Seekor Singa, Seorang Putera Dan Sebingkai Cermin: Reflecting & Refracting Singapura

History is often about presenting perspectives, and the individuals and authorities involved in producing historical accounts have different ways of describing and interpreting past events. However, history is rarely written for the mere sake of recording the past. Rather, the importance of history lies in how it serves to explain (and legitimise) conditions in the present.

When documenting historical events, historians are influenced by the complex interplay of sources as well as personal and/or institutional interests. To obtain a more holistic understanding of our past, it is important to look beyond dominant narratives, take into account history at the peripheries, adopt a multi-disciplinary approach and look at events through as many lenses as possible.

In this Singapore Bicentennial special exhibition, the Malay Heritage Centre adopts the themes of reflection and refraction as a pair of lenses to focus, clarify and contrast different perspectives. The exhibition showcases indigenous historical sources to provide counterpoints to Western perspectives and narratives of the Malay World.

In doing so, the centre hopes to present different and multiple sides of the story and to put things into perspective so that visitors can reflect on the arguments presented and draw their own conclusions.

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Seekor Singa, Seorang Putera dan Sebingkai Cermin is a special exhibition launched by the Malay Heritage Centre in commemoration of the Singapore Bicentennial


Mapping the Malay Archipelago

Up until the 16th century, many of the early maps of the world were speculative and inaccurate, and as a result, early trade missions were often hazardous endeavours. On these early maps, Southeast Asia was represented as little known or unexplored formations and areas. However, with increased global trade, the accuracy of maps improved significantly and they became valuable navigation aids for various maritime powers.

By the 1500s, European maritime powers were relying on maps to explore commercial interests further ‘east of the Indies’ and places in Southeast Asia became increasingly important. The following maps show how Southeast Asia, and by extension, the Malay Archipelago, have been rendered by Asian, Islamic and European civilisations as well as indigenous communities at different points in history.


Ptolemy’s ‘Vndecima Asiae Tabvla’ (‘Eleventh Table of Asia’) map 1486 copy of 2nd century original
Collection of National Library, Singapore


Rendered in 2 CE, Ptolemy’s map was the earliest representation of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Although Singapore’s port city status is alluded to as ‘Sabana Emporium’, the Strait of Melaka which separates Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula (‘Avrea’ and ‘Chersonesvs’), is missing.


Despite its various errors, Ptolemy’s map was important in depicting the trading links between the Malay Archipelago and India – with many of the coastal cities in Southeast Asia marked as ‘emporiums’.


‘Zhenghe hang hai tu’ (‘Zheng He’s Navigation Map’) as published by Mao Yuanyi in early 17th century 1628 
Collection of National Library, Singapore


Regarded as the earliest Chinese map that rendered comparatively accurate representations of Persia, Arabia, East Africa, South and South-eastern Asia, this map forms part of a set of navigational charts in a military treatise titled Wubei Zhi (‘Treatise on Military Preparations’) from the Ming Dynasty period.


Although the map does not include navigational information on the easternmost parts of the Malay Archipelago, it refers to the waters which connect Java and Sumatra to the Indian Ocean as the ‘Western Ocean’ and marks places on the Malay Peninsula (Melaka and Langkasuka), Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan) and Indochina (Chenia and Champa) as well as Siam and Temasek.


Map of Southeast Asia, from ‘Itinerario, Voyage ofte Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien’ (‘Itinerary, Voyage or Ship Journey of Jan Huygen of Linschoten to the Near East or Portuguese Indies’ ), 1579-1592
Published in 1596 
Collection of National Library, Singapore


The Portuguese were the first Western power to conduct extensive explorations of the Malay Archipelago and produce navigational charts of maritime Southeast Asia. They guarded these maritime charts closely and dominated trade in the region for much of the late 15th – late 16th centuries.


The maritime dominance of the Portuguese eventually ended with the publication of both Dutchman van Linschoten’s maps of Southeast Asia in 1595-96, and its English translation in 1598, which included navigational directions through the Melaka and Sunda Straits.


As a result of the publication of the abovementioned maps, the Vereenigde Oosttindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company and its rival, the British East India Company were able to use the now public information in their race to claim the lucrative East Indies trade.


Map of Singapore, the Malay Peninsula and the Riau Islands by Portuguese cartographer Manuel Godinho de Erédia 1613 
Reproduction courtesy of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society


British map of the Malay Archipelago with different territories marked in different colours 
c. 1850 
Southeast Asia 
Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Photograph of a nautical map of the East Indian archipelago with Buginese inscriptions as well as European influences 
c. 19th century
Reproduced with permission of Utrecht University Library


Map of the Malay Peninsula and the Gulf of Siam written in Jawi script (Arabic-derived script used for writing various Malay languages) 
c. 19th century
Malay Peninsula
Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

Mediums of Histories

Folktales, myths and legends often serve as origin stories of countries and communities. Singapura’s origin story revolves around a prince whose curiosity led him to cross the sea, appease a sea-goddess and explore a deserted island - in the process sighting an extraordinary creature and establishing a new kingdom on the island.

