Review of “Singapore & The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800” by Asad Latif for The Straits Times

Pre-Raffles S’pore: A thriving port. It was a centre of commerce and culture in 14th century, The Straits Times, Saturday 9 November 2013.

Think of a Singapore which has defences against invasion. Money is a fixture of everyday life. The economy is diversified. Workers specialise in different occupations. The government and the people are honest. The population is multi-ethnic and multinational. People live together peacefully.

Which Singapore is this? To-day’s?

It actually is 14th-century Singapore, a rich and cosmopolitan trading port that was a key node on the maritime Silk Road that connected South-east Asia west-wards to India and eastwards to China.

This “Silk Road of the Sea” was, if anything, more important commercially and culturally than the fabled land route from the Mediterranean through Central Asia to China on which the trade in silk epitomised the extremely profitable exchange in precious commodities. The port of Singa-pore prospered on that sea.

Much of this information is not new. But what this book – written by John Miksic, the eminence grise of Singapore archaeology, based on 25 years of research – does is to add the empirical evi-dence of excavations to the histori-cal knowledge that Singapore ex-isted long before the age of Euro-pean colonialism and the arrival of Stamford Raffles.

In fact, Raffles, the founder of contemporary Singapore, did not create it out of nothing but saw himself as reviving an ancient cen-tre of commerce and culture. He drew on the island’s enduring attributes: its strategic location, a fair and liberal government, and a hardworking population (which included residents from China, oth-er parts of South-east Asia, and the Indian Ocean) that was able to cohere socially in spite of its cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

Ironically, Raffles acknow-ledged Singapore’s pre-colonial provenance, in contrast to those who believe today that Singapore began with him.

Pre-Rafflesian society exempli-fied the possibilities of multi-eth-nicity.

Malays and Chinese lived together and not in different quarters in Singapore, “the oldest known site where archaeology and history combines to confirm the existence of an overseas Chi-nese community”, the author says. Even unlike Melaka, a Chi-nese stronghold where they had their own ward in 1500, there was no Chinese kampung here because they were safe and had no need for a stockade.

The realities and rhythms of life in pre-colonial Singapore come to life in this book, which cites early archaeological efforts before moving on to describe excavations made since 1984. In Janu-ary 1984, the first systematic ar-chaeological excavation began on Fort Canning Hill.

“By 1988, various groups had become interested in the possibili-ty that Singapore’s ancient past was not a closed book, but a story which was only beginning to be told,” Miksic says.

Organisations such as the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, the Lee Foundation, and the Friends of the National Museum were interested in supporting this research.

“By 1990, a true archaeological community had begun to develop in Singapore,” he writes. “No oth-er city in South-east Asia, and few in the world, can show a record of such active grassroots involvement in urban archaeology,” he says of the 1,000 volunteers who came forward to claim the city’s due: at least 700 years of history.

Excavations, in which Miksic was intimately involved, expanded to the Parliament House Com-plex, Empress Place, Colombo Court, Old Parliament House, the Singapore Cricket Club and St An-drew’s Cathedral.

A chapter evaluates the value of the evidence unearthed: earth-enware pottery, bronze and cop-per, and small fragments of gold. The significance of these finds lies in the proof the provide that ear-ly Singaporeans processed raw ma-terials to make finished products. Far from being a primitive society of fishermen and pirates, Singa-pore was a place where “planning and technological skills combined to create businesses dependent on long-term planning and investment”.

Its golden age ended just before 1400, but the island was not abandoned. A settlement that trad-ed with other lands survived along the Singapore River till 1600 or so. Then, a historical and archaeo-logical “vacuum” ensued till around 1800. Around 1811, the riv-er was re-occupied by a small pop-ulation affiliated to the Riau Sul-tanate on Bintan island.

This was the Singapore that Raffles encountered on arrival.

Singapore’s journey up to that point is the ambit of this encyclo-paedic book, which includes more than 300 maps and colour photo-graphs. It bears testimony to the determination of the author, an associate professor in the Depart-ment of South-east Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, to expand historical hori-zons beyond the Age of Raffles.

Also head of the Archaeology Unit at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, he places this longer history of Singapore in the context of Asia’s long-distance maritime trade between 1300 and 1800. In the process, he examines how Singapore functioned in its immediate regional context, which included Johor, Melaka, Java, Riau and Siam.

This is familiar territory, but the book serves to chart it through hard archaeological evi-dence that buttresses historical claims about the economic and diplomatic ingenuity of early Singaporeans.

The same ingenuity will be re-quired of today’s Singaporeans as they navigate their way in a possi-bly post-Western age inaugurated by the rise of China and India. America and Europe will play an essential role in Singapore’s desti-ny, but the new terms of interna-tional relations in Asia will be set increasingly by Asian powers.

