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.

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.

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