Singapore: Unlikely Power
John Curtis Perry
Oxford University Press, 2017
Maritime and diplomatic historian, John Curtis Perry, presents a definitive history of the island nation, covering its transformation from a poor and corrupt colonial backwater into an economic powerhouse. The following extract focuses on the earliest beginnings of the port once known as "lion city".
Scattered along the Melaka Straits a complex cast of people would meet, representing the sea life of Pacific East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. For much of history, these waters served as an important conduit for the flow of people, goods, and ideas. Today globally vital, the funnel-shaped straits, dividing mainland Southeast Asia from its archipelago, carry nearly one-half of the world’s oceanic shipping. For most of their length they are too wide for one to see both shores simultaneously. But at the eastern end, where the Singapore Straits feed into the South China Sea, the shipping channel is less than one mile wide. There, near this strategic spot, the antecedent settlements of what we know today as Singapore sprang up.
Maritime Southeast Asia thrived as a world not of nations but of cosmopolitan centers of commercial exchanges. According to legend, an early visitor fleeing Java to today’s Singapore Island landed on a sandy shore called Temasek and briefly spotted a strange animal with a black head and a red body, which he identified as a “lion.” He declared that he would establish a city there and name it “Singapura,” a name derived from Sanskrit meaning “lion city.”
On that island, close to the narrowest part of the Melaka Straits, the trading town of Temasek/Singapura arose and then flourished in the fourteenth century at the mouth of a small river. We know rather little about the town’s history. The sources are sparse, and myth requires sorting from history, but Malay oral accounts and archaeological findings tell us some-thing. We know a lot more now than we did thirty years ago but this is still inadequate. Much remains conjecture.
No mere outpost, clearly the place played an active part in an international trade stream extending to Java and Thailand, stretching to India and China. In Singapore’s history, Temasek is the first in a series of high-water marks, when the city thrived because of its strategic location, the ability of its diverse population to generate exports, either their own or those of others, and their adaptability to the demands of changing international circumstances.
Archaeologists give us a sense of Temasek’s physical features: a terraced hill overlooking the Singapore River with a palace, market, defenses, earthen rampart, and moat. The earthen wall represented a commitment to permanence. Not even royal palaces commanded permanent building materials. But we do have some baked brick and stone remnants from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries suggesting Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, during the early British colonial era, much was destroyed in the rush for development. And therefore the legend could arise, and long lingered in the standard histories, that nothing had existed in Singapore until the British arrived in 1819.
Being a religious center as well as a commercial one, Temasek seems to fit into a pattern of the Malay port city, its wall being an exception. Religion reflected Indic impulses, not Chinese. The hilltop held cosmological significance, representing Mount Meru, known in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu tradition as a divine abode and metaphysical center of the universe.
For creating this sacred place, the builders, because they lacked labor, used a natural landscape, not a constructed one such as at the great Angkor. They then carefully allotted the downward spaces, using walls and water to define them. Divinities commanded the top; artisans lived at a respectful distance on a lower level of the hill where they fashioned such objects as pottery, glassware, and fine jewelry.
Chinese people, perhaps the first Overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia, lived there alongside local peoples instead of in their own separate neighborhood, illustrating the diversity of this maritime town, serving as useful intermediaries in the China trade, so important in the economy. Of Temasek they reported “the soil is poor and grain scarce.”
The need to survive thus demanded trade. Coins show sophistication, and unearthed pieces of fine porcelain would indicate that people wanted high-quality ceramics not ones locally produced. Temasek thus took its place in the “ceramic route,” a southern Eurasian maritime equivalent to the continental Silk Road. Heavy and delicate porcelain could travel in volume only by sea. In return for such prized Chinese goods, the town could feed the overseas market with a luxury item, hornbill casques, so-called yellow jade, a precious bird ivory that had the advantage of being something that the Chinese highly prized and was easier to carve than other ivories.
Nearby on the harbor, at what because of its rock formations would be called Dragon’s Tooth Strait, lived a community of Orang Laut who followed a different lifestyle than those nearby on the hill. Although dismissed by the Chinese as unruly and piratical, they would usefully add marine products to the trade mix: tortoise shells, pearls, and coral because ivory alone could not sustain an economy. Temasek catered to customers nearby with a variety of more mundane items such as tin, cotton, and fragrant wood of less than the highest quality.
Two poles of power, Siam and Java-Sumatra, met in the straits where these Malay city-state ports like Temasek or Palembang on Sumatra enjoyed an autonomy deriving from the ability of their rulers to generate wealth through commerce, as does today’s Singapore. Like today, the broader Asian economy largely determined what happened on Singapore Island. Local people were players in a game heavily determined by outsiders, principally Chinese and Indians, the two Eurasian super economies.
Caught between the Thai (Siamese) and the Javanese, the ruler of Temasek fled and the population followed. It had lasted only a century, yielding to the nearby port of Melaka, which benefited from cultivating a close relationship with the Chinese court. Temasek/Singapura declined as a trading state or as a political nerve center and ultimately the site was virtually abandoned. That was how the British would find it when they came early in the nineteenth century. But it continued to be important in Malayan history, figuring heavily in its mythology and remembered as the founding home of the dynasty that would flourish elsewhere in the region: successively in Melaka, Johor, and the nearby Riau Archipelago.
The name Singapura would in modern times return to take its current altered form and Temasek is now familiar in the world of international investment as a major sovereign wealth fund, a great pile of assets illustrating the economic success and financial prudence of contemporary Singapore. But the slim legacy of the former settlements on the island furnishes a grim re-minder to the present of how completely the material glories of the past may be swept away, a faded memory retaining only a shadowy symbolic presence.
Thus before the intrusion of the European nation-states, along the Melaka Straits, a cosmopolitan Southeast Asian multicultural maritime community had prospered, with frontiers but without borders, ambitious for commercial success based upon trade flows, exploiting its key geographical location, yet ultimately depending upon the needs and desires of others, both within its immediate region as well as giant centers of wealth, power, and culture lying beyond. The aspiring global city we see today in Singapore has much in common with what flourished there in its earliest times some seven hundred years ago.