In contrast to this mythical past, the official history of Singapore is pieced together from documents and records comprising treaties, surveys, government records, newspaper reports, photographs, public and private correspondences, and other ephemera from collections and archives in Europe.

Today, these documents and records as well as new archaeological findings continue to (re)inform the way Singapore’s history is studied and (re)written while earlier Malay manuscripts, sources and material culture are often studied only at the margins of historical enquiry.

The following selection of artefacts and manuscripts bring the focus back to the latter and showcases how Malay manuscripts and sources often offer an alternative lens to better understand Singapore’s past before and during the colonial period.


Pages from a handwritten copy of ‘Sulalatus Al-Salatin’ (or ‘Sejarah Melayu’) describing Sang Nila Utama’s founding of Singapura Malay Peninsula 
Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Historians have ascertained that Sang Nila Utama was an actual historical figure known as Sri Tri Buana, who lived during the 14th century. He was a prince from Srivijayan Palembang who is credited in ‘Sulalatus Al-Salatin’ (‘Genealogy of Kings’) as the founder of a new settlement on the island known as Temasek, which he then re-named Singapura.


It was Raffles who first referred to ‘Sejarah Melayu’ when arguing for the establishment of British presence in Singapore. The manuscript details the lineage of the rulers of Melaka, the rise and fall of the great port city and the relationship between rulers and the people they rule. It also contains a number of legendary Malay episodes such Hang Tuah, Badang, the garfish attack on Singapura, the fall of Singapura to Majapahit (or Siamese) forces and the founding of Melaka.


Keris with a seven-lok blade and an ivory hilt in the java demam ('fever-stricken Javanese') style and gold-sheet sheath with repouseé and filigree work Late 19th – early 20th century 
Western Sumatra
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


In the legend, Sang Nila Utama had to sacrifice his mahkota or crown to appease the stormy sea and safely land on Temasek. Similarly, keris embellished with precious metals such as gold or silver sheets have historically been part of the regalia of rulers. The most important category of keris belong to the royal pusaka, or sacred heirlooms which are believed to be imbued with magical powers.


The physical possession of the royal regalia can cement the ruler's right to rule while the loss of a ruler’s pusaka to a rival is deemed to signify the loss of the former’s authority to rule. This is evident during the succession dispute following Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s death in 1812, when his queen, Engku Puteri Hamidah, refused to hand over the royal regalia to the Bugis faction backing up Tengku Abdul Rahman against his elder half-brother Tengku Hussain Shah.


As a result, both the British and the Dutch were able to proclaim two competing Sultans of Johor, until the Dutch forcibly seized the regalia from Engku Puteri Hamidah in 1822, and successfully installed Abdul Rahman as the Sultan of Riau-Lingga.


Figure of a mythical winged singha

c. 20th century
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


“There they saw an animal extremely swift and beautiful. Its body of a red colour, its head black and its breast white, extremely agile, and of great strength, and its size, a little larger than a he-goat.”


~ Description of the beast which Sang Nila Utama sighted when he landed on Temasek as recorded in ‘Sejarah Melayu (as translated by John Leyden, 1821)


According to the ‘Sejarah Melayu’, Sang Nila Utama and his entourage sighted a handsome though peculiar-looking animal as they were resting on the plains near the mouth of the “river Tamasak”. It was Demang Lebar Daun, the chief of Palembang, who informed him that “in the histories of ancient time, the singha or lion was described in the same manner as this animal appeared”.


Tuhfat al-Nafis (‘The Precious Gift’)

Written in Riau-Lingga c.1865-1870
Courtesy of Centre for Malay Manuscripts, National Library of Malaysia


This manuscript has been attributed to Raja Ahmad and his son, Raja Ali Haji, Bugis nobles who served Sultan Sulaiman in the 19th century court of Riau. The first part repeats the legends of the early Malay kings from ‘Sulalatus Al-Salatin’ (‘Sejarah Melayu’) which includes the founding of Temasek by Sri Tri Buana, thereby linking the ancestry of the extant Malay sultans in Riau-Lingga to the ancient magical past of semi-divine kings and mythical beasts.


The ‘Tuhfat’ is an important and unique text in that it spans two hundred years of Malay politics since 1699 and lays out “the relationship between the Kings of Johor, of the Bugis areas, and of the island of Sumatra”, and references earlier and contemporary manuscripts and accounts from other royal courts and private collections in the Malay Archipelago.


‘Negarakertagama’ (‘Description of King and Nation’)

c. 1365
Courtesy of National Library Republic of Indonesia


Also known as ‘Desawarnana’, the ‘Negarakertagama’ is a eulogy written by the poet Mpu Prapanca in 1365 CE to Hayam Wuruk, the Javanese king of Majapahit. It affirms the importance of Hindu-Buddhism as a state religion at the time and highlights the semi-divine role that the king played in governing both the human world and the heavens.


The importance of ‘Negarakertagama’ lies in its detailed descriptions of the lands under the influence of the Majapahit Empire which at its height, stretched from Jambi and Malayu in Sumatra, to states including Pahang, Langkasuka (Kedah) and Johor in the Malay Peninsula. Majapahit’s cultural influence also reached to Temasek, and extended east of Java to Ambon, Maluku (the Moluccas) and Timor.


