SPEECH BY ARUN MAHIZHNAN, CHIEF COORDINATOR, TAMIL DIGITAL HERITAGE PROJECT, AT THE INAUGURATION OF TAMIL DIGITAL HERITAGE COLLECTION ON 22 AUGUST 2015, 8.00PM, AT DRAMA CENTRE, NATIONAL LIBRARY BUILDING
On this day, we are gathered to witness and celebrate a historic, unprecedented and enduring contribution to the nation by a small community.
The Tamil Digital Heritage project was seeded more than two years ago by a very small group of citizens who wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our Independence in a meaningful way. We also wanted the commemoration to live long after the celebratory song and dance came to an end. The fruit of that seed is what you have been presented today.
Those of us who have lived in the Tamil world of Singapore know that the language, literature and culture of a small community of just 5% of the population cannot survive, let alone flourish, if the community itself does not make the necessary efforts. No culture lives by god’s grace alone. People must live that culture if they want their culture to live.
We also know that over the past 50 years, though the number of Tamil literature books in Singapore has been growing, ironically, most of them have little or no market and their public life is often confined to the day of the launch. The lack of a market and, even worse, the paucity of their use in the education system have relegated most of our literary publications to the dusty shelves of authors themselves and, in some cases, to the dustbin of history, to be forgotten forever. The only place where we can find most of our Tamil literary publications is the National Library, thanks to its collection policy.
Instead of bemoaning the loss of life, some of us decided to give those books a new lease of life – in the digital form. We explored the possibility of digitizing the books so that they can be made available for anyone, anytime and even anywhere in the world, and for free.
We approached the Tamil authors whose creative sweat and blood produced those books and most of them gave their permission to digitisation readily, willingly and happily – and for nothing in return. If not for those authors, and the organizational support of the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers, this project would not even have begun. Our thanks are first and foremost to them.
We approached the National Library Board, the National Heritage Board, the National Arts Council and the National Book Development Council of Singapore to ask if they would support the project which is actually a gift from the Indian community to the nation on its birthday. Not given to looking a gift horse in the mouth, all of them readily, willingly and happily agreed to support it. In fact, NLB took the lead in adopting the project as if it is its own and gave it the best home it could ever get. The NLB staff, led by Ms Elaine Ng, were our great partners and cheerleaders. If not for the generosity and the strong support of the four government agencies, this project would not have gotten underway. Our thanks are to them.
As we needed a large number of volunteers, we approached the best catchment area – the Tamil teachers -- through a couple of teachers in our own little group and the response was tremendous. These teachers understood the extraordinary value of the project for their own profession and realized that they and their students stand to benefit most from it. We asked for a 100 volunteers and 250 showed up. We wanted them to do annotations for the books and proofreading of the digital versions. They agreed to do all we asked for, readily, willingly and happily -- for nothing in return. If not for their hard and dedicated work, this project would not have been completed on time. Our thanks are to them.
We approached members of the public to donate a small amount of money -- $50 per adult and $2 per student – as their own contribution to this community gift to the nation. It was not so much the money – which we could have easily secured from the usual and generous benefactors of our community some of whom are sitting right here – but the personal participation that mattered most to us. Most people we asked gave readily, willingly and happily. Some small communities such as the Annamalai University Alumni Association and the KINDS Association and the Jamal Mohamed College Alumini Association as well as the Hindu Endowments Board, Modern Montessori International, Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League, Singapore Tamil Techers Union and Tamil Language and Cultural Society mobilised their own members and made a collective donation. I should also mention that in true Singapore fashion, this Tamil project is not just supported by Tamil or Indian members of our society but also by Chinese, Malays and others. Some have even come here to join our celebrations! Our thanks are to all of them.
We collected this money mainly to buy a small token of appreciation to be given to all our volunteers and the authors and to provide a simple reception for the 600 people gathered here. But as providence would have it, two individuals offered to take care of those expenses – readily, willingly and happily. Haji Abdul Jaleel donated $30,000 towards the token of appreciation and Mr Shanmugam of Gayatri Restaurant took care of the reception. Our thanks are to both of them.
We approached the PA Indian Orchestra, the Bhaskar’s Arts Academy and some individual performers like Rani and Murali and, of course, the inimitable Vadi, to help us present this digital collection in an interesting and entertaining way and make it their own contribution to this gift to the nation. At no cost to us, they all have provided you with an enchanting evening,
readily, willingly and happily. Our thanks are to them.
We approached Minister Iswaran early on in this project to ask if he would mind being our patron saint and guide us through unchartered waters, as such a project has never been undertaken before. I think it would be fair to say the Minster agreed readily, willingly and happily. And he kept faith with us. Our thanks are to you, Minister.
I have saved the last thanks to the best among us -- our dear DPM. I wish I could say we approached him too but that would be stretching the truth. We were too worried whether he would think this project worthy of his time and effort and so we asked Minister Iswaran to do the asking. I would hazard a guess that DPM too agreed readily, willingly, and happily. And we
are absolutely delighted and honoured that he has spared the time to come here and be with us on this historic occasion, despite his impossibly hectic schedule, especially during this time. And I’m not talking about the election which he certainly doesn’t know when it is coming.
I am sure I speak for everyone gathered here when I say that your presence and your blessings for this project is the most singular honour and signal that this project is truly a worthy gift from the Indian community to the nation of Singapore. Our thanks are to you, DPM.
Finally, my parting words: this entire enterprise would be rendered a historic relic and a white elephant if the community at large does not use it wisely and extensively. Schools and tertiary institutions that teach Tamil should take full advantage of this unprecedented and unmatched resource. To the extent possible our Working Group has already taken some initial steps to ensure the collection is used by some Tamil teachers and students. But the long term efficacy of this project lies entirely in the hands of the authors, aspiring writers, teachers, students, researchers and even lay readers. As we said on 23 October 2013, when we launched this project, the Tamil Digital Heritage collection is a kamathenu, atchya paathiram and
varaprasatham! Even the gods would be envious!