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.”

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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, 

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Interview by My Paper – ‘Early Singapore didn’t need foreign protection’, Assoc Prof John Miksic

An interview with Assoc Prof John Miksic, on his new book ‘Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800’ by Jacqueline Woo for My Paper, Monday 11 November 2013.

Singapore had a thriving community long before the British set foot here. And, going by historical records, it was fairly sophisticated, even in the 1300s.

Dr John Miksic, an archaeologist from the South-east Asian Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, reveals this in his new book, Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, launched on Nov 5. My Paper caught up with him last week.

What was your most memorable excavation here?

This had to be the first excavation in 1984. We had received a grant from Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum and had mobilised NSmen, labourers and staff from the National Museum of Singapore, with no proof that we would find anything.

The first layers of soil had only artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries. It was not until the third or fourth day that we broke through into a different layer and started finding 14th-century objects.

That was a major relief.

What is your latest findings on Singapore’s history?

I found an old British report that described the demolition of the old Malay Wall along Stamford Road in the 1820s. The diggers reported finding ancient Chinese coins in the earth wall. This proves that the wall was built on top of the first phase of the settlement.

There must have been a warning of a threat of attack after Singapore was already settled in around 1300.

Your book reveals that Singapore was a thriving city, even before Sir Stamford Raffles landed. Why is that important information?

This means that early Singapore’s existence did not depend on the protection of a foreign power. It also shows that Raffles chose Singapore as a site for his port precisely because he was right in believing that Singapore had a long history among the South-east Asians before Europeans arrived.

This gives Singapore an identity which is independent of European influence, and should give the population greater confidence that their country can survive in the longer run, as a 700-year-long history suggests considerable continuity with the past and potential long-term stability in the future.

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Read abstract of the book.


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.

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