The Raja of Majapahit
Under the rule of Sang Nila Utama (Sri Tri Buana), Singapura flourished. By the mid 1400s, the small island had become an important port of call. When his son Paduka Sri Pikrama Wira ascended the throne, he did not have much to do. His father's sound governing policies and Singapura's strategic location had ensured the continual existence of entrepot1 trade. Travellers and commercial traders dropped by frequently to trade or get supplies. Some even settled down on the island.
At the south of Singapura was the Majapahit Empire. The Raja of Majapahit was feared by everyone in the region and they would bring him gifts occasionally to stay in his good books. When Raja Pikrama Wira succeeded his father, he expected a visit that acknowledged him as an overlord. However, days went by without any news. His discontent grew at the thought that someone could be this rude to him.
The Raja of Majapahit decided that Raja Pikrama Wira had very bad manners and needed a good lesson. He sent his envoys to Singapura, taking with them a gift of a thin sheet of wood shaving forty-two feet long. This had been cut by the best artificers2 in Java and there was not a single cut or break in it. The wood shaving was rolled up in the form of a lass' ear stud.
When the gift was presented to Raja Pikrama Wira, many in the court were impressed at the skill that had gone into the creation of the gift. Raja Pikrama Wira however, knew what the underlying message of the gift was.
"How can the Raja of Majapahit ridicule our manliness by sending us a girl's ear stud!" Raja Pikrama Wira said angrily.
"Your Majesty, my master has no ill intention. He merely wishes to ask whether there is any man in your land who use an adze3 like that?" replied the envoy.
Raja Pikrama Wira was not convinced. He summoned a carpenter named Sang Bentan and his young son. In the presence of the Majapahit envoys, he ordered Sang Bentan to shave the boy's head with his adze. Even though the boy kept crying and moving his head, the task was completed in a short while. The boy was completely bald and there was not a single scratch on the newly shaven head. The envoys were astonished at the feat.
Raja Pikrama Wira then presented Sang Bentan's adze as a gift to the Raja of Majapahit, "Tell your master that a man who can shave a lad's head with his adze can easily make a wood-shaving like yours."
When the envoys reported this to the Raja of Majapahit, he burst into anger. "Fools! The Raja of Singapura is saying that if we ever dare to go to Singapura, our heads would be shaved like the boy's!" he yelled.
The Raja of Majapahit decided to start his conquest of the entire region. One kingdom after another fell. Pulau Laut, Pulau Tinggi, the Tambelan Islands and Tioman were all conquered. Other kingdoms such as Bintan and Riau agreed to become vassals of the Majapahit Empire and were thus spared from any attack.
All too soon, it was Singapura's turn. Raja Pikrama Wira knew that the wood shaving represented the Majapahit Empire. It meant that the Empire would be smooth without any crack or break and the kingdom of Singapura would be the break in the Empire if the conquest for Singapura failed.
Thus, when the battleships arrived at the small island, it seemed that the entire army was waiting for them. The invaders demanded absolute surrender which was of course immediately rejected. The war broke out.
Blood spilled on the once pristine soil. Both sides fought hard and refused to relent. It was not long before the commander of the invading forces realised that the island's defences were truly impregnable. Thus he decided to call off the invasion to prevent more deaths to his troops.
As the Majapahit army retreated, the people of Singapore rejoiced at their victory. They then turned to the painful task of burying the dead. Quite some time passed before life in Singapura returned to normal.
This incident taught the people and the future generations that a small, vulnerable kingdom like Singapura needed to be constantly prepared for any invasion if she wanted peace to reign.
The Majapahit Empire was based in Eastern Java and reigned from the 1300s to the 1600s. It is possible that Singapura became one of its vassal states around the 1360s. This is supported by the Majapahit jewellery that was dug up on Fort Canning Hill.
1 entrepot - A trading or market center
2 artificers - A skilled worker; a craftsperson
3 adze - An axlike tool with a curved blade at right angles to the handle, used for shaping wood