Singapore Prize for History

Amid all the talk of the country’s economic miracle, there is a less visible story to tell: Singapore’s unique history. That is why, last year, the National University of Singapore (NUS) launched the first prize dedicated to showcasing the island’s legacy.

The S$50,000 Singapore Prize for History awards non-fiction and fiction works that touch on some aspect of Singapore’s past. The idea came from an opinion piece NUS professor Kishore Mahbubani wrote in April 2014, asking Singapore’s philanthropists to help fund such a prize.

Prof Mahbubani was part of the panel that picked the inaugural winner this year, a book called “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea” by archaeologist John Miksic. The prize organisers hope the book will help to “inspire the next generation of Singaporeans to take pride in our rich heritage, and make our nation even stronger.”

To encourage participation from a wider base, this year’s contest also included a consumer choice category. More than 4,000 people voted for their favorite shortlisted works, with a wide variety of topics represented. Readers’ favorites included a biography of the late President Lee Kuan Yew and a look at how Singaporeans built up their wealth in a short time through Dota 2, the popular multiplayer video game. Two authors won in the consumers’ choice category: Malay writer Suratman Markesan for Honing the Pen, Volume 2 and Tamil writer rma cureess for Home Is Where We Are Going. Both writers receive a commissioned trophy and a book-purchase voucher from local online bookstore StoryTel.

NUS hopes the prize will eventually expand beyond books and into other media. “Historical accounts can sometimes be conveyed more effectively through movies and other forms, such as comics or games,” said NUS senior advisor (university and global relations) Kishore Mahbubani. “We are open to this possibility in the future.”

The NUS award follows a similar competition in China, the Beijing Bookworm Literary Prize, which also offers cash prizes and a prestigious trophy. The prize is given to writers who write a “detailed and accessible account of Chinese history, culture or life in modern times.”

Jeremy Tiang’s work — a historical tome entitled Seven Hundred Years: A History Of Singapore (2019, available here) — made it onto the 2021 shortlist for the Singapore Prize, as did Kamaladevi Aravindan’s novel Sembawang (2020, available here), which details life in an estate over five decades. Both novels offer a glimpse into history through the eyes of average citizens, forgoing the traditional view of history as a record of big-name figures.

Three more Singaporeans — novelist Suchen Christine Lim, Malay dancer Osman Abdul Hamid and historian Meira Chand — were conferred the Cultural Medallion this week, the city-state’s highest arts accolade. President Tharman Shanmugaratnam presented the honours at a ceremony at the Istana. Read more about the award winners here.