By Dr Nuraliah Norasid


The ancient trade history in the Muslim community is often dominated by images of the sand-borne men in their robes and headgears, leading a caravan of camels carrying rolls of rugs and linens, silks and spices strapped onto their backs on the arduous trek along the land-based trading routes that connected the East to the West. Within the cities, coins bearing the emblems of animals and the seals of different kings exchanged hands in a bustling marketplace. Goods and gold would be measured out using standardised weights-and-balance apparatus that had been in use since the Byzantium era and that of early Islamic civilisation[1]. Elsewhere, South Asian civilisations were sailing on littoral routes and establishing contacts with Middle Eastern, African, and East European traders from as early as 2500 BCE, while Chinese explorers were embarking on their own voyages to trade and map out the far reaches of the sea.

The world as a whole has been a busy place in the movement of not only goods but also people, knowledge, and cultural practices. The various languages that we know today are each a result of the etymological evolution that came from these movements. We have the Arabised script that is read in the Malay tongue called Jawi and a similar script that read in Tamil known as Arwi. These are direct influences of the Middle Eastern penetrations into the Southeast Asian and South Asian regions respectively. The Malay language is itself derived from a Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language[2] spoken by the earliest Austronesian settlers in Southeast Asia. This can be seen as an indication that Malays had already seen trans-ocean travel before the arrivals of Indian and Chinese travellers to the region. In fact, all things considered, the Malays were quite possibly the earliest arrivals to the Nusantara, barring those who came in via the land routes from Central Asia. This in itself already goes against the common stereotype that Malay sea voyage began and stopped at the sampan that could no further than a distance from the coast.

Have Malays no aptitude for trade and entrepreneurship?        

There are other examples where Malays are often disconnected from other concepts of progress and achievement. The notion that Malays and economic proclivity in all its facets are completely non-synonymous has permeated into the common understanding — both by non-Malays and Malays — that Malays have a natural inaptitude for trade and entrepreneurship. Closer to discerning the core of the issue, some within the circle of Malay leadership in Singapore have arrived at the hypothesis that the community must be facing challenges that are politically and socio-culturally unique to them. Leading Malay/Muslim figures, entrepreneurs and business owners, as well as academics, have recently convened[3] to help us gain insight into the various angles and factors that need to be considered in discussing the under-representation of Malay/Muslims in this particular area.

They have examined different aspects of the issue at hand and from a variety of angles: some viable, such as those looking into the impacts of colonial and later state policies on business opportunities, cultural enclaves, and inter-ethnic relations, while some are still mired in the staunch idea that a “leopard cannot change its spots”. And there are still others suffering the “derision of disappointed hopes[4]” as they cited “lousy work ethics” and a lack of drive among those they have given a chance to. The very outlying concerns about existing Malay-Muslim business falling short of a profit mark that denotes success beg the question of whether the problem is really in our bones.

I would urge for further ruminations on the very history of explorative trading movements in which the early Malays were very much a part of and regionally may even have pioneered. Tracing the etymological history of the Malay language paints a picture of the prehistoric trans-ocean movement, where “boatloads” of the Malayo-Polynesian speaking seafarers would set out from their islands and navigate the seas to found settlements and communities as far as Madagascar and the Easter Island[5]. These Malay seafarers were also prime movers of specialities between the places they settled and created communities in. One such speciality was believed to be an early form of today’s cinnamon which originated from the South China coast. Through these movements, cinnamon, a spice so globally widespread today, was able to reach traders in Africa and eventually the Europeans[6]. These feats cannot be carried out without a sea-worthy craft. With the coming of the Chinese, Indian, and European traders and travellers, Malays came to be recognised as accomplished seafarers. Thus, one can imagine that part of their trade from the period of 1000 to the 1600 CE was to provide piloting services in which a foreign ship would be guided to safe harbours by a local.

Singapore; not a sleepy fishing village       

Statecraft is said to have flourished around trade and commerce. Historians are actively challenging the notion that Singapore was a sleepy fishing village at the time of Raffles’ arrival in the wake of archaeological findings at a corner of the Padang and Fort Canning Hill[7]. The results suggested at a thriving commercial existence even before the British arrivals. One plausible scenario that arose in the new historically-informed imagination is that the speed with which the British had set up a trading centre was in part catalysed by a pre-existing system. This eliminated the need to establish necessary infrastructure and train essential manpower. Further evidence suggested that Raffles’ choice of Singapore as the East Empire’s next port was also embedded in Singapore’s history of being an ancient seaport. Modern archaeology later supported this idea with the discovery of what is believed to be the remains of palace and temple precincts, an ancient naturalised viaduct to supply ships with fresh water from springs, and a rampart[8].

Much of these remains were later broken down for the construction of colonial buildings and structures. But, let us close our eyes for a minute. Imagine that ancient seaport: the creak of the gangplanks as porters carried the loads back and forth between ships and wooden docks, a stalwart syahbandar conversing with a ship’s captain about regulations surrounding goods they were trying to bring in, and ship-menders sealing the damage sustained by a hull. The sailors would be glad to be on shore leave. There would be opportunities for trade, perhaps even for the womenfolk, as ships sought to restock on food, storage containers, and a necessary tool or other. Foreign faces mingled with those of locals in the busy marketplace, trading, and bartering in goods ranging from the spices that the islands were known for and quality ceramics. Singapore was not a sleepy town indeed, though no evidence has yet arisen as to what exactly led to the seaport’s fateful collapse.


One thing is for sure and that there is nothing inherent about the lack of entrepreneurial and commercial spirit. The importance of history is in understanding the place of any entity in the larger fabric of a greater existence. Basing judgement on a single known, visible state is easy. However, just as we cannot judge a cat’s worth by viewing it through “dog lenses[9]”, the assessment of the Malay entrepreneurial history should not be conducted through cultural lenses that are informed by Chinese, Indian, or European realities. Rather, it helps to stand in the capals of the Malay people, and see how trade and entrepreneurial drives would have been informed by the realities of their location and in meeting specific needs. The trade of services — from ship-mending to proto maritime legal consultancy — had quite possibly held prevalence in the day. These may be intelligent speculation, but the spirit of a people is often kept alive by the profound confidence of its leaders and the rich imagination of its storytellers, and this story is one that needs to be told.

[1] “Trade and Commercial Activity in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Middle East”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

[2] C.f. Proto-Malayo-Polynesian. Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database.

[3] See main article of this issue regarding the Community-in-Review (CIR) 2016 seminar.

[4] Pride and Prejudice. Film. (2015)

[5] “Trade and Statecraft in Early Southeast Asia”. A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100 – 1500. Kenneth R. Hall. (2011)

[6] Ibid. Pp. 5.

[7] “Archaeology of the ‘Forbidden Hill’”. HistorySG: An online resource guide.

[8] Singapore & the Silk Road of the Sea: 1300-1800. John N. Miksic. (2013)

[9] In the words of cat behaviorist, Jackson Galaxy from Animal Planet’s hit television show, My Cat from Hell.

Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. 

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, June 2016, Volume 11, Issue 2.

Photo Source: Karyawan