Renowned archaeologist wins inaugural Singapore History Prize

11 January 2018 | EducationResearch
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Winning work reconstructs the history of Singapore in the long view, and adds colour to a new chapter of the Singaporean identity

Renowned archaeologist Professor John Miksic, whose work Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800 provides detailed archaeological evidence that Singapore’s story began more than 700 years ago, has been awarded the inaugural Singapore History Prize. Prof Miksic, who is from the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, will receive a cash award of S$50,000.

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Members of the Jury Panel chaired by Professor Wang Gungwu (right) congratulating Professor John Miksic (third from left), winner of the inaugural Singapore History Prize for his book titled Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800

Created in 2014 in support of the national SG50 programme to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, the Singapore History Prize is awarded to an outstanding publication that has made a lasting impact on our understanding of the history of Singapore.

A four-member Jury Panel chaired by Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman of the East Asian Institute at NUS, was responsible for selecting the winner from a short list of five titles, itself culled from a total of 29 nominated works authored by local and international scholars. Other Jury Panel members are: Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Senior Advisor, NUS Office of the Vice President (University & Global Relations); Ms Claire Chiang, Senior Vice President, Banyan Tree Holdings Limited; and Professor Peter A. Coclanis, Director, Global Research Institute, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Jury Panel unanimously selected Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800, the work of Prof Miksic, as the winner of the inaugural Singapore History Prize. 

The four books that were shortlisted alongside the winning publication are: 

  • Squatters into Citizens. The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore by Loh Kah Seng (NUS Press, 2013); 
  • Nature’s Colony. Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens by Timothy P Barnard (NUS Press, 2016); 
  • Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World (1500-1950) by Peter Lee (Asian Civilizations Museum, 2014); and 
  • Living the Singapore Story: Celebrating our 50 years 1965-2015 (National Library Board, 2015).

Prof Wang, Chair of the Singapore History Prize Jury Panel, said, “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800 by Prof John Miksic provides the essential context for understanding Singapore’s past in long term context. It is a truly monumental piece of work that is deserving of the first Singapore History Prize. With this book, Prof Miksic has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context, bringing colour and definition to a whole new chapter of the Singaporean identity. We now know more about Singapore in the 14th century than any other city in the region during the same period.” 

Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 - 1800

Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 – 1800 was published by NUS Press with the National Museum, Singapore in 2013. Synthesising 25 years of archaeological research to reconstruct the 14th-century port of Singapore, Prof Miksic’s study tells of a port where people processed raw materials, used money, and had specialised occupations. It portrays a well-organised and prosperous city with a cosmopolitan population that included residents from China, other parts of Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean. It highlights three important sources on Singapore’s long-term history: the archaeology, the historical textual evidence, and new evidence emerging from other excavations in the region, particularly marine archaeology. 

Illustrating with more than 300 maps and colour photos, Prof Miksic has presented the history of Singapore in the context of Asia's long-distance maritime trade in the years between 1300 and 1800. Many readers and reviewers have agreed that the publication has given a new and important understanding of Singapore's pre-colonial past. In 2015, the book was shortlisted for the International Convention of Asia Scholars Book Prize for the Best Study in the Humanities. 

Please refer to the Annex for the citation on the winning work by Prof Miksic.

About Professor John Miksic

Prof Miksic manages the Archaeology Laboratory for the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. A valued scholar in Southeast Asian studies, his research and ideas have been used in numerous books and texts. He has also authored and co-authored many books, such as Kraton Ratu Boko: A Javanese Site of Enigmatic Beauty, The Court of Surakarta and Between Two Oceans. A Military History of Singapore From 1275 to 1971. Currently, his research projects include the archaeology of ancient ports on the shores of the Straits of Melaka, early cities in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, and ceramic analysis.

Prior to joining NUS in 1987, Prof Miksic had worked as a Rural Development Planning and Management Advisor in Bengkulu, Sumatra from 1979 to 1981 under a USAID project, and had taught archaeology at Gadjah Mada University and led research projects in Java, Sumatra, and Singapore. He has served on the National Heritage Board and the advisory boards of the NUS Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum. He has also served on the board of the Center for Khmer Studies from 2000 to 2016. For his contributions to the study of Southeast Asian culture, he has received awards from Singapore and Indonesia. 

Prof Miksic said, “I am very honoured that Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 - 1800 has been selected as the inaugural winner of Singapore History Prize. This book was a partnership between the National Museum of Singapore and the NUS Press. The fascinating study has provided us with a deeper understanding of the precolonial history of Singapore and offered new perspectives in the understanding of Singapore’s historic position and its role in the Silk Road of the Sea.” 

“Historical enquiry serves as a basis for us to understand ourselves, our society and the world around us. Knowing our roots and appreciating our past will also help us better chart our future. I hope that the Singapore History Prize will inspire more research, discussion and debate about the history of Singapore, so that future generations of Singaporeans can better appreciate the Singapore story,” Prof Miksic added.

The Singapore History Prize

Mooted by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the Singapore History Prize aims to encourage more ambitious and sophisticated research relating to the history of Singapore, as well as to inspire the highest scholarly standards in such research and publications, while also promoting wider critical interest in studying the history of Singapore. At the same time, the Prize hopes to generate a greater understanding among Singapore citizens of their own unique history.

The Prize is an open global competition and is administered by the NUS Department of History. Since January 2015, the Department accepted nominations from authors and publishers of works that are published anywhere in English (written or translated). Nominations must be book-length works of non-fiction which are either authored or co-authored, and should address any time period, theme, or field of Singapore history, or include a substantial analysis of any aspect of Singapore history as part of a wider story. 

The Prize is awarded every three years and the author of the winning publication will receive a cash award of S$50,000. 

Enquires about the next round of the Singapore History Prize, which will open for nominations in due course, and be awarded in 2020-21, should be addressed to hisprize@nus.edu.sg.