14th-century Singapore: The Silk Road of the Sea

14th-century Singapore: The Silk Road of the Sea

Nov 29th 2013, 2:00 by Banyan | SINGAPORE

TO THOSE who know Singapore as a thriving modern city, relentlessly striving towards the futuristic, it is something of a shock to learn that “Singapore’s golden age came to an abrupt end just before 1400.” Most visitors and even most residents think of Singapore as a place where nothing much happened until it was discovered by the British under Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. And it only really made something of itself after independence in 1965.Singapore and the The Silk Road of the Sea”, however, a splendid new book by John Miksic, an archaeologist at the National University of Singapore, reveals the glaring omission in this account. Singapore was also a thriving, populous city in the 14th century.

Soon after the British arrived, according to a scholarly journal published in 1820, Lieutenant Ralfe, an engineer, digging round the remains of the old city wall, found a stash of coins. It was Chinese, from the reign of an emperor of the Sung dynasty, who died in 1125.

Raffles would not have been taken aback. A big reason he chose Singapore as a base rather than other islands in the vicinity was that he was a scholar of the region’s history, and had read of Singapore in a book called the “Malay Annals”. His intention, writes Mr Miksic was “to revive an ancient seaport that already had a glorious history”.

That Singapore had an earlier incarnation as an important port and entrepot is one of three surprises that Mr Miksic has for a reader unaware of its history.

The second shock is how much is known about that period. It is now the “best-known 14th-century city in South-East Asia”—despite Singapore’s lack of any centralised body co-ordinating archaeology. Some of the knowledge dates from Raffles’s era. But much of it comes from 28 years of work led by Mr Miksic, his students and a small group of volunteers. And they have built up this knowledge under a government that has always placed a much greater emphasis on growing for the future than conserving the past.

Yet Mr Miksic has amassed a collection of 500,000 artefacts from ancient Singapore—almost all discarded as rubbish. They now take up virtually the entire interior of the former house of a late British colonel, on the university campus.

The third surprise is in the title of the book. Singapore was a link in a chain of seaports linking China to the East with India and beyond to the West—a trade that goes back 2,000 years. Though the caravanserais of the Silk Road have received more attention, Mr Miksic argues the southern, maritime route was much more important from both cultural and commercial points of view.

Singapore’s previous glory was no more than a century long. A settlement survived there, however, until the early 17th century, after which our knowledge of it entered a two-century long “historical and archaeological vacuum”, until it was reoccupied in 1811, just a few years before Raffles showed up.

So the British arrival marked a new beginning for Singapore. Mr Miksic insists there is a connection still, however, with that earlier city. It was, for example, perhaps the first great overseas centre of the Chinese diaspora, who now again form the majority of the population.

He writes that he hopes his book will show Singaporeans that “the rise of their small island nation is not a recent historical accident; it has a long tradition that deserves to be more widely appreciated.” In a country worried about where its roots are and how its national identity should be defined, a fourth surprise is that his work is not even more celebrated.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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