Speech by Ms Sim Ann Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the Opening of the ‘On Paper: Singapore before 1867’ Exhibition on 27 Sep 2019, at the National Library Building

Mrs Elaine Ng, Chief Executive Officer, National Library Board,


Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. Good morning. I am delighted to be here with you for the opening of “On Paper: Singapore before 1867”. This year, we commemorate the Bicentennial of modern Singapore. This Exhibition by The National Library and National Archives is timely, as it forms part of a series of events lined up for us to learn more about Singapore’s heritage.

2. What sets this Exhibition apart are the many maps, documents, paintings and photographs held in collections across the globe, being brought together and showcased in the context of Singapore’s historical narrative. Through artefacts, such as records of Singapore on maps and sea-charts from Europe and Asia, the Exhibition traces the history of Singapore from its earliest records to its establishment as a British Crown Colony in 1867, giving us glimpses of what life in Singapore was like in the past.

Importance of International Partnerships and NLB’s role in Preserving and Educating about Singapore’s History

3. Such collections from around the world reveal different historical perspectives of Singapore, broadening our knowledge of Singapore’s history. I would like to thank our international partners, who have contributed significantly to the Exhibition by loaning artefacts from their collections to us, providing us with a holistic view of our past.

4. For example, a 17th century manuscript, loaned to us by the Maritime Museum Rotterdam in the Netherlands, indicates the presence of a harbour master on the island in those early years. What this tells us is that Singapore, since very early times, has been very connected to various parts of the world, and was not quite a sleepy fishing village.

5. In addition to the Netherlands, other international partners from France, Indonesia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States have also contributed to the Exhibition.

6. Given Singapore’s history as an important port on the maritime route connecting the East and West, a significant number of Singapore’s unique archival records and documentary heritage materials are found in overseas institutions. As such, our collaboration with international partners extend beyond this Exhibition. The National Library Board (NLB) has, since 2016, embarked on the Singapore Digital Resource project, collaborating with overseas institutions to digitise the archival and printed materials on Singapore and the region. Amongst the items that are being digitised are 48 early Malay manuscripts from Bibliotheque Nationale de France, that will help us with understanding traditional Malay literature in Singapore and the region.

7. There are also 46 original hand-written correspondences between Major-General William Farquhar and rulers of the Malacca, Penang, Selangor, and Terengganu states in the early 19th century Singapore Settlement, from The Library of Congress; and around 1,300 issues of early newspapers from the British Library like the “Straits Chronicle”.

8. These are just a few examples. In addition to the international partners that I have already mentioned, we have also been collaborating with institutions from Turkey, Germany and India. A big thank you to our international partners for supporting our efforts to build a more comprehensive national collection, so as to promote a richer understanding of Singapore’s history.

9. Our libraries and archives play crucial roles in our society. They preserve items of historical value, constantly seeking to grow our National Collection. Generous donors have contributed to this effort, and some of their donations are also on display at this Exhibition.

10. These include a late Qing dynasty edition of the “Wu Bei Zhi” donated by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, as well as books and documents donated by Mr Koh Seow Chuan, Ms Agnes Tan and the late Mr Tan Yeok Seong.

11. More importantly, beyond preservation, our libraries and archives provide the public with access to these collections. Platforms such as today’s Exhibition, provide opportunities for us to gain a deeper understanding of Singapore’s history in an engaging and perceptive manner.

12. It is often during occasions like the Bicentennial, that we are reminded of the value of understanding our heritage, and thankful that we still possess artefacts that connect us to the past.

13. To ensure that our history can be better preserved for the benefit of future generations and made more accessible, our libraries and archives have embarked on digitising efforts. Through initiatives such as its digitisation programme, NLB collaborates with local institutions and donors to digitise print items such as books, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, as well as music tracks to strengthen Singapore’s documentary heritage.

14. These digital materials are made available online, through platforms like NewspaperSG, BookSG and Archives Online, for Singaporeans and researchers to gain a greater awareness of Singapore’s history and heritage. I would like to take this opportunity to commend and thank our libraries and archives, for their efforts in preserving our documentary history and making it accessible.

Engaging the Nation to Better Appreciate Singapore’s History

15. Even as our history is preserved and made accessible, I would like to encourage the public to make use of opportunities, like today’s Exhibition, to learn about and appreciate Singapore’s history and heritage.

16. Take the backdrop you see behind me as an example – this is a sketch depicting the Singapore River in 1835 by Francois-Edmond Paris. It shows the buildings along Boat Quay, where workers transported goods to and from the boats and warehouses. I think it looks slightly different from the Boat Quay today– now the skyline has changed, and people in the area go about for commerce, to gather, and even for entertainment. So though the scene is quite different, the spirit of openness, of exchange and of trade, remains very much alive. In the way Boat Quay has changed and developed, so too has Singapore and her people. By looking back at our past, we can appreciate where we started from and how far we have come.

17. We also get a sense of the opportunities and strengths that we have leveraged on and the ordeals that Singapore had to go through, to arrive at where we are today. These insights serve as lessons for our future, as Singapore remains and must continue to be a regionally and globally connected city, much as we were centuries ago.

18. An appreciation of our history also gives us a sense of who we are as a nation. As we take in the exhibits on display today hope we all gain a better understanding of our Singaporean heritage.

19. Our libraries and archives are doing their part by proactively promoting access to their collections and engaging the public. A greater online social media presence is being established to promote events, as well as share nuggets of information pertaining to our heritage through online channels.

20. Young Docent programmes engage youths as docents for exhibitions to actively learn about Singapore’s history, and in turn, engage their family and friends to go on these tours In a similar vein, I am heartened to learn that students from the Singapore Polytechnic have helped to produce the children’s programme of today’s Exhibition and will be helping to conduct it.

21. Our libraries and archives are also integrating their collections and exhibition spaces, to deliver exhibitions that offer richer interpretations of Singapore’s history. For example, a roving exhibition titled “An Island By Any Other Name”, which explores old names of Singapore on early maps, began last month and will move across eight public libraries until March next year.

22. Active public participation in such engagement efforts play a big part in promoting Singapore’s heritage. I hence encourage everyone to visit the exhibitions and many others that are being held across our island, in conjunction with the Bicentennial commemorations, and take the opportunity to learn more about our heritage.

23. I hope you will bring your families and friends along on these visits, and also to go to the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning, which has been extended to the end of the year.

24. Let me congratulate and thank NLB and its partners once again for its work in making this Exhibition possible. It now gives me great pleasure to declare “On Paper: Singapore before 1867”, open. Thank you.