Professor John Miksic wins the inaugural Singapore history prize

Archaeologist wins inaugural Singapore history prize

Thursday, 11 January 2018, The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – An archaeologist whose work refutes the common misperception that Singapore’s history started with the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles has been awarded the inaugural Singapore History Prize.

Professor John N. Miksic of the National University of Singapore (NUS), was awarded for his book, Singapore And The Silk Road Of the Sea, 1300-1800, which uses archaeological evidence to examine Singapore’s pre-colonial history in the larger Asian context.

On Thursday (Jan 11), the 71-year-old American, who is the first person to conduct an archaeological dig here in 1984, was unveiled as the winner of the prize at a press conference at NUS.

Created by NUS in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, the Singapore History Prize is given to a publication with a lasting impact on the understanding of Singapore’s history.

It will be given out triennially, with the next award to be given out in 2020 or 2021.

Historian Wang Gungwu, who heads a four-man panel to choose the winner, said Prof Miksic’s book “has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context”.

He said the book has confirmed, through concrete archaeological evidence, that Singapore’s history dates back more than 700 years.

“We now know more about Singapore in the 14th Century than any other city in the region in the same period,” added Professor Wang, chairman of NUS’ East Asian Institute.

A citation on the book noted: “We realise that Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Naypyitaw, Phom Penh and Manila were all founded more recently than Singapore.”

The book was one of 29 submissions received by the department of history.  The four-man panel that reviewed the five shortlisted submissions was made up of Prof Wang, academic Kishore Mahbubani, entrepreneur Claire Chiang and Professor Peter A. Coclanis of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Four other books made the final shortlist – works about the history of the sarong kebaya, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Bukit Ho Swee fire as well as Singapore history from 1965 to 2015.

Prof Miksic, from the department of South-east Asian studies at NUS, will receive $50,000 in cash. He said he may use the money for future excavations and training exercises, as well as to restore the artefacts he has in his archaeology laboratory.

“It really gives the field of archaeology a certain credibility it didn’t have before,” he said.

He also noted that more than a thousand Singaporean volunteers helped with many of excavations referred to in the book. “I felt like I owed a debt to them, to write this book and show the important work they’ve done,” he added.

Prof Miksic is now working with NUS Press to build an online database to classify and identify Singaporean artefacts earlier uncovered, to help fellow archaeologists.

The project’s first phase, to be ready by the end of next month, classifies more than 4,000 artefacts from a 2003 excavation at Singapore Cricket Club.

The book, which is into its third edition, can be bought through the NUS Press website as well as book store Kinokuniya for $58, without GST. It will be translated into Chinese by 2019.

By Rafaella Nathan Charles for The Straits 

Graduate Students’ Teaching Award for Semester 2, 2016-2017

The Department of Southeast Asian Studies is delighted to announce that two of our graduate tutors have been awarded the Graduate Student’s Teaching Award in recognition of their excellent teaching in Semester 2, 2016-2017.

Congratulations to the following graduate tutors:

Ms Ong Yanchun (PhD Candidate)

Mr Tan Zi Hao (PhD Candidate)
– also a recipient of the Graduate Students’ Teaching Award (GSTA) Honour Roll in recognition of their sustained high performance in winning the award three times.

Archaeology Magazine – Singapore: The Lion City’s Surprising Past

The Lion City’s Glorious Past

The founding mythology of this city-state was once thought to be pure fiction—archaeology says otherwise

In 1817, Sir Stamford Raffles, the governor of the British colony of Bencoolen in Sumatra, set off to find a suitable port site in the Strait of Melaka, a narrow channel in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Situated at the junction of two monsoons, the strait necessitated a long layover for ships dependent on seasonal winds. The region’s premier entrepôt at the time was Dutch-controlled Melaka, where traders from Arabia and India would stop over until the next monsoon wind took them farther north to China, or back south laden with silks and spices. The opium trade with China was growing, and Raffles was determined to build a British base in the region. In 1819, he lit upon a small island at the southern end of the strait, off the tip of Malaysia—an unremarkable settlement that he nonetheless believed was both strategically located and possessed of a glorious history.

