Books and History

From Magna Charta to Singapore’s Constitution

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the restoration of two antiquarian books owned by a local law professor.

The two completed books. On left, the Spirit of Magna Charta and the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya

These books, The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841, bound by Wildy & Sons, Lincoln’s Inn, London) and Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London) represented two important points in the history of UK Law.


Original condition of The Spirit of Magna Charta (1841)

The 1841 book was a treatise on the importance of the Magna Charta, which was sealed by King John under pressure from rebelling barons on 15 June 1215. The document effectively placed a limitation on arbitrary royal authority and sought to establish that the king was subject to the law and not above it. Over the many centuries, it was seen as a symbol of struggle for liberty and the strive for greater democracy. The American revolutionists, the 19th century England working class and even the new pioneers of Australia all saw it as a “People’s Charter” and the basis of their own country’s law to recognise the rights and will of the people.

This awareness and respect for the Magna Charta underlined UK’s efforts to progressive grant independence to colonies worldwide, including Malaya. In 1946, 11 states in Peninsular Malaya came together to form a single British Crown Colony known as the Malayan Union. UK continued to enjoy strong, amicable ties with Malaya throughout the entire period of the Malayan Emergency until it was confident enough that communism was no longer a threat in Malaya and hence independence was granted.

Original Condition for Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya (1957)

The newly-formed Federation of Malaya achieved independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on 31 August 1957 with the passing of Federation of Malaya Independence Act 1957. The new constitution for the Federation was drafted jointly by law practitioners in UK and Malaya with inputs from international experts, culminating in the Constitutional Proposal for the Federation of Malaya.

When Singapore joined Malaya in 1963, the Federation Constitution was adopted and when the island gained independence in 1965, part of the constitution remained and was refined to become our own State Constitution. Hence, the proposal could be seen as the genesis of Singapore’s Constitution as well.

The two books came to me as pamphlet sections bounded together using metal staples. The 1841 book was definitely in a worse condition than the 1957 one but notwithstanding, the ferrous metal staples had corroded over the years and had become weak and friable, leaving a bright orange stain on sections of both books. The staples were removed and parts of each folio affected by corrosion were cleaned and patched up using lightweight repair papers.

Damage caused by metal staples (left) and the repaired sections

Once strengthened, the sections were hand-sewn using French-link stitch on tapes. The completed text blocks were then glued, rounded and backed to create a rounded book spine. The client had requested for a traditional look for the two books, hence quarter leather binding was chosen. The calf skins, in black and red, were pared down and pasted onto the spine. This was then followed by the pasting down of marbled papers for the covers and the endpapers.

Restoration Process — clockwise from top left, rebinding, backing, leather paring and casing in

You would probably notice that the endpapers were attached onto new flypapers instead of the original book. This allowed for maximum reversibility in the future if the books are damaged or if the owner wants to recommission a new binding for the books. The flypaper can simply be cut away and the original textblock can be removed.


The completed restored books

In total, the entire job took about 2 months to complete. Considering that I have to juggle full-time work, weekend bookbinding workshops and other activities, the process proceeded very smoothly. While I cannot say I have acquired a fondness for law history, I did gain quite a bit of law knowledge flipping through the two books, especially on the rights each citizen is entitled to.

A Visit to the Herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens

I really do love my day job. I have the occassional opportunity to venture into interesting places that I am eager to share.

The herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of such places. It is tucked at a corner of the sprawling compound and may not be easily noticeable to common visitors. Part of the herbarium, particularly the preparation area is open for public viewing via a glass window in the library.


Peek behind the glass for a closer look at herbarium preparation

Through the window, you can observe how the experienced technician mounts the herabium plant specimen by applying glue and adhering it to a rag-cotton archival-quality card. The specimen is then sewed onto the sheet for additional support before the information label is pasted on. This step of preparation is only one of the several steps involved in the herabium specimen making process.


A completed herbarium specimen

Prior to mounting, other steps include collecting the plant specimen, preparing the sample using chemical treatment, preparing the information on the label and cataloguing the specimen in a database.

The widespread, scientific circulation of the herbarium specimen is precisely why it is so important to maintain a high level of accuracy and precision in each step of the preparation process.


Applying adhesive to the specimen

In a nutshell, a herabium specimen is a physical sample of a known plant classified according to the modern Angiosperm Phylogeny Group Plant Classification System. The specimen is usually collected during a fieldtrip or a floristic survey. About 30cm of the plant, representative of its growth, including leave, stem, flowers and fruit is collected intact. Each collected sample is accompanied by comprehensive field notes and desk research. Information include the collector’s name, date of collection, collection number, locality, habitat and description of the plant habit, especially notes on field characters that cannot be observed on the dried specimen.

