UNC Professor on Jury for First Book Prize on Singaporean History

January 20, 2015
Peter Coclanis

Peter Coclanis. Photo by Donn Young.

Peter Coclanis, Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been invited to play a role in Singapore’s year-long celebration of its 50th year of independence.

Coclanis will serve as a judge for the Singapore History Prize, the first-ever prize devoted to the study of the Republic’s history. The $50,000 award is sponsored by the Department of History at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and is the highest such prize to be awarded to an outstanding publication that makes a lasting impact on the understanding of Singapore’s history. The prize will be awarded every three years.

Coclanis’ participation is indicative of the strong collaborative ties he has with faculty, administrators and leaders in Singapore.

“The award is intended to stimulate more writing about the history of Singapore,” explains Coclanis, who has seen great change in the city-state in the decades he has lived and traveled there.

Coclanis first went to Singapore more than 20 years ago on a Fulbright research fellowship that supported his scholarship on the rice trade. This work built on Coclanis’ earlier scholarship on rice in the U.S. South in the 18th and 19th centuries. As his connections in Singapore expanded, his own research on Southeast Asia grew.

“I [first lived in] Singapore at a crucial time,” he said. “NUS was transitioning more and more into a research university and was looking to reach out globally and the University of North Carolina was also interested in building a stronger foundation for global education.” he recalls.

In the early ’90s he began encouraging colleagues in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences to build international programs in collaboration with NUS.

Coclanis facilitated visits between UNC administration and NUS through the ’90s. Collaboration was made easier by the fact that NUS is an English-speaking campus, and as Coclanis explains, “like UNC, is an exceptional public university, which valorizes research and service as much as teaching.”

The two universities initiated an exchange program and later developed a joint-degree program in 2007. Through this unique program, undergraduates from UNC and NUS can study abroad at the partner institution for two to four semesters and receive a degree from both universities when they graduate. The program is open to students majoring in English literature, history, economics, geography, political science and biology.

Over the years Coclanis has been invited to speak at many NUS events and has been part of several external reviews of the university. In the fall of 2005, he taught at NUS, holding the Raffles Professorship in History. He also serves on a high-level committee of the Singapore Ministry of Education and writes frequently for publications in Singapore. In 2003, he helped to create UNC’s Southeast Asia Summer program (SEAS), served as inaugural director in summer 2003 and led the program again in 2014.

Coclanis emphasizes that the relationship between UNC and NUS serves both partners well.

“NUS is the strongest university in Southeast Asia, one of the best in Asia, and respected all over the world. We are also strong in a lot of areas, but often different areas than NUS. It makes sense for each school to work with a high-quality partner to leverage the strongest resources of each,” he explains.

With regard to the new book prize, Coclanis notes that Singapore’s political history has been relatively well-documented, but that gaps remain in other aspects of the country’s history. The competition is thus seeking publications that address varied aspects of Singapore’s history.

The Singapore History Prize was announced Nov. 13, 2014, and opened for submission on Jan. 1, 2015. Entries will be accepted from any author or publishing house, as long as the work was published in English. The jurors welcome any and all works that deal with the history of Singapore, broadly conceived.