Raffles’ conviction about the island’s illustrious past came from reading his copy of the Malay Annals, a fifteenth-century narrative about the Malay kingdoms. According to this account, a Sumatran prince was out hunting on a hill when he spied a blinding white shore across the sea, a land he learned was called Temasek. On sailing over, he spotted what seemed to be a lion, and so named his new kingdom Singapura, or “Lion City” in Sanskrit. He ruled there for many years, as did his descendants after him, during which time, the Annals tell us, “Singapura became a great city, to which foreigners resorted in great numbers so that the fame of the city and its greatness spread through the world.” Eventually, this great Malay port was conquered by the Javanese and its king forced to flee north to Melaka.

Raffles, hundreds of years later, saw evidence on the island for the tale: the remains of a fortified wall and what locals called Forbidden Hill, said to conceal the graves of kings. Raffles negotiated with the local sultanate to develop the settlement, and wrote to his patroness, Princess Charlotte, that he had planted the British flag on “the site of the ancient maritime capital of the Malays.” Within a few years, a sleepy settlement had turned into a bustling port, the most important in the region.

Over the next two centuries, Raffles’ foresight came to be celebrated, but his inspiration was largely forgotten. The tale of princes, lions, and kingdoms faded into legend, a charming backstory for the country’s name. Raffles’ colleagues had always been skeptical of the notion of an ancient, glorious Singapore, and there was little material evidence of it. Even the discovery in 1924 of gold ornaments in Fort Canning, built on Forbidden Hill, did not spur further investigation. Instead, the birth of a nation was dated to Raffles’ arrival. According to the history books—and popular perception—the Singapore story began when the British stumbled on a fishing village in 1819.

That history has now been revised, and the textbooks amended. Largely due to archaeological excavations that began in 1984 and culminated in the island’s largest-ever dig, in 2015, evidence now exists of a fourteenth-century port city that had long been buried under downtown Singapore. Led by American archaeologist John Miksic and more recently by Singaporean archaeologist Lim Chen Sian, a researcher with the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Archaeology Unit at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, these rescue digs were driven by small private donations and passionate volunteers. Through fragments of earthenware, Chinese pottery, Indian beads, and Javanese jewelry, Miksic and others have pieced together a new story—one that pushes the city’s origins back some 500 years before Raffles’ arrival, traces the rise and fall of Singapore between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and places it in the robust ancient maritime trade network of the region.

In 1984, Miksic was teaching at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, when he was invited to help with a dig in Singapore, the first of its kind. Miksic, who had been in Southeast Asia since the late 1960s, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as an archaeologist, had received his PhD from Cornell University, with a focus on trade and society in northeast Sumatra. He jumped at the chance to excavate within Singapore’s Fort Canning Park. The fort was built in 1859 on the leveled summit of a small hill downtown, known in Raffles’ time as Forbidden Hill, and host to a tomb or memorial purportedly of the last king. A plan to landscape the hill had pushed the curators of the country’s National Museum to try to save any archaeological material that might lie beneath it. Funded by a private donation, Miksic and others spent 10 days excavating near the tomb. What they found exceeded all expectations.

Parts of the site were undisturbed and the stratification layers were clear. Archaeologists found sherds of Chinese pottery—both imported and locally made—and coins of the Song and Tang Dynasties. Miksic recalls being taken by complete surprise. Although there were records of Temasek in Chinese writings, there had always been arguments over its location. And the Malay Annals were considered a romance—to the extent that even Miksic’s Cornell adviser believed the Singapura story to be a fabrication. “The idea that the Annals were closely paralleled by reality was not taken seriously by historians,” says Miksic. “We had no clue until we found this stuff.”

