Brian E. Colless


            Singapore has a modern history which spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and reaches into the twenty-first century, and thus the citizens of the Republic of Singapore can look back with pride on the achievements of their island realm.  But Singapore also has an ancient history, stretching back before the beginning of the Christian Era as far as the Stone Age.  Certainly Sir Stamford Raffles and the other founding fathers of the British settlement of 1819 were convinced that in the distant past the Singapore hill overlooking the sea had been the silent observer of countless historic pageants and events.  There had been rajas and sultans, warriors and ambassadors, merchants and missionaries, raiders and settlers, coming from the furthest parts of the Orient and the Occident.  And if not all of them cast anchor and disembarked to pay their respects, then at least their ships passed close enough to the island for them to acknowledge its lion-like presence, as did Raffles himself when he sailed through the Straits of Singapore in 1811 on his way to Java.  Little did he then imagine that his name was to become inextricably bound to the land of Singapore.  Yet when Sir Stamford established the settlement around Singapore Hill in 1819, he believed that he was only opening the way for the revival of a glory that had already been achieved by the island.

            The Singapore Straits have been the main thoroughfare linking the Indian Ocean and the Eastern seas for thousands of years.  It is therefore not surprising that Singapore has constantly harboured friendly natives, importunate traders, and marauding pirates, all endeavouring to practise their exchanging, selling, and plundering skills on ships passing through the straits.  For Ptolemy of Alexandria, a Greek geographer of the second century, the southernmost point of the continent of Asia was the bottom of a peninsula he called Khryse Khersonesos, the Golden Khersonese or Golden Peninsula.  This was surely the Malay Peninsula, and here he located a trading port named Sabara and a cape Malaioukolon.  The latter is likely to be Rumenia Point (Tanjung Ramunia) east of Singapore.  The port of Sabara could have been on Singapore, or else on some river on the west side of the Malay Peninsula.

            Strange to say, Ptolemy gives no hint of any straits here, and yet Singapore is inseparable from its channels.  When this part of the map crops up in Chinese records there is almost invariably a reference to straits and the difficulties encountered there, from the dangers of reefs, shoals, and sea-borne brigands.  The Chinese had a colourful name for Singapore and the Singapore Straits, particularly the narrow point between Singapore island itself and Pulau Belakang Mati (now Sentosa): they called it Lung-ya-men, literally "Dragon Teeth Gateway", the Portal of the Dragon Teeth.  Actually Lung-ya may have been an attempt to transcribe the name Langka (as it does for toponyms like Langkawi and Langkasuka in other places in Chinese books).  It first crops up in the thirteenth century, in Chao Ju-kua's Chu fan chih, as Ling-ya-men.  The Ling-ya may likewise represent Langka, but its meaning "ice teeth gate" might well suggest to the Chinese traveller that things happen there that would freeze one's blood and chill one's teeth.  The more established name, Lung-ya-men, conjures up a picture of a dragon with two prominent lower teeth in its open mouth, guarding the passageway between East and West.  It needs to be remembered that in the Chinese view dragons can be benign protective creatures.

            As far as we know, it was the travelling trader Wang Ta- yuan who first used this name Lung-ya-men, in his Tao i chih lueh (1349), though the History of the Mongol Dynasty (Yuan shih, compiled by Sung Lien, 1310-1381) records a tribute mission from Lung-ya-men to the Emperor in 1325.  Wang described it as a waterway between two hills of "the Tan-ma-hsi(k) barbarians".  There are no grounds for doubting that he had Singapore Straits in mind, for he has here used Singapore's old name Temasik.  The two hills would presumably be the ones on either side of Keppel Harbour, between which a cable car now runs.  These hills "look like dragon teeth", Wang says.  Early European navigators through this channel also remarked on a pair of additional markers at the very entrance: two pillars of granite rock, one of which was destroyed in 1848 when the strait was widened; these are considered by some to be even better candidates for identification as the original "dragon teeth".

            In all this we are inevitably reminded of the celebrated Pillars of Hercules, formed by Gibraltar island and Mount Abyla in Africa:

            quella foce stretta dov'Ercule segno
li suoi riguardi, accio che l'uom

            piu oltre non si metta

            that narrow outlet where Hercules set up
those landmarks of his so that man

            should pass no further beyond.

