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 Timesrnathan@sph.com.sg 

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.

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!

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 Timesmelodyz@sph.com.sg 

View the original article.

NUS News Highlights: New textbook reveals pre-colonial Singapore history to local teens

By NUS Office of Corporate Relations, Monday 26 May 2014 for NUS News

In 1968, a 21-year-old John Miksic, who had a penchant for digging up artefacts, was enthralled by the ancient ruins of temples and Chinese pottery at Sungai Petani, Kedah, when he arrived in Malaysia as a volunteer of the Peace Corps, a US-based international service organisation. Now, after spending almost half a century in the region, the NUS Associate Professor’s fascination with archaeology has led him to influence education of Singapore history among teenagers, through his contribution to the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) updated lower secondary history syllabus implemented early this year.

“The reason I got interested in archaeology, originally, is [because I realised] how like us people were a long time ago, and how tough they were also. Their life expectancy was maybe 30 or 40 years. Life was really hard in those days. They still worked hard; they didn’t give up,” said Assoc Prof Miksic, referring to his study of regional history from the 10th to 15th centuries. The professor from NUS’ Department of Southeast Asian Studies, who joined the University in 1987, is also Head of the Archaeology Unit at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ Nalanda Sriwijaya Centre.

Assoc Prof Miksic proofread the lower secondary history book’s text, as well as contributed photos to it. He has also donated 4,000 artefacts to MOE, which students will use as part of the Ministry’s new inquiry-based approach to learning. Many of these artefacts are pottery shards which were collected by Assoc Prof Miksic from construction sites, where bulldozers often unearth fragments during ground-breaking. Students will now not only be able to gain knowledge from reading the textbook, but will also see and touch pieces of several hundred-year-old ceramic jars and bowls.

The updated textbook includes a new section on pre-colonial Singapore, which states that the island was not an obscure backwater in Southeast Asia prior to the arrival of the British and Sir Stamford Raffles, who is credited with founding Singapore. Assoc Prof Miksic’s work validates the updated text, as he has discovered close to half a million artefacts that show that Singapore was inhabited from 1300 to 1600, then abandoned until 1800, before being resettled again. Among the sites he has excavated are Fort Canning, Parliament House Complex, Old Parliament House, Empress Place, St Andrew’s Cathedral and Colombo Court.

The rationale behind MOE’s updated syllabus is to “imbue in our students a sense of national identity by helping them understand the Singapore they live in today. This will require students to first understand the relevance of Singapore’s past in shaping Singapore’s unique position,” according to a Ministry report.

Assoc Prof Miksic’s area of research is in the study of ancient international trade, tracing the path of Chinese settlement in the Southeast Asian region through the ceramics they left behind—in particular, where and when they first settled, identifying the means of detecting these settlements and understanding the impact that Chinese presence had on the region.

“Ceramics are very interesting because they’re technological marvels: they’re artistic, aesthetic and economic; they have different aspects to them. You can use Chinese porcelain to study many different facets of society, everything from religion to everyday life. And they last forever. Even if they’re broken, the pieces are still going to be around.”

View the original article.

The New York Times: In New Textbook, the Story of Singapore Begins 500 Years Earlier

By Jane A. Peterson, Sunday 11 May 2014 for The New York Times.

SINGAPORE — Singapore has rewritten the history taught in secondary school to expand the story of the island state’s birth.

While earlier generations learned a narrative that essentially started in 1819 with the British colonial administrator, Sir Stamford Raffles, stumbling upon a sleepy Malay fishing village, 13-year-olds now learn of a golden age that started 500 years earlier.

The new story, introduced in January, brings into focus a 300-year period, from 1300 to 1600, when Singapore was a thriving multinational trading hub, with an estimated population of 10,000.

An education ministry official who declined to be named, in line with government policy, called the change a “shift” rather than a rewrite, saying it allowed students to “explore Singapore’s origin as a port of call and her connections to the region and the world.”

