Remarks by Minister S. Iswaran at the NLB Donors’ Appreciation Night on 1 July 2019

Mrs Elaine Ng, Chief Executive, NLB,

Members of the National Library Board,

Distinguished Guests, 


I am happy to join you all here this evening as we gather with our Librarians and Archivists to honour and to express our profound appreciation to a very special group of people – our generous donors for their contribution to building and preserving Singapore’s rich history and heritage.

2 In the year of our Bicentennial, we have much to reflect on. Indeed, we are reminded that by the time Raffles arrived in 1819, Singapore already had a history going back several hundred years to the early 14th century when it was a thriving seaport called Temasek. We are able to reflect on our longer history precisely because our records and archives continue to shed light on so many facets of this storied journey which PM Lee described aptly as: “…our journey, from Singapore to Singaporean”. 

Custodians of Singapore’s History

3 To promote an appreciation of Singapore’s history and heritage, our libraries and archives are constantly seeking to grow their repository of books and archival materials. Your contributions and donations form a large part of their collection.

4 Let me highlight some of the significant donations made over the past year to illustrate this point.

5 On display tonight is a handwritten score to the 1988 production of Beauty World, donated by its composer, Mr Dick Lee. Having inspired a new generation of theatre-goers when it was first staged, Beauty World played an important part in our early musical theatre history. We must thank Mr Lee, for infusing Singapore’s voice into music, and inspiring the local music scene to do the same.

6 This year, we also received a collection of manuscripts and creative materials donated by family members of the late Mr Tian Liu. Mr Tian Liu was a veteran Chinese writer who started publishing extensively in the 1950s. His collection gives us a glimpse into the creative process behind his work, which has influenced Singapore’s mandarin literary landscape today.

7 We are also fortunate to learn about what life in Singapore was like in the late 1940s to 1960s. Between 1949 and 1951, Mr John Leslie Michael Gorrie was the Principal Private Secretary to Sir Franklin Gimson, the first British Governor of Singapore after the war. Mrs Joan Gorrie’s exciting donation of papers, letters, and photos from her husband gives us an intimate look into how British governance has shaped Singapore’s political and legislative systems, as well as social cultures.

8 Beyond papers and letters, visual collections can capture delightful scenes and help us re-imagine life in Singapore. This year, we have been given colour transparencies and digitised home videos by Ms Jenna Reed Burns – these visuals were taken by her parents during their stay in Singapore from 1957 to 1960. Mr Nigel Sumner has also shared a video recording made by his great-uncle, Mr Ken Illsley, a British soldier stationed in Singapore from 1957 to 1959. Some of the scenes in this video are of activities long gone from the Singapore landscape, including coolies offloading goods from boats berthed along the Singapore River.

9 We also have materials from much further back in the 17th century donated by Associate Professor Farish A. Noor, who will later be sharing about early European travel accounts on Southeast Asia. I believe these accounts not only feature perspectives of maritime Southeast Asia and European expansion in the region in the 17th to 19th centuries, but also reveal how deeply connected Singapore was to our region and the wider world.

10 Suffice to say, the value and usefulness of such records is immense and far-reaching, not just as references for scholarly research, but also to encourage a deeper understanding of Singapore’s rich history amongst our own citizens. 

Promoting Our Story and Engaging the Nation

11 To ensure that we reach out to a wider audience, our National Library and Archives will continue to explore innovative ways of promoting books and documents that have been added to its collection.

12 In August, we will be launching an exhibition “On Paper: Singapore before 1867”, which explores early Singapore through records of the island on maps, books, and documents from as early as the 17th century.

13 Featured at this exhibition is a late Qing edition of the “Wu Bei Zhi”, donated by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA). This book is part of a larger Ming-era compilation on Chinese military warfare, and contains a navigational maritime map used by early Chinese Admirals. As shift in China’s maritime trade policy back then saw a large number of Chinese ships calling at Southeast Asian counties, historical evidence depicts how Singapore’s strategic location and deep harbours made it a natural choice as a distribution hub, connecting China, Southeast Asia, and India to neighbouring lands long before Raffles arrived.

14 Private papers and legal documents also reveal the lives of the communities that lived in Singapore pre-1867. I would like to thank Mr Koh Seow Chuan for his donation of wills and petitions of residents living on this island before we came to be established as a British crown colony. These documents shed light into the lives of ordinary people who lived and worked on the same land we stand upon today.

15 Another way we are ensuring that our records are accessible to all Singaporeans, is through building up our database of digital archives. NLB and the Tamil Digital Heritage Group (TDHG) have been collaborating to establish a series of Tamil language digital archives in Singapore. For example, The Digital Archive of Singapore Tamil Music Project was launched last year to create a repository of materials on Tamil Music in Singapore, including valuable materials such as scores and audio-visual recordings of performances that have been digitized for public access.

16 Continuing this collaboration, the TDHG will also launch the Digital Archive of Singapore Tamil Dance archive in November this year. It is through these community-driven projects, that prominent writers, artists, and musicians have come together to build a digital collection that is wellpreserved for easy access by the public. 

Singapore’s History is Ours to Forge

17 In this regard, I also want to encourage community groups to work together to collect materials of historical significance on their own heritage and to contribute, where possible, to the National Library and Archives to be preserved and made accessible to a larger audience.

18 I am glad to hear about the ground-up initiative by a number of Malay theatre groups led by Noor Effendy Ibrahim to create a repository of materials on performing arts, including manuscripts and ephemera related to Malay theatre. This will culminate in the Digital Archive of Singapore Malay Theatre which will be available and accessible via NLB’s online portal, the National Online Repository of the Arts (NORA) later this year.

19 Our records tell us about our past that began centuries ago. These stories remind us of how we have worked hard to become one people. And as we continue to write Singapore’s story together, it is important that we harness the diversity, passions, and expertise of individuals and communities to keep records of our history and heritage, so that we may never forget how we came to be. 


20 Once again, I want to express my profound appreciation for your invaluable contributions to enriching Singapore’s history and heritage collection. Our cultural heritage implies our shared bonds. It represents our history and our identity, our links to the past, to our present and the future.