggestions for overcoming the problem but I would have liked to see deeper reflections on the OHC’s experience in this area, particularly in its early Political Development in Singapore 1945-1965 project, which broached what would then have been, and to some extent remain, ‘taboo’ topics.

In general, future editions of the volume could concentrate on oral history in the Singapore context, as alluded to in the book title. Memories & Reflections makes one point in this regard: that in the highly-urbanised physical environment of Singapore, noise is a commonly encountered problem in interviews. There are, however, other key issues which the book could address. In a cosmopolitan society like Singapore where information on certain aspects of the national past is widely disseminated in the mass media, oral history should not uncritically be taken as a primary source. It should also be viewed as a reflection or a secondary source which is likely to have been shaped by official, media and Internet representations of the past. Take the iconic 1964 race riots, an event which has become part of Singapore’s collective memory and receives substantial official coverage. A researcher examining the social memories of the riots in 2001 concluded that ‘[t]hose informants who are government servants, more highly-educated or more widely read, presented a similar narrative structure to the official discourse. The national memory has become incorporated into their personal memory’ (see Adeline Low Hwee Cheng, ‘The Past in the Present: Memories of the 1964 ‘Racial Riots’ in Singapore’, Asian Journal of Social Science, 29 (3), 2001, p. 447). Interviewers speaking to elderly persons on widely published historical events should be prepared to frame questions to establish how far what is said is personal memory and how far it is an appropriation of prevailing discourses.

The other theme in Memories & Reflections which calls for elaboration is the richness of oral history work in Singapore. One of the fundamental aims of oral history, as ardent advocate Paul Thompson stated, is to affirm the elderly individual’s memory and ‘give history back to the people in their own words’ (see Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 265). Local interviewers can achieve this in several ways. Elderly Singaporeans frequently give vernacular names to places, individuals and events which are different from the official English or even Mandarin terms. The young interviewer in particular has to be sensitive to the fact that these names vary according to the dialect, class and ethnicity of the informant. The names also have important social meanings: they reveal the significance of historical places, individuals and events in the inner time-clock and mental landscape of older Singaporeans. In Singapore, too, there is often a significant dynamic at play in a dialogue between an elderly person and a much younger interviewer. The former, in my experience, frequently recounts stories of hardship but also speaks of nostalgia. These reminiscences are sometimes directed almost as an ‘accusation’ at the younger person, who is perceived to be living in a much more comfortable present and is ignorant of both the harsh realities and warm neighbourliness which existed in the past. This ambivalence among elderly Singaporeans towards their past reflects the radical political and socio-economic changes which have taken place in the country within living memory and is an important commentary on the relationship between past and present among the elderly people. It demonstrates that the meanings behind the reminiscences are as important as the content, a point which oral historians in Singapore should take note of.