New Publication: Ancient Southeast Asia by John N Miksic and Goh Geok Yian


Miksic, John N and Goh Geok Yian, Ancient Southeast Asia, London and New York: Routledge, 2016

Ancient Southeast Asia provides readers with a much needed synthesis of the latest discoveries and research in the archaeology of the region, presenting the evolution of complex societies in Southeast Asia from the protohistoric period, beginning around 500BC, to the arrival of British and Dutch colonists in 1600. Well-illustrated throughout, this comprehensive account explores the factors which established Southeast Asia as an area of unique cultural fusion. Miksic and Goh explore how the local population exploited the abundant resources available, developing maritime transport routes which resulted in economic and cultural wealth, including some of the most elaborate art styles and monumental complexes ever constructed.

The book’s broad geographical and temporal coverage, including a chapter on the natural environment, provides readers with the context needed to understand this staggeringly diverse region. It utilizes French, Dutch, Chinese, Malay-Indonesian and Burmese sources and synthesizes interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives and data from archaeology, history and art history. Offering key opportunities for comparative research with other centres of early socio-economic complexity, Ancient Southeast Asiaestablishes the area’s importance in world history.

New Publication: Contested Memoryscapes: The Politics of Second World War Commemoration in Singapore by Hamzah Muzaini and Brenda S.A. Yeoh


Muzaini, Hamzah and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Contested Memoryscapes: The Politics of Second World War Commemoration in Singapore, London and New York: Routledge, 2016

This book sets itself apart from much of the burgeoning literature on war commemoration within human geography and the social sciences more generally by analysing how the Second World War (1941–45) is remembered within Singapore, unique for its potential to shed light on the manifold politics associated with the commemoration of wars not only within an Asian, but also a multiracial and multi-religious postcolonial context. By adopting a historical materialist approach, it traces the genealogy of war commemoration in Singapore, from the initial disavowal of the war by the postcolonial government since independence in 1965 to it being embraced as part of national historiography in the early 1990s apparent in the emergence since then of various memoryscapes dedicated to the event. Also, through a critical analysis of a wide selection of these memoryscapes, the book interrogates how memories of the war have been spatially and discursively appropriated today by state (and non-state) agencies as a means of achieving multiple objectives, including (but not limited to) commemoration, tourism, mourning and nation-building. And finally, the book examines the perspectives of those who engage with or use these memoryscapes in order to reveal their contested nature as fractured by social divisions of race, gender, ideology and nationality.

The substantive book chapters will be based on archival and empirical data drawn from case studies in Singapore themed along different conceptual lenses including ethnicity; gender; postcoloniality, tourism and postmodernity; personal mourning; transnational remembrances and politics; and the preservation of original sites, stories and artefacts of war.

Collectively, they speak to and work towards shedding insights to the one overarching question: ‘How is the Second World War commemorated in postcolonial Singapore and what are some of the issues, politics and contestations which have accompanied these efforts to presence the war today, particularly as they are spatially and materially played out via different types of memoryscapes?’ The book also distinguishes itself from previous works written on war commemoration in Singapore, mainly by social and military historians, particularly through its adoption of a geographical agenda that gives attention to issues of politics of space as it relates to remembrance and representations of memory.

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.