Professor John Miksic wins inaugural Singapore History Prize

The inaugural Singapore History Prize was awarded to renowned archaeologist and NUS Southeast Asian Studies Professor John Miksic on 11 January. His book, titled Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300–1800, presents the history of Singapore in the context of Asia’s long-distance maritime trade in the years between 1300 and 1800.

Accompanied by 300 colour photos and maps, the book draws from over 25 years of archaeological research to reconstruct the 14th-century port history of Singapore and illustrates a well-organised, prosperous city with a cosmopolitan population, providing evidence that the Singapore story began long before Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819.

While historical textual evidence of ancient Singapore long existed in Chinese and Indian sources, there was never a way to “nail down” its early history until there was archaeological evidence to tie in with the text, said Prof Wang Gungwu, Chairman of the East Asian Institute in NUS, who headed the Jury Panel for the prize.

Calling the book a “truly monumental piece of work”, Prof Wang said, “With this book, Prof Miksic has laid the foundations for a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Singapore and its place in the larger Asian context, bringing colour and definition to a whole new chapter of the Singaporean identity.  We now know more about Singapore in the 14th century than any other city in the region during the same period.”

The book was the unanimous choice for the award by the Jury Panel; made up of Prof Wang; Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Senior Advisor at the NUS Office of the Vice President (University & Global Relations); Ms Claire Chiang, FASS alumna and Senior Vice President of Banyan Trees Holding Limited; and Prof Peter A. Coclanis, Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Prof Mahbubani, who first mooted the prize, spoke about how Prof Miksic’s book stood out for throwing significant light on Singapore’s history. “What makes a country strong in the long run is if the citizens actually understand their history well. If you understand your history well, your commitment and your loyalty to the country is much stronger. Your sense of identity to the country is also stronger if all citizens carry a common narrative of the country,” he said.

Some 1,000 Singaporean volunteers took part in the many excavations that led to the book, Prof Miksic shared, and he wrote the book as a tribute to them.

“Everybody who dug with me was a discoverer, everyone who worked with me found something; they discovered a piece of Singapore’s memory, which had been lost, and without them would never have been recovered. I felt I really owed them a debt to put this all together and show them the importance of what it is they had done,” he elaborated.

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Prof Miksic (centre in blue) with the Jury Panel for the Prize (from left) Prof Coclanis, Prof Mahbubani, Ms Chiang and Prof Wang

Prof Miksic will receive a $50,000 cash award. He hopes to use the money to build up the Archaeology Laboratory for NUS Southeast Asian Studies, as well as fund other excavations and training sessions.

“Historical enquiry serves as a basis for us to understand ourselves, our society and the world around us. Knowing our roots and appreciating our past will also help us better chart our future. I hope that the Singapore History Prize will inspire more research, discussion and debate about the history of Singapore, so that future generations of Singaporeans can better appreciate the Singapore story,” he said.

The book retails for $58 and is available in Kinokuniya and on the NUS Press website. It is on its third reprint and is in the midst of being translated into Chinese, to be published in 2019. Prof Miksic is also currently working with NUS Press on an online catalogue of ancient artefacts found in Singapore with the trial site to be launched next month.

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