Singaporeans today are generally only familiar with the explanation of the name Singapura – which means “lion city” in Sanskrit – provided in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). The source of this claim is clear, for it refers to the sighting of a large feline or other powerful creature on the island at the time of the settlement’s legendary founding by Sri Tri Buana (also known as Sang Nila Utama).
Due to unfamiliarity with the different sources and languages, there is at least one historic interpretation that has been ignored. This is found in two Portuguese sources published in the 16th century: the Comentários (Commentaries) of Alfonso de Albuquerque and the Décadas (Decades) of João de Barros. In these works, the Portuguese authors explain that the name is translated from its original language in Malay into Portuguese as falsa demora, which means “the wrong, tricky or challenging place to interrupt one’s voyage”. The term has also been translated by a leading Portuguese historian of the 16th century literally as “you arrive there and it is not what you had expected”.
Both Albuquerque and Barros provide a brief explanation of this translation of the toponym, but the two authors present very different contexts in support of their claims. Albuquerque delved into the history, geography and climate of Singapura, explaining that it was:
“… a very large city, and densely populated: a testimony to this effect are the great ruins, which can be seen today that date from before the founding of Malacca. It was a tributary of the king of Siam. Singapura, from whence this city received its name, is a channel through which pass all the ships from all regions, and which in the Malay language means falsa demora….. [A]nd this name [i.e. falsa demora] is very apt because sometimes, while the carracks are waiting there [at Singapura] for the monsoon [winds], such intense tempests strike that they [the carracks] perish. [After eight days he killed the captain of this town named Tamagi] and became “Lord of the Strait” and of the population [around] it.”
The above description yields a number of important historical insights from the vantage point of its 16th century author. The ruins indicate that Singapura’s glory was clearly something in the past; the settlement was named after the strait (and not the other way round); the name was derived from the tempests that hit the coast and caused great losses to the merchant community; and Parameswara killed his host (Tamagi, probably a corruption of the title Temenggong), usurped power, and declared himself “Lord of the Strait”.
Barros, by contrast, provides his translation as a matter-of-fact without much explanation. In book 6 chapter 1 of Década 2, Singapura is described as follows:
“Since ancient times, the most famous settlement that existed in the said lands of Malacca [i.e. on the Malay Peninsula] is one called Cingapura, which in its language means to say falsa demora. It is situated at the tip of that land, which (also) marks the southernmost point of Asia. The Promontory of Cingapura is located at one half degree northern latitude, according to our scale.”
Albuquerque, A. de. (2010). The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, Second Viceroy of India (W. de Gray Birch, Trans.) (4 vols). London: Hakluyt Society. (Original work published 1774)
Barros, J. de. (1706). Held-dadige Scheeps-togt van Alfonso de Albuquerque na de Roode-Zee In het Jaar 1506, en ervolgens gedaan: behelsende de geleegendheyd, opkomst en voortgang van de Koningrijken Ormuz, Goa, Malacca, etc. Leiden: Pieter van der Aa.
Barros, J. de., & Couto, D. do. (1777–8). Dos feitos que os Portuguezes fizeram no conquista, e descubrimento das terras e mares do Oriente. In Da Ásia (24 vols). Lisbon: Na Regia Officina Typographia.
Serrão, J. V. (Ed. and int) (1973). Comentarios de Afonso d’Albuqerque (Text of the 2nd edition of 1576, 2 vols). Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa de Moeda.
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.