Singapore History: Colonial versus Indigenous?

Hurray for discourse!

Nov 21, 2005
How to incorporate our indigenous past

MR GILLES Massot’s letter (‘S’pore history began long before Raffles’; ST, Nov 16 contains a number of inaccuracies.

First, it ignores the large body of scholarship on Temasek that existed before the 1980s, including works by such scholars as Roland Braddell, R.O. Winstedt, Gibson-Hill, Hsu Yun-Ts’iao, Paul Wheatley and Kwa Chong Guan.

Previous scholars had to be content with only the study of historical texts, as most of Singapore’s pre-colonial remains were systematically destroyed by the British within the first decade after their arrival on the island in 1819. Also, Fort Canning Hill and the civic district, where the settlement of Temasek was located, were not accessible for archaeological research for much of the last two centuries.

Associate Professor John Miksic’s seminal contributions since 1984, through systematic archaeological excavations and recovery of physical evidence pertaining to Temasek, has been to substantiate what was already known through previous historical studies.

Second, Raffles’ founding of Singapore in 1819 was not due to his knowledge of the island’s historical legacy of Temasek. In fact, he had first sailed to Karimun island to assess its feasibility as a base for the British East India Company. Failing to find a suitable anchorage, he was en route to the Johor River when his hydrographer, Daniel Ross, and William Farquhar convinced him to visit Singapore to assess its suitability. It was only after Singapore’s founding in 1819 that Raffles, and after his death, his widow Lady Sophia Raffles, attributed the founding of Singapore to his knowledge of classical Malay history and Temasek.

Third, Temasek did not succeed the role of Srivijaya. Instead, changes in the nature of Song China’s maritime trade, which resulted in the development of an anomalous international economic context during the 13th and 14th centuries, enabled minor port-polities in the Malacca Strait to be economically viable, while larger entrepots in the region, such as Srivijaya, went into decline.

Similarly, political considerations in Europe in the early 19th century, which led to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, were the key factor that enabled Singapore to exist and thrive in what was largely Dutch-controlled maritime South-east Asia.

Mr Massot is right to say Singaporeans should try to appreciate their indigenous past, particularly Singapore’s history before 1819. However, Singapore, throughout most of the past 700 years, was part of larger political entities. The Temasek and post-1965 periods are the only exceptions.

How Singapore should incorporate such a past, and internalise it as a relevant part of Singaporeans’ collective social memory, requires tremendous ingenuity.

This is already taking place in academic circles, an initiative currently undertaken by several scholars in the National University of Singapore department of history.

Whether this academic development will translate into a change in Singapore’s mainstream historical narrative remains to be seen. Nonetheless, as a Singaporean, I see this as an important national undertaking that will have to be addressed.

As a final shot at the success of the ‘neo-colonialist plot’ alluded to by Mr Massot, it should be noted that the Discovery Channel programme, produced by a British company, is no less credible.

However, the entire affair thus far seems to suggest that, as a nation, we are still not able to trust ourselves to reconstruct an internationally credible version of our past.

It is my hope that Singapore will one day be able to produce or recognise local scholars who can take up the mantle from eminent foreign academics like Dr Miksic, and expand the nation’s knowledge of its rich pre-modern historical heritage from our own perspective.

Dr Derek Heng
Department of History
National University of Singapore

When will this “academic development translate into a change in Singapore’s mainstream historical narrative”? Even though many Singaporeans know our our indigenous past, most cannot go beyond recounting so-called mythological tales of Sang Nila Utama’s discovery of Singapore and the mysterious lion which he saw. Even if the body of research is limited through historical texts, why aren’t such histories easily available to the masses? Why aren’t we able to present various contentions on the nature of Singapore’s pre-colonial past through the education system itself?

Nov 21, 2005
SINGAPORE HISTORY BEFORE RAFFLES
Heritage board creates awareness of early years

I REFER to the letter ‘S’pore history began long before Raffles’ by Mr Gilles Massot (ST, Nov 16). I would like to respond to his question ‘When will Singapore finally come to terms with its true Asian history?’

The National Heritage Board (NHB) has always held the view that Singapore’s history did not begin in 1819 but dates back to the 14th century. Historical evidence has shown that Singapore was the seat of an important Malay kingdom influenced by various early South-east Asian empires before the arrival of the Europeans. This is consistently asserted by the Singapore History Museum (SHM) and National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

For example, NAS staged the Singapore Before Raffles exhibition in 1986 which covered archival materials such as navigational charts and oral history interviews. SHM featured Singapore’s pre-colonial past in its exhibition Singapore 700 Years. The same message is included in SHM’s current Rivertales gallery at Riverside Point and will be reiterated in the new Temasek Gallery of the National Museum when it re-opens next year.

NHB has also published several works on the pre- colonial period. They include Associate Professor John Miksic’s archaeological research ‘Forbidden Hill’ Of Singapore: Excavations At Fort Canning, 1984 (1985) by the National Museum; Singapore: Journey Into Nationhood (1998) by NAS; and Early Singapore 1300s-1819: Evidence In Maps, Text and Artefacts (2003) by SHM.

An updated version of Singapore: Journey Into Nationhood next year will incorporate archaeological findings of early Singapore settlements at Fort Canning, and early mentions of Singapore by ancient travellers.

Besides exhibitions and publications, NHB has provided partial funding and manpower support for Dr Miksic’s archaeological excavations at various sites in Singapore.

Finally, the producer of the history of Singapore documentary, Discovery Channel, and the production company, Lion Television, had full access to our national archives. In fairness to Discovery, I urge readers to watch the documentary on Dec 4 before expressing opinions on its content and merit.

Lim Siok Peng (Mrs)
Chief Executive Officer
National Heritage Board

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