Pohon beringin wayang kulit puppet

20th century
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


As a medium for storytelling, wayang kulit (shadow puppet play performance) was an effective means of transmitting cultural norms, religious messages and even covert critiques of authority or society through epics and allegories.


This wayang kulit piece is fashioned from buffalo hide and represents the pohon beringin or banyan tree (Ficus benjamina). The tree represents the world in which the story takes place and serves as a marker for the beginning and ending of scenes in the wayang Siam, a form of shadow puppet theatre performed in Kelantan.


The principal story of the wayang Siam is based on ‘Hikayat Maharaja Wana’ (‘Maharaja Wana’s Tale’) and ‘Hikayat Seri Rama’ (‘Seri Rama’s Tale’), which are localised Malay renditions of the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’.


Blencong (brass lamp) in the form of a garuda

c. late 18th century
Collection of Malay Heritage Centre, National Heritage Board
Photo credit: Michael Backman Ltd


The blencong is an integral component of a wayang kulit performance and it would be suspended behind the screen over the head of the dalang (puppeteer) so that the shadows of the puppets would be projected onto the reverse side of the screen facing the audience.


This brass lamp is in the form of the mythical bird-like garuda. The body of the lamp serves as a well for holding oil and a large spout emanates from the chest of the garuda from which a flame would be emitted

Melayu — Jawa: Order and Innovation

The paucity of archaeological and indigenous documentary evidence after Parameswara-Iskandar Shah fled Singapura as well as a climate change theory of a regional Little Ice Age between the 14th and 18th centuries suggest that Singapura experienced a decline during that period and bolsters the argument that the island was abandoned and played a limited role in the going-ons in the region until its revival by British colonial enterprise in the 19th century.

While this interpretation of Singapura’s past is valid to a certain degree, Singapura still retained a symbolic significance in the feudal politics of the Malay kingdoms at the time. This is because successive Malay royal genealogies since Sang Nila Utama-Sri Tri Buana have relied on narratives of the founding and subsequent flight from Singapura to legitimise the establishment of later Malay kingdoms. Subsequent rulers of the various Malay kingdoms also played the diplomacy game, using means such as exchanging gifts, paying tribute and even brokering royal marriages to establish alliances and extend their influence vis-à-vis their rivals.

Singapura’s economic importance as a collecting station and transit node in regional and international maritime routes of trade and exploration was renewed when it was incorporated into the new Johor-Riau kingdom in 1528. As contact with Western powers intensified from the 18th century onwards, the cultures and ways of life of indigenous Malay societies came under increasing scrutiny by Western social scientists and colonial administrators. These foreigners viewed and evaluated the Malay world through the lenses of Western civilisation, science and progress to such an extent that indigenous forms were generally deemed as inferior to those in the West.


Tengku Hussain Shah of Singapore’s seal

c. 1810
On loan from Tengku Sri Indra bin Tengku Ismail


Tengku Hussain Shah (1776 – 1835 CE) was the son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III of Johor. Hussain was installed by the British in Singapore as the rightful king of Johor by virtue of him being the eldest son, despite the fact that his younger brother, Abdul Rahman, had already been installed as Sultan by the (Dutch-backed) Bugis faction in Riau-Lingga.


This silver seal bears an inscription in Arabic script which reads “Tengku Hussain ibn al-Sultan Mahmud bi-tarikh hijrat sanat 1225” (Tengku Hussain, son of the Sultan Mahmud, dated the year of Hijrah (migration) 1225 [1810 CE]). This is not the seal which was used to formalise the agreement between Raffles and the British East India Company in 1819. Rather, its impression was inked onto a letter that was sent to Colonel William Farquhar on 2 March 1812 CE (17 Safar 1227 Hijrah).


Keris with sheath and hilt of silver repoussé bearing an inlayed inscription of Sultan Abdul Jalil’s name

c. 17th - 19th century
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


Sultan Abdul Jalil Riayat Shah reigned over Johor and Riau from 1699 until his death in 1719. The title of Sultan reflected the Muslim nature of the kingdom at the same time it extended the Malay king’s daulat farther beyond the Malay Archipelago by connecting him to both the geography and the ancient history of the Islamicate world.


These royal connections manifested themselves in classical Malay texts where genealogies which could stretch all the way back to the great warrior-king Alexander the Great, 356-323 BCE (often romanticised as Iskandar Zulkarnain despite contentions about his Muslim status), and included narratives of travels to Makkah to perform the Hajj pilgrimage which further strengthened the connections between the local and foreign kingdoms.


Photograph of congregants milling around Sultan Mosque

c. 1825
Courtesy of Sultan Mosque


As a Muslim, the newly-proclaimed Sultan Hussain ordered the construction of a mosque befitting his status for the new settlement he established in Kampong Gelam. Built next to his palace between 1824-26, the original building featured a three-tiered pyramidal roof similar in style to the architecture typically found in Java and other parts of the Malay Archipelago.


Almost a hundred years later, the British architectural firm Swan and Maclaren was tasked to rebuilt the mosque, and they took inspiration from architectural styles in Mughal India and the Middle East. Sultan Mosque was gazetted as a National Monument in 1975.