Sadly, the author ends on a plaintive note: “It will be interest-ing to see whether new evidence of Singapore’s antiquity will con-tinue to be perceived as anything more than a curiosity of minor im-portance to the formation of the nation’s modern identity.”

It would be a national pity if that occurred. Singapore’s identi-ty is an evolving one. The fact that the identity has been seven centuries in the making surely should give today’s Singaporeans greater hope in their collective fu-ture. We are not a here today, gone tomorrow kind of people. At least, our national ancestors, liv-ing 700 years ago, were not.

The book was launched at the National Museum on Tuesday.

By Asad Latif for The Straits Times,

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist. The book is available at S$58 (paperback) and S$68 (hardback), both before GST.

View the original article.

New Publication: Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800 by John N Miksic

Miksic, John N, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800, Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

Beneath the modern skyscrapers of Singapore lie the remains of a much older trading port, prosperous and cosmopolitan and a key node in the maritime Silk Road. This book synthesizes 25 years of archaeological research to construct the 14th-century port of Singapore in greater detail than is possible for any other Southeast Asian city. The picture that emerges is of a port where people processed raw materials, used money, and had specialized occupations. Within its defensive wall, the city was well organized and prosperous, with a cosmopolitan population that included residents from China, other parts of Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Fully illustrated, with more than 300 maps and color photos, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Seapresents Singapore’s history in the context of Asia’s long-distance maritime trade in the years between 1300 and 1800: it amounts to a dramatic new understanding of Singapore’s precolonial past.

Review of “It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today” by Asad Latif for The Straits Times

Vietnam as a work in progress – New book shows how family anchors the self in ebb and flow of economy, The Straits Times, Saturday 21 September 2013.

THIS book of interviews reveals the raw hunger for a better life, the tremendous personal effort made to achieve it and the entrepreneurial daring that have marked Vietnam since the introduction of market-oriented reforms in the 1980s.

The almost 70 interviews were conducted over two years from 2010 as part of a class that Dr Gerard Sasges, an assistant professor in the department of South-east Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, taught while directing the University of California’s Education Abroad Programme in Vietnam.

The mostly student interviewers, both Vietnamese and Americans, have done a masterly job in capturing the economics of everyday life in post-socialist Vietnam.

The range of characters in this book is truly astonishing. The more recognisable faces of the economy are seen in a farmer, a butcher, a construction worker, an electronics factory worker, a railway crossing guard, a security guard, a bus fee collector, a nurse, a kindergarten teacher, a KFC employee, a hotel receptionist, a karaoke bar owner, a tourism company director and a wedding planner.

The Vietnamese work ethic is conveyed dramatically by a company executive: “I love my job. If I could change anything about it, it would have to be myself.”

But it is the portraits of the informal economy that are the most riveting in the gallery of Vietnamese labour.

That economy is represented by a scrap food collector, a motorcycle parker, an art forger, a bookie, a rat catcher, a knife sharpener, a shoe shiner, a grey hair plucker, an itinerant “scale lady” who makes a living by measuring the weight and height of people, and a man who exhumes bodies to clean the bones.

In spite of this diversity, the refrain running through many of the interviews is that the Vietnamese find their work hard but value it because it enables them to provide for their families, particularly the care of the elderly and education of children.

The quest for an education that will give children better job prospects than their parents have is an obsession that cuts across all occupational groups. Learning English is seen as the passport to that cherished future.

The other motif of the book is the way in which the premium placed on filial ties informs the world of work.

A maker of che, a sweet soupy dessert, in Binh Lieu town in Quang Ninh province remarks: “People here really live with a lot of feeling, you know? Just about everyone in the commune knows each other. And with selling che here, I especially get to know all the other ladies in the market; you get to be really close working side by side every day, we treat each other like we’re all part of one big family.”

The KFC employee in Hanoi fetes her managers for treating employees like brothers and sisters. The manager of a gay bar in Hanoi says: “Here, 10 out of 10 people know each other. It’s like family here.”

In spite of the prospects of being made redundant, the bone cleaner prefers cremation to burial because cemeteries encroach on scarce farmland. His hope is to “find ways that the world of the living and the world of the dead can continue to coexist peacefully in the future”.

Rather than treat the living and the dead as belonging to two spheres, he sees the latter as a generation making space for the next one.

Almost every page of this book bears testimony to how communication, companionship and laughter alleviate the captive drudgery of routine work in the competitive anonymity of the market. The family anchors the self amid the ebb and flow of the economy. Indeed, strong family ties mean that the threat of unemployment is not the existential terror that it is in more economically advanced but also fragmented societies.

The value of this book for a Singapore audience lies in the light that it shines on a receding era of history when the hunger for economic survival and success inaugurated Singapore’s transition from the Third World to the First. Today, many Singaporeans want a new balance to be  struck between the standard of living they enjoy and the quality of life they desire.