Famous herbarium collectors who had graced the shores of Singapore include the great naturalist, Alfred Wallace, best known for his work on the theory of evolution through natural selection in 1858, paralleling the work of Charles Darwin. He conducted extensive fieldwork in Borneo and Malaysia, using Singapore as his research base. Wallace’s herbarium specimens now reside in UK collections, such as his fern collection in Cambridge University spanning 33 species, 22 genera and 17 families. More information can be found at


Old herbarium collections

Another famous plant collector well known in Singapore is Henry Ridley, the first Scientific Director of Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He was known for the many years spent promoting rubber as a commercial product and his discovery in 1895 of a means of tapping which did not seriously damage the rubber trees. Due to his discovery and work, he was largely credited for establishing the rubber industry in Malaya and Singapore. Less well known, Ridley lived to a ripe old age of 100 and retired in Kew, where he continued to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens on a regular basis. He also bought back many herbarium and timber samples now stored in Kew. The picture below shows one of such sample which I had the privilege to hold when I studied in Kew.

So how do herbarium samples relate to bookbinding? According to Duke University Herbarium (, Luca Ghini, professor of medicine and botany at the University of Pisa during the 16th century, is credited with the invention of the herbarium. Traditionally, several plant specimens were glued in a decorative arrangement on a single sheet of paper. These sheets were then bound into volumes, stored in a library, and cited like books. Specimens were thus placed into a fixed order from which they could not be removed without destroying the specimens.

It was the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus who advised readers of his Philosophia Botanica in 1751 to mount just one specimen per sheet and refrain from binding the sheets together. For storage of the mounted specimens, Linnaeus suggested a specially-built cabinet where individual sheets could easily be inserted at any place, removed at any time, and reinserted again anywhere in the collection. In contrast to the bound volumes of older herbaria, the order that Linnaeus’ herbarium cabinet brought to his collection was not fixed into perpetuity. This “internal mobility” of the herbarium could accommodate the arrival of new material and enabled the user to repeatedly rearrange that material to reflect new knowledge.


Example of a bound herbarium volume

Hence, while not common, herabarium found as handbound volume do exist and are treasured. So, next time you stumble upon a volume of herbarium specimen, who knows, it might turn out to be quite valuable!

A Set of Rebound Newsletters


I recently had the opportunity to rebind a set of newsletter from a defunct political party in Singapore. The Barisan Socialis was formed in 1961, and was led by Dr Lee Siew Chor until 1988 when it merged with Workers’ Party. More information can be obtained from Wikipedia if you are interested.

I will not delve much into the party’s history as I would like to focus on the rebinding of the set of newsletters. It contained 100 issues of the party’s newsletter spanning from 1961 to 1964. The newsletters were bound in four sets of soft Kraft paper covers and secured with three metal staples along margins of its long edge. As expected, the staples rusted over the years and the metal oxide deposits had caused the surrounding paper to be stained with a ring of orange rust. The punctured areas had also became friable and in some newsletters, the holes were enlarged and no longer held by the metal staples.


Other defects included frayed edges along the fore edge of the bound volumes and damaged book spines. Cellophane tape was also used to hold the volumes together and these had become stiff and stained over the years.

The first step in rebinding the volumes involved removing all the metal staples and cutting away the damaged spines, leaving loose sheets consisting of individual newsletters and original volume covers. Cellophone tapes were then removed carefully, particularly in areas where tape was used to patch long tears, in order to prevent further damage to the pages. These were then backed with a thin almost translucent Kozo paper. Thankfully there were few tears and the tears appeared on volumes which were printed single sided using silkscreen.


Volumes were then bounded with new cards with colours complementary to the original covers. The two new cards, one on either ends, serve as end papers to the new book block. The entire stack was then bored through using a fine 0.5mm drill bit. The new holes were made about 1cm adjacent to the original staple holes. Reusing the previously stapled holes was not an option as the surrounding paper had became friable due to the rusting.


The newsletters were then stitched up in Japanese Stab Binding style. The perforations followed the original positions of the staples in the new exposed binding along the long edge. Two styles were adopted. First, the binding was left exposed on the end papers. Second, the stab binding was covered by end papers.