Pepadon (throne of honour)

Early 20th century
Lampung, Sumatra
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


Malay kings required the courtly support of nobleman and vassal lords to govern their kingdoms. The sultanate of Bantam (Banten) on west Java in the 16th - 17th centuries established a bestowal system of granting nama (titles or ranks) to Lampung chiefs who provided highly-prized pepper for the international spice trade.


The pepadon was one of the much sought-after status symbols by the Lampung elite. The central panel of this pepadon depicts a naga hanlung (a type of mythical serpent) while its backrest features a kala (demon) head at the bottom. Naga (serpent), kala heads, and other animals such as birds are traditional symbols of fertility and protection associated with Javanese rulers.


Replica of a bunga emas tribute gift from Kedah to Siam

c. 1968
On loan from the Museum of Kedah


In the 19th century, the Malay sultans of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pattani would send crafted trees with gold and silver flowers (or bunga emas dan perak) to the royal court of Siam during the reigns of Rama II to Rama V.


The ‘Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa’ describes how the Sultan of Kedah sent a bunga emas tribute to his elder brother, the King of Siam to mark the occasion of the Sultan’s first born son, and how this tradition was adopted by other northern Malay sultanates. However, while Siam considered these tributes as an acknowledgement of its suzerainty over the four negeri (states), these states considered the gifts as tokens of friendship and alliance.


Minangkabau gilded wedding nape ornament

c. 1920s-30s
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


Marital unions between Malay and foreign courts were a means by which Malay rulers extended the political influence of their dynasties. Both ‘Hikayat Negeri Jambi’ (‘Annals of Jambi Country’) and ‘Salasilah Keturunan Raja Jambi’ (‘The Genealogy of Jambi Kings’) assert that Minangkabau royalty and the great Ottoman Empire were linked through marriage as early as the 16th century.


Datuk Paduka Berhalo, a Turkish prince from Istanbul was said to have sailed with his brother to the “lands beneath the winds” where the latter became the king of Majapahit while Datuk Paduka married a Minangkabau princess, Puteri Selaro Pinang Masak, in Ujung Jabung on the Island of Idols, thereby bringing Islam to the island and establishing the Jambi dynasty.


Gold and silk songket textile

c. 1900 or earlier
East Coast Malay Peninsula
Collection of Malay Heritage Centre, National Heritage Board



Royal weddings were lavish occasions and ‘Hikayat Deli(‘Annals of Deli’) lists in detail the courtly style, ceremonial rites, garments and entertainment during the marriage of a Pahang princess to the Sultan of Aceh. Unlike other classical Malay texts, it also describes two other noble weddings, paying close attention to the princesses’ attire and toilettes and suggesting that noblewomen were extensions of the Sultan’s wealth.



The quantity of the gold thread and the fine brocade work make this songket textile exceptionally beautiful. The badan (central panel) features motifs such as bunga sinar matahari beralih (stars), bunga kermunting cina (Chinese rose myrtle) and teluk berantai (floral chains). The kaki (panels at either end) are decorated with pucuk rebung bunga kayohan (bamboo shoot), bunga tiga dara (three-girl flower) and lawi ayam (chicken feather) motifs.


Reed comb for weaving

Malay Peninsula
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


In traditional Malay society, textile production is often a community effort as the entire process includes a division of labour where various people with different skills were responsible for the different stages of production. A Malay handloom is made up of several parts comprising the reed comb, the weft-beater, the warp beam and the heddles. The reed comb or jentera (machine) is considered to be the heart of the handloom. It is also subject to the most wear and tear and a high degree of skill is required to manufacture the combs.


Carved wooden pawukon calendar

c. 1935
Collection of Malay Heritage Centre, National Heritage Board


The Javanese organises calendrical time by using both a “native” five-day week alongside a seven-day week adopted from Hindu and later Arabic calendars. Derived from Hindu astrological mathematics, pawukon calendars ran as 30 seven-day cycles called wuku to make up a 210-day year. These calendars were either painted on cotton cloth, or carved onto wooden boards.


The calendar on display features a stylised bird atop a leafy border followed by 35 squares to denote seven-day-five-weeks (i.e. a 35-day month) in the Balinese month. Within the squares are a series of engraved crosses, lines, circles and other markings which likely symbolise various auspicious days.


Illustration of the signs in a Javanese week of five days from John Crawfurd’s three-volume ‘History of the Indian Archipelago

Published in 1820
Edinburgh and London
Reprinted with permission from Wellcome Library


John Crawfurd was a Scottish physician and the last British Resident of Singapore from 1823 to 1826. He also served as the Resident Governor at the Court of Yogyakarta from 1811 – 1813. He was known to be a prolific ethnographer who published several books on the communities, cultural practices and environments he encountered as a colonial administrator.


As depicted in his works, Crawfurd was of the opinion that nations which possess a calendrical system demonstrated a systematic and mathematical understanding of the science of astronomy. Hence, he considered the Javanese to be the “most civilised nation in the Archipelago” because they had a distinct “national calendar”, although he still regarded it as inferior to Western configurations of calendrical time.


