The Past in Our Present

Drop by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) on a week-day afternoon and, chances are, you’ll find Ms Khoo Ee Hoon at one of the microfilm readers, engrossed in her research on old Singapore. Known for her generosity in helping fellow researchers, heritage buffs and NAS staff, this former theatre practitioner explains her love for things past. 

Being an inquisitive person by nature, I’m curious about many things. I love to explore the past, and to learn.

But I wasn’t always a researcher; I’m a theatre practitioner by training. In the beginning, I worked for a children’s theatre company, then moved on to professional theatre, first in stage management and then in theatre production and technical management. I enjoyed the work very much; to successfully realise a director’s vision, you need strong technical theatre knowledge and good interpersonal and organisational skills.

After I’d done project and stage management for about two years, it was recommended to me that I continue my education in technical theatre and stage management at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). The courses at RADA were very intense and hands-on; we spent our days in class and our nights working on shows. After I came back to Singapore, I worked in production management and technical direction, managing budget and technical aspects of staging.

I chose theatre as a life journey, but I’ve always loved history. When I was younger, I loved to read martial arts novels, especially those with a historical backdrop; perhaps that’s where it all began? After an 18-year career in theatre, my life path took a gentle twist, and a short break from theatre led me to my second love, history. I started doing more research and writing on heritage-related subjects.

One of my interests is Bukit Brown, a municipal cemetery that was set up in 1922 and closed for burial in 1973. To me, Bukit Brown is a repository of stories about early Singapore, and I started by conducting guided walks of the grounds. This was a rather significant change from my work in theatre, but I was able to draw on my professional experiences and put them to use in this new vocation. I was trained in design, for example, so I was able to conceptualise the divisional maps and directional signs of Bukit Brown for the documentation team headed by Dr Hui Yew-Foong. Shortly after, I was invited to create simpler maps for the Land Transport Authority, to be used at the grounds.


I first stepped into the NAS’ Archives Reading Room in late 2014 to do further research on Bukit Brown. Now, I’m here regularly to look at old maps, burial records and other heritage-related materials. In the past, researchers and historians have benefited from NAS’ resources and done much good work. With advancements in technology, we’re in a more advantageous position than before. So this is a good time for us to do research, and there’s no excuse for us not to do it, and to share our knowledge.

I’ve gone back to the original documents – like the Straits Settlements Records and administration reports of the Municipality of Singapore – to study different subjects and theories. There are errors and lapses in our understanding of things, and these can spread like wildfire. I hope to correct them and share this knowledge with others.

The handwritten Straits Settlements Records and "Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Commissioners" can be difficult to read, but they offer important leads. It takes me about two weeks to go through one microfilm reel of these documents


I’m very thankful for the Archives Reading Room, which is full of valuable information for researchers. I’m also thankful to the staff for giving me space to do my work; they’ve been patient and helpful. They’re always ready to address my enquiries and to offer their support.

I do enjoy solving problems and helping people by showing them how to use the microfilm reader and sharing my experiences. I really believe in passing on what we've learnt. We can’t bring it with us, after all!

I’ve had many interesting discoveries and made unexpected connections. Once, a group of Canossian Sisters came to the Archives Reading Room to do research on their church in Malacca. I offered them several suggestions and, in return, they shared with me the fascinating history of their church.

Another time, a man came to the Archives Reading Room to look for his grandfather’s burial records; he was hoping to locate the grave. I volunteered to help him by guiding him through his memories of the grounds and narrowing down the areas that he might find the grave. Together, we managed to locate it, after one of my friends had walked the grounds on a Sunday with him, for two hours. I’m glad there was a happy ending, and what I found most rewarding was seeing how we gave the man encouragement and hope.

I’ve made friends here at the Archives Reading Room – many, many friends. It’s reciprocal; if you’re nice to others, they’ll be nice to you. Sometimes, patrons lose their patience and can become rude or unreasonable. It’s good if everyone can be a little more understanding!
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CREATING OUR FUTURE TOGETHER: Ms Khoo was nominated by the National Archives of Singapore for the PS21 Star Customer Award at this year’s Excellence in Public Service Awards ceremony. Look out for more coverage of this year’s nominees and recipients.
    Aug 16, 2016
    Khoo Ee Hoon
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