So spoke Dante in his Divine Comedy (Inferno, xxvi, 107-109).  The Pillars of Hercules were seen as the limit of the habitable world to the west, before Christopher Columbus extended the boundaries for the Mediterranean people by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Dante had no occasion to look for a similar terminus in the eastern seas, but in Singapore's own traditional lore, as preserved in the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu), there are some interesting echoes.

            In the Malay Annals the tale is told of an Indian empire builder who overran the Malay Peninsula as far as Temasik (Singapore) and was intent on proceeding to China.  In rapid response to this threat a Chinese ship arrived at Temasik, with a load of rusty needles and mature fruit trees.  The ship's company, all of them old men, claimed that they had been striplings when they set sail from China, and that the rusty little pieces of metal had been thick pieces of steel or swords.  By this ingenious stratagem the Indian conqueror, Raja Chulan by name, was dissuaded from attacking China; in actual fact, on the monsoon wind the sailing time between China and Singapore was three to four weeks.  Here already we have an inkling of the internationalism of Singapore, for this story was also told of the European hero Alexander the Great, and the legend had doubtless come to the Malay world by way of Arabia, Persia, and China.

            Ancient Singapura also had in its folklore a worthy counterpart to southern Europe's Herakles or Hercules, in the person of the strong man Badang.  The story of Badang's exploits is told in the various recensions of the Malay Annals.  According to one tradition he was one of the orang laut or sea peoples, though another says he was of the orang benua on the mainland, a Jakun.  Unlike Hercules he did not clear stables but forests, single-handedly in Johor.  His prodigious strength was acquired, wondrous to relate, by eating a demon's vomit.  The story tells how a rice-planter of Seluang (Kota Tinggi on the Johor river) employed Badang to clear jungle, day in and day out.  On one occasion Badang found that his fish-trap was empty, with only the scales and bones of fish still clinging to the trap.  This happened time after time, but eventually he discovered that it was a demon that was devouring his fish, "a demon with eyes as red as flame, with creel-like matted hair and a beard down to his waist".  When Badang seized him by the beard the demon offered him superhuman strength if he would spare his life.  Badang accepted, though it was stipulated that Badang should eat the vomit that the demon thereupon brought up in copious quantities.  After this ghastly meal Badang turned to his task again in order to test his new strength.  In the twinkling of an eye the great forest became a treeless plain.  Singapore finds its way into this tale because Sri Rana Wikerma, a ruler of Singapura, took him into his service as a war-chief.  His greatest feats on Singapura were: firstly, to stretch an iron chain across the Singapura River to control ships passing in and out; and secondly, to hurl a huge rock across this river "to the far bank of Kuala Singapura", "and that rock", says the annalist, "is the one that is there today on the extremity of Tanjung Singapura".

            When the British took over Singapore, after clearing that same point of vegetation, they (or rather their coolies) found a massive stone broken in two (as if it had dropped from a great height?).  This rock bore an old inscription, so weather-worn as to be illegible, but at least recognizable as Indian-style writing, and in fact identifiable by experts as Javanese Kawi of the Majapahit period, the fourteenth century.  While this would seem to be Badang's rock, it may also have given rise to the aetiological legend of Raja Chulan's erection of a monument.  Frustrated in his designs against China, he decided to explore the deeps instead.  So Raja Chulan descended into the sea at Temasik (the sea land) in a glass submarine vessel, a pioneering precursor of Captain Nemo and his Nautilus.  After a lengthy sojourn in the underwater kingdom named Dika, he returned to the surface and arranged for a rock to be split in two, his achievements to be recorded on it, and a hoard of valuables such as gold and silver, pearls and precious stones, to be hidden in the monument.  This treasure would be for the use of a raja from among his descendants, who would "make all the countries below the wind subject to him".

            Whether or not the officers of the British Raj saw Queen Victoria as this successor and were seeking this treasure for the glorification of her empire, the fact is that they blew the rock to pieces in 1843 (claiming that it was hindering their efforts to widen the river mouth).  A mere fragment remains for inspection in the Singapore museum that was originally named after Raffles.  Would he have approved of the destruction of this precious legacy? 