Illustration of types of architecture seen in Java from John Crawfurd’s ‘History of the Indian Archipelago

Published in 1820
Edinburgh and London
Reprinted with permission from Wellcome Library


In his three-volume book, Crawfurd wrote about various aspects of Javanese culture. In a chapter titled ‘Useful Arts’, Crawfurd describes the distinctive features of dwellings built by different “races” in the Malay Archipelago. The author’s choice of words reveals his sense of admiration for the technical skills exhibited by the indigenous communities, but also suggests that he was ranking the different communities based on the “sophistication” of their architecture.


Minangkabau carved wood panel featuring floral designs arranged across a geometric base

West Sumatra
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


The rumah adat (traditional houses) of the Minangkabau feature distinctive curved roofs with multi-tiered upswept gables and finials fashioned to resemble buffalo horns. Wooden walls, pillars, ceilings and panels of these houses are often engraved with floral motifs across a geometric base, similar to this carved wooden panel. Known as rumah gadang (big house), these houses function as family residences, family meeting halls as well as ceremonial houses.


It is worthwhile to note that each architectural feature of a rumah gadang carries a specific symbolic meaning. This is because the Minangkabau consider Nature to be a “teacher” and feel that humans could benefit from observing relationships in the natural world, and in turn adapting and incorporating these interactions into human society. Hence, the customs and aesthetics of the “alam Minangkabau” reflect the people’s deep respect for the natural environment.

Orang Atas Angin: Folk from Above the Winds

The arrival of Europeans in the Malay world is often presented as heralding a significant new chapter in the history of the region. In contrast, indigenous sources such as Malay manuscripts depict the arrival of the Europeans as a minor event within the expanded history of the Malay world.

In these indigenous sources, European arrivals are further identified not by their nationalities but by broad cultural identities such as “Rum”, “Peringgi”, “Orang Puteh” etc. Collectively, the Europeans were described as hailing dari atas angin or “from above the winds” (referring to countries that lay west to the Nusantara) and the term seeks less to identify the Europeans than to convey the position of the indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the Europeans.

The following prints highlight some of these early encounters between the indigenous groups in the Malay Archipelago and the Europeans, and showcase some of the literary archetypes of the latter who arrived in the region. These archetypes reflect the Malay community’s own views and impressions towards foreigners and refracts the notion that the indigenous communities were unaware or had little opinion of these arrivals from the west.



Print of Aruj Barbarossa, ruler of Algiers, and Hayreddin Barbarossa, admiral of the Ottoman Empire
16th century
Reproduced with permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum


Rum features in various 17th and 18th century Malay manuscripts, including ‘Bustanus al-Salatin’ (‘The Garden of Kings’) and ‘Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain’ (‘The Legend of Iskandar Zulkarnain’), and is often described as a great but distant empire located to the west of the Nusantara.


More notably, the Raja Rum, or Ruler of Rum, was depicted as a figure who wields considerable authority, and can compel figures such as the Malay warrior Hang Tuah to journey towards Rum to pay respects on behalf of the Sultan. However, opinion is still divided on whether Rum refers to the Roman Empire, or the Byzantines and Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey).



Depiction of Portuguese people from ‘Itinerario’, an atlas written by a Dutch merchant named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten
Dutch East Indies
Reproduced with permission of the Utrecht University Library


The earliest mention of the Peringgi dates back to the 15th century with the publication of ‘Hikayat Amir Hamzah’ (‘Epic of Amir Hamzah’). In this story, the Peringgi are depicted as enemies of the Muslim community in Medina. Over time, however, the term was used in Malay literature to refer to the Portuguese, and their seizure of Melaka in 1511. While the word has been replaced by “orang putih” (white-skinned people), the legacy of the Peringgi is captured in the naming of a portion of Penang as Batu Feringgi (or Foreigner’s Rock).


Orang Puteh

Print titled ‘Ball at Singapore, in celebration of the anniversary of the Settlement’
Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Orang puteh (or putih) means “white (skinned) person or people” in Malay and is first mentioned in a 17th century manuscript entitled ‘Hikayat Tanah Hitu’ (‘The Story of Tanah Hitu’). However, it was only after the colonisation of the Malay Archipelago in the 19th century that the term orang puteh began to feature more extensively in Malay-language texts. It is interesting to note that orang puteh is often described in positive terms including being a harbinger of modernity, as seen in ‘Hikayat Abdullah’ (‘The Tale of Abdullah’).

Sites and Straits

The Malay world did not always exist as discrete and separate political territories. Up until the 19th century, the geographical boundaries of the Malay world were informed by its own political logic – one where kingdoms, territories and people regularly shifted, in accordance with the waxing and waning of political influences within the Malay court.

The constant shift in geographical boundaries throughout the different periods is captured in cartographic and seafaring manuals from the region, in which borders are not fixed. Rather, various sites and straits are identified in order to facilitate and mirror movements through the region.

When the Dutch and the British arrived in the 18th century, they were required to refer to these indigenous sources in order to navigate the region – but not before eventually dividing the Archipelago along colonial boundaries.

