TALKING SINGAPORE: Filling in History Gaps with Oral Narratives

TALKING SINGAPORE: Filling in History Gaps with Oral Narratives

Friday, 10 August 2018

by Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, Lecturer, English Language and Literature Academic Group at National Institute of Education

Dr Siva and me1
“I was the first candidate to be enrolled in the PhD program in Tamil language and literature at NIE and in Singapore. Tamil language had never been offered to doctoral students. It took me nearly two years of correspondence with the officials before a PhD in Tamil was finally offered at NIE. 

As the first person to study Singapore Tamil literature I had the arduous task of identifying the published materials that were not even catalogued properly in those days. 

It was like walking through a dense forest with no path to guide me. How much do I write? How many different types of genres should I examine for the thesis? How much is enough? No one could give me an answer to that question. No one knew. I had to clear the path in the forest and figure out what a good PhD in Tamil comprised. 

I really could not have finished my thesis without my wife, Thenmozhi, who helped to type out pages and pages of my scribblings and notes. She is a homemaker and had many responsibilities at home including looking after our kids, my aged parents and my siblings. She was not well-versed in typing at that point in time. But she would stay up all night to get my thesis typed up for me. And today, I am the Head of the Tamil Unit at NIE.”

The interview is part of the ongoing documentation of the life journeys of Indians in Singapore by the Indian Community Oral History Committee of which Dr Anitha Devi Pillai is a committee member. 

In the build up to the SG50 celebrations in Singapore, a concerted effort from the public and organizations to document their history and role in Singapore emerged. 

This renewed interest in recording various aspects of the Singapore community resulted in the establishment in 2017 of four committees tasked to document the oral histories of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Eurasians in Singapore. 

Oral narratives are a form of historical narratives based on ordinary people’s stories of their lived experiences. They are firsthand accounts that add dimensions to events otherwise left undocumented. As complementary or alternative versions, they lend richer facets to existing historical texts.

"[Our] oral history tradition is very rich, and the Archives and Oral History Centre have been doing a lot of work to interview key personalities in our history,” said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, then Minister for Communications and Information.1 
“But we recognize there are gaps and we want to make the collection a lot richer. We're setting up the committees to help identify new interviewees, to fill the gaps in our oral history."
These oral interviews will complement the 4,000-plus accounts already stored in the Oral History Centre of the National Archives of Singapore.  

A focus on the Indian community

Comprised of members appointed by Dr Ibrahim, the Indian Community Oral History Committee (ICOHC) aims to document more than 100 oral narratives from the Indian community. 

Dr Anitha

I was invited to sit on the board by Chairperson Dr T Chandroo and Ambassador K. Kesavapany.

Committee members are tasked to assess and give feedback on the gaps in the current collection, as well as identify the themes, interviewees, and identify suitable volunteer interviewers for the project.  

As an academic who has recently completed an oral narrative study on the Singapore Malayalee Community, it felt natural for me to pursue the research into the larger Indian community in Singapore. Thus, I volunteered to interview a few subjects as well. 

One of my interviewees was Dr Sivakumaran Ramalingam (Assistant Head/ALC – Tamil). As his former student, I was humbled to have had a first-row seat to the life story of someone I respect and to be instrumental in persuading him to recount key moments in his life.

Our two-hour interview left Dr Ramalingam in tears as he recalled his journey and life experiences. 
With this rare opportunity to get an intimate, insightful look into the histories of Singapore’s Indian community members, I can say that working with the ICOHC in documenting their journeys has been a gratifying and fulfilling experience. 

1. (Dr Yaacob Ibrahim quote)


Photo credit: Abdur Rahman (ELL)

Photo: Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, Dr Sivakumaran Ramalingam, , Dr T Chandroo