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  • Writer's pictureMario Teng

EP. 3 - BAD BLOOD

EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Iskandar's reign spelt disaster for the Kingdom of Singapura. When the dust settled, there would not be a kingdom left to speak of.


 

SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!

Image mattered a lot to the Malay society of fifteenth-century Melaka. Acts of shame and humiliation were seen as highly injurious to their sense of status in society and self-worth. Overreactions to perceived threats to one's dignity were not only common, but also expected and accepted by society. In fact, the concept of shame was codified into laws. When dealing with cases related to shame, the laws often took into consideration the aggrieved party's anger and desire to defend his honour, letting him off lightly or even scot-free. For example, if a man slapped another, the person on the receiving end was allowed to kill the offender within three days, but if the killing was carried out after three days, a fine would be imposed instead. Human life was not held in very high regard and killing was a justifiable redress for most wrongs.


Of course, that does not mean that the Melakan Malay society was anarchic with wanton violence. It was tempered by customs, traditions, and conventions that kept the fabric of society together, with the Melakan sultan at the centre of social order and power. Anyone who refused to conform and acted as they pleased was deemed a threat to society—and its ruler—and thus socially excluded or punished accordingly.


More interestingly, the Malays defined shame differently. We are familiar with defining shame as the sense of humiliation that we feel as a result of wrong or foolish behaviours. However, shame in the Melakan society was not just limited to one's actions and behaviours, but also one's physiology—defects in physical appearances or disgusting diseases—and psychology. In fact, festering sores, abscesses, abnormalities in skin pigmentation—especially in genitalia—and mental illnesses were all listed as reasonable grounds for the family of a spouse to demand compensation or reparations from the family of the other spouse.




PARAMESWARA OR ISKANDAR SHAH?

Chinese, Portuguese, and Malay sources do not tell a congruent story about the founding of Melaka. The identity of the first and/or second sultan remains unclear because while the name Parameswara appears in Chinese and Portuguese accounts, Chinese and Malay records also allude to the existence of an Iskandar Shah, sultan of Melaka, within a similar timeframe. In 1411, Parameswara visited the Ming court to establish diplomatic contact but three years later, in 1414, Iskandar Shah was the name that popped up.


In general, scholars agree that Parameswara was the founder of the Melakan Sultanate but when it came to the identity of Iskandar Shah, the room was split into two camps. The first camp postulated that Parameswara and Iskandar Shah were the same person, with Iskandar Shah being that the name that Parameswara adopted after he had converted to Islam.


However, the second camp believed that they were two different persons. They pointed out that the Ming imperial annals stated that the first ruler of the Melakan Sultanate passed in 1413 and recorded Iskandar Shah as the son of Parameswara and succeeding Melakan sultan—a fact which the first camp had rejected as an administrative error by the Ming court after cross-referencing Portuguese sources—and further argued that since Parameswara had visited the Chinese emperor in 1411, it was unlikely that the emperor would mistake him for his son just three years later.


As with many of such disputes, it is hard to confirm which is which without new evidence.




CALCULATING DATES FOR THE MALAY ANNALS:

Historians suspected that the original Malay Annals featured dates to provide chronology to the stories but as the text underwent several rounds of rewriting and updates through the decades, subsequent writers and compilers eventually omitted dates. The surviving versions of the Malay Annals that we have today contain no dates, only the length of reign of each ruler or their age when they died. If that is the case, then why is 1299 listed as the year that Sri Tri Buana found the Kingdom of Singapura in contemporary sources? How did historians come up with that date?


To assess the veracity of the Malay Annals, historians need to compare and contrast the description of events with other sources to see how well they match up. However, with ancient texts such as the Malay Annals, it is difficult, even impossible, to locate reliable sources because record-keeping media and technologies were limited and expensive. The hot and humid climate of Southeast Asia was especially harsh to paper, scrolls, and books. Other forms of record-keeping such as sculptures, pottery art, or monuments made it difficult and cumbersome to capture all the details. Instead, they focused on dramatising and embellishing the story with more imaginative elements to appeal and entertain the masses. Consequently, it is hard for us today to determine the extent of accuracy of the Malay Annals.


However, Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of Singapura and the founder of the Melakan Sultanate as cited in the Malay Annals, did appear in the Ming imperial annals as well. Hence, we can conclude that this character or person or period did have some basis in reality. The Ming imperial annals also revealed that the first Melakan sultan died in 1413. If that were true, we can trace back the chronology of succession detailed in the Malay Annals—in terms of regnal periods of each king—with the year 1413 as the anchor point. We would arrive 114 years back into the past, in the year 1299.


 


ABOUT THE PODCAST:

The Story of Singapore is a history podcast created by Mario Teng, tracing the historical and political developments of Singapore, from a backwater kingdom in the 1300s to an economic miracle by the turn of the 21st century.

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EP. 0 - THE PREFACE

So much of who we are is where we have been. History may not seem all that important in this modern world but as we venture into a future...

EP. 2 - FIVE KINGS

The Kingdom of Singapura was ruled by a line of five kings. Each of them had a story that defined their reign.

EP. 4 - THE SANDS OF TIME

Empires rose, empires fell. Powerful geopolitical forces conspired to shape Southeast Asia’s developments in the centuries to come.

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