By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

Those who have gone through the Singapore education system may recall having studied history at least at the lower secondary level. Some of the key names or words associated with the early history of Singapore they would be familiar with are Sang Nila Utama, Temasek, the “lion”[1]orang laut, fishing village, Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar.

The two major events that will stand out in the memory of ex-students of secondary school history is the renaming of Temasek to Singapura after a mythical creature that resembled a lion which Sang Nila Utama spotted; and the landing of Raffles at the site that is today marked by a white statue of himself near where the Parliament House is situated.

Prior to the Singapore Bicentennial, conventional knowledge among the laymen is that, after Sang Nila Utama’s sighting of the island of Temasek in 1299, nothing significant – particularly that which Singaporeans should know – took place until Raffles descended on the shores of Singapore in 1819.

Historian K G Tregonning declared in an essay commemorating the 150th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival at Singapore that pre-colonial events have no relevance to understanding contemporary Singapore and that they are of “antiquarian interest only”[2].

Raffles’ strategic foresight leading to the birth of modern Singapore was a belief commonly held by the layperson until the kicking off of the commemoration of the Singapore Bicentennial in January 2019 rocked it. For many, the Bicentennial marks the first time that an alternative view to the founding of Singapore by Raffles’ was expressed – it is a “turning point”, not a discovery[3].

In his speech during the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial on January 28 this year, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong spoke about Singapore’s pre-colonial history: Singapore was already a thriving seaport known as Temasek in the 14th century; and that, two centuries before Raffles’ landed, Flemish gem trader Jacques de Coutre proposed to the King of Spain to build a fortress in Singapore – a proposal which, had it been accepted, would have made Singapore a Spanish colony instead of a British one[4].

Conversations with ordinary Singaporeans suggest that the notion that Singapore pre-1819 was a vastly underdeveloped island inhabited by a small population of indigenous sea nomads or sea gypsies known as orang laut is quite prevalent. The island was thought to be a ‘sleepy fishing village’ until Raffles came to lay the foundations for governance and administration, and economic and social developments.

Considering how pivotal history is in fostering understanding of contemporary societies, its role in forging one’s identity, and in inculcating a sense of belonging to the nation, there have been concerns expressed about whether Singapore’s history has been told selectively to the masses.

The late former Culture and Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam said in 1984 that to push a Singaporean’s awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history[5]. This stands in stark contrast with what the Singapore Bicentennial will roll out in the heartland between April and August this year: roadshows showcasing 700 years of the island’s history[6].


Academic Lily Zubaidah Rahim claimed that most Singaporean historians have relied on historical Chinese and European sources when examining the origins of Singapore because they found the textual references available to reconstruct Singapore’s pre-modern past, like the Malay Annals and Javanese Negarakretagama, difficult to interpret[7].

The disputes over veracity of past texts should have been made known, not glossed over to lend credence to a selected narrative. Nor should narratives change when they cease to be useful to a particular group, generation or a purpose. History should be edited only when new evidence is unearthed or when new interpretations emerge that are peer-reviewed.

The Singapore Bicentennial is an occasion meant for all Singaporeans. Hence, it is important even for the laity to know what they are commemorating.

In the ensuing debates following the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial, ordinary Singaporeans are beginning to see several sides of Raffles that have hitherto been somewhat muted. Behind his persona as the visionary and astute founder of modern Singapore is a person who was an employee of the British East India Company, a company whose interests ostensibly was in trade but which did so by seizing territories and was embroiled in intense rivalry with counterparts of other major powers of that era, such as the Dutch East India Company. It is difficult to imagine that a scenario such as this will not engender exploitation of the colonised.

If the colonised are prospering under colonialism – wealth trickling down to them and their welfare well taken care of – there will be little motivation to seek independence. Singapore’s merger with Malaysia in 1963 ended her status as a Crown colony and 144 years of British rule.

What is good about the Bicentennial, at least for the common man, is that they are now being exposed to arguments that there may be a flourishing Singapore before the arrival of Raffles and that its history goes back some 700 years, not 200.

The lone statue of Raffles by the Singapore river is now joined by four others, albeit temporarily: Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munsyi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai. Of the four, Sang Nila Utama’s inclusion is arguably the most relevant to the ongoing debates about Singapore’s 700-year history because the other three are Raffles’ contemporaries.


The laymen would be familiar with Sang Nila Utama but his story is shrouded in doubts about whether he is a historically attested figure or a mythical one. This may be one of the reasons why familiarity with Sang Nila Utama’s story tend to not go beyond his encounter with the ‘lion’ and the momentous renaming of Temasek to Singapura (“City of the Sea Lion” in Sanskrit)[8]. Along with this, a substantial part of Singapore’s Javanese-Malay early history is obscured.

Had there been more emphasis on the name Sri Tri Buana, the official title Sang Nila Utama adopted upon coronation after the founding of Singapura, there will probably be greater acquaintance with stories of the emergence of Singapura as a major emporium and the thriving trade port in the 14th century that PM Lee alluded to.

