Reflection on Exploring the Kampong Glam in Singapore

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History of Kampong Glam

Kampong Glam was originally a small fishing village on Rochor River. I learnt that in the 1820s, Sir Stamford Raffles signed a treaty that ceded Singapore to the East India Company. Kampong Glam was designated for the Sultan Hussein Mohamed Shah and his 600 family members. He instructed the Temenggong Abdul Rahman to build his palace here – a large attap-roof istana (palace). The area quickly became the centre for the Malay and Muslim community, which included Muslim immigrants from the region such as Java, Sumatra and Malaya who came to trade and work. They settled in and around Kampong Glam within their own ethnic groups, giving rise to different “mini- kampongs” such as Kampong Bugis, Kampong Java and Kampong Malacca. Very quickly, the area soon became a flourishing center of the Malay culture, with various facilities being built, such as Malay schools, printing houses and mosques. Till today, Kampong Glam is the hub of Singapore’s Muslim community. I was extremely impressed by its eclectic blend of culture, history and modern activities.

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Interesting Features in the Area

First, I started off at the Malay Heritage Centre. It was once the palace of the Malay rulers in Singapore, built 160 years ago by Sultan Ali, the son of Sultan Hussein. Following Tengku Alam’s death, there was a disagreement over who the next rightful owner of the palace should be. After bringing the case to court, it was ruled that the property belonged to Singapore; however, further descendants were allowed to continue living there until well into the 1990s when restoration work started. The Malay Heritage Centre was originally a timber structure built on stilts. Its upper level was known as the panggung, or the main living and sleeping quarters of the house. The ground level, the kolong, was used as storage, work or service areas, or even a children’s play area. It has since been converted into a heritage museum, showcasing many artifacts and exhibits of the Malay community in Singapore in the past. In honor of the original, traditional Malay layout, the tour of the galleries start from the upper floor, ending at the ground floor. The exhibitions provided an insight into how the Malay community in Singapore evolved with time. I picked up many interesting facts about their daily lives, seafaring heritage and the important role of the press that set the standard for the Malay language. Prominent figures in the Malay community were also highlighted, such as Yusof Bin Ishak, the first President of Singapore, and Zubir Said who composed to national anthem. What was most significant was seeing his original manuscript of Majulah Singapura on display. He took 12 months to compose the song to ensure that it was accessible to all races. I felt that the pride and identity the Malays have for their community was really admirable.

After touring the Malay Heritage Centre, I came across the Gedung Kuning , the yellow mansion that was the residence of Tunku Mahmud, a grandson of Sultan Hussein. Gedung Kuning has a striking yellow façade – the colour of royalty in traditional Malay society. From the outside, Gedung Kuning looked like it was constructed mainly of wood and brick, reflecting deep European influence. However, like the former Sultan’s Istana next to it, its internal layout was that of the traditional Malay architectural style. Haji Yusoff, a merchant of Javanese descent, first purchased the mansion in 1912. He sold it some years later, but subsequently bought it again. The mansion remained in the possession of Haji Yusoff and later his descendants till 1999, when the government acquired it for redevelopment. The renovated and restored building was opened to the public in 2003, housing a restaurant. As I walked down the streets, I noticed the rows of shophouses lining the street. I was amazed by their distinct architecture. One side presented Early Shophouse Styles, typical of Singapore’s earliest shophouses built between 1840 and 1900. They usually had timber-framed shuttered windows and doors and are simple two-storey buildings. I realised that the other side of shophouses had more elaborate decorations, unlike the Early Shophouse Style with minimal ornaments. I later found out that it was characteristic of the first transitional shophouse style, built around the early 1900s. These shophouses usually have many decorations and more expensive materials were used, such as tiles and small glass panels, reflecting Singapore’s growing affluence. I was awed at its elegant simplicity! The unique characteristics and styles of the traditional Malay architecture, blended with influence from the British, really give the area a distinctive vibe!

