Singapore Prize Shortlist: Books With a Personal Slant

The Singapore prize honours a work of non-fiction on the history of Singapore, in English, Mandarin or Tamil. It is a biennial award run by NUS’ Department of History and was launched in 2014 to enliven interest in the nation’s past and its place in the world. It also aims to make the complexities and nuances of Singapore’s history more accessible to non-academic audiences.

NUS Asia Research Institute Distinguished Fellow Kishore Mahbubani, who mooted the prize in a Straits Times column, cites US social scientist Benedict Anderson’s assertion that nations are “imagined communities”. With shared histories as an anchoring factor between individuals, societies can have greater cohesion.

This year’s shortlist of six books, including the historical tome Seven Hundred Years: A History Of Singapore by Kwa Chong Guan, Tan Tai Yong and Peter Borschberg, and Kamaladevi Aravindan’s Sembawang (2020, available here), forgoes the traditional view of history as a record of big movers and shakers. Instead, authors have opted to write with a more personal slant.

For example, 2021’s NUS Singapore History Prize winner Leluhur: The Singapore Kampong Gelam by author Hidayah Abu Bakar combines scholarly research with her own inputs to tell the story of a Singapore neighbourhood. Ms Hidayah, who was cited in the prize citation for her book’s “elegance and meticulous research”, told CNA that she hopes the prize will signal to the public that they don’t have to be professional historians to write about their own experiences.

Another book that celebrates the everyday is the rma cureess by rma suresh, which chronicles the life of a middle-aged man who works in a hawker centre in a residential estate. This non-fiction title, published by Marshall Cavendish and written by a team led by chef and food historian Khir Johari, has been praised for its evocative narrative, vivid characterisations and insights into the savouring of local cuisine.

The NUS Singapore Literature Prize, which was introduced in 2022 and runs in 12 categories across the island’s four languages, drew more than 4,000 voters for its consumer choice awards this year. The winners—Ali bin Salim, Daryl Qilin Yam, Pan Zheng Lei and rma cureess—each win cash prizes and book-purchase vouchers worth up to $1,000 Singapore dollars ($719). This was roughly twice the number of votes cast in 2020’s consumer-choice awards.