Michael Sugarman (University of Bristol)

The National Archives of Singapore, the National Library of Singapore, and the libraries of the National University of Singapore

View of the newly renovated and reopened National Archives of Singapore from Canning Rise. Taken in April 2019 by Michael Sugarman.

The National Archives of Singapore hold a wide range of sources about colonial and contemporary Singapore. The material, which is held in a number of different formats – from microfilms and PDFs of (post-)colonial government files, to recordings and transcripts of oral histories, and maps and images from Singapore’s past – is of broad interest to those studying the history of Singapore, colonial Malaya, and the wider South and Southeast Asia region(s). Fortunately for scholars living and working outside of Singapore, the holdings are fully-indexed and available to search online at the Archive’s website.

While all the material held by the archives is searchable online, it is important to note the type of material you find of interest when searching. Much of the material – photographs, speeches and press releases, and many of the oral histories – is fully accessible online and therefore does not require a physical visit to the archives. Other material, like files held in the “Straits Settlements, Overseas and Private Records” collections, is duplicate records relating to Singapore from other archives that include, but are not limited to, the National Archives (Kew), The British Library (London), The National Archives of India (Delhi), and the National Archives (Washington D.C.). The “Government Records” collections of the National Archives of Singapore, which covers files from the (post-)colonial administration of Singapore, is the most likely tranche of material to be both unique to the Archives and to physically draw you into a visit. These records span a broad range of administrative departments, from the files of Singapore Improvement Trust and Housing Development Board, to the City Council files, and files from Singapore’s Public Utilities Board. While these files appear, on the surface, to be quite geographically narrow in focus, many of files paint a picture of Singapore deeply connected to world beyond. Files from the nineteenth century often connect and compare Singapore’s government to cities in India, like colonial Bombay and Calcutta, while files from after the Second World War often connect Singapore to wider urban governance issues in Southeast Asia and across the decolonizing world.

Though the collections of “Government Records” constitute some of the most unique archival holdings of the National Archives of Singapore, it is also worth noting that recent changes in policy mean that some of these records are rather difficult to procure. As of April 2019, requests for records can be made in batches of only 20 at a time. Some require 10-12 weeks or more of processing time. It is worth reaching out to the Archives staff before visiting – they can help arrange that you have enough material to view to justify making a visit to Singapore and the Archives. While you’re there you’ll get to enjoy the newly renovated building, which is located on Canning Rise close to Fort Canning Park and the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus.

View of reading room inside of the newly renovated and reopened National Archives of Singapore. Taken in April 2019 by Michael Sugarman.

If the 10-12 week processing time becomes an obstacle to research, there are other, more accessible institutions from which to conduct research in Singapore. The largest repository is the National Library of Singapore, located a few minutes' walk from the National Archives adjacent to the famous Raffles Hotel. In addition to an impressive reference library on Singapore and Southeast Asia, the National Library holds a lot of primary-source material on Singapore, often material related to administrative governance annual reports. These materials can be searched via the Library’s main website, but some holdings can also be found by searching for some of the Library’s webpages on various topics relating to Singapore’s history (e.g. histories of housing.)

The libraries of the National University of Singapore (NUS) are similarly useful for scholars and hold a varied and wide-ranging collections. As is the case with the National Library, the NUS library is primarily a reference library. However, it holds significant collections on Singapore’s history, for example, records on the local government of Singapore from the colonial period through to the twenty-first century. The NUS libraries are located at the NUS campus at Kent Ride, which is about a 45-minute journey via Singapore’s MRT and bus from the city center.

I’ve had the opportunity to use these archives twice, from August-October 2014 and March-April 2019. Broadly, my research is interested in the urban development of Singapore and other port cities in South and Southeast Asia like Bombay, Hong Kong, and Rangoon. While my current research is focusing on understanding environmental histories of urban development in the 19th and 20th centuries, my doctoral project was interested in understanding the connections between Singapore, Bombay, Hong Kong, and Rangoon in the process of urban development as it related to housing for the urban poor.

Singapore is an incredible place to be able to do research – if you do make the trip to use the archives make sure to explore the city and, in particular, its many culinary delights!

May 2019