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28. Discovery in Singapore during 550-330CE

MAY. 20, 2021


Sail East to Singapore and find out what it took to get by as a local in the years 550 bc to 330 bc. Pete takes the topic of Discovery to heart and delves into the roots of the indigenous people and the local mangrove swamps.

The Republic of Singapore is an island city-state in maritime Southeast Asia. That means means the whole country is one city – like Monaco and Vatican City.
Although described as an island, there are actually 64 islands in Singapore, a number the fluctuates as land is reclaimed, multiple islands become merged into one and new islands are created.
Singapore is famous for many things, include a ban on Chewing gum introduced in 1992, although since 2004 - as a result of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement - pharmacists and dentists have also been allowed to sell "therapeutic" gum, to customers with a medical prescription.
There are numerous other quality of life laws against litter, graffiti, jaywalking, spitting, expelling "mucus from the nose" and urinating anywhere but in a toilet, with a bonus law that if you do urinate in a public toilet you are legally required to flush it.
Singapore also offer the world’s tallest indoor waterfall in Jewel Changi Airport. The the HSBC Rain Vortex is a 40 metre waterfall surrounded by a lush indoor garden.
Singapore is considered a tax haven and has attracted film stars Jet LI and Jackie Chan to reside there with their became a citizen very high standard of living.
Singaporeans enjoy one of the world's longest life expectancies, fastest Internet connection speeds.
A Potted History of Singapore:
The earliest written record of Singapore may be in a Chinese account from the third century, describing the island of Pu Luo Chung, whilst in the West, the Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy (90–168) identified a place called Sabana at the tip of Golden Chersonese (believed to be the Malay Peninsula) which may well also be Singapore.
In 1025, the Chola Empire of Southern India came across the Indian Ocean and invaded the Srivijayan empire, attacking several places in Malaysia and Indonesia. The Chola forces were said to have controlled what was then called Temasek – at this time seems to have been at least some kind of trading post/stopping off point. This is hardly surprising as its location is something of a maritime crossroads.
Malay annals written in 15th Century have what seems to be one of the earliest confident mentions of Singapore. They claim that in the 13th century Sri Tri Buana landed on Temasek on a hunting trip. He saw a strange beast said to be a lion, which he took as an auspicious sign and founded a settlement called Singapura, which means "Lion City" in Sanskrit.
There are no lions on Singapore.
In 1320, the Mongol Empire sent a trade mission to a place called Long Ya Men (or Dragon's Teeth Gate), believed to be Keppel Harbour at the southern part of the island
The region is then fought over between Siam (now Thailand) and what becomes the Malacca Sultanate until the arrival in the Early 16th Century of the Portuguese.
In 1613 the Portuguese destroyed the settlement in Singapore and the island sank into obscurity for the next two centuries.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Malay Archipelago was gradually taken over by the European colonial powers – Portuguese, Dutch and British in particular.
British toff Sir Stamford Raffles was one such Brit trying to establish a good port on the area. He arrived in Singapore on 28 January 1819 and soon found his ideal port.
It was on the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula, near the Straits of Malacca. It had a natural deep harbour, freshwater supplies, timber for repairing ships and was located along the main trade route between India and China.
Technically at this time it was under the Sultan of Johor, who was himself controlled by the Dutch.
So Raffles decided to make his own sultan. He smuggled Tengku Long – the older brother of existing Sultan - into Singapore, and offered to recognize as the rightful Sultan, with a yearly payment of $5000 and $3000 in return to be allowed to set up his trading post.
He said ‘yes’.
A formal treaty was signed on 6 February 1819 and modern Singapore was born
By 1821, the island's population had gone up to around 5,000, and in 1860, 40 years later -the population was up to 50 ,000 people.
Essentially the tiny island became a thriving port under British rule.
Until World War 2. Singapore was the major British base in the Pacific with a 90,000-strong British, Australian, and Indian garrison. It was regarded as unassailable due to its strong seaward defenses.
Unfortunately the Japanese invaded by land, travelling down the Malay peninsula.
The subsequent fall of Singapore was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history.
The island returned to British rule after the war, but it was never quite the same again. Independence movements rose up and on on 16 September 1963, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak were merged and Malaysia was formed.
Singapore did not really fit into that construction very well and on 9 August 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia voted 126–0 in favor of a constitutional amendment expelling Singapore from the federation and Singapore became the Republic of Singapore.
The island enjoyed substantial growth in the 1980s and 1990s with the unemployment rate falling to 3% and real GDP growth averaging at about 8% up until 1999.
The Port of Singapore became one of the world's busiest ports and the service and tourism industries also grew immensely during this period.
When are we – the Persian Empire
The Persian empire lasted from 550 BC to 330 BC, and was also known as the Achaemenid Empire. It was an ancient Iranian empire that was based in Western Asia founded by the king Cyrus the Great.
But was was happening in Singapore?
There are 2 major discoveries in the area that affect our understanding of the people of ancient Singapore. 1100 miles away in Borneo are the Niah caves.
These were excavated in the 1950s and in one trench, colourfully known as ‘Hell Trench’ due to the extreme heat, they found a skull. This was old. Really old.
It was called the Deep Skull and charcoal samples taken from close to the skull dated it at 40 000 years old.
In 1960, British anthropologis Don Brothwell concluded the Deep Skull belonged to an adolescent male and represented a population of early modern humans closely related to indigenous Tasmanians.
However, Associate Professor Darren Curnoe at UNSW took another look at the skull recently and said that not only was the Deep Skull is from a middle-aged female rather than a teenage boy but also that, “We’ve found that these very ancient remains most closely resemble some of the Indigenous people of Borneo today, rather than Indigenous people from Australia.”
But why were people in the cave at all?
Possibly thanks to one unexpected source of food – bird’s nest.
The cave is home to swiftlet population and this is the breed of bird that makes the nests used in bird’s nest soup.
These nests are collected and traded by climbers who scale using wooden poles without safety harnesses hence risking their lives in the process and have been for time immemorial.
About the size and hardness of teacups, they are made when the bird uses strands of spittle that harden and bond to the wall to make their nests. The spit dries and is mixed with feathers, grass and twigs.
There are actually two kinds of nests: white nests made up mostly of saliva and black nests with plant materials and feathers mixed in, with the latter being the more valuable.
Back to Malaysia now for another discovery.
A second cave
Another important cave discovery was made in Gua Gunung Runtuh in the Malaysian Lenggong valley 650 km away from Singapore.
In 1991 a burial cave was discovered here and investigated by Dr. Zuraina Majid, Malaysia’s first archaeologist. They found the Perak Man.
This is the region’s best-preserved Stone Age skeleton determined to be 11,000-year-old, found crouched down and surrounded by objects including including stone tools and shells.
Interestingly he lived to around 40 or 45 years old despite having a a deformity where the growth of his left arm was stunted, probably making him incapable of hunting and fending for himself.
In fact the grand burial and deformed skeleton lead archaeolgoists to believe he was possibly a shaman.
Why is this important?
So this all goes to show that not only were there people in the area in our time period, they were around a long time before that as well.
But what about Singapore specifically. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say for sure, in part because Singapore is more about modernity than archaeology. Lianhe Zaobao, Miksic, associate professor in Asia Research Institute at NUS, said that "Singapore is probably the only country in the world that does not employ state archaeologists” and there is no law requiring archaeological investigation before building.
However, investigations have found Chinese ceramics from the Tang dynasty china (600 – 900s) in a dig in Padang so it’s fair to assume there was definitely some passing trade in our time period.

