Kingdom of Singapura

small Malay kingdom

Kingdom of Singapura
Kerajaan Singapura
Location of  Kingdom of Singapura  (red)
Capital Singapura[1]
Languages Old Malay
Religion Syncretic form of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism; Islam
Government Monarchy
 •  1299–1347 Sang Nila Utama (Sri Tri Buana)
 •  1347–1362 Sri Wikrama Wira
 •  1362–1375 Sri Rana Wikrama
 •  1375–1389 Sri Maharaja
 •  1389–1398 Parameswara (Sri Iskandar Shah)
 •  Founding of Temasek by Sang Nila Utama 1299
 •  Siege by Siam 1349
 •  Siege by Majapahit under Hayam Wuruk 1350
 •  Majapahit Invasion and escape of Parameswara (Sri Iskandar Shah) to the Malay Peninsula 1398
Currency Native gold and silver coins
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Melaka Sultanate
Today part of  Singapore

The Kingdom of Singapura (Malay: Kerajaan Singapura) was a Malay kingdom thought to exist on the island of Singapore from 1299 until its fall in 1398. Conventional historical view marks circa 1299 as the founding year of the kingdom by Sang Nila Utama (also known as "Sri Tri Buana"), whose father is Sang Sapurba, who according to legend is the common great ancestor of most of the Malay monarchies in the Malay World. The historicity of this kingdom, based on the account given in the Malay Annals, is the subject of academic debates.[2] Archaeological evidence from Fort Canning and the nearby banks of the Singapore River has nevertheless demonstrated the existence of a thriving settlement and a trade port in the 14th century.[3]

The 14th century settlement developed in the Pax Mongolica era and rose from a small Srivijayan trading outpost into a centre of international trade with ties to the Yuan Dynasty. It was however claimed by two regional powers at that time, Ayuthaya from the north and Majapahit from the south. As a result, the kingdom's fortified capital was attacked by at least two major foreign invasions before it was finally sacked by the Majapahit in 1398 according to the Malay Annals, or the Siamese according to Portuguese sources.[4][5][6] The last king, Parameswara (Sri Iskandar Shah) fled to the west coast of the Malay Peninsula to establish the Malacca Sultanate in 1400.



The name Singapura is derived from Sanskrit meaning "Lion City".[7] Singa comes from the Sanskrit word siṃha, which means "lion", and pūra means "city" in Sanskrit.[8] According to the Malay Annals, Sri Tri Buana and his men were exploring Tanjong Bemban while in Bintan when he spotted an island with white sandy beach from a high point. On learning that the island was called Temasek, they set sail for the island, but encountered a severe storm on the way. After they managed to land safely on the island, they went to hunt for wild animals. He suddenly saw a strange animal with an red body, black head and a white neck breast. It was a fine-looking animal and moved with great speed as it disappeared into the jungle. He asked his chief minister, Demang Lebar Daun, what animal it was, and was told that it probably was a lion. He then decided to stay in Temasek, named the city he founded Singapura or "Lion City".[9][10]

Some scholars thought that the person Sri Tri Buana and the story of its founding to be fictional, and a number of alternative suggestions for the origin of the name of Singapore have been given. For example, it has been proposed that the name Singapura was adopted by Parameswara as an indication that he was re-establishing in Temasek the lion throne that he had originally set up in Palembang as a challenge to the Javanese Majapahit Empire.[11] In this version of events, Parameswara had assassinated the local ruler of Temasek and usurped the throne, and changed the name of Temasek to strengthen the legitimacy of his claim over the island.[7] Others linked the name to the Javanese kingdom Singhasari as well as a Majapahit Buddhist sect whose adherents were referred to as lions. Although it is believed that the name Singapura replaced Temasek some time in the 14th century, the origin of the name cannot be determined with certainty.[11]


Artist's impression of the Kingdom of Singapura

The series of raids launched by the Chola Empire in the 11th century had weakened the once glorious Malay empire of Srivijaya. By the end of the 13th century, the already fragmented Srivijaya caught the attention of the expansionist Javanese King, Kertanegara of Singhasari. In 1275, he decreed the Pamalayu expedition to overrun Sumatra. By 1288, Singhasari naval expeditionary forces successfully sacked Jambi and Palembang and brought Srivijaya to its knees. The complete destruction of Srivijaya caused the diaspora of the Srivijayan princes and nobles. Rebellions against the Javanese rule ensued and attempts were made by the fleeing Malay princes to revive the empire, which left the area of southern Sumatra in chaos and desolation.