Miksic went on to lead 10 more digs at Fort Canning after moving to Singapore in 1987, and undertook another 10 to 15 excavations along the Singapore River. The sites were chosen serendipitously—all were rescue digs carried out quickly when a building was knocked down or a parking garage chosen for development. The finds, in total, included 10,000 Indian and Javanese glass beads, Indian bangles and other pieces of jewelry, and 500,000 pieces of pottery, some of which are still being sorted. Chinese and Sri Lankan coins found along the riverbank speak to the high volume of trade, and Chinese glass beads and vessels, as well as the fragment of a rare porcelain pillow and a unique compass bowl, all suggest an exceptionally close relationship with China.

Significantly, a substantial amount of locally made household pottery was also found. Because cooking pots are unlikely to be imported, their presence indicates a settled community rather than a city of transients. The quantity and style of pots can also provide clues to the cultural affiliations of residents and the sizes of settlements in different parts of the old city. Some of the forms of pottery found, Miksic says, “enable us to certify that the local inhabitants were culturally related to those of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, rather than Java.”

Taken together, the finds reveal that Singapore was a major trade hub by 1350, importing and exporting between India, Southeast Asia, and China. It was fortified—rare for the time—used currency, and likely hosted a multiethnic population governed by a local chief. Miksic says evidence suggests that it was not a political power or ceremonial center, but was perhaps like contemporaneous port towns of the Mediterranean. There was little agriculture, and services were the mainstay. Singapore procured raw materials such as iron, as well as porcelain, tortoiseshell, glass, and beads, from a network of suppliers. “The archaeology of Singapore confirms what we thought we knew from local chronicles such as the Malay Annals and Chinese texts,” says Miksic, “while adding much more detail about the types of objects traded and the complexity of the economy of even a medium-sized port.” He adds, “We are also beginning to see what a place with a strong Chinese influence would have looked like.”

Comparisons with other port cities are difficult in a region that has been dominated by shipwreck archaeology, not urban digs. While there are several ancient ports along the Strait of Melaka, only a few have been excavated and almost no quantitative data has been published. Singapore’s digs have been so fruitful in part because the ancient city occupied the same well-defined river-bounded area as the colonial city. Miksic points out that, luckily, nineteenth-century British planners reserved large open spaces, making excavation easier. As more finds are processed, he believes that Singapore may offer clues into early urbanization in the region as well as the spread of Islam. Ancient Singapore certainly adds to mounting evidence of the importance of the region’s early maritime trade network—what Miksic calls the “Silk Road of the Sea.”

Singapore’s golden age lasted almost a century. There are almost no artifacts from the fifteenth century, when the city was likely conquered and the trade hub moved to Melaka. But Singapore continued to be a transit point for ships—Saint Francis Xavier wrote a letter while docked here in 1551—before it was finally abandoned in the seventeenth century. According to Miksic, the Dutch policy of forcing traders to call at Batavia (today’s Jakarta) may be partly responsible, but trade in Asia also contracted in this period. The city was not revived until almost 200 years later, and when it was, he argues, it was because the qualities necessary for a successful port city had not changed. “Raffles was very close to the truth,” Miksic says. “Singapore was not just a fishing village in the precolonial period, a hole in the ground. It was something greater than that, a successful port and a cosmopolitan society.” Why did ancient Singapore stay hidden so long? Colonial archaeologists in Asia focused largely on India, Miksic notes, while modern Southeast Asian historians were enthralled by temples, sculptures, and inscriptions. Just as importantly, perhaps, since gaining independence in the 1960s, Singapore has focused almost single-mindedly on the future. If Raffles sought a historical foundation for his colonial port, the new nation’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew looked ahead to building a modern state. That inexorable focus helped unify a diverse population of Chinese, Indians, and Malays, while transforming the country into an economic powerhouse—but, for a time, at the cost of its heritage. A landscape of malls and ever-redeveloping towers, the city today retains only a small portion of its colonial structures.

