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Singapore Prize Finalists Announced

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The National University of Singapore’s Department of History has announced the six works shortlisted for the second run of its singapore prize, an award to stimulate engagement with Singapore’s history broadly understood, make the nuances of that history “more accessible” and generate a greater understanding among Singaporeans. Awarded every three years, it carries a cash prize of S$50,000.

It’s no surprise that stories of everyday Singaporeans have found their way onto the finalists list for the NUS history prize, which was first launched in 2014 as part of the celebrations of the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence. The prize is designed to forgo the conventional view of history as a record of big-name leaders, instead focusing on the lives of ordinary people. The six works that made the shortlist this year include historical tomes as well as fiction and non-fiction work with a personal slant.

One of the works, Imperial Creatures (2019, available here), explores how humans and animals interacted in colonial Singapore. Another, Sembawang (2020, available here), is a novel set in the estate of the same name that spans five decades and delves into the lives of ordinary residents. In an e-mail interview, author Hidayah Amin, who was born and raised in Kampong Gelam, describes how her book is intended to demystify the city state’s image of a strict police-state.

Other works in the running for the prize include an abridged version of the popular Seven Hundred Years of Singapore’s History (2019, available here), by Kwa Chong Guan, Tan Tai Yong and Peter Borschberg; and the story of Singapore’s earliest inhabitants, told through literary records like the 13th-century travelogue Longyamen by Wang Dayuan. In a nod to the changing nature of the world, a shortlisted work by NUS historian Kishore Mahbubani argues that there is an urgent need to consider Singapore’s relationship with the wider Asian region in a post-Cold War context.

The prize, which was established in honour of Christopher Bathurst KC, Viscount Bledisloe, is also intended to encourage deeper engagement with the nation’s history, NUS said. Mr Bathurst was a leading member of Fountain Court Chambers in London and developed a substantial practice in Asia, including Singapore.

The NUS prize is supported by the philanthropic community, with a number of mature foundations with long histories of giving. These have a wealth of knowledge that can be harnessed to help newer donors understand the complexities and nuances of the sector, NUS added. “Philanthropy can be a powerful force for good, but it takes thoughtful engagement and deep understanding to build thriving communities of giving that are able to address complex social issues,” NUS said in a statement. “A shared imagination, through the lens of history, is a key glue holding societies together.” NUS is currently working on plans to expand the scope of the prize in future. It could eventually include other formats, such as movies and comic books, to reach a wider audience.