NUS hope to produce students who are South-east Asia-savvy

NUS to nurture graduates who are students for life

Monday, 12 February 2018, The Straits Times

It aims to weave lifelong learning into higher education to prepare alumni for future jobs

After spending three to four years studying for a degree, most people head out to work – and much of what they have learnt in university is forgotten.

But this concept of being a student needs to change because of changing workforce demands, said National University of Singapore (NUS) president Tan Eng Chye. “We are proposing that our graduates will be students for life,” he said.

The aim is for NUS to be an “anchor” for its community of graduates – nearly 300,000 of them – so that they can return to it throughout their lives for continual learning, he said.

The university is now experimenting with having more than 10 per cent of adult learners in each class, he said. “But what if we increase to 20 per cent, to 30 per cent, what’s going to happen?”

The intention is to grow these figures, Prof Tan said in an interview with The Straits Times last month.

In fact, the university is considering expanding the proportion of adult learners to more than half of its modules, said the 55-year-old, who officially took on the top position last month.

Each year, the university offers about 4,800 undergraduate modules. It now offers 167 undergraduate and postgraduate modules for alumni to take for free.

“That would have a tremendous impact on the whole campus,” he said, adding that this concept of mixing adult learners with undergraduates is “revolutionary”.

While it would be easier to teach the two groups separately, there are benefits to getting them to interact. “Adult learners bring with them experience and maturity, and the adult learners can get a lot of enthusiasm and energy from younger undergraduates.”

An initiative that NUS introduced last August to allow alumni to attend its classes for free has proven to be popular, receiving more than 8,000 applications for 404 places in 79 modules. In January, its second run, it took in 1,200 students across 88 modules.

Since Prof Tan, who was NUS provost for the past 10 years, became president, he has met students, staff and alumni, listening to them and sharing his thoughts, over the course of 30 sessions.

One of his aims, he said, is for NUS to weave lifelong learning into higher education, so that graduates and the wider community will be better equipped for future jobs.

Prof Tan, a mathematician, added: “The world is changing very quickly in terms of jobs… in part because of new technology and knowledge. Universities and higher education will need to respond appropriately to produce future-ready graduates.”

Another plan he has is to build on the university’s efforts in innovation and grow its networks in the region. More than 300 students now head overseas every year as part of the NUS Overseas College programme which aims to groom entrepreneurs in different business nodes of the world.

The initiative started in 2002 in Silicon Valley and now has nine locations around the world, including New York in the US, China’s Beijing, Switzerland and Germany.

Prof Tan said NUS will now also turn its attention to opportunities in the region: “While we remain global, how can we deepen our focus in South-east Asia?”

Tapping on a region with 625 million people would allow access to talent, funds, ideas and markets, he pointed out.

Last year, in partnership with Indonesian conglomerate Salim Group, NUS Enterprise – the university’s entrepreneurial arm – set up Block 71 Jakarta, an incubation space for start-ups.

Over the next five years, NUS will build new start-up nodes globally, including in cities across South-east Asia, such as Jakarta.

The hope is also to produce a group of NUS students who are South-east Asia-savvy. “You need to know their language… you need to understand a little bit of the social, economic and political environments in each of these places.”

By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent  for The Straits Times


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 

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.

SEAS Alumnus Dr Kyle Latinis featured in The Straits Times, Thursday 3 August 2017

How S’pore team hit pay dirt in Angkor Wat, The Straits Times, Thursday 03 August 2017.

An archaeological field school from Singapore which set up a 12-day excavation at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat has helped unearth a rare, late 12th-century statue.

Buried in a pit about 40cm deep, the approximately 2m-tall sandstone statue, sculpted in the image of a guardian, was dug up last Saturday at the ancient Tonle Snguot hospital complex, just two days into a test excavation.

The find has been described by experts the world over as incredible and the most significant in recent years, since most of the site’s valuable items have been looted.

Speaking to The Straits Times, head of the field team, Dr Kyle Latinis from Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC), said: “It is extremely rare to discover something so significant just days into our dig. We were lucky and in the right place. We also had a good sampling strategy.

“You do not expect to find statues with their heads intact at Angkor Wat because looters are rampant in these areas and most of the ancient Cambodian statues are held illegally in the hands of private collectors.”

The field school and excavation are funded by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at the cost of about $70,000, said NSC head Dr Terence Chong.

