Public Lecture at IIUM by Prof John Miksic

On 2 November Prof. John Miksic gave a public lecture at the Centre for Malay World and Islamic Civilisation at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The moderator of the seminar was the Honourable Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim, Advisor to the Government of Malaysia on Socio-Cultural Matters and President IIUM.

The lecture was the third in the Malay World Seminar Series. The title of the talk was “Lives in Ancient Southeast Asian Cities.” Prof. Miksic has written much on this topic.  The role of Southeast Asia in early urbanism has only recently become recognized. One reason for this tardy acknowledgement of the region’s importance for the formation of early cities is the fact that the settlement patterns in this region differ significantly from those found in India, China, or the Near East. This is partly due to the unique environment of Southeast Asia, and partly to local cultural patterns. Prof. Miksic discussed the roles of ports, palaces, temples, markets, and forts in stimulating urbanism. He discussed examples in Cambodia, Java, and the Straits of Melaka including 14th-century Singapore, and the roles of foreign merchants in stimulating certain forms of cities during the period before the arrival of Europeans.

Check out the photos from the IIUM Centre for Malay World and Islamic Civilisation Facebook page below!

[Book Launch] Ancient Southeast Asia by John N. Miksic and Goh Geok Yian

Join Professor John N. Miksic (NUS Dept of Southeast Asian Studies) and Associate Professor Goh Geok Yian (NTU HSS) at the launch of their latest publication ‘Ancient Southeast Asia’ on Fri, 11 Nov, at Level 16, The POD, National Library Building from 7pm.

Discounted copies of the book will be available at the launch.

Limited seats available. Registration is required via

New Publication: Three Centuries of Conflict in East Timor by Douglas Kammen



Kammen, Douglas, Three Centuries of Conflict in East Timor, US: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Why does violence recur in some places, over long periods of time?  Douglas Kammen explores this pattern in Three Centuries of Conflict in East Timor, studying that island’s tragic past, focusing on the small district of Maubara.

Once a small but powerful kingdom embedded in long-distance networks of trade, over the course of three centuries the people of Maubara experienced benevolent but precarious Dutch suzerainty, Portuguese colonialism punctuated by multiple uprisings and destructive campaigns of pacification, Japanese military rule, and years of brutal Indonesian occupation. In 1999 Maubara was the site of particularly severe violence before and after the UN-sponsored referendum that finally led to the restoration of East Timor’s independence.

The questions posed in Three Centuries of Conflict in East Timor about recurring violence and local narratives apply to many other places besides East Timor—from the Caucasus to central Africa, and from the Balkans to China—wherever mass violence keeps recurring.

Archaeologists in need of funds and resources

Monday 27 July 2015, The Straits Times.

Singapore’s two archaeologists, dogged for years by lack of interest in the field and scant resources, are hoping the Government will pump “several million dollars” into the discipline, to pay for more staff and activities over the next 50 years.

Mr Lim Chen Sian, who led a recent Empress Place dig which yielded artefacts such as centuries-old Chinese imperial grade ceramics, is also creating a registry of archaeological sites so people can be alerted to their historical value before the wrecking balls descend.

The authorities are also keen for archaeology to play a bigger role in piecing together Singapore’s past.

Mr Alvin Tan, assistant chief executive of policy and development at the National Heritage Board (NHB), said talks about potential archaeological sites are under way.

“Archaeology matters because it offers insights into our past, allows us to better understand our history and how far we’ve progressed as a people and a nation,” he said.

Mr Lim works for the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).

The other archaeologist here is veteran John Miksic of the National University of Singapore.

Mr Lim’s work is supported by research officers Aaron Kao and Michael Ng while Dr Miksic, 69, has the assistance of Dr Geok Yian Goh, an assistant history professor at Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Ng said archaeology is “neglected”, adding: “There’s a lot of heritage material under us to plug gaps in existing historical sources but we’re constantly battling with time ro clear backlogs of previous digs. We need more resources.”

As well as digs and research work, government investment could fund at least five archaeologists and four part-time research assistants, according to 45-year-old Mr Lim.

There is no publicly available data on how much Singapore spends on archaeology but an excavation like the recent 10-week-long dig at Empress Place was budgeted at
$70,000 by the NHB.

