The four ancient civilisations that shaped Singapore’s identity

Eminent historian Wang Gungwu’s new book on the forces that influenced Singapore and Southeast Asia

A collection of “modernising nations in search of a regional identity… (which) enriched their local cultures by selecting what they needed from four ancient civilisations.”

This is Southeast Asia, as described by NUS University Professor Wang Gungwu at the launch of his book Living with Civilisations: Reflections on Southeast Asia’s Local and National Cultures on 5 Dec 2023.

Published by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the book is a compilation of Prof Wang’s four IPS-Nathan Lectures that he delivered from Nov 2022 to March 2023 as IPS’ 12th S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

The four lectures explore the influence of four civilisations – the Indic, Sinic, Islamic and European-Christian – on the local identities and cultures of Southeast Asia. They also examine how the same influences moulded Singapore’s national identity and development as part of the region, even as the nation-state developed its unique features and navigated challenges. The book includes highlights from question-and-answer sessions with the audience after each lecture.

Speaking at the launch as Guest of Honour, Singapore President Tharman Shanmugaratnam described Prof Wang as the most outstanding scholar of the humanities that Southeast Asia has produced, and amongst the most outstanding historians of our times.

Reflecting on the book, President Tharman said that the ability of Southeast Asian cultures to selectively incorporate elements from different civilisations from around the world enables the nations of the region to navigate the tensions and tides of a changing world. He shared two takeaways from his reading of the book: “First, it is important for Singapore to stay united within ASEAN, as is indeed fully our intention. And second, it is important for ASEAN to be united and to prevent our multi-civilisational cultures from ever descending into the warring nationalist cultures abroad that threaten us today.”

IPS Director Janadas Devan praised Prof Wang’s lecture series as a “tour de force… exploring the intricate dance of cultures, creeds and civilisations that constitute Southeast Asia.” He said that, beyond providing insights into the forces that shaped the region, the book showcases Prof Wang’s artistry with words.

“Reading Professor Wang's words, hearing his lectures, is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is an experience not unlike hearing polyphonic music, say, a mass in four or five voices, or looking at a Chinese painting or a Japanese garden, where significance lies in the spaces between objects. It is a logical as well as a deeply aesthetic experience. We are honouring a rare mind, a rare distinction, a rare human being.”

Prof Wang said the IPS-Nathan Lecture series was an opportunity to examine two images that have intrigued him since the start of his academic career at the University of Malaya, whose campus was located on the same plot occupied by the NUS Bukit Timah campus and IPS today.

“One was that our region had many cultures and now had a name for itself, and this was Southeast Asia – an untidy place that just had its borders drawn, with China on one side and India on the other. The other image was that of powerful European empires using their modern civilisation to show that ancient Asian civilisations were all obsolete,” he said.

“These raised questions I could not understand, and the questions followed me around in my later studies. Director Janadas’ invitation to give the IPS-Nathan Lectures has given me a chance to take a closer look at the two images after several decades.”

Those interested in watching the 12th IPS-Nathan Lecture series by Prof Wang may do so here.