Old South East Asia Maps

February 13, 2015

national library singapore, old south east asia maps

The National Library of Singapore recently exhibited old maps of South East Asia from its rare maps collections. They presented maps from 15th – 19th centuries from celebrated European map makers: Gerard Mercator, Abrham Ornelius, Theodore de Bry, Sebastian Munster and Samuel Thornton.

These cartographers created some of the most imaginative and fascinating maps. There were great myths about the seas during their time and you could see these in their creations. Like one map that illustrates the Asian landmass in the shape of a Pegasus.

The framed map, top right, is the 17th century Magindanao map.

There were maps from the 15th century showing our country formed by just a handful of islands. Later on, you see it take shape. By the 18th century, the maps shows “Las Islas Filipinas” as we know it now. Regardless of our view of Spanish and Catholic rule, it’s their rule that formed its boundaries. Just imagine if the Jesuits never reached Mindanao? Maybe we wouldn’t be concerned about that part of the country because it would have never been ours.

Another map that caught my attention was “Isles Philippines & Moluques” by Robert de Vaugondy. Made in 1749, one could see towns like Bolinao, Borongan, Casiguran and Lampon. This is interesting for no other early 18th century maps on exhibit had these towns inscribed. The note beneath the map told me why; these towns were recognized “Spanish mission towns.”

The program, dubbed “Geo|Graphic: A Celebration of Map,” offers the public a rare glimpse of what the region looks like before the advent of Google Maps!

I saw a map of “Magindanao” (Maguindanao) which I thought was intriguing. Dated 1775, it was created by Sultan Fakih Maulana Muhammad Amiruddin, the ruler of that region during that time. The letters were in archaic Jawi, Arabic used for the Malay language; the British Captain who received it Romanized it.

Towns today like Kabantulan and Udsudan could be found in this incredible map. The maps also tells us of the flourishing relation the British had with the Malaysians chiefs in South East Asia. This association has caused us the territory of Sabah. They rented it from the Sulu chiefs but yielded it to their former colony, Malaysia, when they left.

The recent debacle that resulted to the death of the SAF policemen reminds us that these part of the country remains unsafe and backwards. There is a fragile peace process in place; one that I fear would not last long. But I would not want peace in exchange of giving away Filipino land to one armed group. This would be a betrayal to those who died so that the nation remain whole.


There were other exhibits in the building, remarkable was the one dedicated to Singapore. Not too long ago when its population was still small, there were animal and vegetable farms all over the islands—now, all of these are imported from their neighbors.

There were detailed maps of the island’s airport plan; the Singaporeans visionary planning is inspiring. They expanded their airport to facilitate development and in anticipation of becoming a 1st world nation; they moved the airport from Kallang (they left the old tower there as historical reminder) to Changi just in time to accommodate the boom in economy and tourism. That airport has been voted the best in the world a few times. Not bad for a country its size. Speaks volume of what their leaders are made off.

The most popular area for Filipinos here is Orchard Road. Kasambahays, during their rest days, gather here like migratory birds. Some locals complains about this (they can be rowdy), others had already accepted this to be some kind of a ritual among these Filipinos.

The entire place, including portions of Bras Basah, near the National Library, used to be a motor vehicle hub; very much like Evangelista and Banawe back home.


There are installation artists that took part in the exhibit. I would be the first to say that I am not a big fan of this art form but there was one I found intriguing. This from a local artist, Sherman Ong. He connected televisions, made them to form a loop, on it common are South East Asians telling personal stories.

You have a local Peranakan (Chinese immigrants to the Malay Archipelago) lady, telling how she lives a life of servitude to her elders while waiting for the right man to marry. There was an Achenese man, recounting the horrors of the 2004 tsunami. Interesting is the story of Firdaus; a Malay who escaped his Filipino kidnappers in Mindanao. Another curious interview, a Malaysian speaking while men dance what appears to be “tinikling.” I know it is because we used to dance it, complete with bamboo trunk, in grade school. These are all fascinating and moving stories–felt like local really even when they’re not speaking my language.

And oh, yes, there were Filipinos there, Filipinas actually. And they’re talking about premarital sex and boyfriends.

Kinda out of place if you’ll ask me. I don’t get it.

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