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Singapore and its origins through archaeology and the legend of Parameswara, the renegade prince

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Singapore and the voice of the most illustrious archaeologists and anthropologists

The first human settlements in the Malay Archipelago probably date back to about 40.000 years ago, age to which, according to some archaeologists, we can date back the human skull discovered in Niah Caves, located in todays State of Sarawak, which is situated in the north of the Island of Borneo. Still very little is known about the origins of these ancient civilizations, despite the most reliable theories pose these populations closely related to the first inhabitants of Australia and New Guinea1.

The oldest archaeological human find in the Malay Peninsula dates back to around 10.000 – 11.000 years ago. We talk about a human skeleton better known with the name of “Perak Man”, brought to light in Gua Gnug Runtuh Caves in 1991 by a team of Malaysian archaeologists led by prof. Zuraina Majid, directress of the Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia2 belonging to Universiti Sains Malaysia3. Despite of the millenary dating, the genetic characteristics of this skeleton seem to have much in common with those of Negrito ethnic populations that still inhabit the rainforests in the North of Malay-Plateau. The first foreign populations that came into conact with indigenous Negritos, as reported by the Malaysian historian and documentary filmmaker Alan D’Cruz, were the so called Senoi, which gradually descended from the central and Southern regions of Thailand around 2500 B.C. while, Between 1500 and 500 B.C., a third wave of migrants arrived from Indonesian Archipelago.

Anything but sporadic were the contact chances with Indian merchants to whom we must recognize a significant impact on the cultural, political and religious life in Malaysia. In fact, thanks to Indian merchants and sailors, in Malaysia were introduced  Buddhism, Hinduism and a multitude of loan words coming from Sanscrit as bahasa (language) and raja (monarch). If on one hand the post-colonial history of Singapore is rich of documents confirming its reliability, on the other hand certainties about its historical origins gradually become vaguer and vaguer.

The first references to Singapore Island in fact come to us from the stories of some Chinese sailors dated around the third century B.C. Chinese sailors were used to refer to Singapore Island with the name Puo-lo-chung, which literally means “the Island located at the end of the peninsula”4.

Singapore and the legend of Parameswara

Parameswara di SingaporeThe first empire extending its dominion over the Malay Arcipelago seems to have been the Funan Empire (between 200 and 649)5, whose center of power was located in modern Cambodia6. A far greater influence on our Malay Archipelago was exerted instead (from 7th to 13th century) by the powerful Srivijaya Empire, whose control extended from the Strait of Melaka to the entire Southern Malaysia, including the current Singapore Island and much of the Indonesian Archipelago7. The largest empire ever existed on the islands of the Malay Archipelago was the Melaka Empire. Its foundations are connected with several important episodes  whose protagonist was Parameswara, the young legendary renegade prince coming from a small Kingdom in the South of Sumatra Island. Parameswara, after fighting against the hegemony  exerted on Sumatra Island by Majapahit Empire, declared his small kingdom indipendent, arousing the fury of Majapahit Emperor. Forced to flee, Parameswara landed on an Island  named Temasek (the original name of Singapore) and after being accepted by the local sovereign, only eight days later, he mercilessly killed him and proclaimed himself king of Singapore. According to a loca legent, Paramesvara himself gave the Island the name Singapura (from Sanscrit “Lion City”), as soon as he landed in the island he was seized by the vision of a mystical wild animal similar to a lion8.

Since in that period Temasek was a vassal state belonging to the Thai Empire, as a concequence of the punitive expedition commissioned by Thai Emperor, the renegade prince and his followers were forced to escape again. Having found refuge in a small fishing village nestled on the coast of Southern peninsular Malaysia, which, after  Parameswara’s arrival (around 1400) took the name of Melaka9, the fugitives, following their leader, decided to tet ther their stronghold. In order to cope with the threat of continuous  Thai raids, Parameswara immediately tried to entrust the destiny of his village to the protection of the powerful Chinese Empire, by offering the Emperor Ming cospicuous tributes. Since the moment the Chinese Emperor took Parameswara’s sronghold into his protection Melaka saw the coming of its golden age. Thanks to its ideal strategical position, Melaka became the hub of all principal Asian trades10.

With the dawn of the thirteenth century arrived the first contacts with Islam, carried on the coasts of Sumatra Island by some Indian merchants who had embraced the Muslim faith. During the following centuries Islam, starting from what had become the Sultanate of Melaka, progressively spread throughout all the islands of the Indonesian and Malay Archipelago until around seventeenth century, with the establishment of the Sultanate of Brunei, it extended its influence over the whole Island of Borneo11.

Further readings and most recommended books

1D’Cruz Alan in Richmond Simon, Cambon Marie, Harper Damian, Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, 9th edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Howthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004, Australia.

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2Centro per la ricerca archeologica in Malesia.

3Majid Zuraina, Chia Stephen, The Conservation and Preservation of Perak Man from Gua Gnung Runtuh Site in Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia, Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800, Penang, Malaysia, The International Symposium on the Conservation and Preservation of Java Man Site (Indonesia) and Peking Man Site (China), Solo, Indonesia, 15-20 April 2002.

4Frankham Steve, Malaysia & Singapore, 6th edition, Footprint Handbooks, Bath, March 2008, United Kingdom.

5Corfield Justin, The History of Cambodia, The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations, Greenwood Press, Santa Barbara, California, 2009, United States of America.

6D’Cruz Alan in Richmond Simon, Cambon Marie, Harper Damian, Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, 2004, op. cit.

7Willner Mark, Hero George, Weiner Jerry, Global History Volume One: the Ancient world to the Age of Revolution, Barron’s Educational Series, Barron’s, New York, 2006, United States of America.

8Ramcharan Robin, Forging a Singaporean Statehood 1965-1995 The Contribution of Japan, International Law In Japanese Perspective, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, 2002, The Netherlands.

9Ooi Keat Gin, Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2004, United States of America.

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10D’Cruz Alan in Richmond Simon, Cambon Marie, Harper Damian, Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, 2004, op. cit.

11Ibidem.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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