The NUS Singapore Prize Shortlist For 2019

A book on Singapore’s kampong gelam – the bustling 14th century port – and a biography of one of its most dangerous gangsters have been shortlisted for this year’s NUS Singapore History Prize. The NUS Department of History launched the prize in 2014, in support of SG50 celebrations, to encourage the writing of “more nuanced and humanistic accounts” about the city-state’s past.

The winner will be announced in Oct. 2021. It is open to non-fiction works penned in English or translated, published between January 2017 and May 30 this year. A panel of judges will select the winner, including Prof Kishore Mahbubani – who mooted the prize in 2014 and serves as this year’s jury chair – and scholars from academia and the arts.

The prize has attracted a wide range of submissions, including books on the history of the Muslim community and the redevelopment of the waterfront city. It is open to both fiction and non-fiction, with a special focus on Singapore’s social and cultural heritage.

Last year, the inaugural prize was awarded to archaeologist John Miksic for his book Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800. It traces the relationship between humans and animals in Singapore’s past. This year’s shortlist includes Leluhur: Singapore’s Kampong Gelam (2019, available here) by Hidayah Amin, whose account of the Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion), a heritage royal building at the heart of Kampong Glam, has a personal slant.

Another of the contenders is Sembawang (2018, available here), a novel about a family living through the leftist political movements and detentions of the 1950s. “For many of us, the period is particularly exciting, when the country’s future seemed to be up for grabs,” the author, Jeremy Tiang, tells CNA in an e-mail interview. The book also explores what history means to everyday people. The glitzy awards ceremony, held at the theatre of state-owned Media Corp, was conducted under a sustainability theme. William wore a 10-year-old dark green blazer and other celebrities, including actress Donnie Yen and South African actor Mbatha, sported outfits made from recycled materials. Bands One Republic and Bastille and US singer Bebe Rexha performed at the event.

Mahbubani says there are plans to expand the scope of the prize to include fiction and other formats, such as movies, comics or even games, if they are able to communicate historical events in a compelling way. He cites the movie 12 Years A Slave as an example. “We need to remember that our societies are, as the famous American social scientist Benedict Anderson said, ‘imagined communities,'” he adds. “And an important part of our shared imagination is our history.”