This is the field school’s fifth session. It is a three-week archaeological research and training programme held in Cambodia and Singapore. The site was selected by NSC as well as researchers from the Apsara Authority – the Cambodian state agency charged with managing the Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Singapore team scoped the project and sampling area and directed the excavation effort. This was done in consultation with Apsara Authority, the host partner. The aim is to investigate ancient hospital activities, habitation and structures.

The programme is designed to emphasise the history of intra-Asian interactions over the past 2,000 years and to create a regional identity and a community of scholars from East Asia Summit countries.

There are 14 participants this year, four of whom are from Singapore. The others hail from countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia. They are students and young professionals.

While NSC set up the excavation, the statue was recovered by Cambodian archaeologists, among others. It has since been moved to a museum for protection.

Archaeology undergraduate Natalie Khoo, 22, said: “To witness the rituals conducted for removal of the statue and the opportunity to work on this historical hospital site is an exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The statue likely was one of a pair and flanked a temple or shrine area that was part of the hospital complex, said Dr Latinis.

He added that the statue likely collapsed near the original spot it was erected in, along with the temple wall. “Although the statue is broken in a few places, it is near complete. It likely collapsed after the site was abandoned,” he said.

He added that the other two sections of the hospital complex were dedicated to physical treatment and a medicinal plant garden.

About 100 hospitals were built by the 12th-century King Jayavarman VII, who reigned from 1181 to 1218. He was known as the king who had launched the largest and the most construction projects.

The Tonle Snguot site had likely been inhabited by a community before it became a hospital. It is unclear how big the hospital complex was as of now, and more work needs to be done.

Dr Latinis said that a lot of ceramics, statues and structural remnants have been unearthed so far.

“A whole bunch of questions on the architectural history as well as technological information and industry of the time will be answered,” he added.

by Melody Zaccheus, Heritage and Community Correspondent

View the original article.

New World War II tour will visit 11 S’pore sites

Thursday 2 February 2017, TODAY.

SINGAPORE — In a fast-paced age, it’s easy to lose sight of the past. This is perhaps particularly so in Singapore, with its gleaming buildings and constant search for progress.

But a tour will have visitors viewing familiar roads and places in a new light.

Titled The Last Days Of Empire: Japanese Advance Along Bukit Timah Road, 1942, this tour is organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) to mark the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. Although it was launched last year, it was then only available to students. It is the first time that the tour is open to the general public.

Participants can expect to travel “in a straight line” and walk among sites starting from the National University of Singapore University Cultural Centre to Ulu Pandan Road and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, said one of the tour guides, Dr Mohamed Effendy, who is a NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences faculty member.

At Bukit Batok Nature Park along Lorong Sesuai Road, participants will learn of how Japanese soldiers and civilians congregated for special events at Chureito shrine, which was destroyed after the Japanese occupation.

And at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, they’ll picture how a group of Chinese volunteers made their last stand, fighting and dying in the last phase of the battle for Singapore.

The tour, said Dr Effendy, “naturally flows to important battle sites crucial to Singapore history”.

Other sites include Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where Japanese soldiers travelled through on bicycles with wheels made from bamboo as they drew closer and closer to British lines. And it was at NUS University Town where Australian soldiers stood courageously as they faced their impending execution for their involvement with Operation Rimau.

There will be a total of 49 tour runs, featuring some 11 sites and structures in Singapore, including key military installations such as the Alexandra Barracks and Labrador Battery.

Besides these tours, NHB has also worked closely with community partners Museum Roundtable (MR) museums and heritage experts to launch a series of WWII Programmes. These include activities at MR museums such as HistoriaSG which will show rarely-seen Japanese wartime propaganda material, as well as public talks on topics related to the war.

The Last Days tour falls under the larger umbrella of the NHB’s Battle for Singapore 2017 event.

“The various tours and programmes of Battle for Singapore 2017, done in partnership with war veterans, heritage experts, and everyday Singaporeans, celebrates a spirit of togetherness, and the poignant stories of survival and courage,” said Director of the Museum Roundtable division at NHB, Angelita Teo.

These programmes are part of their effort to help Singaporeans understand the importance of resilience and unity that was displayed by our forefathers during the war years. “They are an invaluable part of our intangible heritage, and must be passed down through the generations,” she added.

Tour participants will also be given the chance to check out the Former Ford Factory at National Monument which has re-opened after a year-long-revamp. The new exhibition will feature archival materials and interactive experiences.

“You hear these records, you come to this places, and you visit the battle sites. It becomes an amazing thing to see the sacrifices that have been put in by all these people in defense of Singapore,” Dr Effendy said, adding that he hopes the programmes will inspire visitors to do their own research of the war.

