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Was Singapore Just a Fishing Village before Raffles?


Raffles and his role in Singapore history loom large in public consciousness. However, the history of Singapore as a trading hub did not start with Raffles in 1819. There is ample evidence that a kingdom of Singapura and thriving sea port existed over 500 years before Raffles stepped foot on Singapore.

Between 1299 to 1398, there was a kingdom of Singapura which d
uring its heyday was a major sea port hosting traders from Arabia, India, Malay archipelago and China.

The Sejarah Malayu or Malay Annals was originally titled Sulalatus Salatin or Genealogy of Kings. The Malay Annals written in Jawi around the 1400s to 1500s recorded the stories of kings that ruled the Malacca sultanate till it fell to the Portuguese in 1511.

The Malay Annals starts with Sang Nila Utama, the founder of the kingdom of Singapura in 1299. After five reigns over 99 years, the fifth king of Singapura, Parameswara fled to Malacca in 1398 to escape from Majapahit invaders from Java.

The stories in the Malay Annals were romanticised and mixed with legends and fantastical outlandish tales. However, historical artefacts exist to prove the veracity of some of the factual undergirding of the stories. As such, the Sejarah Malayu is itself evidence of the existence of the kingdom of Singapura.

(Image of Malay Annals courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In the Malay Annals, there is a story of 
Badang Sadim Sani, a strong man who served under Raja Sri Rana Wicrama, the third king of the kingdom of Singapura (reign 1362 to 1375).

A strong man Nadi Bijaya from India came to challenge Badang Sadim Sani in feats of strength. After a succession of inconclusive contests, a large boulder was chosen to decide the champion. Nadi Bijaya struggled to lift the boulder to his knee. Badang lifted it above his head and even threw the boulder into the mouth of Singapore River.

When Raffles arrived in 1819, a large sandstone slab roughly 3 metre by 3 metre and 150 cm thick stood at the mouth of Singapore River. The large slab was blown up in 1843 as it was obstructing ship traffic in and out of Singapore River.

A fragment of this sandstone slab with yet undeciphered engraved inscriptions is now kept at the National Museum of Singapore. Known as the Singapore Stone, it is one of 11 National Treasures of Singapore.

(Image of the Singapore Stone courtesy of Wikipedia.)


This lead statuette is known as "Headless Horseman" due to its missing head. The headless horseman carrying a spear riding a winged horse was excavated in 1998 at Empress Place beside Singapore River. It is dated 1300s i.e. during the heyday of the kingdom of Singapura (1299 - 1398).

This precious statuette is now displayed at the National Museum of Singapore (where I took these pictures).


This gold armlet was excavated in 1926 when workers were digging to build a reservoir at Fort Canning Hill. Known as the "Majapahit Gold" it is also dated 1300s. It was found near Keramat Sultan Iskandar Shah, a shrine dedicated to the last king of Singapura who in 1398 fled to Malacca and founded the new sultanate there in 1400.

The motif is the Hindu deity Batara Kala, creator of light and the earth, and god of time and destruction. Keeping Batara Kala appeased prevents misfortunes so the armlet may have been worn for protective purposes.

The gold armlet reflects the affluence of the kingdom of Singapura and its close ties with the mighty Majapahit empire based in Java which ruled the Malay archipelago from 1293 to 1527.

The gold armlet kept at the National Museum of Singapore is one of the National Treasures of Singapore.


This Chinese Ming dynasty era porcelain shard is just one of thousands excavated at Empress Place in front of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall in 2015. The porcelain are dated 1375 and 1425.

The sheer volume of these shards indicates the size of trade and depth of relationship between the kingdom of Singapura (1299 - 1398) and China's Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644). The quality of these porcelain hints at the affluence level of the kingdom of Singapura.

A Chinese trader Wang Dayuan 汪大渊 travelled to the Malay archipelago between 1330 and 1339. He wrote a travelogue A Brief Account of Island Barbarians 岛夷志略 about his adventures.

In his book, Wang Dayuan mentioned his visit to the kingdom of Singapura in Temasek 淡马锡 in 1330. Wang Dayuan described Tamasek as a busy port where traders came for hornbill casques, lakawood, red gold, blue satin among other goods.

Wang Dayuan said the island was inhabited by farmers (whom he called Banzu) and pirates (probably Orang Laut). There was also a small Chinese settlement (probably to facilitate trade).

The Bute Map produced in 1820 by 
Lieutenant Henry Ralfe of the Bengal Artillery, then Assistant Engineer of Singapore is the closest map of Singapore at the time of Raffles landing in 1819.

Raffles saw a small riverside village with wooden houses on stilts, people living on boats, swamps, and forested hills beyond. The only significant structure was the Temenggong's palace which was probably a large wooden house.

When Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819, the island was a mere shadow of the once glorious kingdom of Singapura. The last king of the kingdom of Singapura, Parameswara fled to Malacca in 1398 to escape invaders from Java.

There, Parameswara founded the Malacca sultanate in 1400 and became known as Sultan Iskandar Shah. Singapore remained within the realm of the Malacca sultanate but at the fringe as Malacca city was the capital of the sultanate.

When Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, the Malay royals fled south and established the Johor sultanate. The capital of the Johor sultanate moved around Johor and the Riau islands to avoid destruction by rivals. Singapore was a secondary trading post and naval station of the Johor sultanate.
In 1641, the Johor sultanate helped the Dutch to drive the Portuguese out of Malacca. The Johor sultanate and Dutch East India Company co-existed peacefully but undercurrents intensified when the Dutch established the colony of Dutch East Indies in 1800.


When Raffles arrived at the scene in 1819, the capital of the Johor sultanate was in the Riau islands and Singapore was a backwater. Yes, the Singapore Raffles first saw was indeed the proverbial "fishing village" with some 200 inhabitants by Raffles' own estimate.

In 2019, a statue of Sang Nila Utama who first arrived in Singapore 720 years earlier in 1299 was temporarily installed beside the statue of Raffles to mark the bicentennial of the latter's landing in Singapore in 1819.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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Date: 9 Nov 2020

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