Letter: Malays were already in Singapore before Raffles came

by Hidayah Amin

In the recent National Day Rally speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he mentioned that “Orang Melayu tiba secara beramai-ramai di Singapura sejak kedatangan Stamford Raffles. Mereka termasuklah Orang Laut, orang Melayu dari Johor dan Riau…”

Translated to mean, “The Malays arrived en masse in Singapore after the arrival of Stamford Raffles. They included the Sea Gypsies, the Malays from Johor and Riau…”

Unfortunately, in my view, some people may wrongly construe this statement to mean or mistakenly form the impression that the Malays had migrated to Singapore only after Raffles established a free port.

According to historical records, Singapore became a place of Malay settlement following the decline of the Srivijaya Empire in the 14th century. This is the period when the Srivijayan prince, Sang Nila Utama, arrived in Temasik (Singapore’s old name). When Raffles stepped onto the shores of Singapore, there was already a settlement along the Singapore River which included several hundred Orang Laut. Temenggong Abdul Rahman had established a village (Kampong Temenggong) with a group of Orang Gelam from Bulan Island. Furthermore, not many people are aware of Section 152(2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore where the government “recognised the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore”.

Although Singapore celebrates its bicentennial this year, our Singapore story had existed many centuries ago. Even though the British East India Company was perceived as a key player to modernising Singapore, we must not forget that Singapore was never a “sleepy Malay fishing village”. Flemish gem trader Jacques de Coutre wrote in his memoirs how Sabandaria’s (name given to present-day Singapore) harbour was “one of the best in all of the East Indies” during the 16th and 17th centuries. And the Malays had contributed to that bustling harbour.


This letter was first sent to the Straits Times Forum on 25 August but not published