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Director’s Note


01 January 2018

Inscriptions of history – whether physically inscribed on a surface or mentally etched in one’s memory – have a shelf life beyond the lifespan of their makers.

This issue of BiblioAsia on “Immortality & Inscription” pays tribute to the legacy of our forefathers as memorialised in oral history interviews as well as manuscripts, war documents, postage stamps, letters, books, and even an elaborate coat of arms.

Essays by Farish Noor and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow remind us that the knowledge inscribed in old documents can reveal valuable insights into our history. Southeast Asia, as Farish Noor tells us, was once a hub of intellectual activity, as evidenced by the large numbers of Malay manuscripts produced in the region. Yu-Mei Balasingamchow’s study of World War II memorabilia at the National Archives tells us why we should be receptive towards discovering new, and often unexpected, ways of viewing our past.

In similar vein, Dong Hui Ying examines remittance letters sent by Chinese migrants in Singapore to their families in China during the Cold War, and discovers how family relationships were maintained across the miles. Justin Zhuang documents how tiny postage stamps of Singapore paint a much larger story of our history over the last 50 years. Capitol Theatre, the grand dame of Singapore cinema, is seen in new light by Bonny Tan, who sieves through oral history interviews to piece together vignettes of its pre-war history.

The first foreign women who braved the high seas – and society’s expectations – to Singapore were Christian missionaries who established some of our earliest schools for girls in the 19th century. Several, including St Margaret’s School, Methodist Girls’ School and Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, still exist, as Jaime Koh reveals. Still on the subject of women, Sheere Ng casts a critical eye on the home economics syllabus of the past and examines how it tried to pigeonhole women into gender-type roles.

What do swimming pools and tigers have in common? Nothing, except that tigers have been wiped out in Singapore, but swimming pools still thrive. Jocelyn Lau documents four of the island’s first public swimming pools – three of which have gone the way of the tiger – and talks to people who remember them. Goh Lee Kim takes us back to a time when tigers (and other animals) roamed the island in her essay on Singapore’s nature and environment.

As a library, we love our books. Gracie Lee remembers the halcyon days of Kelly & Walsh, a bookshop that published some of the finest works on Malayan topics by Malayan authors. Shereen Tay turns the spotlight on the English primary school textbooks we grew up with, and discovers some classics in the process.

Finally, in a fitting ode to the theme “Immortality & Inscription”, we feature the Municipal Coat of Arms that was issued by royal warrant in April 1948. Mark Wong explains the significance of this historic document displayed at the exhibition, “Law of the Land: Highlights of Singapore’s Constitutional Documents”, at the National Gallery Singapore. We hope you enjoy reading this edition of BiblioAsia.


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