LONTAR issue #10, our final, double-sized issue, is now available publicly in ebook format at Weightless Books! (Our Patreon patrons received theirs a month ago.) The physical print edition is a sight to behold, and wonderful to hold in your hands, but if you’re unable to get it, you can now own the ePub or Mobi version of the ebook for only $4.99!
And to celebrate the release, a new interview has been posted with Manish Melwani, whose “Sejarah Larangan; or, The Forbidden History of Old Singapura” is the lead-off story. Here’s a taste:
Jason Erik Lundberg: “Sejarah Larangan; or, The Forbidden History of Old Singapura” is a reimagining of a long-mythologised nation-building narrative in Singapore: how Sang Nila Utama, a Srivijaya prince from the Sumatran city of Palembang, named the country Singapura (or “Lion City”) after spotting what many now cite as a tiger upon making landfall. What was it about this myth that made you want to tell a “secret history” of the encounter?
Manish Melwani: Like most Singaporeans, I first learned that myth in primary school. It’s been fascinating to revisit it. The story is part of the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, which is a collection of regional legends. It contains some fantastic stories, including the tale of Badang, who is sort of a Malayan Hercules and a character in my version too.
After reading around the myth in books like Singapore: A Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea by John Miksic, and Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore, edited by Malcolm Murfett, I was struck by a couple of things about Singapore’s ancient history.
Firstly, the archaeological evidence seems to suggest that Singapore was a trading port as far back as the 13th century. There’s a narrative that this only happened recently, or that it only happened when the British came, but Singapore’s location has always been well-placed for various local and regional maritime powers.
Secondly, the accounts are full of blanks and contradictions. There are multiple versions of the Sejarah Melayu, revised by king after king in order to legitimise their own rule. There are also interesting ways in which these legitimating stories tie into regional and global myths and histories. For example, various rulers in South and Southeast Asia claimed descent from Alexander the Great—including Sang Nila Utama.
I wanted to convey this palimpsest-sense of unreliable history and also to examine the relationship of fables and myths to power, while posing a new origin story or “secret history” of my own, one that incorporated the regional historical context. Weretigers show up a ton in the region’s mythology, and it seemed to come together into an elegant and compelling story premise: Sang Nila Utama lands on the island of Temasek, but it’s not a tiger he mistakes for a lion, it’s a weretiger.