The earliest arrivals in Malaysia are known as Orang Asli – the inidigenous people, of whom Malaysia recognise 18 separate groups. Most of these were forest-dwelling hunter gatherers, but in Singapore, you can find the Orang Seletar. These people are also categorised as Orang Laut – or ‘sea people’ and were some of the earliest people living in and around Singapore.
They have a history of literally living on the water, living in their boats and even today children as young as 3 years old are taught on how to swim by just simply throwing them to the sea.
If the children are still not able to swim by the age of 4, the mothers will feed them with the flesh of a type of sand shark which is grilled because they belief that eating the sand shark will help them to swim. And they can catch fish with bare hands if they are able to see the fish underwater.
In fact, it is said 'where there's fish, that's where you'll find the Orang Seletar'.
But it wasn’t’ just fish. There are the mangroves in Singapore which can also provide mussels and mud crabs and even today Chilli crab is still a signature dish of the area.
As well as food, though, the area presented dangers. This includes the mosaic reef crab, that looks as delicious as the other crabs in the area but is severely poisonous, and the shore pit viper or mangrove pit viper. This snake is unusual in that it gives birth to live young instead of laying eggs and is it known for being unpredictable and ready to strike at any threat with no warning. Its powerful haemotoxic venom can cause serious illness or even kill.
Still, the Orang Seletar clearly knew what they were doing, and for hundreds, if not thousands of years they lived and died in the Singapore area.
But today they are a people under threat. Pollution is harming fish and crab stocks and they are marganalised in Malaysian and Singapore society. In fact, although they speak their own language which sounds like Malay but only shares 20% of the vocabulary, they are not even considered a separate group in Singapore, being categorised simply as Malay.
In the 80s used to be 3 Kampung of Orang Seletar, but now there are none. Who knows how long it will be until the region of Singapore that is called Seletar today is all that is left of these sea gypsies?

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