“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics:
The Quest for Identity

Part 4 – Histories and Legends: Utama, Raffles and everything in-between

Every culture has their own origin stories. Tales of ancient gods and heroes legitimise political lineages, justify occupancy of lands and foster tribal unity. Most Singaporeans are familiar with textbook stories of how in the 13th century Sang Nila Utama renamed the island from Temasek to Singapura, and how in 1819 Stamford Raffles made it a British trading post. However, what happened before and after Sang Nila Utama was a little fuzzier to most people, partially because historical records was interspersed with legends and myths, but mostly because Singapore has chosen to curate its official history by focusing on modernisation, marked by the start of British colonisation.1 The commonly articulated “from a quiet fishing village to a bustling metropolis” sums up its autobiography curated as a success story. In recent years, there has been a revival of “lost histories” through projects such as SG50 and SG Bicentennial, where regional legends, mythologies and folklore are reintroduced via novels, comics, animation and films. In this instalment we shall examine various historical and mythological comics and their functions in constructing the Singaporean identity.

We start with Stamford Raffles, whose name has come to be associated with quality and prestige as Singapore proudly embraces its colonial identity. Comics about Raffles are mostly based on his biography written in praise of his tenacity. Education publisher Asiapac, which is well known for their comic book adaptations of Asian literature and biographies of local heroes, published Stamford Raffles, Founder of Modern Singapore in 2002 (Fig. 1). The story presents the life of Raffles from his birth till his death. Although most people know about Raffles’ business venture, Artist Zhou Yimin’s manga style placed more emphasis on the personal and intimate aspects of his life (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Asiapac’s Stamford Raffles, Founder of Modern Singapore, with art by Zhou Yimin, offers a glimpse into the personal life of the protagonist. The book is listed as out of print on Asiapac’s website, but can be loaned from public libraries.

Figure 2. Raffles is portrayed not only as a visionary but also as a family man. Here Raffles was devastated by the loss of his children.

Similarly in Inquiring into Our World 4A, a primary school social studies textbook, Raffles is portrayed as gentlemanly and somewhat cute (Fig. 3). While mainstream media and history books present Raffles as a hero, some controversial aspects of colonialism have been examined recently by authors such as Nadia Wright and Syed Hussein Alatas. Occasionally, one or two comic strips might poke fun at this often over-simplified piece of history (Fig. 4). Overall, comic book depictions of Raffles remain in alignment with Singapore’s national narrative, where he serves as a cultural icon.

Figure 3. Raffles managed to set up a British trading port in Singapore to compete with the Dutch, by getting involved in political disputes of the Johor sultanate. in primary four social studies textbook Inquiring into Our World (4A). Image from Mothership. https://mothership.sg/2018/01/sang-nila-utama-muscular/

Figure 4. How to Eat Snake Comics produced a few strips on Singapore history around national day in August 2022. The three panel format gave a humorous take on well known but oversimplified snippets of national history.  Image from How to Eat Snake Comics: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=1260570298036682&set=pb.100063592090184.-2207520000.

Before Raffles, the story of Sang Nila Utama and his alleged encounter with a lion was recorded in the Malay Annals, a romanticised account of the rise and fall of the Malacca Sultanate. Almost all primary school students have come across this story in their textbooks. Unlike Raffles, there were no visual records of what Sang Nila Utama looked like, giving rise to a variety of interesting artistic interpretations (some of which we have briefly glimpsed in Part I of this series). Asiapac’s educational comic book, Legendary Tales of Singapore (2001) contains seven stories including some other legends in the Malay Annals. Possibly targeted at young readers, Sang Nila Utama is depicted as an adolescent (Fig. 5). Another work by concept and storyboard artist Ray Toh’s Story of Sang Nila Utama (2018), commissioned for a local textbook, envisioned him as a rather muscular adult (Fig. 6). Perhaps the most widely recognised is Joseph Tay’s extravagantly muscular rendition in Sang Nila Utama: The Prince Who Founded the Lion City (2012), meant for a primary four social studies textbook (Fig. 7). Dug up from obscurity and became a viral sensation years later, it sparked a variety of fan parodies compiled into an online exhibition. It is known that there is no lion in the region and the story is probably dramatised, but Sang Nila Utama serves a culturally symbolic function, as he represents an endearing childhood memory. The varied stylistic representations and fan responses allows Singaporeans to actively participate in the reconstruction of cultural memory.

Figure 5. Legendary Tale of Singapore published by Asiapac. Artist Zaki Ragman rendered the scene where Sang Nila Utama encounters turbulent sea in dynamic manga style.

