Contrary to the colonial narrative, recent findings in archaeology and history have established the vibrancy of pre-modern Singapore. While the 14th century period represents a salient point in the past, questions remain about the role of the maritime node from the time of its decline—also known as the “dark space” in Singapore’s history—to the arrival of the British. This webinar explores the 18th century not only as a complex cycle of transformation in the region but also as one of intrigue in Singapore’s history.
TEMASEK HISTORY RESEARCH CENTRE (THRC)
Monday, 25 April 2022: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Rebel Princes, Sea Skirmishes, and a Royal Plot: 18th-century Singapore’s Changing Fortunes in Perspective”. This was delivered by Mr. Benjamin Khoo Jun Qi, a Research Officer at the THRC. Moderating the session was Mr. Kwa Chong Guan, an Associate Fellow at ISEAS and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Based on a close reading of Dutch and Malay sources, the talk centred on the little-known figure of the Raja Negara of Singapore. It argued that Singapore’s settlement survived into the late 18th century, beyond its surmised destruction in 1613. Furthermore, not only were the Raja Negara’s activities centred in Singapore, but the island was also crucially positioned between the kingdoms of Johor and Siak and served as a zone of refuge for many renegade princes. Despite being a vassal to Malay overlords, the Raja Negara as the chief of the Orang Laut in the Singapore Strait was an influential figure in maritime warfare, trade, and power. But amidst European intervention in the region and widespread political uncertainty in the 18th century, his loyalty was ultimately tested.
To give the audience a better understanding of rebel princes, Mr. Khoo introduced a lesser-known Palembang prince named Pangeran Depati Anum (1715) and drew uncanny parallels with Parameswara who is synonymous with Temasek’s founding four centuries earlier. In his observation of the two princes, Mr. Khoo noted a pattern of refuge, power, loyalty, aggression, and wealth, which served as a formula for rebel princes to attain power. Equally revealing was how Lingga, Siantan, and Singapore were frequented zones of refuge by rebel princes to obtain manpower and launch maritime raids. This comparison highlighted how plausible the Parameswara chapter is in the Temasek story. Additionally, Mr. Khoo talked about the 18th-century Siak prince: Raja Kecil who successfully attacked Johor (1718). This incident not only raised questions about the Raja Negara’s loyalty to Johor but also highlighted the influence and the significance of Singapore’s Orang Laut in the 18th century. Records of this period, although limited, provide some information about Singapore’s role. Dutch naval logs tell us that Singapore was known to them as the “Long Island”. It was not uncommon for passing ships to anchor off the settlement located near a river in Singapore to trade and resupply, which raises interesting prospects about the true location and size of this port. What remained apparent was the constant danger of sea marauders in the narrow Singapore Strait. Maritime aggression escalated in the middle of the century when a spill-over conflict in Siak—between the feuding sons (Raja Alam and Raja Mahmud) of Raja Kecil—engulfed the Dutch, Bugis, Melaka, Johor, and Singapore in a web of conflict. Notably, records showed that the Raja Negara who provided naval assets and contributed intelligence to warring factions was still based in Singapore and that prolonged warfare resulted in severe food shortages in the mid-18th century.
To round off his talk, Mr. Khoo shared two royal plots. The first was hatched by Raja Mahmud to attack Riau from Singapore in 1760. Traders had tipped off the Dutch about the presence of a Siak armada and sought refuge with the Raja Negara of Singapore. This Raja Negara not only refused to hand them over but also informed Johor of the impending threat. In response, the Siak armada blockaded the Singapore settlement for three months, operating and pillaging in the waters off Singapore. Only did the danger of a Dutch intervention persuade Raja Mahmud to withdraw his forces. The second royal plot, which also ended in failure in 1767, involved a rescue operation by Raja Ismail—who had by that time been forced out of Siak—to save the royal house (of Sultan Sulaiman) after successive years of oppression by the Bugis. However, Raja Ismail—now allied with the Raja Negara of Singapore—who fought against the forces of Daeng Kemboja around Singapore eventually lost to the Bugis, forcing the Raja Negara and Raja Ismail to flee to Terengganu. Consequently, while the Bugis (in Riau) rose to power and prosperity, Singapore lost its significance. In conclusion, Mr. Khoo reiterated that the period of Singapore’s obscurity must now be revised—starting in 1770–and that we need to better integrate and situate Singapore in the region and Malay history.
The discussion that followed the presentation touched on a variety of topics regarding the legitimacy of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in local contexts, evidence of Singapore as a trading entrepot in the 18th century, the impact of the 1699 regicide on the Orang Laut, the extent of the Raja Negara’s fief, Dutch interests in Singapore, defining the Raja Negara and the Shahbandaria of Singapore. This webinar was well attended by 128 participants.