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Monday, January 18, 2016

On The Insignificance of Temasek

"The Malay region witnessed the mushrooming of a substantial number of port settlements in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, each being fairly limited in scale and geographical extent. This is reported in Marco Polo's account of the region, in which he notes that there were eight polities in the Malacca Straits, all of which had their own ruler and language (Griffith 1997: 215—222).l The Chinese text Daoyi zhilue (c. 1349) records at least eighteen port settlements in the Malay region, all of which had their own rulers or chieftains and maintained fairly autonomous economies (Su 1981).

A number of autonomous port polities were founded during this time, most notably Temasik, Kelantan and Trengganu (Su 1981: 99, 102, 196 & 213], although a number of unrecorded port polities, including those located at such places as Sungei Limau Manis, present-day Brunei (Jabatan Muzeium-Muzium Brunei 2004), also appear to have emerged. All the polities of the Malay region maintained sporadic, independent relations with China through the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with missions dispatched to the Yuan court only when these were demanded of them by that court. This situation eventually led, by the third decade of the fourteenth century, to the various polities of the Malay region ceasing to make any attempts to reach out to the first tier states of Maritime Asia (Heng 2009: 64 & 65).

It is in such a context that Temasik was founded in the late thirteenth century. It lasted as an autonomous polity until the beginning of the fifteenth century, when, according to the Sejarah Melayu, it was overrun by Majapahit Forces and the last ruler of Temasik had to abandon the port city and flee northwards to Muar, modern-day Johor (Brown 1970: 50). Temasik’s short tenure as an autonomous port polity was also characterised by the localised extent of its influence within the Straits of Singapore area, only extending into the Riau lslands and possibly South Johor during its peak. lt was one of a number of autonomous port polities that existed in the Malay region during that time, a state of affairs that did not exist prior to this period and after which all of them invariably lost their political autonomy to more powerful neighbours (during the fifteenth century). After the fourteenth century, it became a minor settlement whose population and economy was eventually hollowed out by Malacca, and which politically became the fief of the Admiral of the Malaccan court (Cortesao 1944: 264).

This extended narrative demonstrates that Temasik's founding was an event borne out of the regional contexts that existed in Maritime Asia during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. More importantly, it was also the culmination of developments that occurred over the course of almost a millennium and made possible by the unique set of circumstances in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, without which the politfs founding would most likely not have been possible. In a sense, although the strategic significance of Singapore lsland's geographical location was ultimately a minor factor leading to state formation on the island, the strategic importance of events and policies projected from both the Bay of Bengal as well as the South China Sea had a fundamental impact on state formation in the Malay region.

While the above narrative argues for the case at the macro level, the impact of the parameters set by the larger maritime Asian context filtered down to the micro level, or the polity-level, as well. The characteristics of the Malay polities of the first and second millennia AD were, to a large extent. constrained by the parameters that the Maritime Asian context of this period have set in place, thus affecting the same characteristics that the polities ultimately developed. How did this process manifest itself in the case of Temasik?

The Sejaroh Malayu, the only historical text containing a narrative of the founding of Temasik, narrates that Sri Tri Buana. origrially a ruler of Palembang, had arrived on Singapore Island after a temporary sojourn at Bentan. He brought a significant entourage of political elite members and commoners of Palembang with him. including the Orang Laut of Bentan and their leader. The port polity eventually became great when the ruler managed to attract both international trade and foreign traders to the port city (Brown 1970: 23-55).

Three key points may be elucidated from this indigenous narrative. Firstly. Temasik’s founding and tenure has been portrayed as a consequence of political rule from Sumatra. The continuity of this political succession is apparent when one considers that Temasik's tenure is followed by that of Malacca by the last ruler of Temasik. Secondly, human agency and the ability to attract followers and talented individuals and to command the waterways led to the success of the port polity. Thirdly, the port polity was proactive in attracting international trade and traders to its port.

Other sources of information on Temasik, however, portray a different picture. Firstly, Temasik's tenure was short, or more to the point, abrupt. Geographical texts dated to around the beginning of the fourteenth century, including Marco Polo's account, Ibn Said’s account from the late thirteenth century and the Dade nanhaizhi (c. 1307} do not mention any settlement at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is only in the mid-fourteenth century that any mention of Temasik is made. No other textual record of Temasik is noted after the fourteenth century, with all references made being to the island and Keppel Straits, rather than to a port polity. The unique context of the late thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, when China, under Mongol rule, was more interested in keeping in contact with the other khanates across Central Asia, and when interaction with the kingdoms of the lndian Suh-Continent were more important than relations with Southeast Asia, only lasted until the advent of Ming rule in China in 1368. The absence of diplomatic overtures on Temasik’s part was therefore reflective of the conditions in China, although the ability of Temasik to engage China diplomatically remains questionable.

Temasik's abrupt and short-lived existence is borne out in the archaeological record. Most archaeological remains date to the fourteenth century, with no artefact datable to before the late thirteenth century having so far been iound. A srnall quantity of finds date to the post-fourteenth century period and the sites are sterile again between the sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries (Miksic 1985: 52-54). The archaeological remains, in the absence of a much longer archaeological record on Singapore Island, effectively stand alone from a chronological point of view.

Secondly, the notion that there was a significant volume of international trade or the presence of foreigners in Singapore during the Temasik period is in fact not well-supported by the historical data from such exogenous sources of information as the Chinese texts of the period as well as the archaeological data accrued from the island. The Daoyi zhilue, for example. records that Temasik only made hornbill casques, lakawood, tin and cotton textiles available for export (Su 1981: 196). The nature of Temasik's external economy, in which the port made select offerings available. as opposed to the notion of an international emporium that characterised Srivijaya some centuries ago, is in line with the economic context of Maritime Asia during this period, where foreign traders would travel around the Malay region to obtain products from specific ports known for the key products that they specialised in (Heng 2001 & 2008). The product range, and the extent to which Ternasik was an emporium, was therefore constrained by the nature of foreign trade operating in the Malay region during that time, which in turn was the result of policies promulgated by the larger states of Maritime Asia.

