The One Moment in Singapore’s History You Should Know About

As the nation marks its 50th anniversary, here’s one moment we should all reflect on.

The One Moment in Singapore’s History You Should Know About
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Singapore celebrates the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence this year, there has been a lot of emphasis on reflecting on the past. For instance, the Institute of Policy Studies conducted a survey which revealed some interesting things about which domestic events Singaporeans remember (and, more interestingly, don’t remember) in their history.

But there is one important global moment that Singaporeans – and the international community more generally – should remember this year. On February 25, 1603, in the midst of the Eighty Years’ War, ships commanded by Jacob van Heemskerk of the Dutch East India Company seized the Santa Catarina, a Portugese merchant ship, without explicit authorization to do so. To defend the seizure, the Dutch hired a 26-year old lawyer named Hugo Grotius (yes, that Hugo Grotius), who astutely claimed that it was a legitimate challenge to Portugal’s monopoly on commerce with Asia.

The rest, as they say, is history. His idea of the freedom of the seas, which he elucidated in Mare Liberum (Free Sea) was subsequently enshrined in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And while it is difficult to summarize his overall influence on the direction of international law (and other fields as well, including international relations, political theory and philosophy), the fact that the term “Grotian Moment” is used by some today to describe “a paradigm-shifting development in which new rules and doctrines of customary international law emerge with unusual rapidity and acceptance,” should give you an idea.

Today, many people have at least encountered Grotius in passing, and some may know the background to his emergence. But as Navin Rajagobal wrote in an opinion piece for The Straits Times last week commemorating the 412th anniversary of the sinking, few – including many Singaporeans – are aware of Singapore’s role in this major event. As Rajagobal notes, the incident happened off Singapore’s upper east coast, near Changi, where the Santa Catarina was anchored after sailing from Macau to Malacca. Furthermore, Johor-Riau, the local authority at the time, played an important role in helping van Heemskerk seize the Santa Catarina as many of them had fled the Portugese conquest of Malacca in 1511. This is not just a historical footnote: the Dutch alliance with the local authority was a major part of Grotius’ legal justification because he claimed that van Heemskerk was not a pirate but an agent of Johor-Riau.

The Grotian moment also has broader significance for Singapore and the international community as well. Today, his Mare Liberum (Free Sea), along with the counterarguments it inspired (most pointedly Mare Clausum (Enclosed Sea) by John Selden in 1635) inform the current discussions we have on territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. As Rajagobal notes, China’s ‘nine-dashed lines’ map might be construed by some as more in line with the mare clausum principles that the Portugese favored in the 1600s rather than the mare liberum principles championed by Grotius. History may not repeat itself, Mark Twain is said to have once noted, but it sure does rhyme.