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Sri Vijaya-Malayu 1299

Singapore and Sumatran Kingdoms

The early chapters of the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals)[1] sound as though they preserve traditions of Malay history that were established in the pre-Islamic period. The ideology and symbolism, which underlie them, no doubt prevailed in Singapore during the 14th century. The Malay Annals begins with the story of a king named Raja Shulan who was a descendant of Iskander Zulkarnain (a figure in Persian mythology distantly inspired by Alexander the Great) and his son, Raja Culan, who set out to conquer China. The Chinese, hearing of his plan, deployed a leaky old ship manned by elderly toothless and hairless men to intercept him at Temasik. There they met Raja Chulan, who inquired of them how far away China was. The Chinese told him that they had left home when they were young men, and the voyage was so long that they had become aged. Raja Chulan then gave up his designs on China. Raja Chulan is clearly modelled on Rajendra Chola I, ruler of a south Indian kingdom, who attacked Srivijaya in 1025. This episode indicates that the attack was still remembered when the story became embedded in the annals.

Raja Chulan had a love affair with a fairy princess who lived beneath the sea (another common motif in ancient Southeast Asian myths). She bore him three princes who later appeared, as if by magic, on the summit of a hill called Seguntang Mahameru near Palembang, Sumatra. The Raja of Palembang, Demang Lebar Daun (“Chief Broad Leaf”), abdicated so that one of the three princes, Sang Nila Utama, whom the signs indicate was divinely inspired, could become king. Upon his coronation, Sang Nila Utama changed his Malay name to Sri Tri Buana, which is in Sanskrit. Demang Lebar Daun promised that the Malays would be perpetually loyal to Sri Tri Buana’s descendants, and in return Sri Tri Buana promised that the rulers would never oppress their subjects by shaming them.

Sri Tri Buana in Sanskrit means “Lord of the Three Worlds”, an allusion to the belief that the universe was divided into a heaven of gods, a world of humans, and an underworld of demons. Some early Southeast Asian kings used this phrase as a title. A Buddhist text written around 1345 was dedicated to the explication of a doctrine of the “Lord of the Three Worlds”. According to this doctrine, all living things can be ranked on the basis of merit, thereby justifying hereditary social stratification.[2] The concept of the “Three Worlds” was also popular in 14th-century Java. Queen Tribhuwanottunggadewi (“Goddess of the Three Worlds”), who reigned in Java from 1328 to 1350, was a devout Buddhist. During her reign, Majapahit incorporated Temasik as a vassal. The Malay Annals and other stories of archetypal heroes stress subjects’s obligation to be absolutely loyal to their rulers, and the rulers’ duty to never shame their subjects.

The choice of Singapore as a new site for a capital would have been dictated by several factors. One of the important factors would have been the topographical advantage of Singapore, which was similar to that of Seguntang in Palembang: a hill overlooking an estuary. Thus Singapore may have been chosen as Palembang’s successor because of the presence of the hill now called Fort Canning. Many brick ruins existed on the hill when the British arrived in 1819; this mirrored the situation in Palembang, where numerous ruins of brick sanctuaries and religious statues were discovered on Seguntang Hill.

It is ironic that the kingdom of Malayu is completely omitted from the Malay Annals. A kingdom by this name already existed by the early seventh century when it sent a mission to Tang China. The eminent historian O. W. Wolters[3] believed that the narratives on Singapore mentioned in the Malay Annals were fabricated in order to conceal a period in history beginning in the late 11th century when Palembang’s role as a centre for Malay political and economic might was usurped by Malayu in Jambi. The archaeological remains unearthed in Singapore since 1984 show this to be untrue. The omission of Malayu and Jambi from the Malay Annals, however, must be attributed in some fashion to the identification of Malacca’s rulers with Palembang rather than Jambi.

The fall of Singapura can be seen as a cautionary tale based on the original oath of mutual obligations between ruler and subject. Like Paduka Sri Maharaja, who unjustly sentenced a boy to death, Iskandar Shah violated his ancestors’s oath: he unjustly shamed one of his wives by exposing her in the market. She was the daughter of a high official, Sang Rajuna Tapa, who took revenge by stealthily opening the city gate so that Batara Majapahit of Java could conquer the city. Iskandar Shah broke Sri Tri Buana’s covenant never to shame his subjects; the fall of Singapura was the direct result of the violation of this ancient agreement. In 15th-century Malacca, public shaming was a form of formal punishment equivalent to execution:

“Punishments for transgressing royal privilege were death, confiscation of the offending item, and public humiliation . . . closely tied to the Malay idea of aib (shame or disgrace). The tearing of garments and bedding and the smearing of the face in the case of misdemeanours towards the Bendahara were publicly executed, with the Kanun condoning mob participation in meting out punishment, no doubt to increase the offender’s sense of humiliation.”[4]

According to a 16th-century author, people in the Philippines could be enslaved for murder or debt, but also “for insulting any woman of rank, or taking away her robe in public and leaving her naked, or causing her to flee or defend herself so that it falls off, which is considered a great offence”.[5]

1. Sejarah Melayu, or, Malay Annals. (1970). (C. C. Brown, Trans.). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.503 SEJ.
2. Lithai, P. (1982). The three worlds according to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist cosmology (F. E. Reynolds, & M. Reynolds, Trans.). Berkeley: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Berkeley Buddhist Series no. 4.
3. Wolters, O. W. (1970). The fall of Srivijaya in Malay history. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.5 WOL.
4. Khasnor Johan. (1999). The Undang-Undang Melaka: Reflections on Malay society in fifteenth-century Malacca. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 72(2), 131–150. Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS.
5. Junker, L. L. (1999). Raiding, trading and feasting: The political economy of Philippine chiefdoms (p. 133). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Call no.: RSEA 306.09599 JUN.


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.

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