Similarly, the archaeological finds do not portray the existence of a rich emporium during the Temasik period. The ceramic finds predominantly come from wares produced in the kilns of Guangdong and Fujian, in particular those located near the ports of Guangzhou and Quanzhou. A very small proportion of shards come from wares produced in the Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangsu kilns. This suggests that the economic interaction between Temasik and the Chinese market was confined largely to the immediate hinterlands of Guangzhou and Quanzhou (Heng 2004: 78). In addition, the coinage recovered from the sites in Singapore are limited to slightly more than two hundred Chinese copper coins, possibly one Javanese coin, and two coins of Sri Lankan origin (Heng 2006: 199). While these finds suggest that there were economic exchanges between Temasik and Java, China and South India, the quantity recovered is significantly lesser than those recovered from such sites as Kota Cina (late eleventh to late thirteenth centuries, North Sumatra), and similar to those recovered from such contemporaneous sites as Sungai Lirnau Manis (McKinnon 1984: 362 & 563). Comparatively, the volume and extent of trade that Temasik experienced was therefore lesser than that experienced by Malay ports during the previous two centuries. In addition, the quantity of finds also indicates that there was not much trade with China, reflecting the larger nature of Sino-Malay trade when China was under Yuan rule. The predominance of South Chinese materials in the archaeological remains suggests that Temasik economy was almost entirely orientated to South China. The Daoyi zhilue's record of Fujian sojourners in Temasik, and not any other Chinese groups, is consistent with the nature of the material culture recovered from the Temasik sites (Su 1991: 213). Finally, the economy was orientated towards the South China Sea and Java Sea, reflecting the place of South China, Thailand and Java as the key economic markets that were accessible to Temasik and the southern Malacca Straits during this time.

As a polity, Temasik was, unlike Srivijaya in the late seventh to early twelfth centuries, unable to proactively influence the trajectory of its fortunes. This passivity, or general inability, to exercise human agency may be seen in the maritime characteristics of the Temasik. The Daoyi zhilue indicates that ships approaching Singapore island from Karimun Island to the eastern entrance of the Keppel Straits were subjected to pirate attacks (Su 1991: 213), indicating that Temasik, even with its Orang Laut subjects, were unable to maintain security in the waterways around its immediate vicinity. This is in contrast to the projection of Malay naval capabilities as recently as the twellth century, when security in the Malacca Straits was brokered by Sriviiaya, and all ships passing through that passageway had to call at its key port city (Tu 1996: 42).

The presence of such material cultural remains as the Chinese copper coins, as well as a horde of gold jewellery recovered from Fort Canning Hill, suggests that Temasik was economically and culturally under the influence of Java (Winstedt 1926). The political pressure exerted by Java on the small port polity is eulogized in the Sejarah Melayu as a series of stand-offs involving the prestige of the courts of Temasik and Java, which eventually culminated in the overrunning of Ternasik by Javanese forces during the reign of Temasik's fifth ruler (Brown 1970: 50).

Taken together, the conclusion provided by all these difierent sources of historical data relating to the various characteristics of Temasik as a polity in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is that the nature of Temasik, as with all the Malay polities that were active during this period, was detertnined primarily by the regional contexts of Maritime Asia. More importantly, the functional aspects ot'Ternasik were determined to a large extent by the regional and international contexts that the polity found itself in. Indeed, the larger contexts, which were beyond the mitigating efforts of the Malay region, predisposed Malay polities to be small, limited entities, whose internal characteristics, including their respective cultures, were influenced by the larger polities of Maritime Asia. Temasik's size, its currency, material culture and cultural traits, including the style of its jewellery, reflect the larger influences that it faced during its tenure of a hundred years.

The overwhelming importance of the regional and international contexts as factors affecting and determining Malay state formation may be seen in the eventual demise of Temasik in the early fifteenth century. As Malacca was able to capitalize on the changes in the South China Sea context, initially under the auspices of the Thais, and subsequently under the new tributary system instituted by the Ming court and facilitated in the first three decades of the fifteenth century by the Zheng He imperial voyages, the various Malay polities and settlements reconfigured themselves under the umbrella of Malacca.

The inability ofTemasik’s ruler to control the polity’s fortunes is poignantly recorded in the Portuguese text, the Suma Oriental. According to this text, after Malacca was founded, the Malaccan ruler managed to broker an agreement with the Thais, whereby he would send an annual tribute to the Thai court in return for permission for Malacca to engage in international trade in the Malacca Straits, and for Singapore Island to fall into the economic sphere of Malacca. The Portuguese text notes that after that agreement, Singapore’s economy began to be hollowed out, as traders and the islands population gradually moved to Malacca (Cortesao 1944: 264). In this account, which differs significantly from that in the Sejarah Melayu, Temasik's fate was determined by its regional overlord, with no input or reaction from the polity. From that time on, Singapore Island became part of the Malaccan admiral's personal fief, and remained a minor outpost of Malacca and Johor (the successor of Malacca) until the arrival of the British in 1819. Temasik's demise and Singapore Island's subsequent insignificance was therefore a continuation of the Malay state formation processes witnessed through the course of the first and second millennia AD."

--- Situating Temasik within the Larger Regional Context: Maritime Asia and Malay State Formation in the Pre-Modern Era / Derek Heng in Singapore in Global History / ed. Derek Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied

Related: Balderdash: Not all history is created equal - Singapura: 4 centuries of obscurity
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