Vol 11 Issue 4, Jan-Mar 2016

Highlights of the National Library

The First Newspaper

Long before the advent of modern communications and transportation systems, merchants in 19th-century Singapore relied on the humble newspaper to track shipping arrivals and departures. As the movement of cargo, people and mail was key to the island’s rise as a maritime port, the Singapore Chronicle‘s chief task was to disseminate commercial information and news.

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A Dictionary that Bridged Two Races

Soon after Singapore gained independence in 1965, the government announced that English would be the lingua franca that would unite the linguistically diverse population. But attempts to forge a common language in Singapore had begun as early as the 19th century, when Chinese migrants to Singapore – the majority of whom spoke Southern Min dialects(闽南语) such as Hokkien – tried to communicate with the Malay-speaking indigenous population.…

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Through the Eye Glass

The journal Cermin Mata Bagi Segala Orang Yang Menuntut Pengetahuan is among the earliest Malay serial publications existing today. Translated literally as An “Eye Glass for All Who Seek Knowledge”, it was one of the most ambitious and voluminous of all 19th-century missionary journals printed in Malaya. Seven issues of Cermin Mata in Jawi – the modified Arab script used to write the Malay…

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A Glimpse Of 1930s Singapore

Imagine reading this about Singapore in a travel guide: “one of the cesspools of the world”, a place with “no ancient history, no romantic background”, “a paradise for second-class people”, a city with “wild night-life and opium dens”, and having a “terrible climate” that causes “bad health”. An erudite Singapore-born Englishman who disagreed with these swipes about the island felt compelled to write a book…

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A Handy Cookbook

In the days before eating at a hawker centre became so commonplace, housewives in Singapore would routinely whip up freshly cooked meals for their families. No good kitchen would be complete without condiments such as sambal belachan (a fiery concoction of chilli and shrimp paste) and tau cheo (fermented bean paste). Yet until the 1950s, cookbooks featuring homespun Asian recipes just did not exist.…

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Hear Ye Hear Ye

In Singapore, notifications of all new laws passed by parliament are officially announced in the government gazette, a time-honoured practice that continues to this day. One of its earliest iterations was the Straits Government Gazette, published in 1858 when Singapore was still a part of the Straits Settlements and under the government of the Colonial Office of Calcutta in India. Similar in content to…

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The first English and Malay Dictionary

The first-ever English and Malay dictionary was written by an unlikely swashbuckling British trader by the name of Thomas Bowrey. More interestingly, it was published in 1701, more than a century before Stamford Raffles even set foot in Singapore. The hefty 594-page bi-directional dictionary – in English-Malay and Malay- English – includes 468 pages of words and definitions, a section on Malay rules of…

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Stories of Abdullah

Quite ironically, the most detailed account of Stamford Raffles’ momentous arrival in Singapore was captured by a man who was not even there. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, gathered reports from those present to piece together a version of the events that occurred during Raffles’ first arrival to Singapore on 29 January 1819. This landmark narrative is included in his autobiography Hikayat…

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English Nursery Rhymes with a Malay Spin

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…

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Indian Muslim Devotional Poems

The early Indian Muslims who settled in Singapore in the 1800s brought with them a varied heritage: their skills as shopkeepers and office workers, their unique customs and beliefs, and a tradition of devout poetry. Indeed, their religious faith was a key source of solace for these transplanted Muslims from the southern part of India, who often expressed their piety in the form of verse.…

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When Singapore Was Cinca Pula

A 455-year-old map of Southeast Asia tells of the seafaring adventures of 16th-century voyagers, whose journeys took them to exciting, uncharted territories waiting to be explored. As the intrepid voyagers discovered new trade routes in Asia, these unknown lands slowly came into prominence. We are familiar with most of them today; one, in particular, stands out – a place indicated on the map as…

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Legends of the Malay Kings

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…

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Propaganda Paper

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…

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The Book That Almost Didn’t Happen

By John Henry Moor’s reckoning, the book he published in December 1837 was beset with failures. Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and Adjacent Countries had been intended as the first part of a magnum opus that the Singapore newspaper editor had grandly announced in 1835. Moor’s goal was to print a massive compendium comprising two volumes: one compiling reprints of articles first published in…

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The Map That Opened up Southeast Asia

By the late 16th century, the Portuguese had dominated the trade in Southeast Asia for nearly a hundred years. Its monopoly depended on closely guarded knowledge about the best sailing routes to the region, known as the East Indies at the time. But a Dutchman called Jan Huygen van Linschoten changed the course of history for Singapore and Southeast Asia by deciphering the secrets…

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Raffles’ Letters Of Intrigue

Singapore was almost not founded by Stamford Raffles. Four letters that detail Raffles’ passionate defence to establish a British trading outpost on the island in 1819 offer insight into the objections he faced from the Dutch as well as his own British masters. Written between 1820 and 1823 to Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, the letters reveal the lengths that Raffles…

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Logan’s Journal

In the pre-Wikipedia era, scientific and literary knowledge was mainly documented in the form of periodicals and journals. In the early 19th century, most of such publications in circulation in the region comprised missionary-related magazines and Dutch-produced scientific journals of Java. But one local publication stood out for its single-minded focus on the thriving scientific and literary activity within the Straits Settlements. The Journal of the…

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A Portuguese Map of Sincapura

Originally drawn in 1604, Discripsao chorographica dos estreitos de Sincapura e Sabbam. ano. 1604 (Chorographic Description of the Straits of Sincapura and Sabbam 1604 A.D) is one of the earliest maps to depict pre-colonial Singapore, and more importantly, identifies recognisable names of places – Sunebodo (Sungei Bedok), Tanamena (Tanah Merah), Tanion Ru (Tanjong Rhu) and an island called Blacan Mati (Pulau Blakang Mati or Sentosa)…

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In Aid of the Motherland

Fundraising activities can tell us a lot about the people in need and those who raise the funds for them. A rare publication titled Singapore Tong Seok Dramatic Association Charity Performance for the Shantung Relief Fund (星洲通俗白话剧团演 剧筹赈山东惨灾会特刊), commemorating a fundraising performance that took place in early 20th-century Singapore, gives us a glimpse of exactly…

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An Expat’s Impressions of Singapore

Love it or hate it, most people find expatriates’ accounts of Singapore endlessly fascinating. One of the earliest newspaper columnists was Charles Burton Buckley, whose writings on Singapore were published as early as 1902 – the first of its kind at the time. This two-volume work spans 48 years of Singapore history from its founding in 1819 to the transfer from the British East…

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Malaya Through One Man’s Eyes

In the early 1900s, there were few authoritative resources that could provide an accurate picture of Malaya’s colonial history. That changed in 1906, when the book British Malaya was published. Written by Frank Swettenham, the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States (FMS), the book details the history of the Straits Settlements ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang – in particular, the establishment of…

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