NUS News Highlights: New textbook reveals pre-colonial Singapore history to local teens

By NUS Office of Corporate Relations, Monday 26 May 2014 for NUS News

In 1968, a 21-year-old John Miksic, who had a penchant for digging up artefacts, was enthralled by the ancient ruins of temples and Chinese pottery at Sungai Petani, Kedah, when he arrived in Malaysia as a volunteer of the Peace Corps, a US-based international service organisation. Now, after spending almost half a century in the region, the NUS Associate Professor’s fascination with archaeology has led him to influence education of Singapore history among teenagers, through his contribution to the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) updated lower secondary history syllabus implemented early this year.

“The reason I got interested in archaeology, originally, is [because I realised] how like us people were a long time ago, and how tough they were also. Their life expectancy was maybe 30 or 40 years. Life was really hard in those days. They still worked hard; they didn’t give up,” said Assoc Prof Miksic, referring to his study of regional history from the 10th to 15th centuries. The professor from NUS’ Department of Southeast Asian Studies, who joined the University in 1987, is also Head of the Archaeology Unit at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Nalanda Sriwijaya Centre.

Assoc Prof Miksic proofread the lower secondary history book’s text, as well as contributed photos to it. He has also donated 4,000 artefacts to MOE, which students will use as part of the Ministry’s new inquiry-based approach to learning. Many of these artefacts are pottery shards which were collected by Assoc Prof Miksic from construction sites, where bulldozers often unearth fragments during ground-breaking. Students will now not only be able to gain knowledge from reading the textbook, but will also see and touch pieces of several hundred-year-old ceramic jars and bowls.

The updated textbook includes a new section on pre-colonial Singapore, which states that the island was not an obscure backwater in Southeast Asia prior to the arrival of the British and Sir Stamford Raffles, who is credited with founding Singapore. Assoc Prof Miksic’s work validates the updated text, as he has discovered close to half a million artefacts that show that Singapore was inhabited from 1300 to 1600, then abandoned until 1800, before being resettled again. Among the sites he has excavated are Fort Canning, Parliament House Complex, Old Parliament House, Empress Place, St Andrew’s Cathedral and Colombo Court.

The rationale behind MOE’s updated syllabus is to “imbue in our students a sense of national identity by helping them understand the Singapore they live in today. This will require students to first understand the relevance of Singapore’s past in shaping Singapore’s unique position,” according to a Ministry report.

Assoc Prof Miksic’s area of research is in the study of ancient international trade, tracing the path of Chinese settlement in the Southeast Asian region through the ceramics they left behind—in particular, where and when they first settled, identifying the means of detecting these settlements and understanding the impact that Chinese presence had on the region.

“Ceramics are very interesting because they’re technological marvels: they’re artistic, aesthetic and economic; they have different aspects to them. You can use Chinese porcelain to study many different facets of society, everything from religion to everyday life. And they last forever. Even if they’re broken, the pieces are still going to be around.”

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