Interview with Jonathan Lee

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Singapore, the country with FormulaOne Night Race and gleaming office towers, the country who banned chewing gums, the country who dares to pay its prime minister more than what the US President earns. That's where I come from. And it's a fascinating country, because it's a country that believes it has no history. How can a country arise from nothing? I'll come back to this paradox later.

I grew up believing that Singapore history starts with Sir Stamford Raffles looking for location to start a new city. He had great foresight. He is said to have chosen Singapura because of its excellent location. When he first arrived, there was only a small Malay fishing village. From this humble non-beginning, he built it up in less than ten years(!) into a great port. Now of course, I know that this is only a half-truth. It hides more than it discloses.

The problem arises from how we obtained our independence. Flowing from Stamford Raffle's "foresight", Singapura became Singapore, a British colony. Soon thereafter, Singapore became predominantly Chinese with immigrants from all over South Ease Asia and from China. After more than a hundred years, Singapore left the British empire to become a city-state in the Federation of Malaysia. Malay rights was entrenched in the Federation and in its constitution. When Singapore and the Federation did not see eye-to-eye on race relations and race politics, some sections of the Malay polity wanted to send its army into Singapore to force submission to the supremacy of the Malay polity. Thankfully, the Malay King avoided bloodshed by kicking Singapore out of the Malaysia. That was how Singapore became an independent country. But we flew from the frying pan into the fire. Singapore fell into the grip of communist activists supported by Moaist China. It took successive governments another twenty years to stamp out communism. Why is this relevant to me? It's relevance was that I grew up in an era in which the governing strategy was to emphasize our roots in the British led Commonwealth; our reliance on English as the medium of learning, industry and commerce; the closure of Chinese schools and University (to reduce the allure of Moaist thought), and the ginger manner in which we speak of Malay ancestry, Malay rights, and Malay heritage (so as not to offend our bigger and nearest neighbour). Hence, I grew up learning that Singapore history starts with Stanford Raffles and there was hardly anything worth mentioning prior to his arrival.

Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon an old literary Malay text written in the seventeenth century and translated into English in the nineteenth century by John Leydon with a forward by Stamford Raffles. It describes an old world port city called Tamsak, later re-named Temasek, and how it was related to an ancient empire (the Srivijaya Empire around the turn of the first millennium), and traced its rise as a stepping stone to the establishment of something new (the Malacca Kingdom in the fifteenth century). Suddenly, Singapore had a long and colourful history. That was how I fell in love with Singapore and its long and illustrious history.

Escape to Temasek and Fall of Singapura are my current passion. And I hope others will join me in this passion.
What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest novel is the culmination of one man's search for his own history. It is unusual for any author to talk about history as a "story" behind his story. But by now it is obvious that this is a history that not many have any knowledge of. And in particular, this is a version of history that established history experts may not agree with. Hence, I need to elaborate on this version of history by way of background to the latest novel.

In my preferred version of history, I have to start with AD 1025.

At that time most of South East Asia including Sumatra, Java, Singapore, and Malaysia were Buddhist and the foremost and richest kings were in the Srivijaya Empire. But that was also the time when a Hindu King (India's Chola Dynasty) expanded overseas and conquered much of South Thailand. His successors continued to rule over South Thailand for several generations. By the end of the twelfth century, the Chola Dynasty was in decline. And his prince or general in South Thailand formed his own dynasty. In thirteenth century, this breakaway local King (of Indian origin) invaded the Malay Peninsula and conquered Kedah all the way to Johore. From there he visited Singapore. But Singapore was known as Tamsak at that point in time. Tamsak was a named derived from Sanskrit or Tibetian languages. The name might have been given to this island by Mongolian or Thai occupiers. In any event, by the time this local (Indian) King arrived, the occupiers in Singapore were too weak to oppose this conquering King. After one year, this local (Indian) King returned to South Thailand leaving behind his half Indian child and some of his followers.

Meanwhile, the local (Indian) King weakened Srivijaya so much that in Java, a Singhasari dynasty arose inspired by the Indian Kings. Hence the Singhasari were Hindu as well. By the early thirteenth century, the Srivijaya Empire was so weak that it controlled only three cities : Palembang, Bintan and Tamsak. To exploit this, the Singhasari attacked Palembang and became its overlord. One century later a Mongolian (Yuan Dynasty) army sacked Singhasari. This showed that the Yuan Dynasty was active in South East Asia from an early period. This also explained why Tamsak would have a mixed community of Indian-Chinese-Malay heritage.

