“Seven Hundred Years, A History of Singapore” by Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng, Peter Borschberg and Tan Tai Yong

Detail of Carte Reduite des Detroits de Malaca, Singcapour et du Gouverneur, Nicolas Bellin, 1755 (Wikimedia Commons) Detail of Carte Reduite des Detroits de Malaca, Singcapour et du Gouverneur, Nicolas Bellin, 1755 (Wikimedia Commons)

Even as Singapore marks two hundred years since Englishman Stamford Raffles set up an East India Company factory there, the citystate is promoting another date. In 1299, according to the Malay Annals, a Srivijayan prince, Sri Tri Buana, arrived at the island then known as Temasek and founded Singapura. The motto of the bicentennial is “from Singapore to Singaporean” and the idea is that to understand what it means to be Singaporean today the events from 1299 on needs to be considered. Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore details this story.

Across Singapore this year, locals and visitors can enjoy multimedia exhibitions, light shows and other cultural events dedicated to the bicentennial celebration and also focusing on what came before Raffles. While this book could be used as the academic backing for a new national myth, the authors show themselves to be well aware of how history can be used to suit the purposes of the current elite. Seven Hundred Years is a well-presented, coherently-structured history. Without sacrificing depth, it’s written in a style that will engage the general reader. The authors have been working on this topic for some time. They (sans Peter Borschberg) published another, significantly different, version of this book in 2009.

 

Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore , Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng, Peter Borschberg and Tan Tai Yong (Marshall Cavendish, June 2019)
Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore, Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng, Peter Borschberg and Tan Tai Yong (Marshall Cavendish, June 2019)

Seven Hundred Years is divided into chapters dedicated to each century from the fourteenth to the twentieth. These chapters all have an “in a nutshell summaryand are impressively illustrated with maps, photos and paintings. There is even a color foldout showing a reconstruction of 14th century Singapore.

After two hundred years, the kingdom founded by Sri Tri Buana was destroyed at the end of the 14th century. Here the story gets confusing as the Malay Annals have the last Sultan of Singapore, Iskandar Shah being kicked out by the Majapihat, while Portuguese records have Parameswara, a Palembang prince causing the downfall of Singapura. Parameswara came to Singapore, killed his host the Sultan and seized power. He was attacked by a Tai (Siamese) expeditionary force and fled north to establish Melaka (Malacca). Singapore then fell into a period of obscurity. Melaka became the most important port in the region, first under Iskandar and his descendants who converted to Islam, then the Portuguese, who took the city in 1511. After this the focus of the Malay world moved to Johor. Singapore, under the control of a Shahbandar or harbourmaster, made something of a comeback in the Johor Sultanate in the 16th century. It was a base for the Orang Laut (the sea people), who served as a navy for the Sultans.

The Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British became important players in the region as the story of Singapore developed. The European powers’ interactions with Johor is the main subject of the chapter on the seventeenth century. As well as the Europeans, Aceh and Patani competed to control the strategic waterways around Singapore, key to trade in Southeast Asia.

Singapore again waned in the 18th century as the Johor golden age came to an end due to civil war. In 1718, there was a crisis as Tun Muhmud, successor to the murdered Sultan Mahmud, didn’t carry the sacred blood of Sri Tri Buana, founder of Singapore. Tun Muhmud faced a serious challenge from Raja Kecik.

 

Raja Kecik was born to a slave woman attending to the Sultan on the eve of the regicide. The text recounts that Mahmud was dallying with a young man, whom he preferred to his concubines. When Mahmud split his royal seed, he ordered a slave woman to swallow it; which she did, and thereby became impregnated. Thus did Raja Kecik issue forth into the world, infused with the royal “white blood” of Sri Tri Buana in his veins.

 

In the 18th century the focus of the Malay-Johor world switched to the Riau archipelago situated to the South of Singapore, where the Bugis were heavily involved in trade. Both the Dutch and the British tried to ally themselves with various factions in this period, with the British presence increasing as the century came to an end.

Holland’s position was weakened when it was annexed by Napoleon in 1811. Raffles, after a stint as the governor of the short-lived British Java, wanted to set up in a strategic spot in the Straits of Malacca to challenge the once again independent Dutch. Singapore was not his first choice, but ultimately the most feasible. Initially administered out of Calcutta, 19th-century British Singapore soon outstripped Dutch ports in the region.

 

By 1826, Singapore had overtaken Batavia (Jakarta) as the main entrepot port for Siamese trade with the region. Singapore’s successful free port model did not escape the notice of the Dutch, who copied it for their regional ports.

 

Traders, especially those from the well established Straits Chinese community, flourished and immigrants from India, the Middle East and elsewhere arrived. Eventually Singapore become the jewel in the crown of the British Empire in the East, but this iteration came crashing down with the Japanese taking the city in 1942.

 

According to the authors, the founding fathers of the independent Singapore, which emerged from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, chose not to discard the colonial figure of Raffles. He represented the idea of free trade and familiarity for the Western world then afraid the East would fall to communism. The advice to keep Raffles ironically came from a Dutchman, economist, Dr Albert Winsemius.

 

His first two vital bits of advice for the government were to muzzle the Communists and to keep colonialism’s icon — the statue of Raffles —  standing (literally). This was advice that ran against the grain of conventional political and economic belief and practice among most of the newly independent nations then, which favoured protectionism over open trade borders.

 

The idea of creating a national identity in a country of immigrants with such varied backgrounds was seen as troublesome by one of the founding fathers, S Rajaratnam.

 

… Rajaratnam also explained why he and his colleagues opted to elevate Raffles as the founder of Singapore instead of “contriv[ing] a more lengthy and eye-boggling lineage by tracing our ancestry back to the lands from which our forefathers emigrated —  China, India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and India”…

 

A country’s idea of its own history changes—both as new sources become available and as the people require a new understanding of their past to help galvanize them for an uncertain future. Seven Hundred Years shows history is a jigsaw that can put together in a number of different ways. China uses the model of five thousand years of continuous civilisation to project its gravitas, even if this model is not the best way to understand the rise and fall of its many dynasties. With Singapore, whose fate has waxed and waned with the fortunes of the larger region, the cyclical model of history is the most appropriate.

 

The challenge, therefore, has been to rationalise the chronological span of Singapore’s past. Scholars like Peter Coclanis suggest framing Singapore’s historical trajectory and disjointed settlement histories as a series of cycles echoing repetitively, thereby providing continuity and rationality for joining the discordant periods.

 

The conclusion to the book carries on from the introduction in philosophizing on how Singapore should put together its past to prepare for the future. Nation builders such as Lee Kwan Yew and Goh Keng Swee are referenced, the fates of Greek city states considered. The chapter dealing with 20th century feels rushed, but this era has been written about in depth in countless other works. Also, perhaps something more could have been added about the early years of the 21st century.

There is however the underlying question to which the book assumes the answer: while a 700-year history of the Malacca/Singapore Straits region is fascinating, can the physical location of modern Singapore, with its long periods of obscurity, hold its place as a central player in this saga? Whatever the answer, Seven Hundred Years is an accessible and thorough introduction to this island at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula that has played a successful role in several cycles of global trade.


Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.