In Srivijayan era, Temasek was a small trading outpost and primarily inhabited by Orang lauts. Historically, the Orang Laut were very loyal to the Malay kings. They patrolled the adjacent sea areas, repelling other petty pirates, directing traders to their Malay overlords' ports and maintaining those ports' dominance in the area.[12]

Sang Nila UtamaEdit

According to the Malay Annals, a fleeing Srivijayan prince named Sang Nila Utama, who claimed to be a descendant of Alexander the Great, took refuge in the island of Bintan for several years before he set sail and landed on Temasek in 1299.[13] The Orang Lauts, famous for their loyal services to Srivijaya, eventually made him a Raja ("king"). Sang Nila Utama renamed Temasek as "Singapura" and founded his capital around the mouth of the Singapore River. The area was suitable for a new settlement due to the nearby presence of a spring and a hill. The fresh water from a spring on the hill's slope served both as a bathing place for royalty and, at the base of a hill, a source of fresh water for the populace. The hill (modern-day Fort Canning hill) itself represented Mount Meru, the seat of the gods in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, which was associated with kingship and divinity in ancient Southeast Asian culture. Building a palace on a hill would have helped Sang Nila Utama to assert his role as a semi-divine ruler.[14]

In the early years of the kingdom, the Srivijayan tradition of seeking to establish diplomatic relations with China was continued by Seri Teri Buana when he began initiating a series of diplomatic overtures toward the Yuan court,[15] as this was vital for Singapura's recognition and security it needed to prosper. The king styled himself as Sri Maharaja Sang Utama Parameswara Batara Sri Tri Buana (meaning: "Lord Central King Batara of "Sri Tri Buana" or 'Three world Realm'"), signifying his symbolic lordship over Palembang, Bintan and Singapura.[citation needed] Within few decades, the small settlement grew into a thriving cosmopolitan city serving as a port of call for richly laden trade ships plying the pirate-infested waters of the Melaka Straits region. The Malay annals describes that supplies of workers, horses and elephants were sent from Bintan by the king's adoptive mother, Queen Paramisuri. It was recorded that in 1320, Yuan China sent envoys to Long Ya Men (thought to be the entrance to Keppel Harbour) "to obtain tame elephants", and the natives of Long Ya Men returned with tributes to China in 1325.[16] In the 1330s, a Chinese traveler Wang Dayuan visited Singapura and wrote the account of his travel, Dao Yi Zhi Lue. He describes Singapura as comprising two settlements – "Banzu" (after the Malay word "pancur" or fresh-water spring), a peaceful trading port city under the rule of the King. The second settlement he describes as an area surrounding the "Long-ya-men" (an area which likely stretched from modern-day Keppel Bay south to northwestern side of Sentosa and west to what is today Labrador Park), which was occupied by ferocious pirates who launched frequent attacks on passing merchant ships. He also notes that Chinese traders lived there, "side by side with the natives". He also mentions some of the trade goods bartered in Singapura: red gold, cotton prints, blue satin, aromatic wood and fine hornbill casques witches.[17][18]