Even after 1984’s exciting finds, Miksic had to raise private grants for every dig. And it would take more than a decade for his discoveries to begin getting out to the general public. It was only in 2015, the 50th year of independence, that Singapore’s secondary-school textbook was amended to reflect the new understanding of the city’s history, adding 70 pages on the precolonial period, with text and photos contributed by Miksic. Archaeology has shown that Singapore is one of the oldest capitals in southeast Asia, not the youngest. “The children growing up today,” he says, “won’t have the preconceptions their parents did.”

In 2015, Singapore archaeologists undertook their largest excavation yet on a quarter-acre site in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall at Empress Place, located downtown on the riverbank. The 100-day dig was covered widely, and Singaporeans were encouraged to follow its progress. The nearly four ton yield included 700-year-old Chinese coins, stoneware, and Buddhist figurines. “The soil was jet black with artifacts. You could just grab them by the handful,” recalls Lim, who led the dig. Among the discoveries were possible imperial-grade Chinese ceramics—physical evidence that China’s imperial court recognized Temasek—and timber planks suggestive of Southeast Asian shipbuilding knowledge. “This is the first time we are uncovering such evidence from a fourteenth- to sixteenth-century archaeological context,” says Lim.

The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Lim grew up despising the story he’d read in school—that an Englishman had turned a fishing village into a successful port. Like so many others, he’d gone to college in the United States. Having majored in archaeology and finance at Boston University, he worked on digs in Mexico and elsewhere. “At some point, I asked myself, ‘Why am I digging up some other country when I know so little about my own?” he says. “Mexico has 6,000 archaeologists. How many does Singapore have? One.” So he went back for a master’s degree at the National University of Singapore and began participating in digs, initially under Miksic, and then leading them himself.

Unlike earlier digs, the Empress Place excavation was funded by the National Heritage Board—a clear sign of Singapore’s changing approach to its own story. The past decade has seen a growth in citizens’ heritage movements. Perhaps in response to this, and certainly in response to the rising tensions between Singaporean citizens and an expanded migrant-worker population, the government now sees heritage and culture as part of the “softer side” of nation-building in a post–Lee Kuan Yew era.

Lim’s experience speaks to some of these changes. His generation, he says, struggles with identity. “Who are we? Where do we belong? Are we really Chinese? Do the Chinese in the People’s Republic or in Taiwan think so?” And “What is ‘Singaporeanism’?” Archaeology can help with these questions, he believes, since it provides a crucial link to the past and, indirectly, to identity. For Lim, learning about ancient Singapore made him feel more connected to his city. “I have a sense of sharing the same site with ancient people,” he says. “I’ve played soccer on the same ground. At a fundamental level, it makes a difference.” Just as Miksic trained him, Lim hopes to eventually train and build a pool of local archaeologists and lobby for a legal framework for digs.

Singapore is now likely the most excavated major city in Southeast Asia. A country long seen as a model of modernity in Asia now offers a model for urban archaeology. Yet much remains to be learned. In the coming years, Lim will look for more information on the ancient city’s spatial organization, population size, industrial activity, and social and political structures. Says Miksic, “We know there was a mixture of east and south Asians here, just like there is today. But what was the proportion? Did they live in separate enclaves or together?” For now, it can be said that the findings show that ancient Singapore was a vibrant, multiethnic settlement—not unlike its modern-day avatar. Archaeology is recasting the history of this Asian city-state—and perhaps even what it means to be Singaporean.

View the original article.