Behind the revision is the work of John N. Miksic, an American archaeology professor at the National University of Singapore, or N.U.S., who advised the government on the new school text, “Singapore: The Making of a Nation-State, 1300-1975.”

Professor Miksic has led major archaeological excavations across Southeast Asia, including a dozen in Singapore over the past 30 years that have yielded eight tons of artifacts — evidence of a precolonial history that was largely neglected until now.

In a recent book, “Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea,” he laid out detailed archaeological evidence of the settlement’s early importance and prosperity. One find cited in the book is a large cache of artifacts found at Empress Place, in the central business district near the mouth of the Singapore River, proof that the site was an ancient dock used by merchant traders from China, India and Java, beginning in the 14th century. Among the booty are a blue and white porcelain-stemmed cup from the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and the “Headless Horseman,” a Javanese-style statuette found among objects dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

Nearby, Professor Miksic’s team found evidence of the ancient city center framed by an earthen rampart and defenses that Raffles mentioned in letters. Among 30,000 artifacts from the 14th century were Chinese coins and pottery, Indian glass bangles, and gold jewelry.

Why did it take 30 years to change the story? “It takes overwhelming evidence to shift the mind-set of a people from one image of its past to another,” Professor Miksic said in an interview at his campus laboratory.

He said Singapore still tended to consider archaeology an “unaffordable luxury.” Private grants have largely financed his work. Now 67, he worries that his laboratory may close when he retires, for lack of funding. “It’s a field that is still not that appealing to enough Singaporean students,” he said. “There’s no money in it.”

Professor Miksic gives credit for the new history lesson to former students who have reached positions of authority in academia and in the Ministry of Education. Derek Heng, a former student who is a history professor at the recently created Yale-N.U.S. College, called the artifacts “tactile, visual ways to look at the past and reposition Singapore in history.”

Professor Heng surmised that one reason it had taken so long to change the narrative may have been the government’s fears of communal conflict in the 1960s and ’70s. Indonesia engaged in “Konfrontasi” — violent confrontation against the newly formed Malaysian state — in the early 1960s, which was followed by Malaysia’s ejection of Singapore in 1965. “There was a deliberate attempt not to talk about links to the ethnicity of the past,” Professor Heng said. “Now we are more confident to say we were once a Malay polity cutting straight down through Asia.”

Prof. Brian Farrell, who heads the history department at N.U.S., takes Mr. Heng’s idea a step further. “If Singapore before 1800 was a sleepy backwater, the Chinese majority could say, ‘We built Singapore; before it was a blank slate,”’ he said.

Another factor that delayed a rewriting was a 200-year period of decline, a sort of historical “black hole,” between the formerly thriving emporium and the establishment of the 19th-century British trading port, according to Kwa Chong Guan, an adjunct associate professor at N.U.S. who also advised on the textbook revisions. “Until a connection could be made, the tons of archaeological shards Miksic excavated remained of antiquarian interest,” he said.

In 2009, the professors Kwa, Heng and Tan Tai Yong published evidence from written Malay sources that bridged the gap and put Professor Miksic’s artifacts into a larger maritime trade framework. Their book, “Singapore: A 700-Year History — From Early Emporium To World City,” linked the port to the larger sultanate of Johor-Riau in the Strait of Malacca. Concurrently, Peter Borschberg, also a professor at N.U.S., published another important link: Dutch and Portuguese maritime accounts and maps showed that Singapore was on European radars well before Raffles arrived.

Other factors also may help explain the timing of the rewrite. “Now is a good time,” Professor Heng said. “There’s a need to develop a collective social memory. It’s become a political issue.”

Professor Heng suggested that one catalyst for change might have been a government announcement in 2011 of plans to run a motorway through Bukit Brown cemetery, a colonial-era Chinese municipal burial ground, slating hundreds of tombs for exhumation. Thousands of citizens signed petitions against the plan. “We have a fast-paced, highly urbanized society where people are getting disoriented,” he said. “There’s a huge momentum to look at heritage and our historical legacy.”