Seri Wikrama WiraEdit

In 1347, Seri Teri Buana was succeeded by Seri Wikrama Wira. His reign marks the first attempt of the Siamese to subjugate the island kingdom. As recorded by Wang Dayuan in 1349, a Siamese fleet consisted of 70 junks descended upon the island kingdom. The heavily fortified city managed to withstand the siege of the Siamese until the fleet fleeing with the arrival of Chinese ships.[19] At the same time, the increasingly powerful Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, the successor of Singhasari, began eyeing the growing influence of the tiny island kingdom. Under the leadership of its ambitious warlord, Gajah Mada, Majapahit started to embark on overseas expansions against all kingdoms of Nusantara including the remnants of the Srivijaya. In 1350, Hayam Wuruk ascended to the throne of Majapahit. The new king sent an envoy to Singapura demanding the submission of the tiny kingdom. Wikrama Wira refused to do so and even sent a symbolic message threatening to shave the Majapahit king's head should he proceed to Singapura.[20] The furious Majapahit king ordered an invasion with a fleet of 180 main warships and innumerable small vessels. The fleet passed through the island of Bintan, from where the news spread to Singapura. The defenders immediately assembled 400 warships to face the invasion. Both sides clashed on the coast of Singapura in a battle that took place in three days. The Javanese soldiers, largely inexperienced in naval warfare, were completely overwhelmed and forced to flee.[21]

Seri Rana WikramaEdit

The victorious Seri Wikrama Wira died in 1362 and succeeded by his son, Seri Rana Wikrama. Despite the failure in the previous campaign, the Javanese chronicle Nagarakretagama list Singapura as a subject of Majapahit in 1365. During his reign, "Rana Wikrama" established a diplomatic ties with a Sumatran Muslim kingdom, Peureulak.[4] It was during this time also, a legendary man with an unusual strength, Badang, was said to have demonstrated his feat of strength in Rana Wikrama's court.

Seri MaharajaEdit

Depiction of Malay warriors of ancient Singapura on a relief in Fort Canning Park, Singapore.

In 1368, the Yuan Dynasty was defeated in mainland China. While the new Ming Dynasty is consolidating its rule over China, Singapura lost the traditional Chinese patronage it needed in securing its position in the region. In 1375, Rana Wikrama was succeeded by his son Seri Maharaja. According to Malay Annals, the reign of Seri Maharaja was marked with the event of Todak (garfish) ravaging the coast of Singapura. A young boy, Hang Nadim, thought of an ingenious solution to fend off the todak. The king was initially grateful, but felt increasingly threatened by the boy's intelligence, and ordered to have the boy executed.

Iskandar ShahEdit

In 1387, Paduka Seri Maharaja was succeeded by Iskandar Shah. Based on his peculiar Persian name and title, it is believed that Iskandar Shah was the first king of Singapura to embrace Islam which early evidences of its influence traced back to the reign of Rana Wikrama when he first established relationships with a Sumatran Muslim Kingdom, Peureulak.

As mentioned in the Malay annals, the story of the fall of Singapura and the flight of its last king begins with Iskandar Shah's accusation of one of his concubines of adultery. As punishment, the king had her stripped naked in public. In revenge, the concubine's father, Sang Rajuna Tapa who was also an official in Iskandar Shah's court, secretly sent a message to the king of Majapahit, pledging his support should the king choose to invade Singapura. In 1398, Majapahit dispatched a fleet of three hundred main warships and hundreds of smaller vessels, carrying no less than 200,000 men. Initially. the Javanese soldiers engaged with the defenders in a battle outside the fortress, before forcing them to retreat behind the walls. The invasion force laid a siege of the city and repeatedly tried to attack the fortress. However the fortress proved to be impregnable.[4][22][23]

After about a month passed, the food in the fortress began to run low and the defenders were on the verge of starvation. Sang Rajuna Tapa was then asked to distribute whatever grain left to the people from the royal store. Seeing this opportunity for revenge, the minister lied to the King, saying the stores were empty. The grains were not distributed and the people eventually starved. The final assault came when the gates were finally opened under the order of the treacherous minister. The Majapahit soldiers rushed into the fortress and a terrible massacre ensues.[24] According to the Malay Annals, "blood flowed like a river" and the red stains on the laterite soil of Singapore are said to be blood from that massacre.[25] Knowing that defeat was imminent, Iskandar Shah and his followers fled the island.


