At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Singapore began testing wastewater for traces of the disease, mirroring efforts done by other countries. This innovation was largely due to research led by Dutch microbiologist Professor Gertjan Medema, who has now received this year’s Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize – an honour that comes with a cash prize of S$300,000, for his work on “wastewater-based epidemiology”. Medema’s studies showed that analysing wastewater samples can provide valuable insights into the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. He and his team found that monitoring the bacterial populations in wastewater can alert public health authorities to outbreaks before any cases are reported in a community. This tightens the links between water and health, he says.

The winner, who will be awarded the Prize and a gold medallion by Singapore’s President Tharman Shanmugaratnam on 18 June at the National University of Singapore, was chosen from nominations put forward by various groups including academics, historians, museum curators and teachers. The Prize is an initiative of the NUS Department of History, introduced in 2014 as part of programmes marking SG50. It is the first book prize here to focus on Singapore’s history, and is administered by NUS.

This year, the shortlist of six books for the prize includes history tomes that forgo the traditional view of history as a record of big-name movers and shakers. The list also features a novel with a personal slant and a graphic novel that tackles the issue of fake news. Sembawang by Kamaladevi Aravindan (2020, available here) follows the lives of a family over five decades in the estate where the author grew up.

Another work that looks at the lives of average Singaporeans is Seven Hundred Years: A History Of Singapore by Kwa Chong Guan, Tan Tai Yong, Derek Heng and Peter Borschberg. The book explores the evolution of the country through the eyes of everyday people, and is said to be the most comprehensive study on how Singaporeans have lived since independence.

NUS historian Kishore Mahbubani, who chairs the jury that chooses the winner of the prize, says there are plans to expand the category of works eligible for the Singapore Prize to include movies and comics. He cites 12 Years A Slave as an example. He adds that the prize’s goal is to ensure that all citizens gain a deeper understanding of their home city. “There’s a sense of pride when you can tell the story about your country in a way that really helps the community,” he says. “We want to see a lot more of that happening.” The prize is open to English-language works published between 1 June 2021 and 31 May 2024. Nominations can be authored or co-authored and should address any time period, theme or field of Singaporean history.

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