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Fri 13 Jul 2007

A lexicographical correction to that very tall tale of the swordfish attack of Singapore

Category : heritage

Roger Toi contends it was hardwood and not the shins of man that were the first (failed) line of defense against marauding swordfish.

05 Jul 2007 - Chua Ai Lin posted to members of the Singapore Heritage Mailing list an extract of Roger Toi's 6-page article which re-examines "the Sejarah Melayu and argues that existing translations have misinterpreted the swordfish attack story."

"The Persistent Misinterpretation of the Swordfish attack on Singapore." By Roger Tol, 2007. Indonesia and the Malay World, 35 (102): 247 - 252. [NUS Digital Library link (login required)]


"One of the many intriguing sub-plots in the traditional Malay work Sulalatus Salatin or Sejarah Melayu concerns the story of the swordfish attack on Singapore.


"And Paduka Sri Maharaja went forth on his elephant escorted by his ministers, war-chiefs, courtiers and heralds. And when he reached the sea shore he was astounded to see the havoc the swordfish had wrought; how not a victim of their attack had escaped; how those who had been stabbed rolled over and over and died; and how the number of victims was ever mounting.

And he ordered all his men to (stand side by side so as to) form a barricade of their shins, but the swordfish leapt upon them and any one they stabbed met his death. Like rain came the swordfish and the men they killed were past numbering."

This order from the king does not make any sense since having witnessed the ferocity of the swordfish and seeing that wherever they attacked - chest, neck or waist - the victims died, why then would one use this tactic to defend the city? .

.. From this whole sorry episode we can only surmise that Paduka Sri Maharaja's tactic to oppose the swordfish by forming a human barricade was either plainly ridiculous or that there has been a misreading of the original text. ..."

The article was an enjoyable read. He attempts to make sense of a nonsensical defense against the swordfish attack by a shield of shins. A lexicological investigation suggests that the original scripts instead refer to an inadequate hardwood defense which the the swordfish leapt over to fall upon the people in a deadly rain of spears.

The rest is, erm, history? The boy's suggestion of a banana-stem barricade wins the day, the king's advisors whom he listens to in this instance regard his intelligence a threat, and the boy forfeits his life. This ignominious act marks demise of Singapore. It should be a depressing story, I suppose, but Roger Toi's prose is upbeat.

The story has more problems than the shin defense, for fishermen find the accusation against the mild-tempered swordfish slanderous, with one even protested to NHB about its 'unkind' depiction during Heritage Fest ?2005. Biologists support the dissent, for swordfish in Singapore are rare and accidental, foreigners to our shallow waters and the East Coast Black Marlin of 1986 is called a "stray". All do agree that garfish are a more likely contender for accidental spearings of people at least, for we continue to hear of incidents every other decade or so. Even then, of individuals and not the masses.

Still, nothing is better than a tall tale, and nothing more dramatic than the depiction of a swordfish poised in mid-air above the sea, about to rain down upon helpless horrified natives with a flick of a tail.

Just see the drawings Ivan Chew made for the opening of the Bukit Merah Community Library in 2005 and subsequently featured in Habitatnews.

We are, in fact, going to print those out to aid our story-telling for the upcoming Heritage Fest.

If you'd rather hear than read or view the story, listen to Moses Lim tell the story in an episode of Explore Singapore!

Posted at 3:40AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news