Four original cover designs

A new buckram hard cover was then attached to the completed book block. Similar to the end papers, colours of the buckram was chosen to complement the end papers and the original soft covers. To differentiate between the four volumes, an embossed pattern was made on each of the covers. The pattern consist of the defunct party emblem and the sequence number of each volume from 1 to 4. All these embossed patterns were drawn and cut by hand.


After each of the four book blocks were cased in, they were left in the nipping press overnight to ensure that the end papers have been firmly attached to the covers.

It had been a hectic March for me with the two bookbinding workshops and other work activities. It did affect the progress of rebinding this set of rare newsletters. Nonetheless I am glad it is completed and the four volumes will hopefully be kept in good reading condition for a long while more.

Making your own starch paste

Many people had asked me about making starch paste since all our bookbinding workshops use copious amounts of this wonderful natural, non-toxic glue .

I have never treated starch paste making as a science, you know, like having fixed amount of water added to starch powder and how hot the temperature must be or how long to cool it, etc. Instead, it is mostly through trial and error, adding additional amounts of water on the fly and if the mixture did not turn out well, then start over again.

But I thought it will be good to share how I normally do my glue and to explain briefly the science behind starch making.

Starch is present in plants as a form of storage. It is a complex carbohydrates that has powerful thickening properties. When starch is combined with water or another liquid and heated, individual starch granules absorb the liquid and swell. This process, known as gelatinisation, is what causes the liquid to thicken.

There are various types of starch, grinded into powder form available in Singapore. There is the common corn/maize starch, tapioca starch and yam starch. Notice most of these starch are either root based or cereal based, where these plant parts are used to store food for the plant. Gelatinisation occurs at different temperatures for different types of starch. As a general rule of thumb, root-based starches thicken at lower temperatures whereas cereal-based starches thicken at higher temperatures.


My preference is to use corn starch since it is cheap and readily available at all provision stores and supermarkets. I have a shallow enamel plate which I use for cooking starch paste. The plate is filled up evenly with starch to about half of its depth before water is added. As starch molecules will absorb water and clump together, it is important to keep stirring and to make sure no lumps are formed. Add enough water to form an even white mixture where you can see the starch powder suspended in the water.

The mixture is then placed over a small flame, again with constant stirring to ensure even heating throughout. The shallow flat plate is good as the heat is spread out over a larger surface area instead of a container with a tapering small bottom that concentrates heating at the bottom.

As you stir the heated mixture, you will encounter some resistance as the starch undergoes gelatinization, once a clear, gooey paste starts forming, off the fire but let the plate sit on the stove. Continue stirring as the rest of the mixture literally hardens as you stir.


The finished paste should have the consistency of sticky red bean paste and a translucent colour. Once done, cool the paste in a glue container. I normally fill up to half the depth of the container so that I can add in white glue or PVA up to one third depth of the glue container.

Stir the white glue/starch paste mixture well. The more liquid glue and the thicker paste should eventually form a mix that has the consistency of runny mayonnaise. The starch glue is the element that gives adherence between paper and boards without leaving unsightly glue stains from over application, whereas the white glue allows the mixture to dry more quickly.

The starch glue can be stored and used for about 5 to 7 days before mould starts to set on the surface of the mixture. I do not refrigerate my mixture to keep it longer as it will harden very quickly.

Hope the guide has been useful and keep trying!

A Book Written in Sime Road Camp During WW2

Happy Lunar New Year! I recently stumbled upon an interesting listing in ebay for a Genuine Typewritten Book from World War 2 Prisoner-of-War Sime Camp in Singapore. Given that Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942, the first day of the Lunar Calendar that year, it is appropriate that I discuss a wartime book during this period!

The posting for the WW2 book immediately piqued my interest. The location seemed correct. Sime Road Camp was used as a POW camp during WW2. A lot of the British and Australian troops were also interred there from 1942 to 1945 during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.


The book appears to be typed on a very thin, almost translucent paper where one could easily see the text on the other face. The cover appears to be a simple 1- section case bound book. The pictures do not show the type of  sewing but from the way the book opens, it should be a single section that is stitched together with a 3 to 5 hole pamphlet sewing. The covers are wrapped with a plain light blue paper where some parts appeared to have delaminated, revealing the brownish laminated kraft board below.