Singaporeans, he thinks, will feel more rooted if they see their early predecessors as part of a longer regional legacy, rather than a British colonial transplant.

“It’s time to sink new, deep psychological roots and construct an identity for ourselves,” he said.

Professor Miksic says the controversy over Bukit Brown proved that tangible heritage is important. “People want more than prosperity,” he said. “Once you have enough to live on, you want something to live for: identity, a desire to know your ancestors. It’s an innate part of what it means to be human.”

Demographic change is another relevant issue. A government white paper recently reaffirmed proposals to expand the population from 5.3 million to 6.9 million, raising hackles among those who blame inward migration for rising inflation, high home prices, crowded roads and public transport systems and a perceived lack of a level playing field in competition for top jobs.

While the government has slowed its migration plans, further inflows appear inevitable if Singapore is to remain competitive and position itself as a leading global city. Mr. Kwa argues that the rewriting of the island’s history will help citizens accept the population explosion and become more inclusive.

“Every generation has to rewrite its history,” he said. While it used to suit Singapore to see itself as a city-state with a British heritage, modern Singapore needs a different interpretation of history to reinforce a more global perspective, he suggested.

Professor Heng also sees the opening of Singapore to new migrants as a stimulus for reassessing its history: “If inward migration continues, we need to know who we are or we will get lost,” he said.

Professor Miksic goes a step further. “A short history puts a nation on shaky ground; a shallowly rooted place could be overturned quickly,” he said. “If you can show a long cohabitation between the Malays and the Chinese, it proves you have a pretty stable arrangement.”

The new syllabus is also designed to repair Singapore’s educational image, he said. Students are now being encouraged to interpret primary sources themselves to stimulate their reasoning and analysis, rather than relying on old-style rote learning: “One of the objectives is to overcome the stereotype that Singaporeans are not good at creativity,” he said. “There’s a good chance this will change the mind-set.”

Professor Kwa said he believed that Yale-N.U.S., a liberal arts college — the first in Singapore — established in 2011 as a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, would help build a new generation of Singaporean historians, raising the profile of humanities and softening Singapore’s image as a nation preoccupied by science and technology. Already, he said, more government scholarships are going to liberal arts candidates for study in the United States and Europe.

Student attitudes have become more skeptical in the past decade, said Quek Ser Hwee, a professor of history at the National University of Singapore, adding that no student now would ask her if she feared arrest for discussing heterodox views. Opinions expressed on the department blog are now quite wide-ranging, she observed, though they stop short of breaching the “out of bounds” limits that once were rigorously policed by colonial and post-colonial administrations: “It’s part of our DNA to know them,” she said.

Yet for all the cultural shifts, the number of students majoring in history has barely changed, possibly reflecting parental preferences for “concrete” degrees, such as law or medicine. “Singapore is still an iron rice bowl,” Professor Farrell said, “a place to make a living.”

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‘Indiana Jones who pieces together S’pore’s past’ – Interview with Assoc Prof John Miksic by The Straits Times

Indiana Jones who pieces together S’pore’s past. — Archaeologist has dug into island’s pre-colonial history for three decades, The Straits Times, Monday 11 November 2013.

TEXTBOOKS here recount the leg-end of how Singapore’s founder, Sang Nila Utama, first landed on the island in 1299 because he was attracted by sand so white that it looked like a sheet of cloth.

This pristine white sand is no romantic embellishment. It has been found some 90cm under-neath the grassy expanse of to-day’s Padang – part of what was once an ancient city’s shoreline.

The man who unearthed this discovery was born and raised on a farm in New York, grew up be-ing interested in Native Ameri-cans, then helped farmers in Ma-laysia, where he was fascinated by the temple ruins in Kedah. In the last three decades, he has been on a mission to piece together Singa-pore’s pre-colonial history.

