National Archives of Singapore


A review of the National Archives of Singapore, Singapore.

The National Archives of Singapore (1 Canning Rise, Singapore 179868; is located in the former premises of the Anglo-Chinese Primary School in the heart of Singapore’s civic district. It rests at the foot of Fort Canning Hill. This hill was known as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill) to Singapore’s early settlers as it was believed that it was the site of palaces built by the ancient kings. Sir Stamford Raffles (founder of the British colony of Singapore), mindful of historical parallels, built his own residence on the hill, which became the residence of the colony’s governors. It thus became known as Government Hill during the colonial period.

This historical setting is a wonderful backdrop for an archive of Singapore’s documentary heritage. The National Archives of Singapore holds government files, private collections, historical maps, photographs, oral history interviews, and audio-visual materials pertaining to Singapore. However, being able to find and view them is not a straightforward process.

Singapore’s government files are probably of the most interest to the researcher. However, it is impossible to determine the extent of the Archives’ holdings. Singapore has no laws requiring Ministries to hand over documents, nor any laws regarding when they must be released. You simply have to search the online catalogue and hope you find something (there is no browsing option, only search). The online catalogue generally lists only titles of documents, not their contents. It may not even be possible to tell whether they are open or closed (see below) until you get to the Archive and make a request. Even if the document is open, the Archives only allows researchers to view it on microfilm. If it has not been microfilmed, you may submit a request for it to be filmed, leave your contact details, and wait for them to get back to you. There is no standard waiting time.

In order to view an item, you must fill out a paper form (with space only for seven documents). You have to give your name, passport number, organization, contact details, explain why you want to view the item, and agree to a number of conditions. Of these, the two most important are that you have to obtain written permission from the owner of the document (not the National Archives) to use, cite, or quote from the material; and that you must obtain permission from the National Archives to make photocopies.

Cameras are not allowed in the National Archives, and so photocopies/prints are the only way of making a facsimile of any documents. Reproductions (photocopies or prints) are limited to 10% of a publication or 25% of an archival record. Again, you have to fill out a form listing in detail what you will be reproducing and what you are using the reproductions for. Again, if necessary, written permission from copyright owners must be sought. The reproduction request form also has an additional quirk of making you promise to deposit two copies of any media produced which contain the reproductions within two weeks of the date of production (the penalty for non-compliance is not stated). Self-service photos copies cost  $0.05 (A4) and $0.10 (A3). If you ask the staff to make copies for you, it will cost $0.15 and $0.20 respectively. Printing from the microfilm printer costs $0.30 (A4) or $0.40 (A3). Computer printouts cost $0.15 (A4 only).

Documents may be classified as ‘A’, open access, or ‘B’, restricted access. The latter category has a number of sub-categories. It may require permission from the owner of the document, or it may be closed for a predetermined time, or it may not be opened until after the owner is deceased, or it may not be opened until a predetermined time after the owner is deceased. If they are unable to trace the owner or their descendants, it usually, but not always, defaults to 75 years after the owner’s death. Some items are “For Background Use Only”, i.e. you may read the document or listen to the oral history, but you may not acknowledge its existence, let alone quote from it or cite it. Finally, some researchers report that the classification status of documents may be arbitrarily changed and the documents withdrawn, even as one is using them (for more information, see The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History, Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society/Ethos Books, 2010).

Given the numerous barriers to viewing documents, most researchers at the National Archives instead opt for listening to the Archives’ extensive Oral History Collection. This is probably the best part of the Archives’ collection. While many of the same restrictions as above apply, the collection is much easier to search and access. The search engine will return summaries of what each tape contains, as well as whether the oral history is open or closed. Transcripts are available for some of the oral histories, and some of them are even available online.

To reach the Archives, the nearest MRT stations are at City Hall (East/West and North/South lines) and at Bras Basah (Circle line). There are also bus stops nearby. There is no parking at the National Archives, but there is a very large public car park nearby on Armenian Street. There is a drinks machine and water fountain near the toilets. Food is available nearby, especially at the Singapore Management University campus (5 minute walk). The Archives are open 9am to 5.30pm on weekdays, and 9am to 1.30pm on Saturday (closed Sundays and public holidays), although documents have to be called up by 5pm (1pm on Saturdays) and photos have to be ordered by 4.45pm (12.45pm on Saturdays).

While one is in the area, one is urged to visit Select Books, the best bookshop in Southeast Asia specializing on Southeast Asian books. It is just down the road at 51 Armenian Street, is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 6.30pm and on Sunday and Public Holidays from 10am to 4pm, and has a nice café.

P.J. Thum
Postdoctoral Fellow
Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore


Image:  National Archives of Singapore. Wikimedia Commons.

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