The Forebears of Singapore | Myth and Modernity

The fabric of a people’s culture are the stories that a culture tells about their creation, preservation and the destination of their undertakings. Some of these stories are based on historical facts and accounts while others are steeped in myths and legends. As a storyteller, I am ambivalent to whether it is a historical fact or a myth that is the foundation stone of a nation. Myths have, since time immemorial, captured our imagination and inspired us to seek beyond ‘facts’ to create our destiny.

The folklore of the island-nation of Singapore is no different. They highlight the trials and tribulations upon which the foundation of my country was built. Some of these tales centre on real-life figures who have gone on to become legendary; others tell stories of ancient magical creatures, deities, spirits and Gods who are interwoven into the fabric of modern society.

No matter how rational and logical we think we are, we humans need myths. They imbue our being with a sense of magic and allow us to commune with the divine forces that exist beyond our mere mortal powers.

Sang Nila Utama

The tale of Sang Nila Utama is one of Singapore’s favourite legends. It speaks of a young prince–the ruler of the Srivijaya Empire–who set sale on a voyage. He found himself washed up on the shores of Singapore–then known as Temasek–which means ‘place surrounded by the sea’. As they set foot on the island, they saw what they believed to be a lion.

Believing this to be a good omen, Sang Nila Utama and his crew stayed on the island and founded a city, renaming the island to Singapura, which means “Lion City” in Sanskrit.

Sir Stamford Raffles

By the Singapore River stands a proud statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, a British statesman who is regarded as the founder of modern Singapore. Much like Sang Nila Utama, he set sail and landed upon the shores of Singapore in 1819.

Accompanied by William Farquhar and a sepoy, Raffles met Temenggong Abdul Rahman to negotiate for a British trading post to be established on the island. On 6 February 1819, Raffles signed the official treaty and the Union Jack was officially hoisted in Singapore.

Sir Stanford Raffles

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, governed the country for three decades. He espoused pragmatism in his policies and is credited with transforming Singapore from ‘third world to first world in a generation’.

When independence was thrust upon Singapore in 1965, the Late Mr Lee famously wept in a “a moment of anguish”. It was an enormous undertaking; ‘to make a living in an inhospitable world’.

In a grassroots event in Sembawang in 1965, he said, “This country belongs to all of us. We made this country from nothing, from mud-flats… Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!”

National Flag at half-mast at Nanyang Technological University following the death of Lee Kuan Yew

The Forebears

The founders of a city, a country or a business are propelled forward by their imagination–not by the reality they see before their eyes.

Many people dismiss myths as untruths. But myths and folklore are the fabric and the foundation upon which a people, culture and nation come together and share a bond that transcends what was, what is and what will be.


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