After this, a new Hindu Dynasty (the Majapahit) arose in Java. Throughout these unrest, Palembang tried to claim independence. The Majapahit attacked a few times to assert its dominance. And insisted that the Palembang King adopted a Javanese name, and insisted that Tamsak be changed to a Javanese name Temasek.

It was in the midst of these wars, that Sang Nila Utama fled from Palembang to Temasek. This is the famous founding legend of Singapura. This narrative explains why he was a prince and yet did not know the name Temasek. It was either a recent re-naming that slipped his mind, or he was reluctant to use a Javanese name for an island which he would have regarded as his! This would also explained the red lion (spoiler alert : watch the documentary film Hunt for the Red Lion at this link :

).

By late thirteenth century, we come to one of the most mysterious episode in recorded history. First we have Parameswara, a main character in this novel. The Malays say he was a Malay prince with a Malay king as his father. But the Javanese say he was a Javanese prince and his father had a Javanese name. The Malays say he fled from Palembang to Temasek. But the Javanese say he fled from Majapahit, ie. from Java. The Malays say that Majapahit's attack on Palembang drove Parameswara out. But there is no record of such a successful attack in Javanese sources. At around this time, the official Indonesian list of kings ended with a cryptic note : a Period of Chaos! But Chinese sources say that a Chinese king arose in Jiu Gang (the sea port for Palembang) at this time. Obviously, this is a mysterious time when experts will not be able to agree on what really happened.

To fit all these pieces of puzzle together, I searched the Ming Dynasty Court records. I looked for Indonesian and Javanese and Chinese and Thai websites. And of course, I read the Malay Annals and some other historical Malay literature (or rather the English translations thereof).

So, this is the background to this novel. This is the "story" behind the story. This is the mystery that this novel tries to solve. This novel attempts to postulate how it all happened in a manner that would fit most of the contradictions in the "historical" records. (Spoiler Alert : if I go on further, I will be robbing the reader of the fun of reading this novel).
What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest novel is the culmination of one man's search for his own history. It is unusual for any author to talk about history as a "story" behind his story. But by now it is obvious that this is a history that not many have any knowledge of. And in particular, this is a version of history that established history experts may not agree with. Hence, I need to elaborate on this version of history by way of background to the latest novel.

In my preferred version of history, I have to start with AD 1025.

At that time most of South East Asia including Sumatra, Java, Singapore, and Malaysia were Buddhist and the foremost and richest kings were in the Srivijaya Empire. But that was also the time when a Hindu King (India's Chola Dynasty) expanded overseas and conquered much of South Thailand. His successors continued to rule over South Thailand for several generations. By the end of the twelfth century, the Chola Dynasty was in decline. And his prince or general in South Thailand formed his own dynasty. In thirteenth century, this breakaway local King (of Indian origin) invaded the Malay Peninsula and conquered Kedah all the way to Johore. From there he visited Singapore. But Singapore was known as Tamsak at that point in time. Tamsak was a named derived from Sanskrit or Tibetian languages. The name might have been given to this island by Mongolian or Thai occupiers. In any event, by the time this local (Indian) King arrived, the occupiers in Singapore were too weak to oppose this conquering King. After one year, this local (Indian) King returned to South Thailand leaving behind his half Indian child and some of his followers.

Meanwhile, the local (Indian) King weakened Srivijaya so much that in Java, a Singhasari dynasty arose inspired by the Indian Kings. Hence the Singhasari were Hindu as well. By the early thirteenth century, the Srivijaya Empire was so weak that it controlled only three cities : Palembang, Bintan and Tamsak. To exploit this, the Singhasari attacked Palembang and became its overlord. One century later a Mongolian (Yuan Dynasty) army sacked Singhasari. This showed that the Yuan Dynasty was active in South East Asia from an early period. This also explained why Tamsak would have a mixed community of Indian-Chinese-Malay heritage.

After this, a new Hindu Dynasty (the Majapahit) arose in Java. Throughout these unrest, Palembang tried to claim independence. The Majapahit attacked a few times to assert its dominance. And insisted that the Palembang King adopted a Javanese name, and insisted that Tamsak be changed to a Javanese name Temasek.