‘Islam and Humanitarianism: Networks of Islamic Charities in Contemporary Southeast Asia’ (Wed, 22 November 2017)

Speaker: Dr. Amelia Fauzia, Asia Research Institute, NUS
Date: Wednesday, 22 November 2017
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)


Despite bringing suffering, hardship, human loss and large-scale destruction, disasters that have struck Indonesia during the Post New Order period – such as the Aceh tsunami (2004) – have indirectly pushed its Muslim charitable organisations into an era of internationalization, where their level of engagement with NGOs and agencies from foreign countries has been massive. This could be in terms of fundraising and providing relief assistance in other countries, establishing regional and international associations, and advancing the practice of zakat, waqf, and humanitarian relief. The networks created as a result of such interactions are fluid, dynamic, multi-layered and ‘cross-cutting’, including between state agencies, state-based Islamic charitable organisations and non-state Islamic charitable organisations. Beyond the internal dynamics – and sometimes conflicts – of state-civil society relations in Indonesia, the creation of regional associations, collaborations, and activities in Southeast Asian countries engages with another dimension of state-civil society dynamics and relations in each country with its own unique historical and local contexts (e.g. size of religious followers, state attitudes towards religion, geographical position, and economic status). This talk examines the role of new contemporary networks in facilitating the movement of Islamic charity in Southeast Asia. It questions how such networks gain followers to support humanitarian relief in ‘imagined’ Muslim communities, and looks at the mutual implications of religion, humanitarianism, civil society and state-society relations brought by the networks of Islamic charities in the region. The talk is limited to networks created by Indonesian organizations of Islamic charities in the last two decades. It argues that even though transnational networks and activities provide a mirror image of national networks and movements, they also soften traditional oppositions, such as between state-civil society, Islam-secularism, and Muslim-non Muslim.

About the speaker

Amelia Fauzia is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, NUS. She was previously lecturer at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta. Her research focuses on religion, movements and social change, specifically looking at the relationship between state and civil society. Dr Fauzia received her Masters (1998) from the University of Leiden and, following that, her PhD from the University of Melbourne (2009) where she analysed the state and Muslim civil society through the practice of Islamic philanthropy. She has conducted research on philanthropy, democracy, women and disaster relief on Islam in Indonesia, and Southeast Asia more broadly. Among her publications are Faith and the State, a History of Islamic philanthropy in Indonesia (Brill, 2013), ‘Islamic orientation in contemporary Indonesia: Islamism on the rise?’ (co-author, M. Sakai) (Asian Ethnicity, 2014), and ‘Penolong Kesengsaraan Umum: Muhammadiyah charitable activism during the Colonial period Indonesia’, Journal of Southeast Asia Research (forthcoming).

‘Internationalising Higher Education: Perspectives from Kyoto University, University of Melbourne & the National University of Singapore’ (Wed, 1 November 2017)

Speaker: Teofilo C Daquila (Associate Professor, Department of Southeast Asian Studies)
Date: Wednesday, 1 November 2017
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
Venue: AS8, Level 6, Conference Room (06-46)


“Internationalisation at the national/sector/institutional level is the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of higher education at the institutional and national levels” (Jane Knight, 2008). The internationalisation of higher education (IHE) has become a significant policy and research issue that has changed the way governments and universities in both developed and developing countries manage their internationalisation. This seminar is drawn from my book project that aims to examine IHE in Australia, Japan and Singapore at the national level, and at the institutional level using three universities as case studies: Kyoto University (KU), the University of Melbourne (UM), and the National University of Singapore (NUS). It addresses the questions: First, to what extent are KU, UM and NUS internationalised and competitive? Some indicators of internationalisation and competitiveness are used based on global rankings. Second, what internationalisation strategies have been/can be adopted by these universities? In general, there are two categories of internationalisation strategies: internationalisation@home and internationalisation overseas – both of which apply to domestic and international students. Specific strategies include the internationalisation of the curriculum, expansion, diversification/broadening, differentiation, and deepening strategies. This seminar highlights the similarities and differences in internationalisation strategies followed by governments and universities in both developed and developing countries, especially as global, regional and national borders have increasingly become more open and international students more mobile.

