Research Update – working at the Singapore National Archives

One of the challenges I’ve been faced with while researching the Singapore Police Force (SPF) has been the lack of sources available to me. A brief rundown of how this has manifested:

  1. My proposal to conduct ethnographic research with the SPF was rejected without comment. My attempt to follow-up and find out why has been met with silence.
  2. The press in Singapore has traditionally been very friendly to the government. In fact, the government considers the press as a partner in governance. Thus, much of the coverage of the police tends to echo what you might call the ‘public relations’ standpoint of both the police and the national government. It’s certainly not so crude as a direct mouthpiece for the government – some critical coverage certainly exists – but it is difficult to get any real ‘behind the scenes’ information about the working of the police through the press.
  3. Singapore is so small that what historical scholarship does exist is not really focused on the island, instead tending to focus on India and maybe the Malaysian peninsula.
  4. Contemporary scholarship on policing in Singapore tends to fall into what Mark Neocleous has called ‘the intellectual backwater of police studies’ (I may be paraphrasing there, but the spirit is spot-on if not the quote). I don’t mean that there isn’t any good scholarship on the SPF, it’s just that the agenda of that scholarship is set by the ideology of the police itself. Ganapathy Narayanan, for example, has written a number of interesting, well researched articles on the SPF and the policing of both domestic violence and gangs. It’s great work, but it is what I would call ‘policy oriented’ and the agenda falls short of placing policing into any wider narratives of the production of social order. The same holds true for work on policing in Singapore by David H. Bayley (a veritable giant in comparative police studies globally) and Jon S. T. Quah (the giant in police studies in Singapore, although he’s been retired for years now).
  5. A few books do exist, but they are largely published by the SPF themselves. Thus they reflect the same narrative as the ‘Singapore Story’. The ideological project here is clear: modern Singapore’s origin emerged from fighting off the Communists and the chaos of ethnic strife, with the added problems of the Chinese Secret Societies thrown in. The 1948 Malayan Emergency, the 1950 Maria Hertogh Riots, the 1964 and 1969 Race Riots, and a few other major events form a core set of narratives that shape Singaporean national identity, and they are reviewed annually in the lead up to the National Day events. It is probably not that surprising, then, that the Singapore Police Heritage Centre (museum), and books like In the Service of the Nation and Policing Singapore in the 19th and 20th Centuries (both published by the SPF) play out this narrative repeatedly.

I could keep going, but the point is made.

So I’m trying my hand at the National Archives to see what is available.

Day 1 in the archives has been spent trying to get oriented to the collections, figuring out what is available (very broadly), and testing the procedures and equipment.

Much of what is available is from the mid- to late-19th century. (Almost nothing specific jumps out from the post-WWII period, although I suspect that I may find some material buried in with other kinds of sources.) The staff at the archive mentioned quite explicitly that contemporary material is more difficult to come across than older stuff. And it seems like the general practice of transferring archival materials to the National Archives is not necessarily followed very closely here.

Over the next few working days I will go through all of the microfilm and locate the sources listed in the index for the Papers and Reports Laid Before the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements, 1867-1955. Based on the titles/descriptions I can see there are many, many gaps, and very little seems comprehensive enough to add up to a very good picture of the police in Singapore. For example, I spent an hour locating a letter that basically said nothing. It contained a few references to another letter (location unknown) and an ordinance passed in 1868 – but had no substantial content. I suspect that it will make sense if I can locate the ordinance and the letter to which this was a response, but I do not think it is in the collections here.

Also…microfilm?! I haven’t used these machines since elementary school (that’s pre-1996 for anyone counting…). I struggled with it today, but hopefully it will get easier as I go. I forget sometimes what life was like before Google, and the ease with which we can search text today for the most part.

The other project for the coming weeks is to read through the collection of annual reports, especially the ‘Law and Order’ sections. These reports are either ‘Colony of Singapore Annual Reports’ or ‘Singapore Year Books’, and go from 1955 through the early 1980s. They provide helpful summaries of government and societal activities on an annual basis, but as I mentioned above, they are government sources and I hope to triangulate them against others.


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