The Singapore Prize – which has just launched its 2021 edition in support of the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence – is awarded for a work that focuses on Singapore’s history. This year’s award goes to archaeologist John Miksic for his book Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 – a 491-page tome that tells the story of how the island city-state was once one of Asia’s busiest trading hubs.
The prize was mooted in an opinion column written by NUS Asia Research Institute distinguished fellow Kishore Mahbubani, who says the prize is “inspired by Benedict Anderson’s famous quote that nations are ‘imagined communities'”. In the era of fake news and social media, nations need to be able to communicate their past with a shared imagination, he adds.
In 2014, the prize was launched with S$500,000 donated by Singapore philanthropists. This money was placed in an endowment fund, with the interest earned on it used to support the prize. In 2016, it was boosted by a S$1 million donation from DBS Foundation.
Besides donating S$1 million to the prize, DBS also committed to match the Singapore National Paralympic Council’s contribution through its Athletes Achievement Awards (AAA). This will allow Singapore’s Para-athletes who receive their medals at the Tokyo 2020 Games to double their financial awards, according to a press release.
It’s a big deal, as this is the first time that Singapore has offered a prize to a work focusing on the country’s history. The prize is open to both fiction and non-fiction works that explore Singapore’s past.
This year’s shortlist includes books about Singapore’s war-torn history, the island’s rise as a global business hub, its development into a green garden city and its role in Asia’s cultural evolution. The list also includes works about the country’s migrant population and its social and cultural identity.
Some of the books on the shortlist are rooted in a personal sense of Singapore’s history. These include Leluhur: Singapore’s Kampong Gelam by Hidayah Amin and The Secret of the Yellow Mansion by Tiang Chin Yew.
While the works on this year’s shortlist are diverse, there is a common thread running through them all: their dedication to understanding and preserving Singapore’s rich culture. It’s a passion that is not easy to cultivate – especially when you’re not born in the country.
But it’s an obsession that can only be nurtured with a genuine interest in the subject matter and an unflinching determination to learn more, both from the past and the present. This is what made John Miksic’s “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea,” so extraordinary.
And it’s also what made him the winner of the inaugural Singapore History Prize.
Aside from its hefty cash prize, the Singapore History Prize will offer researchers a platform to present their findings at a national conference in October, and a chance to publish their discoveries through a monograph. The prize also offers an opportunity to network with leading historians, scholars and academics around the world.