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Archaeologist bags inaugural Singapore History Prize

SINGAPORE — The discovery of an undisturbed layer of soil and pottery from the Yuan Dynasty during a test excavation in Fort Canning in 1984 suggested that an ancient community existed in Singapore more than 700 years ago — way before Sir Stamford Raffles even set foot on Singapore in 1819.

Prof John N. Miksic, the inaugural winner of the NUS Singapore History Prize, posing with his book "Singapore & The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 - 1800". Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

Prof John N. Miksic, the inaugural winner of the NUS Singapore History Prize, posing with his book "Singapore & The Silk Road of the Sea, 1300 - 1800". Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

SINGAPORE — The discovery of an undisturbed layer of soil and pottery from the Yuan Dynasty during a test excavation in Fort Canning in 1984 suggested that an ancient community existed in Singapore more than 700 years ago — way before Sir Stamford Raffles even set foot on Singapore in 1819.

A handful of archaeological digs more than two decades later unearthed glass shards, bronze bowls, coins, pottery, among other finds, and proved that Singapore was once a bustling trading port in the 1300s.

These discoveries were published in the book Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800, written by archaeologist John Miksic, whose 491-page tome earned him the inaugural Singapore History Prize on Thursday (Jan 11).

A four-member jury, led by chairman of the National University of Singapore (NUS) East Asian Institute Wang Gungwu, had picked Prof Miksic’s work out of five shortlisted works. In all, there were 29 submissions by local and international scholars. The 71-year-old American was given S$50,000 as part of the award, which is administered by NUS’ history department.

Launched in 2014 in support of the SG50 programme to celebrate the nation’s five decades of independence, the Singapore History Prize is the first prize devoted to the Republic’s history.

Prof Wang said Prof Miksic’s work earned the gong because it laid the foundations for a “fundamental reinterpretation” of Singapore’s history and its place in the larger Asian context.

The question of where Singapore began was on people’s minds for a long time, and there were bits of historical information from literary records that suggested Singapore’s existence before 1819, he said.

For example, Chinese trader Wang Dayuan was the first to write about Southeast Asia in the 13th century. He had mentioned names of places such as Temasek and Longyamen (or Dragon Teeth’s Gate), which some speculated were in reference to Singapore.

The Malay Annals, a genealogical work detailing the line of the Malay Sultanate, had identified ancient Singapore but did not tell if a city or country had existed there.

“Then came the archaeologists,” Prof Wang added. Even though people were not too keen on letting them dig into their grounds initially, he said Prof Miksic had used his skills and patience to nail down the story of ancient Singapore.

“This is what is so remarkable, and why the jury unanimously agreed this is the most important work in Singapore’s history,” he said. “It really extended, firmly established the extension of Singapore’s history back to the 1300s-1400s period.”

Prof Miksic had put together 25 years of archaeological research into the book, which detailed how people during 14th century Singapore processed raw materials, used money, and had specialised occupations.

He was invited to Singapore in 1984 to conduct a test excavation of Fort Canning, before moving to Singapore three years later to teach at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of History. He is now with the university’s Department of Southeast Asian studies.

Thereafter, he participated in other excavation projects, such as those in the Empress Place (1998) and Old Parliament House (2002). Prof Miksic started writing the book in 2003 before it was finally published in 2013.

Adding that he did not expect to win the prize, Prof Miksic said he wrote the book to tell some 1,000 “discoverers” who had volunteered their time to help him with excavations the importance of their work.

“Everyone who worked with me found something,” Prof Miksic said. “They discovered a piece of Singapore’s memory which have been lost and, without them, it would never have been recovered.”

He added: “Also, I’d just like people to know the truth about their past.”

With the history prize in the bag, Prof Miksic’s future plans include working with NUS Press to set up a website on the ancient artefacts found here. It is expected to be ready next month.

His book will also be translated into Mandarin by next year.

The book, retailing at S$58, is available at Kinokuniya bookstores and on the NUS Press website.

Plans to award Singapore History Prize to works on other media

The next Singapore History Prize will be given out in 2020 or 2021 and may be extended to fictional works on different mediums.

The award was introduced in 2014 in support of the programmes to celebrate the nation's five decades of independence, and the first here to be devoted to the country's history. It is to be awarded to an outstanding publication that has made a lasting impact on Singaporeans' understanding of the nation's history.

Administered by the Department of History from the National University of Singapore (NUS), it will be given out every three years and the winner will receive S$50,000.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, senior advisor (university and global relations) at NUS, told reporters that there could be plans to expand the type of works that can qualify for the award. Using the movie 12 Years a Slave as an example, he said that history may sometimes be told more effectively through fiction, movies, comic books and other formats.

"This is still (in) discussion, but we might expand it, because at the end of the day, the goal is to ensure that the citizens of Singapore develop a better understanding of their history," he added.

Prof Mahbubani was part of the four-member jury panel that decided on the first prize winner this year, the book Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea, 1300-1800, by archaeologist John Miksic.

The idea for the prize came from an opinion column Prof Mahbubani wrote in April 2014, calling for Singapore's philanthropists to donate the cash prize for the best history book written on Singapore.

Joking that this was probably his "most successful column ever", he said that a new Singapore citizen responded a few months later to offer S$500,000 under one condition — he wanted to remain anonymous.

The money was placed in an endowment fund where the interest would be used to support the book prize.

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