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  • Writer's pictureMario Teng

EP. 1 - THE BIRTH OF SINGAPURA

EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Much of the early history of Singapore has been lost to time. We begin the story of Singapore from its mythical origins. Strangely enough, it starts with Alexander the Great.


 

AN ISLAMIC ALEXANDER THE GREAT?

Alexander III of Macedon (356 - 323 BCE) was truly one of the greats in Western history. At the age of 20, he succeeded his father as king of Macedon and in just ten years, he embarked on a conquest of Persia and created one of the largest land empires in history, stretching from Greece across the Middle East to parts of Central Asia and encroaching onto the Indian subcontinent. For comparison, the Macedonian Empire in 323 BCE was larger than the Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.


Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire in 323 BCE
Macedonian Empire (323 BCE) at 5.2 million square kilometres. Illustration created by Peter Hermes Furian.
Trajan's Roman Empire in 117 CE
Roman Empire (117 CE) at 5.0 million square kilometres. Illustration created by Peter Hermes Furian.

Alexander's military accomplishments and battlefield successes became the gold standard for later generals—they remain a significant subject of study in military academies today—and he sparked an explosion of Hellenistic arts and culture that endured long after his death in 323 BCE. In fact, Greek culture and theology would become the bedrock for the Roman society and consequently modern Western culture.


So... what is a Macedonian king doing in a Southeast Asian legend when these two are separated by more than 1,500 years and located in two different halves of the Old World?


Well, it seems bizarre that the Malay Annals opened with a mythologised version of Alexander the Great, but it is a testament to his legacy and influence on the cultures of classical antiquity. His exploits and achievements were—quite literally—the stuff of legends, spawning many romanticised accounts especially in the Middle East and Northeast Africa.


Iskandar Zulkernain, the name of the character that the Malay Annals first introduced is derived from two sources: Iskandar being the name variant of Alexander in Persian and Arabic cultures, and Zulkernain being the transliteration of Dhu al-Qarnayn, a character mentioned in Surat 18 of the Quran. Many modern Muslim scholars have also highlighted stark similarities between the Syriac Alexander Legend and the story of Dhu al-Qarnayn in the Quran, thus identifying Alexander the Great as Dhu al-Qarnayn. However, this particular interpretation remains disputed.


A coin, or a silver tetradrachm, depicting Alexander the Great with horns on his head
A coin depicting Alexander the Great with horns. Image acquired from Wikimedia Commons, "Zeno of Elea".

Dhu al-Qarnayn literally translates to the Two-Horned Man but the origins and meaning of this title remains obscure. Alexander was popularly depicted as having two horns on his head on ancient Greek coins—a likely reference to the Egyptian god Ammon-Ra.


It was said that the Egyptian priesthood received him as the son of Ammon-Ra after his conquest of ancient Egypt. The iconography of the two horns subsequently came to symbolise the amalgamation of the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Ammon-Ra as Zeus-Ammon in ancient Greek mythology, which essentially deified Alexander in the process.


Alternatively, the title could also be referring to the idea that Alexander had basically went from one "horn" or one tip of the world to the other (i.e., from the west to the east). There are other interpretations of the "two horns" but its true meaning has been lost to time.


As cultures clash and interweave with one another, and as stories get retold again and again, original events and meanings are shrouded by increasing layers of time and distance. Small variations in the story become part of the new narrative until eventually, the story ceases to be the same one. However, new cultural elements inserted into the story give new meaning for a new audience. Eventually, when Islamic ideas, spread by Arab traders, reached the shores of Southeast Asia, the stories of Alexander the Great morphed into the legend of Raja Iskandar as depicted in the Malay Annals.




THE MAN BEHIND RAJA CHULAN

I did not mention this in the episode but like Raja Iskandar, the character of Raja Chulan is also believed to be a caricature of another influential figure engraved in the memories of the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago. That figure is Rajendra Chola I (ca. 971 - 1044 CE), or Rajendra the Great, emperor of the Chola Empire in South India.


His naval expedition to Southeast Asia in 1025 precipitated the fall of the great Srivijaya Empire, a Buddhist thalassocracy—or maritime empire—based in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Srivijaya Empire never recovered from the Chola invasion and eventually vanished from the annals of history. Its existence was forgotten to such an extent that modern Indonesians from Sumatra knew nothing about the empire until its rediscovery by a French historian in the 1900s. You may find out more about the Srivijaya Empire in Episode 4 - The Sands of Time.


However, if Raja Chulan was indeed a mythologised interpretation of Rajendra the Great, then his inclusion in the Malay Annals appears paradoxical. Why would the authors write Raja Chulan as the father of Sri Tri Buana and an ancestor of the Melakan Sultans? Well, my personal interpretation is that the story of Raja Chulan could be an effort to rehabilitate the humiliating defeat of the Srivijaya Empire and the traumatic memory that its inhabitants had suffered by co-opting the man into their collective ancestry and culture. It was the peoples of the Malay Archipelago, personified by the underwater people, who changed Raja Chulan and his thirst for conquest, rather than Rajendra who ultimately attacked them and brought their civilisation to their knees. You may find out more about the significance of the Malay Annals in Episode 3 - Bad Blood.




THE MYSTERIOUS HEADLESS HORSEMAN

In 1998, archaeologist excavated a statuette near the banks of the Singapore River. It depicted a rider on a horse, missing a head.


An excavated statuette of a headless rider on a horse
An excavated statuette of a headless rider on a horse. Image acquired from the National Heritage Board.

Some theories postulated that the statuette might be a representation of Raja Chulan and his winged stallion when he emerged from the ocean. However, the design appears to be of Javanese origins, hinting at a possible relationship between the ancient Kingdom of Singapura and the Majapahit Empire. Even stranger is the fact that the statuette is made of lead, instead of the usual bronze and gold used in early Southeast Asian cultural artefacts. Its origins and meaning remain unanswered.


As of 2023, the statuette is on display at the National Museum of Singapore.


 


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.

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