Singapore’s mainstream history until recently has been confined largely to a story that commenced in 1819 with the arrival of British colonialism and therefore the modern era, with the implication being that there was only a mere sleepy fishing village before that.
Research over the last two decades has, however, uncovered significant material – both textual and archaeological – that sheds substantial light on Singapore’s port-cities between the late 13th and 17th centuries, and the international history of Singapore’s waterways between the 16th and early 19th centuries.
These developments have enabled historians of Singapore to reconstruct aspects of Singapore’s pre-modern history.
The key findings are summarised in a book, Singapore: A 700-year History – From Early Emporium To World City, written by historians Kwa Chong Guan and Tan Tai Yong of the National University of Singapore, and myself, published by the National Archives of Singapore (available in bookstores at the end of next month).
This narrates Singapore’s history over the longue duree, giving a continuous account from the late 13th century.
Yet, the question remains to be asked: Does Singapore have a 700-year history? And more importantly, why should Singaporeans in the 21st century be concerned about events that occurred more than half a millennium ago? How can the pre-modern past be relevant to our present-day experiences?
Singapore: A 700-Year History puts forth the central argument that the Singapore of today is very much the same as it has been throughout its documentable history: a port-city par excellence.
If one were to put aside the apparent differences in ethnic composition, ancestry, and contextual issues such as technology, a longer chronological perspective can accord us a better understanding of the present social, economic and cultural state of affairs in Singapore.
Presently, approximately one-quarter of the population comprises foreigners.
Why is there such a large contingent of foreigners? How unique is this in Singapore history? How should citizens view the presence of so large a group of foreigners in their midst?
One common way of framing this issue has been to argue that our forebears were immigrants who came during the British colonial era, and so we should continue to be accepting of new citizens and foreigners in our midst.
Yet this may dilute the notion of exclusivity of a nation- state, particularly since most Singaporeans have been domiciled in Singapore for many generations.
Extending our perspective into the pre-modern past opens up new dimensions.
What we then see is the recurring theme of manpower challenges that societies in our immediate region have faced over the centuries, borne out of the absence of a large indigenous population, creating the need to co-opt foreigners of exceptional ability to contribute to the well-being of society.
This has been a constant imperative for Singapore’s successive societies over the centuries.
Indeed, Asian port-cities, whether pre-modern, colonial or present-day, have had populations that are multiethnic, highly mobile and constantly renewed by inward migration.
Today’s practice of including foreigners, particularly those of exceptional talent, as a critical part of Singapore’s population is part of a longer history of such practices by port-cities in the region.
Indeed, understanding Singapore’s past from a 700-year perspective gives us a more nuanced understanding that our situation as a small country finding its way in a harsh asymmetrical world order is not just a post-1965 reality.
As a small port-city, Singapore’s fortunes have waxed and waned with the vicissitudes of history – but it has so far been able to reinvent itself to stay relevant into the 21st century.
The triumphalist narrative of Singapore’s 20th century success against the odds due to the visionary foresight of great leaders past and present has to be viewed against the historical backdrop of Singapore’s past successes.
Modern Singapore’s resounding success has to be understood against the historical milieu, with the options available to these leaders determined by larger forces beyond their control or influence.
As an example, Sri Tri Buana (or Sang Nila Utama) could found Temasek in the late 13th century because the nature of China’s maritime economy then – with large numbers of Chinese merchants and ships arriving in South-east Asia to trade – fostered the proliferation of ports that met the needs of this highly mobile Chinese procurement network.
This network was in turn sustained by a large demand for South-east Asian natural products in China. Such a context did not exist prior to the 13th century.
Conversely, Temasek became depopulated by the early 15th century because China, by then under a new political regime (Ming dynasty), no longer permitted Chinese traders to move or trade abroad freely, and instead appointed Malacca as the junior partner in its interactions with the region under a newly instituted tributary system.
These changes in the policies of China, historically a first-tier state in Asia, were often motivated primarily by internal concerns, but ultimately had international ramifications, particularly on small Asian countries.
Clearly, such drastic changes through the centuries have required Singapore’s leaders to exercise great intelligence in making choices that will enable the country to adapt to the new circumstances.
However, the lesson that may be learnt from Singapore’s long history is that a resultant improvement in the country’s state of affairs is not necessarily a given.
Indeed, its very nature as a port-city dictates that the island’s survival and prosperity are completely dependent upon external economies, cycles and even international politics.
Such a historical reality may seem dire to many Singaporeans.
However, a number of optimistic points may be noted.
First, Singapore as an independent city-state is not a historical anomaly, but is in fact our historical tradition and legacy.
Since independence in 1965, Singapore has been resuming its traditional role as an Asian port-city, and may be seen as the late 20th/early 21st century successor of a series of port-cities that existed in the region since the first millennium AD.
Second, such an exercise, encapsulated in the book Singapore: A 700-Year History, is living proof that the Singapore Story is not cast in stone.
The story shared by Singaporeans who lived through the post-colonial era has been one viewed through the traumatic lens of colonial betrayal, ethnic tension and separation from the Malay Peninsula hinterland.
Post-1965 Singaporeans have no notion of such trauma in their social consciousness, and are instead having to constantly compete in the global arena.
This group may find immediate association with a Singapore Story in which successive generations have had, over centuries, to negotiate the vagaries of larger regional and international forces.
In this regard, the Singapore Story is a collective social narrative that can, and should be, owned by each successive generation of Singaporeans.
It is the hope of the authors that the book would be a contribution to this collective endeavour.