Figure 6. Ray Toh took a more realistic and cinematic approach to rendering the same scene. Image from Fractured Thoughts: http://torei.blogspot.com/2018/09/blog-post.html

Figure 7. Joseph Tay intentionally gave the protagonist superhuman physique in Inquiring Into Our World, 4A. Image from https://mustsharenews.com/sang-nila-utama/

Every now and then, histories are revisited and hybridised with fictional contents to create new legends. In 2017–18, with the support of Heritage Project Grant, Ethos Books published the Comics of Singapore Histories (COSH) series, which are graphic albums that ‘brings to light little-known stories of Singapore’s past, real or otherwise’.2 These series of books ranged from romanticised historical events, to wild speculative fictions: Terumbu by Cheah Sinnan depicts an untold love story between a young Riau pirate and the daughter of a chief in 19th century colonial Singapore (Fig. 8). The Guide Book to Nanyang Diplomacy by Lim Cheng Tju and Benjamin Chee is an action-driven historical fiction documenting power struggles between superpowered secret agents representing the British Empire, China and India, set against the Sepoy Mutiny of February 1915 (Fig. 9). We’ll Eat When We’re Done by Dave Chua and Max Loh presents a group of survivors hunting for lost Chicken rice recipes in post-apocalyptic Singapore overrun by zombies (Fig. 10). These comics contribute to the mythologization of cultural heritage, where identities are reimagined and reinforced.

Figure 8. Terumbu by Cheah Sinnan is based on 19th century pirate activities in the eponymous reef of Singapore.

Figure 9. The Guidebook to Nanyang Diplomacy by Lim Cheng Tju and Benjamin Chee blends history with supernatural fantasy. A British agent protecting a Japanese politician from a Chinese assassin possessed by the spirit of a dragon.

Figure 10. We’ll Eat When We’re Done by Dave Chua and Max Loh, a story about zombie apocalypse survivors reminiscing about Chicken Rice.

In 2019, a series of e-books were produced by Ethos Books for SG Bicentennial, presenting the lesser known histories of Singapore. Two notable comic books among the collection are Parameswara and Temasek:The Sacking of Singapore by Foo Swee Chin, and The Aceh Attack of 1613 by Dan Wong. Narrated from the perspective of a stowaway cat, The Sacking of Singapore is based on Portuguese account of how Parameswara (believed to be Iskandar Shah according to Malay Annals), usurped power to become the last king of Singapura in the 14th century, before fleeing to Malacca after a Siamese invasion (Fig. 11). The Aceh Attack of 1613 presents the clash between Johor and Aceh Sultanate, with elements of black magic and a war elephant (Fig. 12). These stories plug the plot holes of our canonical narratives between the legend of Sang Nila Utama and Stamford Raffles.

Figure 11. Foo Swee Chin’s use of cats as observers and narrators of history is very engaging. You can read the entire story here.

Figure 12. Dan Wong’s cinematic storytelling is a blend of intense action and drama. Read the whole comic here.

Lastly, cultural icon Mr Kiasu recently reappeared in another bicentennial anthology in which he time-travelled to ancient Singapore to witness various historical moments (Fig. 13). Mr. Kiasu in Singapore History is published in 2019 by Shogakukan Asia, and contains stories illustrated by eight artists with very distinctive styles (Fig. 14). 

Figure 13. Creator of Mr. Kiasu, Johnny Lau, has found eight budding artists to illustrate each story. The book can be found in libraries, or purchased from Epigram.

Figure 14. A few stories featuring well-known historical figures from the anthology. Each artist took a different approach in storytelling. Mr. kiasu appears in each story as a background character.

Singapore’s history is more complex than what is presented in the official canon. Although now a sovereign nation state, the island had always been part of a larger geopolitical arena where boundaries were constantly redrawn by warring kingdoms. Rather than sanitising Singapore’s history and its image to one associated only with progress and modernity, the reexamination of ancient history and legends through comics form allows active engagement with cultural heritage.

History is more than the glorification of great men who won battles, as the everyday lives of ordinary people are important forces in shaping the culture of the region. In the final instalment, we will examine comics which document the experiences and memories of individuals and communities who made up Singapore.

1 Tan, T.Y., (2019). The Long And Short Of Singapore History: Cycles, Pivots and Continuities
In The Idea of Singapore. (pp. 1-38). https://doi.org/10.1142/9789811213359_0001

2 ‘About us’, Coshstudios.com <https://www.coshstudios.com/about-us> [accessed 23 July 2020].

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