The stories of ordinary people take centre stage on the shortlist of the NUS Singapore History Prize, a new award that celebrates non-fiction and fiction with a historical slant. The $50,000 prize for works published between January 2017 and November 2020 forgoes the traditional view of history as a record of big-movers-and-shakers to encourage reading about the nation from a diverse range of perspectives.
The prize was mooted in a Straits Times column by NUS Asia Research Institute distinguished fellow Kishore Mahbubani, who says it is designed to foster a sense of shared imagination and reclaim Singapore’s place in the world. “As the American social historian Benedict Anderson said, nations are ‘imagined communities’ that hold societies together,” he adds. “A shared understanding of history is a critical glue to sustain healthy civil societies.”
Among the works on the shortlist is Kamaladevi Aravindan’s novel Sembawang (2020, available here), which follows a family through a series of events in the estate of the same name across five decades. Another entry is New York-based author Jeremy Tiang’s State Of Emergency (2017, available here), which details an extended family’s experiences through leftist political movements and detentions in Singapore and Malaysia. Also on the list is Leluhur: Singapore’s Kampong Gelam (2019, available here), by Hidayah Amin, which shines a light on the history of a neighbourhood many now know only as a tourist attraction.
A design by a local firm also made the cut, showcasing a “masterful integration of form and function” at an affordable price. WOHA’s Kampung Admiralty is designed as a “vertical village” for seniors, with 104 apartments stacked in two 11-story tower blocks that offer private living spaces on the upper levels and public spaces – including gardens, terraces and hawker centers – on the lower floors.
It’s the latest community or public architecture project to win the top prize at WAF, which aims to honour buildings that improve quality of life in cities and highlight emerging talents in the field. Previous winners include a post-earthquake reconstruction project in a rural village in China and the Interlace, a stacked apartment complex by OMA and Ole Scheeren in Singapore.
The prize is a collaboration between the NUS School of Arts and Social Sciences and the Lee Kuan Yew Fund, a foundation established by the late prime minister to promote and support the arts. The fund was founded with donations from businesspeople, philanthropists and others. The prize will be presented to the winning city at a ceremony in 2022. In the meantime, Vienna has already been crowned as this year’s winner of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, a biennial accolade that recognises urban achievements and contributions that create liveable and sustainable cities. It will be presented in conjunction with the International Urban Trends Forum in July. Read more about the winning submission here.