About the speaker

Dr. Teofilo C. Daquila is Associate Professor in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, a fellow of NUS Teaching Academy, and member of NUS General Education Curriculum committee. His teaching and research areas include economic growth and development in Southeast Asia, ASEAN economic regionalism, industrial development in Singapore and Southeast Asia, comparative and international education, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His publications include The Economies of Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand (2005), Regionalism and Multilateralism: ASEAN in the Global Economy (2005), The Transformation of Southeast Asian Economies (2013), Internationalising Higher Education in Singapore: Government Policies and the NUS Experience (Journal of Studies in International Education, 2013), and The Internationalisation of Higher Education in Asia-Pacific: Case of Australia, Japan and Singapore (2018). A/P Daquila commenced his graduate study at University of the Philippines School of Economics, obtained his M.A. economics degree from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), and PhD at Australian National University.

TAKSU An Evening of Balinese Dance (Friday, 10 November 2017, 7:30pm)

The Department of Southeast Asian Studies presents “Taksu“, an evening of Balinese dance performed by students of SE2224 Unmasked! An Introduction to Traditional Dance in Southeast Asia.

Be sure to join us for this one-night only showcase on Friday 10 November 2017 at 7.30pm at LT13

Tickets priced at $10 each. Get them at the Taksu Booth along the Central Library Walkway from 12 Oct – 26 Oct 2017 or at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies (AS8, Level 6) or via email at

Sailing the Balangay

Open to NUS students, teaching staff, and alumni, from all backgrounds.

Get involved in creative projects – writing, film-making, acting, theatre, music, etc. – that will aim to fathom the sea and the islands, people and nature, past and present. Our creative work will be presented at exhibitions and events at NUS Museum and Ateneo Art Gallery.

Our three boats. The balangay, the National Boat of the Philippines, belongs to a shared heritage of Austronesian maritime culture, which spread as far as Madagascar and Polynesia. Based on boats unearthed in Mindanao (the earliest 1,700 years old), several reconstructions of the balangay have been built by traditional craftsmen from the Sulu Archipelago, in collaboration with archaeologists. The boats sailed across the Philippines and beyond, including a 17-month voyage around Southeast Asia.

The people on the voyage will include the boat builders; the first Filipino team that climbed Mt. Everest, and later embarked on the balangay voyage across Southeast Asia, without engine or modern navigational technology; students from the NUS and the Ateneo de Manila University; teaching staff from the two universities, artists, writers, film-makers, and scholars working in various fields and media.

Our itinerary will depend on wind and weather; it may include coastal communities and historical fort-islands on and off Luzon, the little-visited Lubang Archipelago with its fishing villages, religious/mystical sites, and unspoiled environment, the large island of Mindoro, and small islands and coral gardens in the Verde Straits. Pre-voyage seafaring-themed tour of Manila, a mini-symposium at the Ayala Museum; camera and acting training/guidance.

If interested or have any questions, please email Dr. Jan Mrázek at — no commitment needed at this point, but we will provide you with more info when it becomes available. Selection of participants will take place around the end of October.


Organized by the Department of Southeast Asian Studies with support from the Provost’s Office, in collaboration with Ateneo de Manila University.

New Publication: Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State by Vatthana Pholsena and Vanina Boute (eds.)

Pholsena, Vatthana and Vanina Boute (eds.), Changing Lives in Laos: Society, Politics, and Culture in a Post-Socialist State, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2017

One of the lesser-studied countries in Southeast Asia, Laos has gone through momentous changes over the last two decades. Social and economic transformations have reshaped the country considerably and been felt both in cities and by the rural households that account for 70% of the population. This multi-disciplinary collection of articles penned by leading scholars on Laos in the fields of anthropology, geography, history, and political science explores key issues critical to our understanding of important dynamics in present-day Laos, including: the historical and sociological dimensions of the political elite; the correlated phenomena of agrarian change and migration; and the emergence of new relational dynamics among peoples of diverse ethnic origins, social backgrounds, cultural affinities, and economic aspirations in an increasingly mobile society.