The balance reached eventually will reflect Singaporean realities. However, the Vietnamese experience suggests that a strong work ethic combined with sound cultural moorings can enable a people to thrive both economically and socially.

Everyone has to make a living. How one does it makes all the difference.

By Asad Latif for The Straits Times,

The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The book will be available in Kinokuniya by early next month at $28 before GST.

View the original article.

New Publication: It’s a Living – Work and Life in Vietnam Today by Gerard Sasges (ed.)

Sasges, Gerard (ed.) It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today, Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

Through interviews and 70 photographs, It’s a Living reveals the energy and struggle of the world of work in Vietnam today. A goldfish peddler installing aquariums, a business school graduate selling shoes on the sidewalk, a college student running an extensive multi-level sales network, and a girl doing promotions but intent on moving into management are just a few of the people profiled. Based on frank and freewheeling interviews conducted by students, the book engages a broad range of Vietnamese on their feelings about work, life and getting ahead. By providing a ground-level view of the texture of daily working life in the midst of rapid and unsettling change, the book reveals Vietnam today as a place where ordinary people are leveraging whatever assets they have, not just to survive, but to make a better life for themselves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Like Gerard Sasges’ Facebook page today for an exclusive preview of this publication!

New Publication: A Mountain of Difference – The Lumad in Early Colonial Mindanao by Oona Paredes

Paredes, Oona, A Mountain of Difference – The Lumad in Early Colonial Mindanao, Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2013

A Mountain of Difference recasts the early colonial encounter between the indigenous Lumad and Christian missionaries in the southern Philippines. This groundbreaking study of the Lumad—the non-Muslim native peoples of Mindanao—draws on Spanish archival sources an indigenous oral traditions to reconceptualize the political and cultural history of the island’s “upland” minorities.

While Lumad peoples are widely believed to have successfully resisted the traumatic transformations of Spanish colonization, Oona Paredes makes a case for the deep cultural impact of Catholic missions in Mindanao, arguing that key elements of “traditional” Lumad life today may have evolved from earlier cross-cultural encounters with Iberian Catholic missionaries. Vignettes of Lumad life prior to the nineteenth century show different communities actively engaging colonial power and mediating its exercise according to local priorities, with unexpected results.

This book complicates our understanding of Mindanao’s history and ethnography, and outlines the beginning of an autonomous history for the marginalized Lumad peoples. The interactions explored in this book illuminate the surprisingly complex cultural and power dynamics at the peripheries of European colonialism.

New Publication: Ancient Harbours in Southeast Asia : The Archaeology of Early Harbours and Evidence of Inter-Regional Trade by John N Miksic and Goh Geok Yian (eds.)


Miksic, John N and Goh Geok Yian (eds.), Ancient Harbours in Southeast Asia : The Archaeology of Early Harbours and Evidence of Inter-Regional Trade,  Thailand: SEAMEO SPAFA, 2013

The archaeology of harbours is critical to understanding patterns of ancient trade and inter-regional interaction.  Systematic excavations of sites of harbours, ports and docks are, however, extremely rare in Southeast Asia.  Even though ancient trade has always been a favourite topic of scholars working on ancient Southeast Asia, the working areas of ports/harbours have attracted very little attention.  This is the first publication to focus on the archaeology of Southeast Asian harbours.

This book compiles some of the first research by Southeast Asian archaeologists on this significant but neglected subject.  It contains much new information on the roles of Southeast Asians in ancient commerce and industry, and on the nature of cultural interaction which has taken place in these sites for over 2,000 years.

The bulk of contributions in this volume concern Indonesia, as befits the immense geographical expanse of a nation comprising thousands of islands.  The book brings together studies on Sumatra, Java, Bali, Sulawesi, and the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.  Another chapter deals with protohistoric Malaysia.  Chapters on the Philippines range from the thousand-year-old trading port of Butuan to Spanish colonial-era shipyards.  A study of late prehistoric sites of inter-regional seaborne trade in peninsular Thailand indicates that these may be the oldest harbours in the region to link the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.  The publication should shed more light and encourage further research on this neglected field.

New Publication: The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965-68 by Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (eds.)

Kammen, Douglas and Katharine McGregor (eds.), The Countours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965-68, Singapore: NUS Press, 2012

The violence directed against the political left in Indonesia from 1965 until 1968 has been the subject of intense speculation. The large number of deaths, brutal interrogations, as well as rape, torture, short- and long-tern detention and on-going discrimination inflicted on hundreds of thousands of people who make this a compelling topic. However, political sensitivities within Indonesia and a dearth of evidence made serious research on the topic extremely difficult under the New Order regime.