Last year, Hong Kong, which has about six full-time archaeologists, spent $153,500 on excavations and $26,000 on its Archaeological Society. Malaysia’s Centre for Global Archaeological Research got about $3.6 million in government funding in 2009. Even Brunei, a country with a population of 400,000, has four dedicated archaeologists.

Mr Lim hopes future teams here will have experts in areas such as underwater archaeology, anthropology, and geo-archaeology. “There’s a big hurry to build up a strong Singaporean team,” he said.

Heritage experts believe the field should come under a government department, which can develop the existing infrastructure, come up with guidelines and police the field.

The authorities have supported archaeological research here since the first dig in 1984 at Fort Canning.

Recent examples supported by the NHB include excavations at Adam Park from 2010 to 2013 and the Victoria Concert Hall in 2011.

Mr Lim said the NHB has been doing more for the scene over the years, such as by setting up an impact assessment and mitigation division in 2013, which works with archaeologists at sites of interest before they are developed.

”We’ve been running on passion and ideology but we need to elevate the level of professionalism. We can’t always be digging into our own savings, working 12-hour days and relying on volunteers,” he said.

Dr Miksic wants Singapore to be a regional hub for the field.

”We have developed a system of analysis over 30 years. We can work together to build a picture of South-east Asia,” he said.


Many areas with archaeological significance

Areas such as Raffles’ Landing Site, Kampong Glam, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, Sembawang, Bedok and East Coast have been deemed significant by archaeologists.

Portuguese maps show that East Coast, for instance, was an area filled with settlements- such as a village at Sungei Bedok – in the 1600s. So far, excavations in Singapore have recovered artefacts from the Temasek Age, of which almost no written records exist, and have proven that the settlement’s history dates as far back as the 14th century.

However, the majority of digs here have been for rescue purposes, with archaeologists scrambling to organise excavations upon hearing of new construction projects.

In the case of Empress Place, for instance, archaeologists rushed to salvage three tonnes of 700-year-old artefacts as the deadline to develop the area into an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct loomed.

The archaeologists discovered that Temasek could have had an established government with a ruler as early as the late 14th century, through the discovery of imperial-grade ceramics bestowed by the Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu on overseas leaders.

These recovered Empress Place artefacts are in the process of being catalogued.

It will take another three years to analyse them.

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits 

View the original article.

ODPRT Grant for Research Excellence, AY2014-2015

Congratulations to the following Faculty members on being awarded the ODPRT Grant for Research Excellence for AY2014/2015:

  • Prof John Miksic
  • Assoc Prof Itty Abraham
  • Assoc Prof Vatthana Pholsena

This grant by the Office of Deputy President (Research & Technology) is awarded to the top 20% of researchers in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences based on research performance.

Buddhist values brought to life, artistically; Murals are anthropologist’s labour of love at temple

Saturday 29 November 2014, The Straits Times.

INSIDE Uttamayanmuni Temple in Choa Chu Kang, the biggest of six Thai buddhist temples in Singaproe, one man has quietly taken on a project that could span decades.

Associate professor Irving Johnson of the National University of Singapore Southeast Asian studies is spending most of the school break at the temple’s main shrine, filling its white panels with scenes from religious texts.

It is a dream come true for the 42-year-old Singaporean who worshipped at the temple as a child with his Thai Buddhist mother.

He had spent many an afternoon dreaming about painting the walls to resemble the elaborate murals that adorn the walls of its majestic counterparts in Bangkok.

“I’ve been trapped in a cycle of work year-to-year. I’m finally fulfilling my dream. There is an intense feeling of satisfaction in seeing colour and stories light up plain cement,” he said.

Dr Johnson, who started on the murals in 2012, estimated that it would take 30 years to transform the shrine’s 30 or so panels into a rich tapestry of paintings.

Each panel has more than a hundred hand-painted characters, each about the size of a tea cup. It is so detailed the sarongs of the upper-class female characters are painted with different patterns.

Such a massive undertaking usually requires a team of 20 skilled Thai artists to complete over a decade.

Dr Johnson has completed two stories from the past lives of Buddha, including the story of the determined prince Mahachanok, who is saved from a shipwreck by the goddess of the ocean.

The temple could do with an artistic addition, said Abbot Phrakhru Udom Dhammavithes. “Eventually Singaporeans won’t have to fly to Thailand to enjoy Thai Buddhist art… it will be right in our own backyard,” he said, adding that the murals help convey Buddhist values.

