Rise and Fall of Temasek

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 507-27, 532-40:

Archaeologists give us a sense of Temasek’s physical features: a terraced hill overlooking the Singapore River with a palace, market, defenses, earthen rampart, and moat. The earthen wall represented a commitment to permanence. Not even royal palaces commanded permanent building materials. But we do have some baked brick and stone remnants from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries suggesting Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, during the early British colonial era, much was destroyed in the rush for development. And therefore the legend could arise, and long lingered in the standard histories, that nothing had existed in Singapore until the British arrived in 1819.

Being a religious center as well as a commercial one, Temasek seems to fit into a pattern of the Malay port city, its wall being an exception. Religion reflected Indic impulses, not Chinese. The hilltop held cosmological significance, representing Mount Meru, known in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu tradition as a divine abode and metaphysical center of the universe. For creating this sacred place, the builders, because they lacked labor, used a natural landscape, not a constructed one such as at the great Angkor. They then carefully allotted the downward spaces, using walls and water to define them. Divinities commanded the top; artisans lived at a respectful distance on a lower level of the hill where they fashioned such objects as pottery, glassware, and fine jewelry.

Chinese people, perhaps the first Overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia, lived there alongside local peoples instead of in their own separate neighborhood, illustrating the diversity of this maritime town, serving as useful intermediaries in the China trade, so important in the economy. Of Temasek they reported “the soil is poor and grain scarce.”

The need to survive thus demanded trade. Coins show sophistication, and unearthed pieces of fine porcelain would indicate that people wanted high-quality ceramics not ones locally produced. Temasek thus took its place in the “ceramic route,” a southern Eurasian maritime equivalent to the continental Silk Road. Heavy and delicate porcelain could travel in volume only by sea. In return for such prized Chinese goods, the town could feed the overseas market with a luxury item, hornbill casques, so-called yellow jade, a precious bird ivory that had the advantage of being something that the Chinese highly prized and was easier to carve than other ivories.

Two poles of power, Siam and Java-Sumatra, met in the straits where these Malay city-state ports like Temasek or Palembang on Sumatra enjoyed an autonomy deriving from the ability of their rulers to generate wealth through commerce, as does today’s Singapore. Like today, the broader Asian economy largely determined what happened on Singapore Island. Local people were players in a game heavily determined by outsiders, principally Chinese and Indians, the two Eurasian super economies.

Caught between the Thai (Siamese) and the Javanese, the ruler of Temasek fled and the population followed. It had lasted only a century, yielding to the nearby port of Melaka, which benefited from cultivating a close relationship with the Chinese court. Temasek/Singapura declined as a trading state or as a political nerve center and ultimately the site was virtually abandoned. That was how the British would find it when they came early in the nineteenth century. But it continued to be important in Malayan history, figuring heavily in its mythology and remembered as the founding home of the dynasty that would flourish elsewhere in the region: successively in Melaka, Johor, and the nearby Riau Archipelago.

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Filed under China, economics, food, Indonesia, labor, Malaysia, migration, Southeast Asia, Thailand

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