FirstMasjid sultan is known as the focal point for Muslims in Singapore. In 1941, when a war broke out in Malaya, people of different ethnicities sought shelter in the mosque and one of its minarets served as an observation post to look out for enemy aircraft. The mosque was originally built by Sultan Hussein in 1824 but was re-designed in 1924. With its massive golden domes and four minarets, it stands majestically as the biggest mosque in Singapore. It is now a blend of Persian, Turkish, Moorish and Indian elements, including onion-shaped domes and arches. I noticed that there were many brown glass bottles between the dome and the base of the mosque, and I later found out that they were donated by the poor who wished to contribute to the construction of the mosque! Established in 1912, Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah is the oldest surviving madrasah (a college for Islamic institution) in Singapore. Its beginnings can be traced to the late 19th century when Syed Mohamed bin Ahmed Alsagoff started a small school in the family house at what was then Java Road (present-day Beach Road Garden estate). The school taught Muslim boys the tenets of Islam. He left a sum of money and an endowment for the school in his will to ensure the extension and continuity of the school. As the number of pupils outgrew the premises at Java Road, his nephews, Syed Omar bin Mohamed Alsagoff and Syed Abdulrahman bin Taha Alsagoff contributed more funds to the endowment and established the madrasah here at Jalan Sultan. Students were taught Islam, Arabic and English and received free education as long as they were Muslim. In 1940, the madrasah started accepting girls. As the enrolment of girls increased and that of boys declined over the next two decades, the trustees of the school decided to convert it into a girls’ school. The school moved to temporary premises in Kembangan in 1989 and remained there till 1992 when an extension building was added to the madrasah, providing better facilities for students. Today, its students are also schooled in secular subjects such as Mathematics, Science, and Malay Language in addition to Islamic studies, Arabic and English.

Life in the past versus Now

In the 1970s, businesses were set up by various communities. The area was once a bustling tradehub, with a vibrant commercial landscape comprising traditional businesses that catered to the Malay community and beyond. Many trades have come and gone with time. However, some long-established trades have survived till today. The area is now a popular tourist attraction, where rich heritage, culture and history still exists side by side modern day culture and activities! Each street had its own unique trade – North Bridge Road was known for many tailors and Chinese-run goldsmith shops. Sultan Gate was dominated by stone masons and blacksmisths. Beach Road waterfront was the center of trading and shipping services, especially from the Bugis traders and ships that arrived.

Bussorah Street was known as the heart of Kampong Glam. It was home to three kampongs, with very diverse trades and expertise, including trading and smithing diamond, selling rice and books, and crafting copper. Many pilgrims from Southeast Asia hoping to make their way to the holy city of Mecca, would congregate in Kampong Haji, the primary arrival and departure point for the pilgrims, to board the kapal haj (Pilgrim ship). Amongst the community living in Bussorah street, Gotong-royong, or mutual assistance was a way of life. During events such as weddings, feasts and funerals, everyone would help each other out, showcasing the Malay ‘kampong’ spirit of bergotong-royong. The neighbors held a strong bond with each other. These stories exhibiting the area’s distinctive culture and community spirit really impressed me! Today, there is an interesting mix of old trinkets sold by old businesses which have survived through time, such as selling songkoks, gem stones, keris (Malay dagger) and antiques. Admist those long lasting businesses, there are new shops selling local wares as well as modern Malay-styled clothing and accessories.

Arab street was named as such as the area was designated for the Arab community in the 1822 town plan of Singapore. Since its early days, Arab Street has been attracting traders and entrepreneurs from diverse communities. Businesses ranging from eating houses and goldsmiths to textile shops, money changers and printing presses. A number of shops in this street are still run by the descendants of pioneers who came here decades ago. Today modern cafes and shops are intertwined with this rich heritage and culture. Large, colorful murals covering old buildings, giving rise to the vibrance and color of the place.

Even though the commerce in the area has diversified and changed over the years, there still remains a hint of Malay traditions. History is indeed so delicate – it fades away with time, without preservation or any form of documentation. It is therefore important for history, cultures and traditions to be preserved, to leave traceable roots and customs to pass down to our future generations. It was truly amazing to explore how Kampong Glam has retained its Malay-Arab traditions alongside modern day activities and trends. Today, the new shops and cafes attract the young to the area, reviving the connection between this area and the wider Singaporean and international environment. Its exotic ambience and charm definitely make the area one of a kind!

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