Perhaps, a major stumbling block to justifying the legitimacy of telling pre-Raffles history to the masses is the historicity of the sources concerned. The Sulalat al-Salatin, better known as Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, was printed in Singapore in the 1840s and edited by Munsyi Abdullah. Abdullah worked as a scribe for Raffles. It is one of the earliest surviving documentations of Temasek-Singapura, the oldest manuscript dating back to 1612[9]. However, some, including historians, have found the Malay Annals’ account of Sri Tri Buana – the story of his founding of Singapura familiar to Singaporeans[10] – bordering on the fictional.

Alternative sources however tended to corroborate with Malay Annals in key aspects. For instance, while the Malay Annals’ version is that Sri Tri Buana set out on a hunting expedition (sport), discovered Temasek, an island he saw a future in[11], Portuguese writers such as d’Albuquerque, de Barros, and de Eredia wrote that the founder of Melaka was Parameswara (Sri Tri Buana), a vassal of Java who fled to Singapura, murdered the local ruler and usurped the throne[12]. What is common in both these accounts are Sri Tri Buana’s journey from Palembang to Temasek and his descendant eventually fleeing Singapura – in the case of the Malay Annals, due to the betrayal of a disloyal subject; the Portuguese due to an avenging Thai overlord seeking revenge for the assassination of his vassal[13].

Historian Kwa Chong Guan argues that both accounts display a similar underlying narrative structure and that the issue is not about selecting one that is more “historical” but to try to understand why they have come to be written the way they were[14]. To this end, it is worth noting that, prior to Abdullah’s edition which became accessible to the laymen, stories from the Malay Annals were confined to being read out in court settings to elites, including the Sultanate’s rulers[15]. Accordingly, the language and expressions would abide by the prevailing political underpinnings, values and practices palatable to the elites. These factors have to be considered before deeming a text ahistorical. As the anthropologist De Jong noted, the text contains mythological and legendary stories but they were realistically mixed with the historical events[16].

The aim of this article is not to argue that the layperson should have a profound knowledge of Singapore’s history. To justify making the Singapore Bicentennial an occasion for all to commemorate, the lack of general knowledge of or misconceptions about pre-Raffles history among the laymen needs to be problematised. Otherwise, commemorating the Bicentennial would be synonymous with celebrating colonialism, given the notions that Raffles paved the way for a burgeoning modern Singapore.

It is heartening to note that the Bicentennial has not restricted itself to 200-year narrative but a 700-year one. This would hopefully help to bridge, at least to a small extent, the 500-year gap in knowledge of Singapore’s history among the laypersons.


 [1] There were no credible records of the animal being a native one during the 13th century when Sang Nila Utama, according to accounts such as the Malay Annals, spotted the beast.
[2] Kwa, Chong Guan. Pre-Colonial Singapore. Singapore Chronicles. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies : Straits Times Press, 2017, p. 14.
[3] Janice Lim, Despite rich history before Raffles’ arrival, 1819 was a “turning point” for Singapore: PM Lee, TODAY, January 28, 2019, (accessed February 28, 2019).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Chan, Heng Chee and Haq, Obaid Ul (eds), The Prophetic and the Political: Selected Speeches and Writings of S Rajaratnam, Singapore, Graham Brash, 1987, p. 149.
[6] The Straits Times, December 9, 2018, (accessed February 28, 2019).
[7]< Rahim, Lily Zubaidah. Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges. Place of publication not identified: Routledge, 2011, p. 23.
[8] Linehan, W. (1947, December). The kings of 14th century Singapore. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society20(2)(142), p. 118. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website:
[9] Melody Zaccheus, Rare book on early Singapore stories back in Republic, The Straits Times, January 23, 2019, (accessed February 28, 2019).
[10] Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, ed. Malay Annals. MBRAS Reprint 17, 20, 28. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2010, p. 60-62.
[11] Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, ed. Malay Annals, p. 59-62.
[12] Teixeira, M. (1961). The Portuguese missions in Malacca and Singapore, 1511–1958Lisboa: Agencia Geral Do Ultramar, p. 21. (Call no.: RCLOS 266.25953 TEI); Linehan, W. (1982). The kings of 14th century Singapore. In T.S.D.M Sheppard (Ed.), Singapore 150 YearsSingapore: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 62–63. Retrieved via NLB’s eResources website: (accessed February 28, 2019).
[13] Kwa, Chong Guan. Pre-Colonial Singapore. Singapore Chronicles, p. 24.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Melody Zaccheus, Rare book on early Singapore stories back in Republic.
[16] Hussain, Othman, The Characteristics of the Malay Historiography. University Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, 10th Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Program 8-9 December 2005, p. 6.

Abdul Shariff 
Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of AMP. 

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, April 2019, Volume 14, Issue 2

Photo Source: The Karyawan