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history of singapore

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As part of the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Singapore’s founding, a book was commissioned to detail the history and contributions of the colony’s Chinese community. This became the classic text, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, which chronicles 19th-century Chinese society in Singapore from 1819 to 1919. The 602-page tome also serves as an excellent reference on the who’s who in Singapore’s early Chinese community, particularly the Straits Chinese elites. Originally envisioned as individual chapters in another seminal publication, One Hundred Years of Singapore, the history of the Chinese in Singapore proved weighty enough for the book’s editors – Walter Makepeace, Gilbert Edward Brooke and Roland St. John Braddell – to spin it off as a separate title. Song Ong Siang was asked to write the book, and it was published in London by James Murray in 1923 (and not in 1902 as stated on…

The implementation of English law in Singapore, along with Penang and Malacca, is detailed in Roland St. John Braddell’s landmark The Law of the Straits Settlements: A Commentary. Although this book is not the first attempt at documenting the legal history of Singapore, it has, nonetheless, contributed significantly to its study, and is regarded as a classic by scholars even today. In the 1890s, a group of Peranakan (Straitsborn Chinese) intellectuals decided to publish a magazine for the Straits community in Malaya. Singapore’s legal system can trace its origins to the British colonial era when it first adopted the English legal system. The First Charter of Justice Singapore was established on 6 February 1819, when Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and Temenggong Abdul Rahman to establish a trading post in Singapore. Earlier in 1807, the British Crown had granted the British East India Company the First Charter of Justice to establish a Court of Judicature in…

Many of us would recognise nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns”, but reading Malay versions of these typically British children’s poems in a culturally misplaced context takes some getting used to. A collection of whimsical nursery rhymes given a delightful Malayan spin is the subject of an illustrated compendium published in 1939. Titled Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, the collection features Malay translations of 100 popular English nursery rhymes. To appeal to its readers, some words in the poems were replaced with local equivalents to give the translated versions a distinctly Malayan flavour. The book is presented in a bilingual format, with the English nursery rhyme immediately followed by its Malay translation (some with accompanying music compositions by H. A. Courtney), and is interspersed with beautiful illustrations. The drawings mostly feature multi-racial characters and settings typical of the era. Additionally, the book contains a glossary of Malay words to help readers with a rudimentary knowledge of Malay to have a better understanding of its contents. According to its…

This edition of the Qur’an in the National Library is unique because it is one of the earliest extant copies to have been printed at Kampong Gelam in Singapore. The date of its publication, “13th Rajab in the (Islamic) year 1286” corresponds to 19 October 1869. This information in Jawi (Malay written in modified Arabic script), along with the address of the printer – Lorong Masjid Sultan Ali Iskandar – in the Kampong Gelam area, is indicated in the colophon or publisher’s imprint, at the end of the book. In addition, the colophon also contains the name of the printer (Haji Muhammad Nuh bin Haji Ismail) and the copyist (Tengku Yusof bin Tengku Ibrahim). Pre-20th-century Southeast Asian Qur’ans, whether handwritten or printed, are generally scarce because the region’s tropical climate is not conducive to the preservation of paper-based materials. Colophons especially, if they are even included in the book, do not often survive as they undergo much wear and tear due to their placement at the front or end pages. This rare copy of…

Written in the 14th century and set during the last days of China’s Han dynasty and the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period (circa AD 220–280), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a well-known Chinese classic of epic proportions and a cast of thousands. In the late 1800s, a Baba Malay version of this classic was published in Singapore – making this popular tale more accessible to the Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) community. Titled as Chrita Dahulu-kala, Namanya Sam Kok, Atau, Tiga Negri Ber-prang: Siok, Gwi, Sama Gor di Jaman “Han Teow” (henceforth referred to as Sam Kok), the series consists of 30 volumes translated from Chinese to Baba Malay. The translation was done by Chan Kim Boon, an administrator at law firm Aitken & Rodyk, with the help of two other people, Chia Ann Siang and Tan Kheam Hock. Published between 1892 and 1896 by Kim Sek Chye Press, the entire series totalled some 4,622 pages, and a single volume was sold at a $1 each. Sam Kok is most likely the earliest complete Malay translation of Romance…

An Indian migrant brings his wife to Singapore in the late 19th century to watch the island’s horse races. As the couple travel around the British colony, the husband,N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, describes each building and street they pass to his wife, painting a verbal picture of turn-of-the century Singapore. The travelogue, written in the form of a poem, is the first non-religious Tamil book to be printed in Singapore and notable for breaking new ground in the Tamil literature scene – using colloquialisms such as kampong (village), pasar (market) and kopi (coffee) at a time when most Tamil literature was written in classical Tamil. Published in 1893, Athivinotha Kuthirai Panthaiya Lavani (which translates into English as An Anthology on Horse Racing), the title of the book is misleading as only a small section of its contents is devoted to the sport of horseracing. For the most part the book reads like a travelogue of Singapore. Penned by the husband, N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, the anthology is divided into two broad sections.…

The Sejarah Melayu is considered by scholars as an important literary work on the history and genealogy of the Malay kings of the Malacca Sultanate (1400–1511). Partially composed in the 17th century in Jawi – the modified Arabic script used to express the Malay language – the title is derived from its original Arabic name, Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of Kings). But few are aware that its first English translation in the early 19th century, the Malay Annals, was actually undertaken by a Scotsman. His name was John Leyden, a close friend of the founder of modern Singapore, Stamford Raffles, and a prominent figure of the Scottish Enlightenment movement of the late 18th century. The book, published in 1821, is the earliest English translation of the epic work, and opened up the world of Malay history and literature to 19th century colonial scholars. In some ways, the book was so revolutionary that it overshadowed the handwritten Jawi manuscript, as well as the printed Jawi version by the learned scholar Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (also known as Munshi…

For a brief period in its history – 43 months to be exact, during World War II – Singapore was known by a different name. Between 15 February 1942 and 12 September 1945, Japanese-occupied Singapore was referred to as Syonan-to (昭南島), or “Brilliant Southern Island”, by its new masters. Syonan-to soon became a regional distribution centre for news, magazines and Japanese propaganda. Among the publications were two Singapore-based dailies that borrowed the island’s wartime name. Positioned as the leading broadsheets for the Southern Regions – Japan’s name for its annexed territories in Southeast Asia – the newspapers today provide a wealth of archival information about daily life during the Occupation years. The first issue of The Shonan Times, dated 20 February 1942, was printed in English at 140 Cecil Street, the former premises of The Straits Times, Singapore’s English daily that the Japanese forces took over. The very next day, the paper was renamed The Syonan Times and sold for five cents each. On 8 December 1942, the publication was renamed again, to Syonan Sinbun, this…

A 1946 photograph from the opening of the War Crimes Trials held in Singapore is a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45) – a dark period in Singapore’s history. The photograph shows members of the court taking an oath. The men in the back row with shaven heads were the first group of Japanese soldiers to be tried in the first of 131 trials held between 21 January 1946 and 12 March 1948. The trials carried out in Singapore were part of the international War Crimes Trials conducted after World War II, the most famous of which was held in Nuremberg, Germany, to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Internationally, these courts were known for establishing new standards of international justice and rights. The reverse side of the photograph bears the watermark of the Crown symbol of the British monarchy and the words “Crown Copyright Reserved”, an indication that the picture must have been taken by an official Crown photographer. The Singapore trials were held in…