These are challenging times. As I write this note, a “circuit breaker” is in place to reduce the rise of Covid-19 infections in Singapore. Schools, libraries and many businesses are closed and the majority of us are working from home: social distancing is now the new normal.
What gives me some comfort is that throughout history, humankind has faced other fatal infectious diseases and ultimately prevailed. In our cover story, Timothy P. Barnard looks at the deadly rabies outbreak in late 19th-century Singapore. Rabies caused a great scare here and led to the culling of over 22,000 dogs, but eventually it was eradicated from our shores.
While rabies was no longer a problem in Singapore by the 20th century, another disease continued to spark much fear – leprosy. Although not as deadly, many sufferers became horribly disfigured after getting infected and were shunned by society. Danielle Lim recounts the story of the setting up of the Leper Asylum, later renamed Trafalgar Home, and the lives of the residents there.
This issue is not merely about disease though. Annabel Teh Gallop of The British Library reveals why a close study of the beautiful and ornate markings of Malay seals of the 19th century is warranted. Like seals, the humble postcard also benefits from close examination. Stephanie Pee’s article on postcards from the National Library’s Lim Shao Bin Collection explains how these picture postcards give us an insight into Singapore’s Japanese community before the outbreak of World War II.
Old postcards and photographs are fascinating because they offer a snapshot of the past. This is the value of a collection of architectural photos of Singapore taken by Marjorie Doggett in the mid-1950s. Edward Stokes’s essay on this pioneering photographer looks at her life and work.
Part of the value of an old photograph is that it preserves a glimpse of a place that no longer exists. However, oftentimes these places still exist, but their character has changed so much that they become unrecognisable. This was the experience of Charmaine Leung, who writes about growing up on Keong Saik Road in the 1970s and 80s.
From Keong Saik Road in the Chinatown area, we turn our attention to the north of the island. Royal Air Force Seletar was Britain’s largest airbase in the Far East, and among other things, was also home to an active theatre company. Suriati Sani takes us behind the curtains to see the high-flying RAF Seletar Theatre Club at work.
To round off your reading, don’t miss Kevin Y.L. Tan’s comprehensive and fascinating account of Song Ong Siang, author of the landmark One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (first published in 1923, and recently reissued by the National Library); Seow Peck Ngiam’s essay on Major-General Feng Yee, who represented China at the Japanese surrender ceremony in Singapore; and Shereen Tay’s account of Singapore’s move to the metric system. Finally, Mazelan Anuar and Faridah Ibrahim give us the inside story on our latest exhibition, “The News Gallery: Beyond Headlines”.
I hope these articles will entertain and connect you with our fascinating history. Stay home, stay safe and happy reading.