26
April
2019
|
10:31
Europe/Amsterdam

The Singapore story, before Raffles

Prof Miksic giving his keynote address 

As Singapore commemorates the 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in search for a port to expand British trade in the region, interest has grown in its pre-colonial existence. To address the gap in knowledge, NUS Southeast Asian Studies, with support from the National Heritage Board, organised a conference, Singapura Before Raffles: Archaeology and the Seas, 400 BCE – 1600 CE, on 23 and 24 April.

Raffles explicitly and successfully exploited Singapore’s reputation in the region as an ancient port to re-establish the island as a hub for Asian trade, said NUS Southeast Asian Studies Professor John Miksic. In his keynote address, Connecting the Dots: Nodes and Networks in Early Asian Maritime Trade, he highlighted recent discoveries made by the scholars featured in the conference, presenting archaeological evidence showing the movement of luxury goods such as pottery, glass, rare stones and foreign coins, and spices such as cinnamon and gambir from Southeast Asia to places as far as the Nile in Egypt.

Prof Miksic went as far as 700 years back into Singapore’s history, saying that it had already been a connecting node in the global maritime network dubbed ‘The Silk Road of the Sea’. A Chinese text circa the Ming dynasty referred to Temasek, as Singapore was then known, as a place to change ships — playing a transshipment role in global maritime trade that mirrors present day Singapore.

sg_before_raffles-2.jpg

Dr Maliki addressing the 180 conference attendees

Guest-of-Honour Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs and Singapore Bicentennial Ministerial Steering Committee member Dr Mohamed Maliki Bin Osman credited Prof Miksic’s pioneering archaeological research for providing substantiation for the Malay Annals’ depiction of Singapore as a great port, which had long been dismissed as myth. He said that having awareness of Singapore’s long tradition of maritime interactions and networks, and consequently its influence on world trade, can have a positive impact on the present.

“Old frameworks and networks are now under pressure, and new ideas have to be found to keep them working and become even more efficient. This is one instance where greater understanding of the past may help people of the present to stand by their convictions in the face of negative criticism and figure out how to keep alive the values which have sustained the Silk Road of the sea for two thousand years. More than just the existence of Singapore depends on success in this endeavour,” he added.

Old frameworks and networks are now under pressure, and new ideas have to be found to keep them working and become even more efficient. This is one instance where greater understanding of the past may help people of the present to stand by their convictions in the face of negative criticism and figure out how to keep alive the values which have sustained the Silk Road of the sea for two thousand years. More than just the existence of Singapore depends on success in this endeavour.

The conference also featured archaelogists, researchers and historians from institutions across the world who discussed the economy, technology and social context of early Southeast Asian maritime trade, the origins and growth of maritime networks in the South China Sea and Bay of Bengal, and shipwrecks in the region.

Selected papers from the conference will be published as an edited scholarly volume.