Singapore’s shifting roles through the centuries

11 October, 2019

Photo: ‘The horizon of Singapore filled with ships’ from SRN’s SG Photobank

The study of Singapore’s history across the past 700 years reveals key continuities and discontinuities. In an editorial in The Straits Times, Associate Professor Peter Borschberg (NUS Department of History) highlights two insights from Singapore’s distant past – firstly, Singapore was and remains a contested space and secondly, Singapore had shifting roles across the centuries.

Being strategically located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and along the Singapore and Malacca Straits, Singapore and its adjacent waters have historically been coveted both for commercial and military interests. This has resulted in contestations between Majapahit and Siam in the 1300s, Aceh and Portugal in the 1500s, Portugal and The Netherlands in the 1600s, and Britain and The Netherlands in the 1700s. A/P Borschberg points out that Singapore is still located in a contested space and that the relative stability enjoyed over the past two centuries is historically the exception rather than the norm.

The strategic importance of Singapore also explains its different functions throughout history, such as being an emporium for jungle and marine produce destined for the Chinese market in the 14th century, a flashpoint during Portuguese-Dutch military confrontations in the 17th century, and a British trading port in the 19th century. A/P Borschberg notes that these developments had less to do with domestic policies than with the greater geopolitical forces outside of Singapore.

Taking into account the changing roles of Singapore amidst varying contestations in the area throughout history, A/P Borschberg stresses that Singapore’s survival has depended on its ability to reinvent and adapt itself to changing circumstances, and that this is unlikely to change in the future.

Read the article here.