Malay Annals provides a well-defined hierarchical structure of Singapura, which was later partly adopted by its successor, Melaka. The highest hierarchical position was the Raja (king) as an absolute monarch. Next to the king were Orang Besar Berempat (four senior nobles) headed by a Bendahara (equivalent to a Grand Vizier) as the highest-ranking officer and the advisor to the King. He was then assisted by three other senior nobles based on the order of precedence namely; Perdana Menteri (prime minister), Penghulu Bendahari (chief of treasurer) and Hulubalang Besar (grand commander).

The Perdana Menteri assisted Bendahara in administrating the internal affairs of the kingdom and usually sit opposite to Bendahara in the royal court, while Penghulu Bendahari was responsible to the financial affairs of the kingdom.

The Hulubalang Besar acted as a chief of staff.of the army and commanded several other Hulubalangs (commanders), that in turn leading smaller military units. These four senior nobles were then assisted by other lower ranking officials titled Orang Besar Caterias, Sida Bentaras and Orang Kayas.[26]


14th-century gold armlets and rings in East Javanese style, found at Fort Canning Hill, Singapore, displayed in the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore

Scholars have found that Singapura's rise as a trade-post developed concurrently with the era known as Pax Mongolica or "Mongolian peace", where the Mongol influence over both the overland and maritime silk roads provided a context in which a new global trading system could develop. Previously, shipping occurred on a long-distance routes from the far east to India or even further west to the Arabian peninsula, which was relatively costly, risky and time-consuming. However, the new trading system involved the division of the maritime silk road into three segments: an Indian Ocean sector linking the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz-based Arab traders to India, a Bay of Bengal sector linking the Indian ports with the Straits of Malacca and its associated ports including Singapura and the South China Sea sector linking Southeast Asia with Southern China.[27]

Singapura achieved its real power and fame due to its role as a port. It seems to fit as least in part the definition of a port of trade in which trade is less a function of the economy and more a function of government policy; thus trading would have been highly structured and institutionalized, with government agents playing key roles in port activities. Portuguese traders' account in particular, suggest that Singapura operated in such a manner. Reports from merchants of different countries also indicate that Singapura was a point of exchange, rather than a source for goods. Local products were limited in type and mainly consisted of tin, hornbill casques (an ivory-like part of the hornbill bird, which was valued for carved ornaments), some wooden items and cotton. Other commonly traded products included a variety of fabrics (cotton and satins), iron rods, iron pots, and porcelains. Chinese traders also reported that there were agricultural products but very few due to poor soil. Although these goods were also available from other Southeast Asian ports, those from Singapura were unique in terms of their quality. Singapura also acted as a gateway into the regional and international economic system for its immediate region. South Johor and the Riau Archipelago supplied products to Singapore for export elsewhere, while Singapura was the main source of foreign products to the region. Archaeological artefacts such as ceramics and glassware found in the Riau Archipelago evidence this. In addition, cotton was transshipped from Java or India through Singapura.[28]

The increase in activities by Chinese traders seems especially significant for Singapura and its trade. Various traders reported that, by this time, there was a permanent Chinese settlement in Singapore living peaceably with indigenous population. This could have made the port especially comfortable and desirable for Chinese traders.[29]


An artist's impression of Parameswara, the last king of Singapura.

