The name “Temasek” is probably derived from the same root as the word tasek, which means “lake” in Malay. Tasek implies a reference to a piece of land surrounded by water. Early documents that mention the name Temasek include: a Vietnamese eulogy for a deceased prince dated 1330; Dao yi zhi lue ("Description of the Barbarians of the Isles") by Wang Dayuan in 1349; and the Desawarnana or Nagarakrtagama by Prapanca, a courtier of Majapahit, in 1365. The name also appears in sources related to the Zheng He voyages of the early 15th century. The Pararaton (“Book of Kings”) contains a Javanese poem written in the 16th century that purports to recount events at the courts of Singhasari and Majapahit in east Java. Temasek appears in the book in a list of countries in the Southeast Asian archipelago that the prime minister of Majapahit, Gajah Mada, swore to conquer.
The name Singapura is given as the name of a place in India in the Jataka tales, which is a collection of stories about the previous lives of Buddha. Singapura means “lion city” in Sanskrit. The lion has been used as a symbol of Buddha in Indian art since the period of King Asoka. In Southeast Asia, the first place to be named Singapura was in the area of Tra Kieu, central Vietnam, in the fourth century. The name was later used for a place in central Thailand during the Angkorian Empire (13th century) and is known as Singburi in Thai. A place called Singapura appears in a list of Majapahit’s vassals in an inscription found in Surodakan, Java, dated 1369 Saka or AD 1447. This Singapura could refer to a kingdom in west Java, which plays an important role in the Cariosan Prabhu Siliwangi, the tale of a heroic figure living in the 15th century.
The name “Temasik” appears twice in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). The first occurs in the story of Raja Chulan, a great king of India, who set out to conquer China. The Chinese managed to intercept him at Temasik. The second is in the context of Sri Tri Buana’s discovery of the island of Temasik, which he renamed “Singapura”. It is difficult to specify the date when the name actually changed. All 14th-century sources used “Temasik”. The Portuguese in 1511 mentioned only Singapore; Temasik seems to have been forgotten by that time. It is possible that the name was changed around 1392 when Parameswara (who is omitted from the Malay Annals) arrived on the island and killed the local ruler. However, Chinese sources continued to use “Temasik” in the 15th century because Chinese authors and editors often retained old place names even after these had gone out of use in their original locations.
The motivation for the change in name could have been to strengthen the claim to legitimacy over the island by Parameswara, the usurper from Sumatra. He might have intended to replace the Malay name, which had only local significance, with a Sanskrit name in order to re-contextualise Singapore as a cosmopolitan trading port, which was then part of the international maritime trade network.
Tomé Pirés, a Portuguese apothecary and author of the early 16th century, mentioned Singapore but did not think it had much importance. Emanuel Godinho de Erédia, who was then the commander of the Portuguese naval forces in Malacca, was attracted by the island’s military potential, but never obtained control of the island. St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic missionary, managed to post letters from Singapore in 1551. He probably wrote them on board a ship anchored in the port.
Singapore appears on the Mao Kun map of the Ming Dynasty as Temasek (Danmaxi). A Portuguese map compiled by de Erédia in the late 16th century lists several place names such as Tanah Merah, Sungei Bedok, Tanjung Rhu, and Belakang Mati (now known as Sentosa), places which still exist today. De Erédia’s map also shows a Xabandaria or harbourmaster’s post on the island’s south coast, indicating that the Johor sultanate maintained an official presence on the island until about 1600.
1. The Vietnamese Royal Chronicle Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu on Temasek. (Record of 1330, Vol. 2, p. 118).
2. Pigeaud, T. G. (1960). Java in the fourteenth century: A study in cultural history (Translation series number 4, Volumes II, III). The Hague: M. Nijhoff, Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal, Land en Volkenkunde.
3. Krom, N. J. (1931). Hindoe-Javaansche geschiedenis (2nd rev. ed., p. 36). ‘s-Gravenhage: M. Nijhoff
4. Machi Suhadi. (1985). Beberapa jenis pajak pada zaman Majapahit. Rapat evaluasi hasil penelitian arkeologi (II, pp. 215–228). Jakarta: Puslit Arkenas.
5. Pirés, T. (1944). The Suma oriental of Tomé Pirés, an account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan, written in Malacca and India in 1512–1515, and The book of Francisco Rodrigues, rutter of a voyage in the Red Sea, nautical rules, almanack and maps, written and drawn in the East before 1515 (A. Cortesao, Trans.) (p. 262) [Microfilm: NL 14208 (Vol. 1), NL 26012 (Vol. 2)]. London: Hakluyt Society.
6. de Erédia, M. G. (1997). Erédia’s description of Malaca, Meridional India, and Cathay (J. V. Mills, Trans.). MBRAS reprint 14. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Call no.: RSING 959.5118 GOD.
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.