The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia presents case studies from diverse locations throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The accounts revolve around the impact and interpretations of the September 30th Movement and its aftermath; the roles of military and civilian groups in   fomenting and perpetrating violence; short- and long-tern detention; and the   legacies of the assault on the political Left. Although events unfolded   differently in various parts of the country, the violence amounted to a   counter-revolution intended to curtail the mass mobilization and popular participation unleashed by the national revolution some twenty years earlier. The goal was to destroy the social bases of President Sukarno’s left-leaning Guided Democracy, and to establish a military regime that was authoritarian and pro-Western.

Students of Indonesia will learn much from the accounts in this volume, but the discussion will also benefit scholars concerned with the dynamics of mass violence, the Cold War, regime change and counter-revolution.

New Publication: The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia by Julius Bautista (ed.)

Bautista, Julius (ed.), The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia,  Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012

What role do objects play in crafting the religions of Southeast Asia and shaping the experiences of believers? The Spirit of Things explores religious materiality in a region marked by shifting boundaries, multiple beliefs, and trends toward religious exclusivism. While most studies of religion in Southeast Asia focus on doctrines or governmental policy, contributors to this volume recognize that religious “things” – statues, talismans, garments, even sacred automobiles – are crucial to worship, and that they have a broad impact on social cohesion. By engaging with `religion in its tangible forms, faith communities reiterate their essential narratives, allegiances, and boundaries, and negotiate their coexistence with competing belief systems. These ethnographic and historical studies of Southeast Asia furnish us with intriguing perspectives on wider debates concerning the challenges of secularization, pluralism, and interfaith interactions around the world.

In this volume, contributors offer rich ethnographic analyses of religious practices in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma that examine the roles materiality plays in the religious lives of Southeast Asians. These essays demonstrate that religious materials are embedded in a host of practices that enable the faithful to negotiate the often tumultuous experience of living amid other believers. What we see is that the call for plurality, often initiated by government, increases the importance of religious objects, as they are the means by which the distinctiveness of a particular faith is “fenced” in a field of competing religious discourses. This project is called “the spirit of things” to evoke both the “aura” of religious objects and the power of material things to manifest “that which is fundamental” about faith and belief.    .

New Publication: The Court of Surakarta by John N Miksic

Miksic, John N, The Court of Surakarta, Menteng, Jakarta: BAB Publishing Indonesia, 2012

In the early 20th century, Indonesia was divided into 350 greater and lesser kingdoms. Although Dutch imperialism influenced this pattern, the political history of the archipelago over the centuries had been marked by the expansion and contraction of various local spheres of influence. One of the oldest and most powerful centers of power in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago has always been located in central Java. The court of Surakarta Hadiningrat, formed in the 1740s, can trace its origins to kingdoms of the 8th century. In 1945 the ancient kingdoms were superseded by the newly-formed Republic of Indonesia.

The courts with their panoply of ancient traditions gave way to a new political ethos in which individual achievement replaced aristocratic birth as the main criteria for success. Overnight the courts were reduced to political irrelevance. Their rulers lost both inherited power and traditional sources of income. Many simply disappeared, while others clung to a precarious existence as tourist attractions or cultural centers.

Java is now home to over 100 million people, two-thirds of whom belong to the ethnic group known as Javanese. Javanese culture is known for its high degree of refinement and devotion to ideas of spirituality and etiquette. This stereotype, fostered in part by the Dutch, masks a much richer complexity. The past half-century has seen much rapid social change, usually peaceful, but more than once marked by extreme violence. The court of Surakarta continues to strive to find new ways to achieve the harmony between change and tradition which Javanese philosophy has always emphasized as one of its main goals.

New Publication: The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah: Encounters, Mobilities, and Histories along the Malaysian-Thai Border (Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies) by Irving Chan Johnson

Johnson, Irving Chan, The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah: Encounters, Mobilities, and Histories along the Malaysian-Thai Border (Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies), Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012

The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah examines the many ways in which people living along an international border negotiate their ethnic, cultural, and political identities. This ethnography of a small community of Thai Buddhists in the Malaysian state of Kelantan draws on rich, original vignettes to show how issues such as territoriality, identity, and power frame the experiences of borderland residents. Although the Thai represent less than 10 percent of the Kelantan population, they are vocal about their identity as non-Muslim, non-Malay citizens. They have built some of the world’s largest Buddhist statues in their tiny villages, in a state that has traditionally been a seat of Islamic governance. At the same time, the Thai grapple with feelings of social and political powerlessness, being neither Thai citizens nor Muslim Malaysians. This thoughtful study offers new perspectives and challenges the classical definition of boundaries and borders as spaces that enforce separation and distance.

With insights applicable to comparative border and frontier studies around the world, The Buddha on Mecca’s Verandah will appeal not only to anthropologists but also to specialists in Asian and Southeast Asian studies, cultural geography, religious and ethnic studies, globalization, and cosmopolitanism.