So much to learn from S’pore’s approach to history
Published on: Sunday, August 18, 2019
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SINGAPORE celebrated its bicentennial last week. A young nation, it attained its 

First World status quietly, without fanfare. But compared with Malaysia and Indonesia, it lacked a certain history.

Or so we thought. Singapore’s history is etched in the renowned Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). 

So the island-state embraced certain parts of its history and began to lay serious claim to the Malay world, in particular Malay manuscripts, by working with the British Library among others in this area.

I have said it before, nations that are proud of their heritage and history will go from strength to strength.

In fact, in 2014, I presented a paper on ancient Malay kingdoms at an international seminar at the Nalanda Srivijaya Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in Singapore.

A few years later, Singapore collaborated with the British Library on the digitisation of ancient Malay manuscripts. 

As a result, the exhibition “Tales of the Malay World” was held at the National Library Board Singapore last year. 

I took a quick trip across the Causeway to see it.

As I entered, tears fell as I heard the beautiful rendering of the syair (traditional Malay poetry). 

The exhibition was well curated to showcase how Malay had served as the lingua franca for the whole Malay Archipelago for many centuries, how it was the official court language of Srivijaya, a Hindu-Buddhist empire, and the language of trade among foreigners in the region.

In celebrating its bicentennial, Singapore draws upon its history and honours, among others, the great Malay writer Munsyi Abdullah and our own World War II hero Leftenan Adnan. 

It is not stuck in the time trap of 1963 (when Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore formed Malaysia) or any modern day development.

“The Singapore Bicentennial in 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore – a key milestone in our rich and storied history. But our story did not start in 1819. 

It actually began in 1299. For over 700 years, we have been open to a diverse flow of people and ideas, and connected to wider geopolitical currents, all of which shaped our evolution.

“Our history is a rich and expansive one – the journey of an island that has never been constrained by its shores, but has always been made from more.

Each of us is in some way connected to and intertwined with others in this history,” it says at

Essentially Singapore is saying: We have history. 

A colourful and vibrant one. Come to Singapore.

I suppose for Singapore, it makes sense to skim over the fact that it was part of the Johor Sultanate for almost 300 years prior to Stamford Raffles’ meddling. 

Or that it was previously under the fiefdom of Laksamana Hang Tuah and a vessel of Melaka for more than 100 years.

Well, that’s history.

We need to examine our approach to our history, national identity and cultural appreciation, as it has a HUGE impact on our future. 

We need to honour the giants of our past – P. Ramlee, Pak Sako, Dol Said, Cik Siti Wan Kembang, Tengku Mariam, Hang Tuah – before others claim our heroes, queens and warriors.

I have said again and again, we are not a 62-year-old nation. We have a history as old as Sg Batu and Lembah Bujang.

Kedah, Perak, Melaka and Johor. Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan, Sabah, Sarawak, Perlis and Negri Sembilan. 

Ancient kingdoms of Kadaram, Gangga Nagara, Gellangui, Pattani and Langkasuka, Tumasek, Inderapura and Sekebun Bunga. 

Even the sea kingdom of Dika. We need to claim our own rich history. A thousand years would be a good place to start.


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