What drove you to specialize in history?
I have always been curious about a variety of things. As an undergraduate, I was not a History major. I majored in Biology and Anthropology. I’ve always just been very curious about everything, and I eventually realized that with history, I can learn about many topics. I can study the environment, culture, societies, politics, economics – anything, but in the past.
History thus gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different things in one discipline. It’s both multidisciplinary and a discipline. Ultimately, what I best like about it is that it allows me to go down different little rabbit holes and explore different things.
Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?
My research is rooted in Southeast Asia, mainly the Straits of Malacca areas – Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore – that is geographically where I do almost all of my work. Within that geographic space, I began as a young researcher focusing on societies and developments in different kingdoms or polities in the early modern period. I have since then expanded out to conduct research on film in Singapore in the 1950s and am currently doing a lot of things on Singaporean environmental history.
Of my recent work on environmental history, I’m interested in using the same traditional sources we have for Singapore such as archival newspapers, but asking different questions about them. For example, how did our environment and biodiversity change because of the arrival of imperialism? Therefore, it’s not about great men, politics and “Oh, they had a meeting about this”, but it’s about what happened to the plants and animals in Singapore because of the arrival of colonial powers. Think of it this way: I’m still studying imperialism, but I’m just asking different questions.
As for a proudest moment, I don’t think of it in that way. I enjoy exploring different topics, and asking questions from that material to better understand where I live. It is a day-to-day process, a continual journey.
Could you describe a surprising moment you had during your research?
One thing I’ve found becoming a central point in a lot of my recent writing is the extent of deforestation in Singapore in the 19th century. For example, in the first 50 to 60 years of colonial rule, Singapore basically went from being forest-covered to being completely deforested. In 60 years, 92% of the original forest was cut down and replaced with lalang, and that had a lot of effects on the society – Where do we get our water from? How do we get the building materials for houses? It created a lot of different issues that the government had to deal with and affected the development of the society. This one issue gave rise to the development of central catchment areas, water policies, and the way society developed.
How has your research interests changed over time?
A lot of it has been affected by where I live and what I do. My original research in Sumatran kingdoms came out of living in Sumatra. After I got my undergraduate degree, I lived in the province of Riau in Sumatra, and I just became interested in the place and wanted to learn more about it.
I moved to Singapore 20 years ago, and shifted a bit more toward Singapore, and this came out of living here. For instance, I saw old Malay films on TV and I couldn’t find any information about them – and so I wrote about them.
The same is true with my work on environmental history. I’ve always been interested in biodiversity because of my biology background. One of the earliest modules I created after my arrival at NUS was one on environmental history. Once I began teaching it, however, I became frustrated in the fact that there were few resources about Singapore to assign and, out of my own frustration, I decided to write some myself.
Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?
My number one bit of advice is to study what interests you. Others may emphasize studying STEM subjects or subjects which will get you a good job. In the modern economy, however, what will get you a good job is passion. If you do not have a passion or an interest in what you study, it will become very apparent.
If you find the study of History interesting, please study it, and embrace it. If you find Economics more interesting, however, go to Economics. That’s fine. There will always be ups and downs in your studies, and what will push you through the low times is your own curiosity and interest. If you study something you don’t care about, you ultimately will get jobs that you don’t enjoy, and you will spend the rest of your life in misery.
Now, wouldn’t you rather study something that drives you and motivates you? In the modern economy, it’s not about your specific major because you’re going to change jobs and shift where you are numerous times. The basic skills that will give you that are not in your degree. It’s the ability to write well, to think and to be flexible.
Choose a major you care about and, once you do, go all in.
What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?
I tend to read historical narrative books for pleasure. For example, right now I’m reading about the transit of Venus in 1761 to 1769 – how scientists measured Venus against the sun and how this helped create precise readings about where we are and the size of the solar system.
When it comes to novels, my answers are standard ones – everything from Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird or Catch-22 were among my favourites when I was younger – but I tend to read history works which highlight a specific event or development at the time now.
What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?
I don’t really have a bucket list. When I have something I’m interested in doing, I do it. I tend to travel a lot overseas though… Maybe visit Antarctica.
Who is your favourite cartoon character?
What genres of music do you like the most?
Probably 80s pop.
What’s your least favourite beverage?
Anything that has sugar. I like Coke zero sugar, but not normal Coke. I also like my coffee kosong.
If you could add one word to the English dictionary, what would it be?
Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?
Only complain once you’ve completed the job.
Thank you so much for the interview.
*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.