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Week of 17 April 2023

Week of 17 April 2023

The Need to Archive

Over the past few weeks, I have met with people who are involved in separate projects to research and publish anniversary books for various mosques in Singapore. I will not go into specifics, but I do see a pattern in these prospective projects and in completed projects to document mosque history in Singapore, such as The Blue Mosque of Singapore by Mohamed Nasim s/o Abdul Rahim. For projects like this, the researcher is handicapped by the lack of quality information. Even for basic data points like the names of the first board of directors or the resident imam, say twenty years ago, no reliable source can be found. And institutional knowledge can only take you so far, especially for mosques that have been around for far longer than living memory. The writer or researcher would have no choice but to do a lot of primary research — digging into official government archives, court documents, building plans, announcements in the media — and this takes a monumental amount of man-hours, far exceeding what is usually budgeted for such projects. Mohamed Nasim confessed that he took about twenty years to research his book. This perennial problem will not go away until the community collectively makes a concerted effort to archive its cultural and intellectual heritage.

I remember during my own research for the book Hand to Heart: The Collective Spirit of Malay/Muslim Organisations in Singapore, I came upon the minutes of meetings of the Javanese self-help group Jawalol Masakin from the 1920s. It was handwritten in neat Jawi script and was a treasure trove of information. The members attending the meeting were listed, along with their posts (secretary, treasurer and so on), and the issues of the day they were discussing, such as how should funds be allocated to the widow of a recently deceased member who had been behind in his subscription payment. The minutes revealed not only how sophisticated they were in conducting meetings, but also what their preoccupations were, what their notions of justice and fairness were back in the 1920s. This particular artefact resides in the National Archives, and I am grateful that it is preserved there for researchers present and future. As Richard Ovenden reminds us in Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, “the preservation of knowledge is fundamentally not about the past, but the future.”

In the age of digitalisation, the maintenance of physical archives is even more important because of internet rot and link rot (See The Internet is Rotting, Jonathan Zittrain, The Atlantic, June 2021) on the one hand, and intentional rewrites; everyone is by now well-acquainted with Wikipedia rewrites, which for hot-button issues border on the Orwellian.

I don’t know if such a thing will happen, but an archive has to be collectively and publicly (meaning not privately) maintained for the Muslim community in Singapore with the intention of presenting, preserving, safe-guarding, and disseminating knowledge about ourselves and the way we are. Not just for producing glossy coffee-table editions of anniversary publications of mosque history, but for a multitude of reasons and causes we cannot foresee. Further, knowledge of this kind is invaluable to the community’s survival and more generally to the future of Singapore as a nation. If this seems overblown, I suggest reading Ovenden’s book cited above, particularly the chapter on Sarajevo’s libraries and archives.

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