Built in 1963, in a relatively quiet neighbourhood in Hong San Terrace, the temple receives about 5,000 visitors on occasions like Vesak Day.

Dr Johnson, an anthropologist who did O- and A-level art, gets help sometimes from students, worshippers and his mother. They fill in the acrylic base layer of each painting.

The self-taught classical Thai artist then adds in tones, secondary colours and other details such as gold leafing. He has also weaved in modern references: A scene depicted heaven and hell shows Nazi leader Adolf Hitler crushed under a boiling pot of oil.

While his eyesight has worsened since he started painting, Dr Johnson said:

“It’s not about me. It’s about leaving behind a legacy and making the temple even more traditional while enlivening its walls to befit its status as a social gathering place for the Thai and Singapore community.”

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits 

View the original article.

Uncovering secrets of 19th century S’pore; Muslim cemetery in Kampong Glam a treasure trove of port town’s past

Friday 5 September 2014, The Straits Times.

TUCKED in a corner off Victoria Street is a little known Muslim cemetery that houses the remains of royalty and luminaries from early Singapore.

Shrouded in heavy foliage and thick with weeds, it holds the secrets of a cosmopolitan Singapore in the 19th century, with tombstones bearing influences from not only nearby Java, but even the faraway Ottoman Empire.

The design of the gravestones reflects the “socio-cultural diversity of the early port town at Kampong Glam”, said Dr Imran Tajudeen, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s architecture department who has been leading a team of 11 in a six-month study.

The prominent personalities at the 19th century Jalan Kubor – Singapore’s oldest Muslim graveyard – include Tengku Abdul Kadir, the president of the Singapore Malay Union during the 1940s, local Justice of Peace Haji Ambok Sooloh Haji Omar and traders from Riau, Palembang and Pontianak.

Denizens of the 4,752 graves studied also include wealthy merchants from old port towns in the region.

The overseas influence is tied to Kampong Glam’s past as a thriving port area which stretched from Beach Road to Kallang River and Rochor River.

Due to its proximity to royal territory, it was a popular choice for rich Malay merchants during the 1800s to early 1950s. “It was all part of a self-contained port town which included Sultan Mosque and Singapore’s Istana or royal palace,” Dr Imran said.

The cemetery was the focus of a study commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to help “uncover Singapore’s connection to the Malay world”, said the board’s group director of policy, Mr Alvin Tan.

The research is timely because some of the weather-beaten tombstones’ inscriptions had “faded over time”. Heritage enthusiasts have also been fretting about the possibility of the site making way for new homes. It has been earmarked since 1998 for residential development.

Spending hours on site from December last year till May, Dr Imran and his team from Nusantara Consultancy marked out the graves into clusters to aid documentation. The cemetery comprises three main sections – the royal burial grounds, a plot initially intended for Indian Muslims which became a favoured plot for wealthy Bugis and Banjar merchants, and an area for Muslim burials managed by the Aljunied family.

With some help from alumni of the nearby Madrasah Aljunied, the researchers also studied the inscriptions on gravestones after shading them with chalk.

They found that the inscriptions had been written in multiple scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese Aksara, Bugis Aksara, Gujarati, English and Chinese.

Said Mr Tan: “These findings point to the diversity of cultural groups that used to live in or operate from Kampong Glam and show how it was a cosmopolitan confluence of the region.”

The information found will be available on the board’s website, Walking Through Heritage, from today. Findings from the study will be incorporated as part of the Malay Heritage Centre’s permanent galleries.

Dr Mohamed Effendy from NUS’ department of South-east Asian studies, who was also part of the team, said Jalan Kubor’s documentation leaves behind a repository of information for future generations. He said:

“It is a treasure house of memories, where people can trace their lineages… It is important that the place is preserved. If you have no past, you have no future.”

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits 

View the original article.

New Publication: How India Became Territorial by Itty Abraham



Abraham, Itty, How India Became Territorial, California, US: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Why do countries go to war over disputed lands? Why do they fight even when the territories in question are economically and strategically worthless? Drawing on critical approaches to international relations, political geography, international law, and social history, and based on close examination of the Indian experience during the 20th century, Itty Abraham addresses these important questions and offers a new – non-US and non-European focused – and productive way of thinking about foreign policy and inter-state conflicts over territory in Asia.

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.”

View the original article.