The following artefacts and images present different perspectives of Singapore according to both indigenous as well as colonial conceptions of space.


Print of the port of Malacca, illustrated in a Portuguese map entitled ‘Fabrica de Cidade de Malaca’ (‘Construction of Malacca City’) originally produced in 1604

20th Century
Collection of Malay Heritage Centre, National Heritage Board


The origins of the Malacca Sultanate can be traced to the tale of the fall of the kingdom of Singapura in the 15th century, at which point the ruler at the time was said to have fled to Malacca to establish a new Sultanate. The Malacca Sultanate is key to understanding the development of the modern Malay state prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch and British in the region.


It is during this time that Islam was embraced by the court, and key texts surrounding politics, governance and culture were commissioned. These texts include ‘Sejarah Melayu’ (‘Malay Annals’) and ‘Undang-Undang Melaka’ (‘Law of Melaka’), and both of these texts as well as several other manuscripts form the basis of subsequent laws adopted by the rest of the region.


Three Portuguese coins used in Malacca

16th Century
Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

Map depicting the 1603 naval confrontation between the Dutch and Portuguese at the mouth of the Johor River

Johore or Singapore
Reproduced with permission of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


In 1530, the son of the deposed Sultan of Malacca, Alauddin Riayat Shah II, relocated to Johor where he established the Johor Sultanate. Unlike the Malacca Sultanate, which was out in the open of the Malacca Straits, the Johor Sultanate was situated along the winding course of the Johor River.


In the aftermath of the Portuguese capture of Malacca, the river’s serpentine geography was used by the Malay court to fend off the larger Portuguese vessels. In 1603, the waters off Singapore island became the site of battle between the Portuguese armada and a Dutch naval fleet, which had been roped in by Sultan Abdullah Ma’ayat Shah (otherwise known as Raja Seberang or Raja Bongsu) in a bid to regain control of Malacca.


Map indicating the Main Straits of Singapore as reproduced in C.A. Gibson Hill’s ‘Singapore: Notes on the History of the Old Strait

19th century
Reproduced from the public domain


From the 15th century onwards, more and more foreign vessels started to ply the straits surrounding Singapore and used them as a gateway to the East and West. However, these straits posed a challenge – especially to larger vessels. If they were not careful, they would run their ships into shallow waters or jagged corals that lay along these straits. Up until the 18th century, there were no less than three of such routes that were available to vessels seeking to navigate via Singapore.


The first, slightly underutilised route, entailed travelling through the Johor Straits and passing by the seat of the Johor Sultanate. The second and third routes were located south of Singapore, and were populated by communities of sea nomads, or orang laut, who lived and worked at sea. Thus, vessels were required to navigate unknown geographies and communities, as part of their journeys through Singapore and the region.


A section from Thomas Bowrey’s ‘A Dictionary English to Malayo, Malayo to English’ on basadagang (language of trade)

Malay Peninsula
Collection of Malay Heritage Centre, National Heritage Board


Bowrey was a trader who travelled to Madras from England in 1669, before voyaging onwards to the Malay world. During his time, he is said to have compiled a list of Malay words and expressions, predominantly from his time spent in various port cities, and referred to it as basadagang or bahasa dagang. He is said to have reworked an earlier manuscript that had been produced by his uncle, and included notes by a fellow scholar named Thomas Hyde, before publishing it with financial assistance from the English East India Company. The opening pages of the dictionary indicates various names of officials from the EIC who likely supported the publication.


The result is a several hundred page-long dictionary divided into three broad sections: the first, comprising of the dictionary index itself; the second, comprising of various grammar instructions and dialogues and the third, comprising of an index of information about the Islamic calendrical system (hijrah), jawi as well as list of countries.


Print of coin divers along New Harbour (Keppel Harbour)

Reproduced with permission of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Due to their knowledge of the sea, the orang laut communities were essential to the trading and defence needs of various Sultanates prior to the 19th century. Changes in the political landscape however, significantly diminished the role that they played after this period. By the time the British arrived in Singapore, they were seen as vestiges of an obsolete and pre-colonial past. This print, as reproduced in ‘The Illustrated London News’, immortalises this image of the orang laut by portraying them as coin divers off the New Harbour.


Print of Malay tombs published in the ‘Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, 1852-1854

Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill, refers to an area in present-day Fort Canning which is said to have been the site of a 14th century royal palace. Purportedly established by a prince from Palembang who has been referred to as Sang Nila Utama, Bukit Larangan was a symbol of political and cultural authority back then.


It also marked the boundaries between the sacred territory of the citadel, and what laid outside. There were occasions where these boundaries were breached by acts of invasion and betrayal, and they have been documented in various tales of the kingdom. However, following Raffles’ arrival in Singapore in 1819, Bukit Larangan was depicted a site of superstitious and outdated beliefs that had no place in colonial Singapore.

Polities and Forests

In 1849, Malacca-born writer Munshi Abdullah reflected on some of the changes in Singapore shortly after the arrival of the British: “Forests have become nations, whilst [other] nations have become forests”. These changes to the natural and physical environment arose in part due to the colonial impulse to survey, map and document the local flora and fauna. From the works of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to ethnographer Walter William Skeat, there are many examples of colonial studies into the naturistic realm of the Malay world.

