The Reinvention of a Nation: The Parts of Singapore History You Won’t Find in your Textbook

 As we celebrate Singapore’s jubilee year, the team at Reinvention Journey is dedicating this special article to explore the reinvention of Singapore from tiny fishing village to the global island city it is today. We snooped through history to uncover 3 interesting facts about Singapore’s past that you won’t find in your school textbooks. You’d be surprised to know how much Singapore has been a nation of reinvention from its earliest, pre-Raffles days. Read on to find out just what we mean!

Singapore was called ‘Longyamen

Singapura (Lion City) and Temasek (Land surrounded by water) are past names of Singapore island, but did you know that in one of the earliest Chinese records in the 14th century, our sunny island was also called Longyamen?

Longyamen means ‘Dragon Tooth Gate’ and according to Frost and Balasingamchow (2009), this name came from the rocky outcrop that use to stick out of Fort Siloso on Sentosa in the past. The Chinese emperor even believed that you could find elephants in Singapore!

Since olden days, Singapore was already in the sights of the Chinese empire, showing that our island wasn’t some tiny fishing port privy only to the people of the Straits of Malaka!

Singapore was already cosmopolitan in the 1300s!

Frost and Balasingamchow (2009)’s research shows that 700 years ago, the island’s local culture was already rich and multi-faceted. The local population in Singapore was made up from people of different backgrounds, all over the region (from the Straits of Malaka to the south tip of Sumatra and present day Batam and Bintan). In fact, Chinese merchants were conducting trade in Singapore since the 1000s!

The rich mixture of people we have come to appreciate today is therefore not so different from the life our ancestors lived in the past. It’s fascinating to realise that some positive and unique aspects of Singaporean life have remain unchanged for centuries.

We should also be mindful of the fact that our ancestors were probably foreigners and new immigrants to Singapore previously! Everyone could be a stranger to a new environment at any point of their lives, which is why it is important to remain open-minded about what constitutes a Singaporean in our increasingly globalising world and country. (Perhaps we will explore this topic further in a future discussion!)

Singapore wasn’t just a fishing village before it was founded by Raffles

Before British colonisation, our island was heavily involved in the politics of the region! Don’t imagine a sleepy, fishing village with little activity. Singapura was actually a vassal state of Java’s Majapahit empire in the 14th century due to its powerful position in the region. Later on, in the 15th century, during the Portugese conquest on Melaka, Singapura was actually a naval base for the Malaccan fleet, and many battles were waged nearby and on the shores of the island!

The Malay records even state that in the 15th century, Singapura held the largest number of ships in the entire Malaccan Empire and had that greatest number of seafaring people (Frost and Balasingamchow 2009).

Frost and Balasingamchow (2009) term this period to be the “transformation” from ‘early’ to ‘modern’ Singapore. Why? Because after the fall of Melaka, Singapore was then reinvented into a colony of the East India Company when Raffles landed in 1819, leading us back to the version of history that we all learned from our History textbooks!

The Nation of Reinvention

Rather than see our modern founding in 1819 as the time were Singapore was truly ‘reinvented’, it would be more compelling to see how many reinventions Singapore has gone through in its incredibly vibrant history. Our country was reinvented from colony to colony, playing different and not-so different roles in each time period. What is truly celebratory about everything is that this year, in 2015, we are not only celebrating our nation’s birthday, but our nation’s 50th year of independence!

In the last 50 years of independence, Singapore has been reinvented into a bustling and thriving city state, and to know how far we have come from our humble beginnings, and how some of the best and unique things about Singapore’s community haven’t changed all that much in 700 years, just makes the journey that much sweeter (:

If you want to know more interesting aspects of Singapore’s not 50, but 700-year old history, you should definitely check out Frost and Balasingamchow’s 2009 biography of Singapore! It’s available in many local libraries around Singapore (psst, we’ve also written an SG50 article on the reinvention of our national libraries, you can read it here) so you can easily get a copy to peruse through!

We encourage anyone, young or old, to take the time to learn more about Singapore’s history as we celebrate our 50th year of independence. Have a Happy National Day, Singapore (:

sg50 cake

Our Sources
Frost, M. R. and Balasingamchow, Y. (2009). Singapore: A Biography. Singapore : Editions Didier Millet

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