Early Singapore didn't need foreign protection

SINGAPORE - Singapore had a thriving community long before the British set foot here. And, going by historical records, it was fairly sophisticated, even in the 1300s.

Dr John Miksic, an archaeologist from the South-east Asian Studies Department of the National University of Singapore, reveals this in his new book, Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, launched on Nov 5. My Paper caught up with him last week.

What was your most memorable excavation here?

This had to be the first excavation in 1984. We had received a grant from Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum and had mobilised NSmen, labourers and staff from the National Museum of Singapore, with no proof that we would find anything.

The first layers of soil had only artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries. It was not until the third or fourth day that we broke through into a different layer and started finding 14th-century objects.

That was a major relief.

What is your latest finding on Singapore's history?

I found an old British report that described the demolition of the old Malay Wall along Stamford Road in the 1820s. The diggers reported finding ancient Chinese coins in the earth wall. This proves that the wall was built on top of the first phase of the settlement. There must have been a warning of a threat of attack after Singapore was already settled in around 1300.

Your book reveals that Singapore was a thriving city, even before Sir Stamford Raffles landed. Why is that important information?

This means that early Singapore's existence did not depend on the protection of a foreign power. It also shows that Raffles chose Singapore as a site for his port precisely because he was right in believing that Singapore had a long history among the South-east Asians before Europeans arrived.

This gives Singapore an identity which is independent of European influence, and should give the population greater confidence that their country can survive in the longer run, as a 700-year-long history suggests considerable continuity with the past and potential long-term stability in the future.

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