However, as the various artefacts in this section show, knowledge of the natural environment was not the sole reserve of the European administration but also reflect indigenous attitudes towards and mastery of the natural environment, and how the colonial administration sometimes relied on and/or obscured such examples of indigenous expertise relating to flora, fauna and supernatural phenomena in order to assert European influence in the region.


Hornbill totem

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


Sightings of hornbills are considered fortuitous in parts of Asia and especially amongst the Dayak communities in Borneo. For this reason, totems such as these were produced as a mark of respect and to endow its owner with good luck. The stylised form of the totem offers a stark contrast to the illustrations from Alfred Russel Wallace’s publication ‘The Malay Archipelago’ in which a variety of hornbills are rendered for the purpose of scientific study.

Quail Trap

Quail trap

Early 20th century
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


This quail trap, made of wiring and wood, is indigenous to this region as seen from the traditional motifs that adorn the top of the trap which have been described as originating from the ancient Langkasuka kingdom of the Malay Peninsula. It serves as evidence of systems of production that predate colonialism in the region, and undermines the depictions of the Malay world as a primitive settlement that was chanced upon by foreign explorers.


Portrait of Ali Wallace

c. 1855 – 1862
Malay Archipelago
Courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library, Smithsonian Libraries


In some cases, European administrations were dependent on the knowledge of indigenous peoples and relied on the latter to conduct their expeditions. Famed British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace was especially reliant on the services of a fifteen-year-old Malay boy named Ali, who accompanied him on various voyages to Ternate, New Guinea and other parts of the region, over the course of a seven-year period. Ali was even credited as being responsible for capturing various birds of paradise in Wallace’s collection.


Model of elephant moving logs

Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


Elephants are culturally revered in various parts of Southeast Asia. In the Malay world, they were often featured carrying members of royalty upon their backs, as seen in images taken by J.W. Birch in the early 1900s. Following the colonial conquest of Southeast Asia, elephants were further regarded as important physical resources in the carriage of goods and people, as well as the construction of infrastructure. They were also deemed as visual spectacles, and were commonly photographed.


Reproduction of ‘De Tigernood Te Singapore’ (‘The Tiger of Singapore’), a print by Heinrich Leutemann

c. 1865
Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore


Leutemann’s print depicts the moment in which an expedition, led by surveyor George Drumgoole Coleman, is attacked by a wild tiger. The incident caused a stir in the press, and was described in a book written by David Cameron, former editor of The Straits Times. It was said that tiger attacks increased in frequency from the 1830s in response to increased urbanisation, and served to reinforce the belief that the British were encroaching into new territories.


Photograph of a tiger hunt in Singapore

c. 1890s
Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore

Wood Panel

Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


The marks on this panel were deliberately retained by the master wood carver to show how the physical and expressive characteristics of a tree (often referred to as its semangat) should be highlighted, rather than obliterated, during the transformation process into pieces of art. In this sense, wood panels such as these are not merely objects of connoisseurship, but products of a highly sophisticated wood-carving tradition that defy European ideas of craft.


Dictionary entitled ‘Maleische Spraakkunst’ (‘Standard Malay Grammar’) by Georg Henrik Werndly

Collection of Malay Heritage Centre,
National Heritage Board


The ‘Maleische Sprakkunst’ is one of the first Dutch-Malay dictionaries to have been produced. It was printed by the Dutch East Indies Company to serve as a linguistic and cultural guide to the native tongue of the Malay Archipelago. The dictionary also contains an index of Malay literary manuscripts that were found by its author, thereby indicating that a vibrant intellectual network was already in place before the arrival of the Dutch.


Painting of Mount Ophir, also known as Gunung Ledang, by British artist James George

Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


This painting of Mount Ophir, also known as Gunung Ledang, references the mountain’s importance as a navigational marker for foreign vessels, and its role in the Malay myth of the ‘Princess of Gunung Ledang’ (Puteri Gunung Ledang). The style of painting is typical of colonial paintings produced of the region during this time, which often depict an idyllic and unspoiled view of nature in the Malay world.


Page from ‘Histoire naturelle du genre humain’ (‘Natural History of the Human Race’) by Julien-Joseph Virey

Courtesy of Wellcome Collection


Indigenous peoples were often seen as an extension of the natural environment in which they lived. As such, their features, behaviours and physical appearance also became the focus of studies about the Malay world, such as this physiognomic study from France. More often than not, these studies were premised on distilling a single Malay type – whether physical or behavioural. This methodology is now regarded as reductive as it overlooks linguistic and cultural differences across the region in favour of a single type.


Spike fiddle (rebab) and bow

Late 19th – early 20th century
Kelantan, Malay Peninsula
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


The rebab is a stringed musical instrument that is used in various performances and rituals in the Malay world, including the main puteri ritual. This ritual is said to have derived from Kelantan, and is premised on healing a person of illnesses caused by malevolent spirits. The ritual’s highly dramatic qualities have been remarked upon since the late 1800s and early 1900s, by European ethnologists such as Jeanne Cuisinier.