It was in the midst of these wars, that Sang Nila Utama fled from Palembang to Temasek. This is the famous founding legend of Singapura. This narrative explains why he was a prince and yet did not know the name Temasek. It was either a recent re-naming that slipped his mind, or he was reluctant to use a Javanese name for an island which he would have regarded as his! This would also explained the red lion (spoiler alert : watch the documentary film Hunt for the Red Lion at this link :

:: http://www.jonathanleebooks.com/my-works/?ins=653 ).

By late thirteenth century, we come to one of the most mysterious episode in recorded history. First we have Parameswara, a main character in this novel. The Malays say he was a Malay prince with a Malay king as his father. But the Javanese say he was a Javanese prince and his father had a Javanese name. The Malays say he fled from Palembang to Temasek. But the Javanese say he fled from Majapahit, ie. from Java. The Malays say that Majapahit's attack on Palembang drove Parameswara out. But there is no record of such a successful attack in Javanese sources. At around this time, the official Indonesian list of kings ended with a cryptic note : a Period of Chaos! But Chinese sources say that a Chinese king arose in Jiu Gang (the sea port for Palembang) at this time. Obviously, this is a mysterious time when experts will not be able to agree on what really happened.

To fit all these pieces of puzzle together, I searched the Ming Dynasty Court records. I looked for Indonesian and Javanese and Chinese and Thai websites. And of course, I read the Malay Annals and some other historical Malay literature (or rather the English translations thereof).

So, this is the background to this novel. This is the "story" behind the story. This is the mystery that this novel tries to solve. This novel attempts to postulate how it all happened in a manner that would fit most of the contradictions in the "historical" records. (Spoiler Alert : if I go on further, I will be robbing the reader of the fun of reading this novel).
You said that when Stamford Raffles arrived, he saw only a small Malay fishing village. How does your version of history take this into account?
The Malay Annals was clear that there was a port city in Singapura. Even the Malacca King housed his navy (or part of his navy) with his Admiral (Laksamana) in Singapura. So, Singapore was clearly not a small fishing village. The Malay Annals showed that by the fifteenth century, the Portuguese arrived. They conquered Malacca. And in the following decade(s) there were many land and sea battles between the Malay King (and his successor) and the Portuguese. In some of these battles, the Portuguese attacked Singapura. The bombardment must have been so severe, that everyone fled the city (this includes all the Chinese and Indians), leaving behind only the Malay fishermen living in the rural coastal areas. Hence, four centuries later, Stamford Raffles arrived to see only a small Malay fishing village.
You said that Singapore believed it has no history -- but how can a nation arise without a history?
That is the paradox. The result is that years ago, there were news reports of Singapore families migrating to New Zealand or other countries to avoid the stressful education and examination system here. If they migrate to run from examinations, can anyone expect anyone to stay if there is war or famine or economy depression? You cannot build a nation without history.

Even now, and for the last twenty years (if not more) Singapore has no movie or television drama set in its fourteenth century -- no song or story or dance to excite our imagination with that era. If its people believe its official narrative, there will be no demand for such products, and no love lost!

Now after fifty years of independence, it is time to re-look at that narrative.
What would you like to change?
I see other countries with a rich history and a heritage of stories, movies, songs, and dance about their histories. You have a Historical Novel Society, you have historical novel communities, and even competitions for historical novels. I hope Asia in general can do the same, and in particular, that Singapore will have its own chapter of such activities.

In a sense, Singapore is a victim of its own fears. We fear that delving into our history and legends will drive us apart. The fear is that not all of us can agree on our own history and legends. But that is when we think of history and legends as one single narrative and try to force everyone to agree or come to a compromise on what that narrative should be. I will argue that we are a multi-cultural society. We should have many over-lapping and sometimes contradictory versions of history and legends befitting our multi-cultural landscape. And the more the merrier and the richer we will be. We should learn to appreciate that diversity and learn not to belittle each other's versions. That is the hall mark of a multi-cultural society. So, if anything I will like to change the "no-history" narrative to one where we say we have a history, and to accord the freedom for each to express his own version of that history.
Published 2016-08-03.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Dinosaur and the Cockroach
Price: Free! Words: 8,160. Language: English. Published: April 2, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Young adult or teen » Social Issues
Trials and tribulation that points us to social challenges, leadership change and ultimately political development. This is a story about five schoolboys. It is also a story about the health of a Singapore polity.
The King's Madness
Price: Free! Words: 7,550. Language: English. Published: April 2, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Ancient, Fiction » Fantasy » Short stories
The is an alternative narrative of a little lion cub's notion of justice, equality, love, and ... polygamy.