My Take

Singapore and Hong Kong's long history before the Brits arrived

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 November, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 November, 2014, 7:02am

We fret and compare ourselves endlessly with Singapore, from current status to future prospects. At times it gets tedious. So with apologies to bored readers, I am about to venture another comparison. However, it's to our distant pre-colonial past.

What prompted this column is a new secondary-school history textbook, Singapore: The Making of a Nation State, 1300 - 1975. I don't usually read textbooks but it is a fascinating read. It is being used in Singapore as part of a new history syllabus that dates back the nation's history by hundreds of years, long before the colonising Brits arrived in the 1810s.

What little I knew about the Lion City's history dated no further than the 1960s, when it was ejected from Malaysia. Now if you had been brainwashed by British imperialism, you might push back the date to the early 19th century, before which little of significance was worth mentioning about Singapore.

Growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s, my generation was brought up on a similar "barren rock" myth. I was practically taught Hong Kong had no real history - well, maybe a bit of pre-historic archaeology - before the Opium War.

One of the great damages inflicted by Western colonialism was to deny conquered peoples a historically-rooted identity. Before the arrival of civilising white men, it was as if the natives had no history. So it's fascinating to learn Singapore was a thriving multicultural port of call from the early 14th century onward. Artefacts and relics have been found dating back to the 13th century, from China, India and Java.

In Singapore as in Hong Kong, scholars in recent decades have put together a much more nuanced and older pre-colonial past for the two cities. The Singapore textbook is informed by the most updated research.

In this context, the furore over the likely price tag of more than HK$4 billion to preserve archaeological finds at the future To Kwa Wan MTR station at least helped raise historical awareness here. Dating back to the Song (960-1279AD) or Yuan (1279-1368AD) dynasties, they remind us Hong Kong was an unbroken and significant part of China, not a barren rock waiting for discovery by the Brits.