Everyone knows the story behind “Singapura” – Malay prince Sang Nila Utama lands on an unsuspecting Temasek, only to see a majestic beast roaming the bay area. According to the Malay Annals, the beast was slightly bigger than a goat and had a body red as fire, head black as coal and breast white as ash. It was clearlya lion, said the prince’s chief minister. Nevertheless, Sang Nila Utama decided to build his new city in Temasek and founded Singapura – or Lion City.
But as most people would point out, no lion has ever stepped foot, or paw, on this island. Even the Annal’s description of a lion seems far-fetched, and the only animal that historians suggest could have matched this description – at least if you squinted hard, was a tiger. Our glorious island would’ve been named Harimaupura, after the orange-black striped Malaysian tiger that were indeed natives of the island.
Or perhaps, the beast was merely mythical – a janggifrom the folklore of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. It was a fearsome creature who guarded gold mines, and its dark red hair adorn the Minangkabau’s lances. Of course, later it was found that the hair was most likely from a much friendlier animal, the orang utan.
Yet another take on the legend is that it, in itself, is completely fictional.
Instead, the epithet of Lion City was perhaps adopted by Parameswara, the last King of Malaysia and Singapore. In 1392, the king had been driven out by the Javanese from his own kingdom. His arrival in Temasek, as it was known then, was less of a royal visit and more of a James Bond movie – as the king killed the local ruler and allegedly renamed the city Singapura as an act of defiance against his opponents, and a claim to legitimacy over the island itself.
Others believe even the core reading of Singapura as Lion City is erroneous in itself – they claim that the word Singain Singapura doesn’t mean “Lion” like many believe, but rather, simply means “stop over”, as in a stopover place. Singapura would indeed have functioned as a rest area for weary travelers and merchants in the Peninsula – even before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived, Singapore was a well-known port city.
However, even before Singapura, we had the title Temasek, from the Malay word Tasikto mean lake or sea and interpreted simply as “The Town surrounded by the Sea”. Some of the earliest documents mentioned Temasek in a Vietnamese eulogy for a forgotten prince, and in Dao yi zhi lue, translated as “A Brief Account of Island Barbarians” as written by Wang Dayuan, a Chinese trader who wrote about his travels to the Peninsula.
Within his writings, Singapore was mentioned as three parts – first as Temasek, the general area of Singapore and its neighboring islands, then as Longyamen or Dragon’s Tooth Strait, most probably the waterway between Sentosa Island and Labrodor Point, and finally as Banzu or Pancur, a Malay word to mean “Spring of water”.
Much like the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Banzu and Longyamen were two almost entirely different places, at war with each other. In Banzu, the Malay natives coexisted in harmony with the Chinese, much like in modern Singapore. Yet, cross over to Longyamen and all hell would seem to break loose – as many a cautionary tale was told of pirates in Longyamen who would attack ships with poisoned darts and blowguns. The victims of Longyamen would be welcomed with open arms to Banzu to recuperate.
Other than Singapura, Temasek or even Banzu and Longyamen, Singapore was also given a different name by 16thcentury voyagers and cartographers who navigated the waters and charted maps. In a 455-year old map of Southeast Asia, one of the first early modern maps of the area and known as India Tercera Nuova Tvola, Singapore was known as Cinca Pula, referring to it’s natural landscape as a promontory or cape. In other words, the name Cinca Pula was derived as such as the island has a point of high land that juts out into the sea, located where Fort Fullerton is at the western mouth of the Singapore River.
Before all this, however, one of the first true mentions of Singapore came from a 3rdcentury Chinese record describing the island of Pu Luo Chung, from the Malay word Pulau Ujong or “island at the end” – as in the end of the Malay Peninsula, a rather on-the-nose name, much like many of Singapore’s other names. Within the written record, a hearsay account tells of cannibals living on the island with tails that were 5 to 6 inches in length.
Regardless of what Sang Nila Utama saw in Singapore or which name is Singapore’s “True” name, our history from “Singapura” onwards is well known and codified in our Social Studies textbooks and in our minds – years after, Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore as we know it and our island city has continued to progress ever since.
Yet, our history might seem short and uneventful when compared to the rich tapestries of the Royal family in the United Kingdom or the historical battles fought in the United States – a flimsy book of legends and myths juxtaposed with the gruesome tales of plagues and serial murderers in Europe or dynasties and forbidden palaces in China.
On the surface, that may ring true – but dig deeper. Singapore’s history extends far longer than we have been led to believe as even a name can hold in itself deep meaning for our island ancestors.