All in all, the book looks plain and simple, definitely befitting of a wartime document/book! Historically, most POW and veterans remembered the wartime “Changi University”. Described by George Sproud in his book Bamboo Round my Shoulders, books were given to POWs to “prevent disaffection and thoughts of escaping”. I attach a longer quote from the book below, taken off the website of ABC Australia:

The colonel [Colonel ‘Black Jack Galleghan] came up with another winner; to prevent disaffection and thoughts of escape, as he put it to the Japanese commandant, books were the answer, and furthermore he knew where to put his hands on some. Consequently a convoy of lorries descended on Changi and the entire contents of the Singapore Library were shovelled in.

And what books! Choice items that had been banned in Australia for years. Australia in those days was running neck and neck with Ireland for book-banning championship of the world… The more serious volumes were also avidly seized upon, and soon the camp was full of people studying law, medicine, astronomy, thermodynamics and all kinds of professions they envisaged taking up when the blessed day of freedom dawned.

George Sprod – Bamboo Round My Shoulders
(Retrieved from

Now, this book in question could possibly indicate that a seperate Wartime University was in place at Sime Road Camp as well! The banality of the topic “Some Notes on Cheese” also fitted with the historical description that while some prisoners of war in Changi were studying subjects that had practical applications, others were just studying for interest and to “escape the drudgery of camp life.”


By 1945, the war was reaching its tail-end. The book, dated August 1945, was probably written in a period of transition. In the same month, the Japanese had surrendered. This meant that the writer, provided that he is a Allied soldier, was most likely in the process of being repatriated back to his country of origin. Interesting enough, Sime Road Camp was used as a transit camp after the end of the war. Many interned soldiers continue to stay in the POW camp instead of returning to their own camps as the inbound Military Administration had taken over their accomodation. Below is an excerpt taken from Infopedia (

In 1944, more than 3,000 military prisoners from Changi were transferred to Sime Road Camp to make way for more prisoners from Selarang.  Towards the end of the war, some prisoners who survived the building of the “Death Railway” in Burma were also interned at the camp. By the time of their release, there were 4,507 persons from 27 nationalities in the camp, including 1,023 women and 328 children. The British formed the largest proportion of the population but there were also significant numbers of Eurasians, Australians, Jews, Chinese and Poles. They were reportedly treated relatively better than prisoners of other Japanese camps in places such as Sumatra or even Changi in Singapore. However, many prisoners died in the camp, for instance, the editor and managing director of the Malay Mail, Mr. J. H. M. Robson. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Japanese administrators of the camp were arrested as the British military administration carried out a full investigation into the conditions in the Sime Road and Changi camps.

Transit camp
After the Japanese surrender, internees at Sime Road Camp were released by the following month. However, a curfew was initially imposed on released internees and they were advised to stay in the camp for their own safety. Released internees were given a small amount of money dubbed the “Freedom Fiver”. Non-Europeans were given half the amount that European internees were given, causing some unhappiness. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Mountbatten visited the camp in September 1945, bringing messages from relatives and friends overseas as well as food parcels.

During the subsequent months, Sime Road Camp became a place of transition for former prisoners before they could find accommodation or were repatriated. The use of Sime Road Camp as a transit camp for internees led to a great deal of unhappiness, since it meant that they had to return to their site of internment. It was also alleged that the camp was used because the prisoners’ homes in Singapore had been taken over by military authorities.

A few hundred internees were repatriated home by sea and air, but some internees were so dissatisfied with the conditions in the ships provided for them that they returned to the camp in protest. Some internees chose to stay behind to help in the rebuilding of Malaya and Singapore. Workers at the Sime Road Camp stayed on to look after the needs of the displaced people who were still in the camp. These people were largely unable to find employment or accommodation in Singapore, although they were local residents. The camp therefore became a transit centre for former internees and other such displaced persons. Social and recreational facilities were provided and sanitary conditions were improved. The inhabitants of the camp were known as “campers”. To help them, the colonial government gave cash grants to those leaving the camp. By October 1945, only about 351 people remained in the camp.

In July 1946, it was announced that the camp would be closed down and its remaining destitute campers were sent to settlement homes in Poh Leung Kuk at York Hill.


Caption for Picture: JAPANESE OCCUPATION, 1942 TO 1945 : SIME ROAD CAMP, SYONAN-TO.  WOMEN INTERNEES READING BOOKS IN THE TATTERED LIBRARY SET UP IN THE LAVATORY (National Archives of Singapore Collection, Photo Accession No: 2006-004244-NARA)

It is amazing how a book from a forgotten era can trigger so much research to find out more about the time period. While a book may be constructed simply and without much aesthetic consideration, the meaning embodied within such books carry a lot more significance for the rest of us.