Home to local history

SINGAPORE - You step out of a cargo lift into a very cold room and, for one disorientating moment, find your feet stuck to the floor.

A sticky mat removes and traps unwanted dirt and dust from your sandals before you can enter the sterile, temperaturecontrolled environment of the audiovisual repository at the National Archives of Singapore.

The archives, housed in a five-storey building at 1 Canning Rise, has four such repositories where millions of original photographs, recordings, building plans, government documents and other records spanning 200 years of Singapore history are locked away and preserved for posterity.

Ms Noor Fadilah Yusof, the 26-year-old registrar of archives services, is giving you an exclusive peek into the audiovisual repository, where thousands of audiovisual and sound recordings from the recent past are stored.

The shelves are built on tracks that slide back and forth to save space. Her dainty hands, encased in a pair of white, lint-free cotton gloves, take down one of the video tapes in its powder-blue, metal casing.

The label tells you it is footage from the former Singapore Broadcasting Corporation of the national anthem, used by the various television channels back in the 1980s. Other reels contain parliamentary proceedings, news bulletins and drama serials.

Other shelves hold 1960s black-and-white filmlets produced by the former Ministry of Culture to drum up awareness of everything from tourism to the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire.

There are also educational videos in the four official languages produced by the former Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, once shown on flickering projectors in schools.

This and other repositories, as well as the archives' three laboratories for the cleaning, conservation, microfilming and digitisation of various types of records, are off limits to the public.

However, people can enter the ground-floor reading room at any time during office hours to view copies of the records, subject to any clearance from donors or the respective institutions.

Paper records can be viewed on microfilm, and audiovisual recordings on videotapes or MP3 files.

Ms Fadilah's archives services department manages the reading room as well as the acquisition, collection and preservation of records.

The department also oversees the archives conservation laboratory where conservation experts treat and repair fragile paper records going back to the early 19th century.

An honours graduate in history from the National University of Singapore, she says she visited the archives "very often" three years ago while researching her dissertation on Singapore's cultural scene in the few years preceding the shortlived, 1963 merger with Malaysia.

After graduation a few months later, she was "very keen on doing something related to heritage", and so wound up working at her former research haunt.

In her job, she handles all kinds of research requests, from academics writing scholarly tomes to playwrights looking for material for dramas.

Today, she singles out five prized items in the archives' collection for Life!. "Every day at work is different.

Going through copies and files of records may sound really mundane, but once in a while you see something so historically significant that it surprises you," she says with a sparkle in her eye.


Year of founding: The National Archives of Singapore has its beginnings in 1968 when the National Archives and Records Centre was set up as a department of the Ministry of Culture.

In 1993, the National Archives and Oral History Department were merged to form the National Archives of Singapore under the National Heritage Board.

It moved to its present home at 1 Canning Rise, the former Anglo-Chinese Primary School, in 1997. The archives was transferred to the National Library Board last November.

Size: The five-storey building has a total floor area of 5,679 sq m.

It has a reading room, three laboratories for the cleaning, conservation, microfilming and digitisation of various types of records, and four repositories for proper storage and long-term preservation of the records.

The archives also has a permanent gallery, Memories At Old Ford Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road, which showcases memories of life during the Japanese Occupation.

Opening hours: Only the reading room is open to the public. There, people can view copies of records. It is open from Mondays to Fridays, 9am to 5.30pm and on Saturdays, 9am to noon.

Number of records: More than 6.8 million photographs, 240,000 building plans, 123,000 audiovisual and sound recordings, 44,000 press releases and speeches, 10,000 maps and 6,000 posters. Plus more than 20,000 hours of oral history interviews.

It also has handwritten volumes of the Straits Settlements records and government files from the 1950s up to the present day.

Oldest original record: Sir Stamford Raffles' letter dated May 10, 1817, to an English merchant Alexander Hare, on the status of the Dutch trade in the East Indies.

Raffles established a British settlement on the island of Singapore in 1819.


This building plan depicts a grand and iconic building - one of Singapore's national monuments. The old Supreme Court was built between 1937 and 1939 and is now undergoing renovations to turn it into the upcoming National Art Gallery, Singapore.

The archives has several original plans of the building, including the interior, as well as a drawing of the facade done in watercolour. These were produced by the former Public Works Department, whose chief architect, Frank Dorrington Ward, designed the Supreme Court.

When the building's foundation stone was laid by Sir Shenton Thomas - governor of the Straits Settlements - on April 1, 1937, it was at that time the biggest foundation stone in the whole of Malaya.

A time capsule containing six Singapore newspapers dated March 31, 1937, as well as a handful of Straits Settlements coins, was buried beneath the foundation stone. This time capsule is slated to be retrieved in the year 3000.

Another point of interest in the building plans is that the old Supreme Court building features two domes: the main copper-coloured dome, which dominated Singapore's skyline, and a smaller one, which is hardly visible at street level and originally housed a beautifully designed library.


In the early years of selfgovernment, the then Ministry of Culture regularly staged free, open-air cultural concerts with a multi-racial theme known as the Aneka Ragam Ra'ayat (People's Cultural Concert). A total of 200 shows were staged between 1959 and 1964.

These shows were aimed at promoting cultural integration among the different ethnic groups and drew huge crowds, caught up in the fervour to move towards an independent and multi-racial nation.

Such outdoor multi-cultural concerts may be interesting to younger Singaporeans as they are no longer a common sight. The first of these concerts was held at the Botanic Gardens on Aug 2 1959, on a specially constructed stage near the lake. Then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew officially opened the show, attended by an estimated 22,000 people and recorded by Radio Singapore.


Content coverage is from the 1930s to 1990s

As a result of urbanisation and industrialisation, many trades that were once common in Singapore are disappearing or have disappeared.

Current and future generations might not know what a charcoal seller, clog maker, night-soil carrier or lighterman is, or how a pig farmer raised his livestock in the 1950s. Lighters were bumboats that used to throng the Singapore River. And in the days before modern sanitation, toilets were essentially wooden sheds with a pail, which had to be cleared daily by night-soil carriers.

It is with the objective of documenting these and other activities that the archives started an oral history project in 1986 on vanishing trades practised by the different ethnic and dialect groups.

To date, this collection of analogue tapes (above) holds more than 150 interviews totalling 417 hours.


The Malaysia Agreement on the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo was scheduled to be signed on July 8, 1963, in London.

It was the subject of much wrangling among the signatories, as can be glimpsed from this used envelope (above) on the back of which then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew scribbled a number of conditions for the merger and passed to his Malayan counterpart Tunku Abdul Rahman to sign.

This envelope is mentioned in Mr Lee's memoirs, The Singapore Story.


Majulah Singapura was composed by Zubir Said, at the request of deputy mayor of Singapore Ong Pang Boon as an anthem for the City Council in 1958, to celebrate the reopening of Victoria Theatre after renovations.

A year later, on the suggestion of deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye, Majulah Singapura was launched as the state anthem. The archives has the vinyl record presented to Mr S. Rajaratnam, Singapore's first Minister for Culture.


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