Temasik: A Malay Port-Polity in Island Southeast Asia

Tang Shipwreck

Tang Shipwreck

Project Overview: 

Located at the nexus of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and the Java Sea, Temasik, a Southeast Asian port-polity active from the late thirteenth through to the early seventeenth century, was one of the most vibrant coastal Southeast Asian port-cities that emerged in the Malacca Straits region during the late medieval period, prior to European incursion into Southeast Asia. Located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, on Singapore Island, this polity and its attendant port-city of Singapura serves as one of the best historical examples of Malay port-polities that waxed and waned throughout Southeast Asia’s history since the first millennium AD.

As has been argued in the 1960s by the eminent historical geographer Paul Wheatley, Temasik is one of the most well-documented port-settlements of its time, both from within the region, as well as from external sources. Important Southeast Asian textual materials, such as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, Hikayat Hang Tuah, the Vietnamese annals, and the Negarakertagama and Pararaton from Java, as well as documents from further afield, including official and personal accounts from the Chinese corpus of textual documents found in the Siku quanshu compendium, the chronicles of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa), as well as early modern European accounts such as the Suma Oriental, provide rich descriptions and accounts of this port-polity’s settlement, it’s population, the key historical personalities that affected its historical trajectory, the trade it maintained with the region and the outside world, and the diplomacy it conducted with its powerful neighbors.

Since the 1980s, progressive archaeological excavations have led to the accumulation of a substantial body of material cultural remains that is now allowing historians to elucidate detailed information about the port-city of Singapura, in such areas as agricultural output, demographic differentiations and settlement patterns, the economic networks extending into Southeast Asia, the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea, and the cultural assimilation and articulation of indigenous and foreign skills, cultural tools (including language) and aesthetic tastes.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a coherent, sophisticated and nuanced picture of a coastal Southeast Asian port-polity of the late Medieval period, that may be used as a framework for the reconstruction of other port-polities and port-cities in the region that featured as important drivers of Southeast Asian history for much of the first and second millennia AD.


Project Team: 

Derek Heng, Professor and Chair of History, Northern Arizona University


Early Archaeology in 14th Century Singapore by Professor Derek Heng. YouTube.


Heng, Derek. Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore. National Library Board, 2019.


---. Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy in the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century. Ohio University Press, 2009.


---. “Situating Temasik within the Larger Regional Context: Maritime Asia and Malay State Formation in the Pre-Modern Era.” Singapore in Global History, edited by Derek Heng and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Amsterdam University Press, 2011, pp. 27–50.


Heng, Derek, and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied. Singapore in Global History. Amsterdam University Press, 2011.


Lim, Chen Sian. Preliminary Report on the Archaeological Investigations at the National Gallery Singapore. 5, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center Archaeology Unit, Jan. 2017.


---. Preliminary Report on the Archaeological Investigations at the Victoria Concert Hall. 9, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center Archaeology Unit, 2019.