            In the present state of our knowledge the most likely occasion for the erection of this memorial, would be at the time of the expansion of the Majapahit empire in the fourteenth century.  A Javanese chronicle entitled Pararaton has the Majapahit prime minister Gajah Mada (a name redolent with the rutting of an elephant) foregoing his favourite pleasure (palapa, whether alimentary or sexual remains undetermined) until he had conquered the Archipelago (Nusantara) including Tumasik.  The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) has two stories of Javanese attacks on Singapura, so there must be some truth in all this.  The second of these Javanese raids was supposed to have caused the last king of Singapura to abandon his realm and found a new kingdom named Melaka.  It was this "city made for merchandise" (Tomé Pires), founded around the beginning of the fifteenth century, which attracted the Europeans into the Malay world.  The Portuguese drove the Malays from Malacca in the sixteenth century; the Dutch wrested the city from the Portuguese in the seventeenth century; and it passed to the British near the end of the eighteenth century.  Then it was Singapore's turn to be the favoured spot once more.

            Fully a century before the establishment of the Malacca empire, the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo had sailed through the straits of Singapore and Malacca.  It was Marco Polo who laid a foundation for a renascence of geographical knowledge in Europe with his Description of the World.  Marco does not mention Singapura (unless it be his Malaiur, a city "very large and noble" with an abundance of spices and other wares, though this is surely the South Sumatran kingdom Malayu, a centre of the Srivijaya empire).  But he does speak of the island Pentan (Bentan) on the opposite side of the Singapura straits, and he remarks on the shallowness of the water there.  Similarly, among the scholars of the Arab-Islamic world, Ibn Sa'i -d, a contemporary of Marco's in the thirteenth century and like him a traveller, noted in his Geography that at the place called Bintan were two capes, two miles apart, on a sea infested with treacherous shoals and black pirates.

            When Europeans began to reconnoitre the eastern oceans, Singapura came to be a landmark for them.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Samgepura (also spelled Syngapura and even Singapura) appeared on a map prepared by the Portuguese navigator Francisco Rodrigues.  And Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian passenger on Magellan's Spanish fleet that circumnavigated the world, knew (even though the expedition passed to the south of Java to avoid the Portuguese in Malacca) that Cinghapola was at the cape of Malacha.  In 1562 the Venetian Renaissance scholar Josephus Moletius published a Latin translation of Ptolemy's second- century Greek Geography, in which he identified the Malaeucolon promontory with Cimcapula cape (doubtless Tanjung Ramunia).

            A decade later Singapura was immortalized in the Portuguese Renaissance epic Os Lusiadas (1572) by Luiz Vaz de Camoes (x.125):

            Mas na ponta da terra, Cingapura
Veras, onde o caminho as naus se estreita;

Daqui, tornando a costa a Cinosura,

Se encurva, e pera a Aurora se endireita.

            But on the land's end there, Cingapura
you espy, where the sea lane narrow grows;

then the coast turns north to Cynosura,
            curves round and eastwards to Aurora goes.

            Thereafter, till 1819, the records we have either recount the hazards of negotiating the various channels around Singapore, with a passing reference to the orang laut (as Saletes, people of Selat, "the straits folk") and a brief word on their piscatorial and piratical prowess; or else they give stirring accounts of sea battles that took place in this arena, with Europeans fighting against Malays, and Europeans or Malays fighting amongst themselves.  A typical case, is A New Voyage round the World (London 1700) by the English buccaneer William Dampier: he bought some jungle fruit and fresh fish from the "Indian Inhabitants", admired their boats as being useful in fishing, trading, and warfare, and wondered why the English were letting the Dutch predominate in trade with the kingdom of Johor.  Captain Alexander Hamilton was there in 1703, as he relates in A New Account of the East Indies (1727), and was offered "the Island of Sincapure" as a present.  He declined this generous offer saying that it was of no use to a private person, though a proper place for a company to settle a colony on, lying as it did in the centre of trade with good rivers and safe harbours.  It was left to Raffles, along with Farquhar, Crawford, and Crawfurd, to bring this dream to reality.

            This in SUMMARY is an idea of what we can know about Singapura before 1819, mainly from foreign viewpoints.

Brian E. Colless, The Ancient History of Singapore, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10, 1, 1969, 1-11

R.E. Jordaan and B.E. Colless, The Mahârâjas of the Isles: The Sailendras and the Problem of Srivijaya, Semaian 25, Leiden, 2009, pp. 222-224