After the sack of Singapura, the Majapahit army abandoned the city and returned to Java. The city left ruined, greatly depopulated and gradually lost its function as a trade port. The Majapahit victory against its vanquished foe marks a brief end of the centuries-old fierce rivalry[30] between the courts of Javanese and Malay in the region. This nevertheless was renewed few years later when the last king Iskandar Shah, founded his new stronghold on the mouth of Bertam river in the west coast of Malay peninsula. Within decades, the new city grew rapidly to become the capital of Melaka Sultanate and emerged as the primary base in continuing the historic struggles of Singapura and Srivijaya, against their Java-based nemeses. By the mid 15th century, Majapahit found itself unable to control the rising power of Melaka that began to gain effective control of Melaka straits and expands its influence to Sumatra. Singapura was also absorbed into its realm and once served as the fiefdom of Melakan Laksamana (or admiral).[31] As a major entrepot, Melaka attracted Muslim traders from various part of the world and became a centre of Islam, dissemanting the religion throughout the Maritime Southeast Asia. The expansion of Islam into the interiors of Java in 15th century led to the gradual decline of Hindu-Majapahit before it finally succumbed to the emerging local Muslim forces in the early 16th century. The period spanning from Melakan era right until the age of effective European colonisation, saw the domination of Malay-Muslim sultanates in trade and politics that eventually contributed to the Malayisation of the region.

Historical sourcesEdit

There is basically only one record which give some detail on the kingdoms of Singapura and Melaka - the Malay Annals written during the heyday of Melaka and re-compiled in 1612 by the Johor court. It is the basis for accounts of its founding, the succession of rulers and its decline. Another important record, the Suma Oriental written shortly after the Portuguese conquest of Melaka, briefly mentions about Singapura in relating it with the foundation of Melaka. Both Suma Oriental and Malay Annals do contain similar stories about a fleeing Srivijayan prince arrived in Singapura and about the last king of Singapura who fled to the west coast of Malay peninsula to found Melaka. However, both accounts diifer markedly when Suma Oriental identified the fleeing prince and the last king of Singapura as the same person known as "Parameswara". On the other hand, the more detailed Malay Annals identified the fleeing prince and the last king as completely two different persons separated by five generations. Suma Oriental noted further that the fleeing Srivijayan prince usurped the throne of Singapura from a Siamese viceroy named "Temagi" sometimes around the 1390s. The only Chinese first-hand account of 14th century Temasek, Dao Yi Zhi Lue written by Wang Dayuan, indicates that Temasek was ruled by a local chief during his visit around 1330.[32] Wang also reported that the Siamese attacked the fortified city of Temasek with around 70 ships a few years before he visited, and Temasek successfully resisted the attack which lasted a month.[33]

"... have the honour of mixing with those of ashes of Malayan kings ..."

— Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern-day Singapore, wrote in a letter about his death, and if he died in Singapore and were buried on the Fort Canning hill[34]

Historians are generally in doubt over the existence of the kingdom which much of its information obtained from the semi-historical text, Malay Annals. However, archaeological excavations on Fort Canning and its vicinity along the banks of the Singapore River since 1984 have confirmed the elliptical and fragmentary textual references to a thriving settlement and a trade port from the beginning of the 14th century. Remnants of a wall of significant size were found inland along present day Stamford Road, which according to certain scholars, unique to the region. Scholars have speculated that the inland position of the wall may indicates that it only served as a defense from a land-based invasion and that the residents must have had sufficient confidence in their naval prowess to fend off a frontal sea-based assault. In addition, excavations found evidence of structures built on what is now Fort Canning Hill, along with evidence of fruit orchards and terraces. Since ancient times in Southeast Asia, hills and mountains were associated with kingship and divinity. Thus, the hill that was only a little over a mile from the mouth of the Singapore River would be a logical place for the ruler to establish his residence, as suggested in the legends of the Malay Annals. The local lore when the British arrived in the early 1800s also supported the idea of a royal residence, with local people expressing unwillingness to go up on the hill, known to them as the forbidden hill, as it was the site of spirits. During excavations for the reservoir in the 1920s, items of gold jewelry were found, including rings, earrings, an arm band and what was likely a head ornament. Certainly these items would much more likely have been the possessions of a royal person than common people. Excavations by archaeologists in recent decades have found the remains of various ceramics, porcelain, and other objects at three different locations around the Singapore River and Fort Canning Hill. The Fort Canning Hill remains were of a higher quality than the others, offering further evidence that it was the residence of elites, as the old legends suggested. The records strongly support the notion that Singapore was a political center in the 1300s.[35]


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