Tours will run from Feb 16 to March 12. Sign-ups for the tours will begin on Feb 6. To make a booking, visit

By Sonia Yeo Sijia for TODAY, .

NHB organises walking tours to mark 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore

Thursday 2 February 2017, The Straits Times.

SINGAPORE – The National Heritage Board (NHB) is organising 11 walking tours around Singapore to mark the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore in 1942 during World War II.

One of the tours, named The Last Days Of Empire, takes participants to memorials from University Town, where the execution of 10 Rimau (“tiger” in Malay) Commandos took place, to the Former Ford Factory, which was an assembly plant of the Ford Motor Factory of Malaya and which became the site of  surrender of Singapore by the British forces to the Japanese army.

British Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival led the British forces to sign surrender documents at the Ford Motor Factory in Upper Bukit Timah Road on Feb 15, 1942, which marked the start of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore. The Japanese Occupation ended only on Sept 12, 1945.

The Operation Rimau was a daring raid undertaken by 23 British and Australian commandos in 1944.

Though many of the memorials are in plain sight, they remain poorly understood by people in Singapore.

Led by Dr Mohamed Effendy from NUS’ department of South-east Asian studies, the tour also takes participants to the strategic area of Bukit Timah which saw one of the fiercest fightings between Allied forces and the Japanese army. This site marks Lt-Gen Percival’s final defence of southern Singapore against the Japanese invaders which entered from the north on Feb 8, 1942.

From Feb 16 to March 12, 2017, members of the public can join in a series of  the guided tours, a public talk, and offerings at the various Museum Roundtable (MR) museums to learn more about the events leading up to the Fall of Singapore, as well as stories of the Japanese Occupation. These events have been organised by the NHB together with community partners, MR museums, and heritage experts.

By Raynold Toh for The Straits Times.

View the original article.

Treasures of Bugis kris at NUS exhibition

Below is a brief translation of the original article ‘Khazanah keris Bugis di pameran NUS‘ by Mohd Raman Daud, published on 8 September 2015 in Berita Harian.

Some 150 Bugis-Makassar kris of various kinds were on display in the Central Library at National University of Singapore (NUS) from 27 August to September 4 2015.

According to Mr Ismunandar of the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Singapore, the Spirits of Metal exhibition was jointly organised by the Rumah Budaya Indonesia in Singapore, Bugis-Makassar Polobessi Club, Singapore Kris Foundation and the NUS Department of Southeast Asian Studies.

This was the first exclusive exhibition of the Bugis-Makassar kris or weaponry held abroad.

Mr Andi Mohamad Irvan Zulfikar of the Bugis-Makassar Polobessi Club reported that Indonesian Kris was declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intagible Heritage of Humanity since 2005.

This international recognition has strengthened the Bugis community’s determination to preserve its cultural values, heritage and weaponry.

In his opening speech at the exhibition, the Indonesian Ambassador to Singapore, His Excellency Mr Andri Hadi, highlighted the important role of the mighty Sulawesi Island sailors who are well recognised in the Southeast Asian seas but often wrongly perceived as pirates and slave traders.

According to Dr Mohamed Effendy of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, the Bugis were highly influential and had earned the respect of early British administrators such as Sir Stamford Raffles.

The Bugis sailors and merchants were also knowledgeable in seafaring, political strategy and defence including the use of firearms such as cannons and had contributed much to Singapore’s maritime security.

Through press reports and records of early modern Singapore, Dr Mohamed Effendy discovered that Bugis merchants contributed to Singapore’s early economic development and laid foundations for success of Bugis entrepreneurs such as Ambo Sooloh.

Mr Andi Mohamad and Dr Ahmad Ubbe, researchers of Bugis culture and history, also gave a lecture on Bugis kris explaining the deep cultural and spiritual relationship between a Bugis man and his kris which is regarded as his personal reflection.

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.

Southeast Asian Studies – a useful degree?

Southeast Asian Studies has been highlighted as one of 3 university degrees that might be useful in future.

“With Myanmar opening up, Indonesia’s new president working to make the country more friendly to foreign investors and a rising middle class in many of the other ASEAN nations, our Southeast Asian neighbours might one day leave us in the dust.

This means that Singaporeans who are fluent in Southeast Asian languages like Bahasa Indonesia or Thai and who are knowledgeable about the ASEAN region will find that their skills increasingly in demand.”

Check out the blog entry here:

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.