Singapore history did start with Raffles

I refer to the 11 May 2014 New York Times article “In New Textbook, the Story of Singapore Begins 500 Years Earlier”.

Professor John N. Miksic from NUS supposedly revised Singapore’s history textbook and provided a new story of Singapore between 1300 and 1600. But that story is not new, Singaporeans have always known of an ancient civilization in Singapore predating Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival. But that ancient story ended in the 1600s with the sacking of Singapore by the Portuguese. Thereafter, Singapore became a sleepy fishing village until its fortunes were revived with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Because of the 200 year gap between the 1600s and 1819, the Singapore that we know today didn’t continue from that ancient civilization but began afresh with Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. The Singapore we know today has continuously existed since 1819 which is the year our present story began.

Professor Miksic’s recent book “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea” supposedly pointed to a large cache of artifacts dating back to the 14th century. The 14th century cache merely points to an ancient civilization or even a pirates’ nest in Singapore in the 14th century. It doesn’t point to the continuation of that ancient civilization right up to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived. Whatever glory that ancient civilization held can’t change the fact that when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819, there were only about 150 people living in small fishing communities in Singapore.

Prof. Brian Farrell, head of NUS history department reasoned that if Singapore had been a sleepy backwater in the early 1800s, the Chinese majority in Singapore can claim that they built Singapore from a blank slate. In that case, shouldn’t Prof Farrell take even greater issue with the notion that LKY built Singapore from a blank slate in 1965? The Chinese majority cannot claim to build Singapore from a blank slate in 1819 without also acknowledging Sir Stamford Raffles as the founding father of that blank slate in 1819.

Professor Kwa Chong Guan’s, Mr Derek Heng’s and Mr Tan Tai Yong’s book “Singapore: A 700-Year History — From Early Emporium To World City” purportedly links Singapore to the Johor-Riau sultanate of the Strait of Malacca while Professor Peter Borschberg supposedly published Dutch and Portuguese maritime accounts and maps showing Singapore’s existence before Raffles’ arrival.

Professor Kwa’s book merely points to Singapore becoming important in the 14th century (page 81-82), it offers no concrete proof of Singapore’s continued importance in the 17th and 18th centuries following its sacking by the Portuguese. In fact, professor Kwa acknowledges that all that remained in Singapore when Raffles arrived was an insignificant village of Orang Lauts and Malays (page 79), he also admits to Singapore’s ‘temporary’ decline in strategic significance in the eighteenth century (page 82). But a century of 100 years of decline is sufficient to separate one civilization from the next. His argument about fortifications in the region in the 16th and 17th centuries (page 82) does not refer specifically to Singapore. His argument that the continuous strategic significance of the waters around Singapore implies “a tremendous sense of continuity” in Singapore’s history from the 14th century to the time Raffles arrived (page 82) is quite simply disingenuous. Having written about the diversion of the maritime route to the Sunda Straits (page 82) for a ‘temporary’ century, surely he must admit there was at least 100 years of discontinuity between ancient Singapore and modern Singapore founded by Raffles? Professor Kwa’s writing about the exposed position of waters around Singapore, intermittent Portuguese blockades, insufficient guarantee of security of waters around Johor, movement of the Johor sultanate to Lingga Island in 1618 (page 78) all pointed to the decline in the story of ancient Singapore.

Professor Borschberg’s argument about Singapore’s appearance in maritime maps before Raffles’ arrival is unextraordinary given that the Portuguese had already known of its existence after having sacked it in the 1600s. The continued mention of Singapore on maritime maps after its sacking in the 1600s doesn’t prove that Singapore continued to play an important maritime role just as the continued mention of all kinds of islands big and small in maps today doesn’t prove that they all play important maritime roles.

Singapore history did not start with Raffles

I refer too to the 29 May 2014 Straits Times report “Singapore history did not start with Raffles”.

History teacher Mr Muhammad Faidzil Farkhan reportedly said that Singapore was more than just a sleepy fishing village because of the ancient civilization that existed in Singapore in the 14th century. Mr Farkhan should realize there was a clean break of about 200 years in the 17th and 18th centuries between that ancient civilization and modern Singapore founded by Sir Stamford Raffles so much so that when Raffles arrived, only a small fishing village remained. This is a fact which even so-called revisionist books written recently by such persons as Professor Kwa cannot refute.

While it is interesting to learn about an ancient civilization that used to exist in Singapore, we must consciously differentiate the history of our people from the histories of other peoples that used to reside on our land. For example, today’s inhabitants of the state and city of Kaliningrad are Russians. The fact that the state and city used to be called East Prussia and Koenigsberg matters not to the Russians. The fact that it was once German land matters not to the Russians. What matters to the Russians living in Kaliningrad today is the history of Russia and Russians, not the history of Germany, Teutonic knights or Frederick the Great.

So we must learn to recognize that the history of former peoples residing on our land is not necessarily the history of our people today. Just as the history of a family residing in a resale flat doesn’t include the histories of former occupants of that flat. As far as Singaporeans are concerned, our collective history as a people coming together to live as one, began in 1819. Most of our Malay brothers and sisters are descended from pioneers that came after 1819 from all over the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago. The ancient civilization that existed in Singapore in the 14th century had all but been obliterated by the Portuguese. Two centuries separated that history from the history that began in 1819. The ancient civilization may be part of the history of our land; it is not part of the collective history of our people which can only be continuously traced back to 1819.

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One Response to “Singapore history did start with Raffles”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    You, like many citizens concerned about our heritage, have obviously done your homework. But you seem to miss the point about the official version of Singapore’s history. It has always been a revisionist one, politically motivated to give credence to the LKY was the founder of modern Singapore dogma.You will notice that in the last few years many have poked holes into that version that obscures what you now re-iterate – that Raffles was indeed the founder of Singapore. Have you noticed that Raffles Institution has been demolished and his statue in front of Victoria Memorial is not given prominence today? As a student of history, you will acknowledge that history is, by and large, the story of the victor.

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