In Mr S. Dhanabalan’s speech at the opening of the National Library exhibition celebrating the life and work of Professor Edwin Thumboo, he dwelt on “Exile” – a poem by Professor Thumboo about migration. He mused that its poignancy “[could] only be appreciated by those of us who know that time in our history when our sense of a nation was an embryo”.
“Our sense of a nation” – this is a very powerful notion. In research, writing and conversations, Singaporeans continue to formulate this sense of a nation. The study of things past can convey the Singapore of a certain time with a specificity that is absent in vague indulgent nostalgia. Perhaps, then, a sense of a nation can emerge.
Two exhibitions by the National Library attempt a narrative of what Singapore was and could be. The latest exhibition presented by the National Library – “Campaign City” – focuses on a facet of Singapore at a unique junction of its nation-building journey. The many campaigns that have been introduced over the last five decades are memorable for their contributions to civil society and represent the national imperatives of Singapore at each stage of its development. The Singapore we live in now and the attendant preoccupations of its citizens are reflected in the exhibition of campaign posters that have been reimagined by creatives and artists of today. In the exhibition “Time-Travelling: A Poetry Exhibition at the National Library”, we take a trip through time in the poetry of Edwin Thumboo to rediscover Singapore then.
The acute recognition of our mortality gives rise to concerns of how we will be perceived when we are gone and leads to attempts to define our legacy. The markers of the once living are discussed in this issue of BiblioAsia and offer the sense of the nation that Singapore was in times past. Kartini Saparudin in her article, “Digging Bidadari’s Past: From Palace to First Muslim State Cemetery”, addresses the dearth of literature on Muslim cemeteries. Liyana Taha studies keramats (traditionally defined as the graves of holy men) in the article
“Life in Death: The Case of Keramats in Singapore”. She discovers that they are imbued with meanings beyond just a remembrance of the past and are a source for studying local history and even instances of transcultural beliefs in Singapore.
Genevieve Wong in her article, “Grave Matters: The Burial Registers in Singapore”, then attempts to examine and derive conclusions about the lives and experiences of inhabitants of Singapore in the early 20th century. In the lives examined through the burial registers, she forms a picture of the governance of Singapore of that time. In
“Sago Lane: ‘Street of the Dead’”, the origins of Sago Lane and its death houses are explored by Sharon Teng. In this study of the abodes of the last stages of life, she shows us a glimpse of an ecosystem built around death, including a thriving economy with a cast of many for every aspect of death management. Finally, Eric Chin, Director of the National Archives, delivers an opinion piece on the topic of death and its manifestations through literature and records.
In our continuing journey to define ourselves, we hope this issue in looking back can render a sense of a nation past that might still offer some inkling of a nation now.
Director, National Library