Spike fiddle (rebab) and bow

Late 19th – early 20th century
Kelantan, Malay Peninsula
Collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board


The rebab is a stringed musical instrument that is used in various performances and rituals in the Malay world, including the main puteri ritual. This ritual is said to have derived from Kelantan, and is premised on healing a person of illnesses caused by malevolent spirits. The ritual’s highly dramatic qualities have been remarked upon since the late 1800s and early 1900s, by European ethnologists such as Jeanne Cuisinier.

Encountering the West

At the turn of the 18th century, Singapore was located in the heart of a power struggle that took place between the Dutch and the Malay world, as well as within the Malay court.

Within the Johor Sultanate, power was split between a faction led by the Bugis, and a faction led by other members of the court. This power struggle was complicated by the entry of Dutch and British forces into the region in the late 18th century, whose interests in the region manifested in the conquest of Malacca and parts of the Riau Islands, amongst other things.

Amidst this political landscape, Temenggong Abdul Rahman was said to have moved to Singapore in 1818 following a fall-out with Raja Ja’afar in Riau regarding the issue of colonial involvement in the region. It is within this context that the British East India Company, and Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore.


Print entitled ‘Singapore from the Rocky Point’ by John Michael Houghton

Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


This print was produced by John Michael Houghton, who served on board a ship named the H.M.S. Discovery that accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his maiden voyage to Singapore in 1819. This is thought to be the earliest surviving depiction of Singapore following Raffles’ arrival. In the background, beyond the trees, several houses are discernible – these could have been part of the Temenggong’s settlement that was described in Wah Hakim’s account of early Singapore.


Letter written by Tengku Puteri Raja Hamidah to Governor General Gerard van der Capellen

National Library of Indonesia


“…Further, under the orders of the Governor Timmerman Thijssen and Mr Adriaan Koek, the regalia (kerajaan) was taken to be handed over to Sri Paduka Sultan Abdul Rahman. So it was handed over to them as I am merely a woman of age who does not possess the strength and means…”


Print of the British entering Singapore in 1824

Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


78 years after the signing of the 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, illustrator R. Canto Woodville produced this imagined scene of a British official and a Malay ruler travelling on the back of an elephant into Singapore after the signing. Seated next to one another, both the British official and Malay ruler are depicted as co-presiding over the elaborate ceremony. In reality, the terms of the treaty were anything but equal: the British were accorded increased political and economic control over the territory, at the expense of Malay rule.


Photograph of view of Temenggong’s Village at Telok Blangah

c. 1870s
Collection of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


In 1823, the Temenggong’s settlement was relocated to Telok Blangah from its original location at the Singapore River. This new settlement at Telok Blangah subsequently became a subject of criticism amongst British officials, who accused the Temenggong of failing to curb the increase in piracy and violence in the area and its surrounding regions in the Malay peninsula and Archipelago.


Painting entitled ‘View of Singapore from Government Hill’ by J.T. Thomson

Reproduced with permission of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


In 1836, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim became actively involved in British anti-piracy negotiations with various Malay states such as Pahang and Riau. This painting depicts the moment when the Temenggong was awarded a ceremonial sword by the Governor of the Straits Settlements for his assistance in these matters. In spite of this, this ceremony only forms a minor visual detail within the painting’s overall depiction of Singapore’s shoreline, government and mercantile settlements.


Photograph of Malay Sultan flanked by two British governors, Sir Thomas Whitelegge and Samuel Dunlop

Late 19th century
Reproduced with permission of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board


In this photograph, a Malay Sultan, possibly Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore, is flanked by governors Sir Thomas Whitelegge and Samuel Dunlop. Whitelegge and Dunlop were both witnesses to the signing of the 1874 Pangkor Treaty in Perak, in which the British appointed the successor to the Sultanate of Perak and a British resident to the Sultanate. The treaty eventually led to an uprising that resulted in the death of the first appointed British resident in Perak, J.W. Birch.

Tales of Our Shores

The establishment of a British trading post in Singapore in 1819, followed by the 1824 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance has foregrounded much of present-day understandings of trade, sovereignty and politics in Singapore. These treaties cemented Singapore’s eventual position as a British colony while eclipsing Singapore’s historical and cultural links to the wider Malay world.

Fortunately, these links are preserved in folk tales, literary manuscripts, documents and artefacts found across the Malay peninsula and Archipelago. Composed of both tangible and intangible mediums, the aforementioned historical sources also rarely remain unchanged over time, as new discoveries and insights are bound to emerge which may challenge and/or enrich one’s understanding of history, and by extension, one’s identity.

The Singapore Bicentennial offers Singaporeans with an opportunity to revisit inherited narratives and to refract these narratives through the lens of other perspectives – in this case, perspectives from the Malay world. In this concluding section, artefacts from more recent times are featured in order to illustrate how history is still constantly being revisited, (re)presented, refracted and reinvented.


Graphic novel entitled ‘Permaisuri Melaka’ (‘Princess of Malacca’)

c. 1950s – 1960s
Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board

Graphic novel entitled ‘Si Badang’ (‘The Badang’)

c. 1950s – 1960s
Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board