Meet 67-year-old Assistant Professor John N. Miksic, Singa-pore’s answer to Indiana Jones. Not that his life is anything as ex-citing as that of the cinematic he-ro, said the grizzled archaeologist.

“Digging is the first step in a process of about 10 steps. Real sci-entific work is done in the laboratory, which takes up 90 per cent of an archaeologist’s time.”

Yet his work has been drumming up excitement about Singa-pore’s pre-colonial past.

Since being first invited to exca-vate Fort Canning in 1984, when Singapore lacked a local archaeolo-gist, he has led digs at 11 other sites, such as Empress Place and the Old Parliament House.

He has since amassed eight tonnes of ceramic fragments and other local artefacts, including shells and small statues. They help pain a picture of Singapore as a sizeable and prosperous Asian trading port with a population of 10,000 in the 14th century, more than 500 years before the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

I’ve been trying to tell people that Singapore has deeper roots that go far beyond the colonial pe-riod and date back 700 years. It gives me a real feeling of happiness when people accept that there is a lot more to Singa-pore history than the textbooks used to tell us.

His latest effort is a 491-page tome titled Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800. Launched last week, it showcases some of his findings up till 2004, including how he uncovered a lay-er of fine, unspoilt white sand at the bottom of a pit at the Singapore Cricket Club.

The book details how this layer of sand used to extend from the Singapore River to Kampong Glam. From a passing vessel, it would have looked “blindingly white in the sun in contrast to the green hills and blue water which dominated the view”.

Dr Miksic said putting the book together took 12 years. “It was im-portant for me to provide a clear narrative for both archaeologists and the general public on Singa-pore’s roots,” explained the soft-spoken man, who has been with the National University of Singapore since 1987.

Dr Miksic, who holds a Singapo-rean employment pass, is married to a Chinese Malaysian. His wife, 69, a retired teacher, stays with their 33-year-old daughter in Pittsburgh to help raise their two granddaughters. His son, 35, lives in San Diego.

Dr Miksic, who can speak Ma-lay, said he has grown attached to Singapore, which serves as a base for his work in South-east Asia as well.

“After 26 years, most of my old friends are here. It’s kind of nice to be recognised in a taxi or at a chance meeting as Singapore’s ar-chaeologist,” said the widely-pub-lished author, whose four or five public talks he gives every year helped build his local reputation.

Dr Miksic’s love for the past started when he was six. Growing up on a 150-year-old farm in west-ern New York, he spent his child-hood unearthing Native American arrowheads, then piecing together stories of how “harsh” life was be-fore, with his grandfather.

Dr Miksic, who studies archae-ology at Dartmouth College, embarked on his first research project in northern Canada in 1967. A year later, he volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to Malaysia, where his farm skills came in handy in setting up farm-er cooperatives. It was while in Kedah that he developed an interest in the ruins of temples and the treasure trove of ceramics there.

Since then, his focus in South-east Asia has been on early overseas Chinese settlements and the ceramic trade, which is the per-fect source material to learn about a civilisation – better even than carbon dating, he said.

Once of the most interesting pieces of ceramics he has found is a rare 14th century Chinese com-pass that he dug up at Fort Can-ning Hill.

Dr Miksic is not afraid to get his hands dirty because of the “sense of suspense” and thrill of unearthing the unexpected.

Most of Singaproe’s ancient ar-tefacts lie under high-rise build-ings and expressways today, he said, pointing to downtown Singa-pore, Pulau Ubin, Bedok and East Coast as sites of archaeologi-cal worth. East Coast, for in-stance, was an area filled with set-tlements in the 1600s, according to maps by the Portuguese.

But he is not in a hurry to start digging at all of these sites. “We go in when the site is at risk. Oth-erwise, we’re leaving them for fu-ture archaeologists with better tools and technologies, who can build upon the knowledge and leg-acy we’ve left behind.”

By Melody Zaccheus for The Straits Times, melodyz@sph.com.sg 

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