SM Teo Chee Hean's welcome address at the "China and the Maritime Silk Road: Shipwrecks, Ports and Products" Webinar.
“The Maritime Silk Road and Southeast Asia: Connecting Civilisations Through the Ages”
Dr Tansen Sen,
Director, Centre for Global Asia, New York University Shanghai, and Global Network Professor, New York University,
Dr Yang Zhigang,
Director, Shanghai Museum,
Ms Chang Hwee Nee,
Chief Executive Officer, National Heritage Board,
Mr Loh Lik Peng,
Chairman, Asian Civilisations Museum,
Mr Kennie Ting,
Director, Asian Civilisations Museum,
Distinguished guests, Scholars,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to join you today for the opening of the “China and the Maritime Silk Road: Shipwrecks, Ports and Products” conference, organised in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition “The Baoli Era: Treasures from the Tang Shipwreck Collection”, which will be held at the Shanghai Museum in September this year.
When the Covid-19 pandemic affected the world earlier this year, the Asian Civilisations Museum (or ACM) made the decision to move this conference into the digital space.
The digital format of this conference is now part of our ‘new normal’. The rise of video-conferencing and other new ways of connecting with each other is an example of how human history is rooted in finding ways to continue to interact between peoples, societies, and civilisations, in spite of the obstacles and challenges that we may face. It is when interactions take place, with open exchanges of trade, goods, cultures, ideas and people, that human civilisation as a whole advances. The digital format of this conference also enables the ACM to reach out to an even wider audience across many borders and allows all speakers and participants to participate conveniently, actively and safely.
Background of the Conference
ACM had already been working with its Chinese counterparts on two key exhibitions for this year before COVID-19, namely:
a. The Tang Shipwreck Collection exhibition at Shanghai Museum, which this conference is a prelude to, and
b. The “Yongle • Wanli – Emperors of the Ming” exhibition in November at ACM, which will feature loans from the Palace Museum in Beijing.
I am glad that despite the challenges, ACM and its counterparts have made efforts to carry on with these two exhibitions within current restrictions, as it is important to continue our cross-cultural exchanges and collaborations.
The Tang Shipwreck Collection exhibition at Shanghai Museum is the first time that this Collection is being shown in China. This is particularly significant as the Collection is a tangible demonstration of the long-standing historical links between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, which continue to flourish today.
The two exhibitions will also commemorate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China this year. They showcase the historical breadth and depth of our bilateral relationship, which continues to grow from strength to strength with each generation.
The Tang Shipwreck Collection
The Tang Shipwreck Collection gives us a sense of the history of past eras, and allows us to better appreciate the links that have connected civilisations through the ages. This is especially important in an increasingly interconnected world which offers much promise, but in a world where, unfortunately, isolationist sentiments in many countries can also be amplified. So, it is all the more important that we continue to reach out to each other and strengthen the interconnections that we have.
The Collection contains some 60,000 ceramics, as well as luxurious objects of gold and silver. They paint a picture of the rich economic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges that connected civilisations since at least the ninth century, along the sea route running from the Middle East to India, Southeast Asia and China – more popularly known as the “Maritime Silk Road”. The discovery of the Tang Shipwreck with its artefacts confirmed that overland routes were not the only trade connections between East and West, and that Southeast Asia lay at the heart of a well-used global maritime trading network.
One of the artefacts that will be exhibited at Shanghai Museum later this year is a Blue-and-White decorated dish. Although it was produced in China, the dish was decorated with brilliant blue cobalt glaze, which was mined in Iran and unavailable in China at the time. The dish also features a lozenge motif with flowers or leaves at the corners, which was a design favoured in the Middle East.
It was likely that the vessel was bound for present-day Iraq and Iran, before it was unfortunately shipwrecked near Belitung Island, not far from Singapore, in South East Asian waters. The vessel was an Arab dhow made of timber sewn together, a typical construction method of vessels from the Persian Gulf, with wood from Africa, but repairs made with materials native to India and Southeast Asia.
The Tang Shipwreck Collection will provide a window into what the world was like more than a thousand years ago. The artefacts, along with historical and archaeological records exhibited will allow audiences to appreciate and understand the interactions between civilisations which were key to the development of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, China and the wider world, and which continue till today.
Singapore and the Maritime Silk Road
Historically, Singapore has been a key node along the ancient Maritime Silk Road with its position on the Straits of Malacca at the southern-most point of the Asian continent, connecting the Pacific and Indian Ocean Basins. Today, Singapore continues to be a hub for trade and exchange of ideas.
Singapore supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it sees the benefit of enhanced connectivity and development in the Silk Road Spirit of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit”.
A key part of building mutual respect and understanding is building cultural and historical exchanges. Over the years, our cultural institutions have built strong relationships and enjoy frequent and extensive cultural exchanges.
Today’s conference is one example of this. I am pleased to see that the ACM has gathered leading international scholars, curators and archaeologists to exchange research and perspectives that will add to our collective body of knowledge of the Maritime Silk Road..
COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of striving even harder to maintain the links between countries and peoples. It has shown that we cannot take these links for granted.
The Tang Shipwreck Collection tells the story of how we have all connected and worked together over centuries to overcome challenges together and achieve shared prosperity and human progress.
I would like to thank the ACM for organising this conference, and speakers and participants for sharing your experience. I hope that you will have many fruitful discussions over the next two days. We hope to be able to welcome you in Singapore to see the collection yourself in the near future and have a discussion with the collection in front. For those who will be enjoying the exhibition in Shanghai, I wish you all the very best.
Thank you very much.
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