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Culture champ: 'I want to increase awareness of diversity in the Malay world'
By Olivia Ho
Ms Nadirah Norruddin’s interest in history began when her junior college teachers taught her that there is more to the subject than just memorising. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA/FRENCHESCAR LIM

This ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute scholar did a master’s in Europe to deepen her understanding of South-east Asia

For most, history is merely something found only in old, dusty tomes. However, for Ms Nadirah Norruddin, the study of history is inextricable from its resonance with the present.

“History is not just about the past; its relevance can also be carried into the future,” says Ms Nadirah.

The 31-year-old’s passion for history started in junior college, where her teachers taught her not to approach the subject by simply memorising content. Instead, she learnt how analysing past events could reveal their long-lasting impact on today’s world.

“For instance, much of what happened this past year, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is built on long-standing power dynamics from the years following the Cold War,” she says.

This interest in history and how it can impact lives in the present led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in history at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and subsequently a master’s in Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

Her overseas studies were sponsored by the Tun Dato Sir Cheng-Lock Tan MA Scholarship that was awarded to her in 2019. Scholars must serve a one-year bond with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) following the completion of their studies.

Today, after having fulfilled her bond since acquiring her master’s in 2021, Ms Nadirah now works as a research officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies department of ISEAS.

Her first job after graduating from NUS was as an assistant curator at the Malay Heritage Centre. She went on to be an associate librarian at the National Library Board, where her work sparked further curiosity about Singapore and its South-east Asian connections.

Invaluable resources

She chose to do her master’s in South-east Asian studies in Europe partly because of the proximity to resources such as the British Library in London and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

“They have an extensive number of manuscripts on the Malay world that would have been useful for my research,” she says. “Many of these items have not been digitised or analysed. These are treasures that can provide further insight into the region’s history.”

She eventually decided on the Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia master’s programme at the University of Hamburg because it focused on both history and contemporary events.

“It included interdisciplinary studies that would allow me to delve into different aspects of South-east Asia that I had not considered previously, such as modules about urban transport, social media and food history.”

Like many students, the Covid-19 pandemic affected Ms Nadirah’s studies from 2019 to 2021. It jeopardised her semester abroad which would have taken place at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the library archives of which she had hoped to explore.

Nevertheless, she powered through the lockdowns, having outdoor get-togethers with friends in public parks and tweaking her thesis topic to suit her research constraints.

Moral policing in the digital age

She wound up writing her dissertation on the moral policing of Muslim women in 1900s Malaya while seeking to connect this historical context with the current age and to assess the extent of technology’s role in determining the position of women in society.

“Although there have been vast structural improvements since the 1900s, women are still subjected to many forms of discrimination in other ways. For instance, women are scrutinised no matter what they choose to wear and what they choose to do – for example, if they decide to focus on their careers or be homemakers,” she explains.

“In the digital age, moral vigilantism has taken on a new face via popular platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. The moral police now comprise common netizens who are hegemonising the parameters of public morality.”

One of Ms Nadirah’s roles at ISEAS is to edit articles on the research institute’s outreach and publications website (

She also helps to organise events such as a two-day workshop in November 2022, Emerging Muslim Lifestyles In Maritime Southeast Asia: Impact On Multicultural Societies.

She juggled events organising duties with co-presenting a paper of her own, titled Marketing A “Muslim Lifestyle” In Singapore: The Case Of Islamic-Inspired Products In Kampong Gelam.

“I hope to increase awareness of the diversity in the Malay world, as well as its rich culture and traditions,” she says.

“There are many resources available all over the world that attest to its vibrancy and I would like to encourage young students to contribute to the study of the region.”

How to ace your application for the Tun Dato Sir Cheng-Lock Tan MA Scholarship

The Tun Dato Sir Cheng-Lock Tan MA Scholarship supports Singapore postgraduates in a variety of subjects ranging from South-east Asian studies to archaeological science. Funded by The Tun Dato Sir Cheng Lock Tan Trust Fund, the scholarship is offered on an annual basis and administered by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. 

As part of your application, you will need to submit a research proposal. Here are some tips to make yours stand out:
1. Develop a strong proposal. Make sure you put in a lot of thought into it because your proposal leaves an important first impression and reveals how thorough you are in your thinking.

2. Give yourself enough time for research. Plan well ahead so you have sufficient time before the application deadline to do extensive research on your topic. 

3. Do not over-promise
. Avoid bloating up your proposal with empty promises or overly lofty goals that the judges can see through. Stick to what you think you are capable of delivering.

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