Maghrib at Kampong Gelam

9 01 2020

There is no better time of day than maghrib, or sunset, to take in Kampong Gelam. The winding down of the day in Singapore’s old royal quarter is accompanied by an air of calm brought by the strains of the azan – the Muslim call to prayer, and, as it was the case last evening, made a much greater joy by a colouring of the evening sky.

Masjid Sultan against the evening sky.

Viewed against that dramatic backdrop, Masjid Sultan – the area’s main landmark – looked especially majestic. The golden dome topped National Monument, Singapore’s principal mosque, stands just a stone-throw’s away from the former Istana Kampong Gelam. Erected by Sultan Hussein Shah’s heir Ali, the istana or palace, served little more than a symbolic seat of power which Hussein had all but relinquished in signing the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1824. Now the Malay Heritage Centre, the istana is a showcase of the Malay world’s culture and a reminder perhaps of the last days and lost glory of a once mighty Johor-Riau-Lingga Empire.

Istana Kampong Gelam.

More on Masjid Sultan and Istana Kampong Gelam and the Johor Empire can be found at the following posts:


Masjid Sultan.


Journeys of faith and devotion from Kampong Gelam

13 10 2018

An insightful exhibition featuring the journeys of faith that Hajj pilgrims take in both body and in spirit, ‘Undangan ke Baitullah: Pilgrims Stories from the Malay World to Makkah’, was launched together with the Malay Culture Fest 2018 yesterday (12 Oct 2018).


A performance at the opening, reenacting a pilgrim’s journey of faith.

The exhibition, which runs from 13 October 2018 to 23 June 2019, takes a look at Kampong Gelam’s role in supporting the Hajj. The district, having been an important port town, saw Muslims from across the Nusantara congregate in preparation for the often difficult passage by sea to Mecca in days before air travel (the area around Busorrah Street was also known as ‘Kampong Kaji‘ – ‘kaji’ was apparently the Javanese pronunciation of ‘haji‘).

Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, launching the exhibition and the Malay Culture Fest.

Many businesses such the popular nasi padang outlet Hjh. Maimunah had its roots in the pilgrimage. The restaurant, which has an outlet at Jalan Pisang, is named after the founder’s mother Hajjah Maimunah, who was Singapore’s first female Hajj broker (or sheikh haji). The enterprising Hajjah Maimunah also ran a food business during the Hajj catering to pilgrims from this part of the world in Mecca.


The Malay Culture Fest, which was opened together with the exhibition, runs from 12 to 28 October 2018 and will feature lectures and performances over the three weeks. More information can be found at :

Entrance to one of the exhibition’s galleries.

The hajj passport of a child pilgrim on display at the exhibition.

A trunk and a suitcase used by pilgrims on display.


Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

5 11 2014

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.


Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.


The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.


I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .


The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.


Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.


While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.

Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance.

Prayers offered before the performance.







During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse.

Men becoming one with the horse.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

Drinking from a bucket of water.


The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.













The Barong







Performers being brought out of the trance





The palace of an empire lost

10 01 2014

It was in the disorder of Kampong Glam of the late 1960s that I first became acquainted with the area. It was where I would occasionally find myself heading to on the back of a beca (trishaw) on the shopping trips my maternal grandmother made to the five-foot-ways of the Arab Street area, an area she referred to as Kampong Jawa, for her supply of batik sarongs and bedak sejuk in shops mixed into the colours of the many textile shops that lined the corridors.

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Surviving today as a conservation district, Kampong Glam is today a pale shadow of that Kampong Glam of the 1960s – a sanitised version of what once had been a huge bazaar, a trading place of many who brought goods into Singapore from far and wide. It is amid the order found in the seemingly disordered streets and back lanes that one can now seek a peace that does often seem elusive in the madness of concrete that surrounds the district, accentuated five times a day when the soothing strains of the Azan spreading out from the Sultan’s Mosque, brings about an air of contemplative calm.

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In the shadow of the complex of the grand mosque, is where an oasis from what might have been a disorderly past, once an abode for would be kings, can be found. Set in a beautifully landscaped compound and the building that once was the Istana Kampong Glam, does take on an appearance that hints at its regal beginnings, as the royal home of a prince who became Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, one who sought to live as a king he would never be.

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The oasis would turn out to be a mirage to the sultan’s descendents. They were to occupy the building for some 12 decades that followed his death in 1877, with the last descendants leaving in 1999. This was when the State, as the successor of the Crown to whom the ownership of the property long had reverted, decided to repossess the property for its conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre.

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The building had by 1999, long lost any hint that there might have been of its regal origins, wearing instead a worn and tired appearance and feeling the strain of its 170 occupants. This perhaps was a reflection of the fortunes of a once proud royal line, a line that descended from the rulers of territories that had stretched across the southern Malay Peninsula to the Riau and Lingga Archipelagos, fortunes that diminished progressively with the passing of each generation.

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Sitting in the quiet of the serene forecourt of the restored and resplendent yellow coated Malay Heritage Centre and bathed in its golden glow, it is the whispers of its many ghosts that I hear. The whispers are ones that remind me of the golden days of my grandmother’s Kampong Jawa, and ones that speak of gold that has for long lost its lustre. While it may seem that the gold is one we find is now best to forget, it is also one in telling us of who we in Singapore are, that we should never be made to forget.

About Istana Kampong Glam and its history:

The two-storey former Istana Kampong Glam was erected in the 1840s, work on it starting some five years after the death in 1835 of Sultan Hussein Shah in Melaka. Built in the Neo-Palladian style, the palace was built on what was said to be a palace of attap used by Sultain Hussein Shah on land that was allotted to him by the British East India Company in 1823 in exchange for the sultan’s ceding of Singapore to the British.

The istana in 1960 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Sultan Hussein’s act would have taken place in only a matter of four years from when the sultan had assumed the throne of the Johor-Singapura Sultanate. It was a manoeuvre that had been orchestrated by the British East India Company in the disarray that followed the death in 1812 of the last sultan of the great Johor-Riau-Lingga empire, Hussein’s father Sultan Mahmud Shah III, to allow them a foothold on the island.

The forecourt of the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

Descended from a proud line of rulers of a sultanate that had once stretched across much of the southern Malay Peninsula and the Riau and Lingga Archipelago, Sultan Hussein Shah could only serve as a pawn to one of the European powers that had sought to carve the huge empire his father had left, dying somewhat dispiritedly, a year after he had moved to Melaka.

The istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was to the promise that was the territory of Johor that Tengku Ali (later Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah), Hussein’s son, probably arrived in Singapore to stake his claim on his late father’s estate. While he was successful in seeking recognition as his father’s successor, the title of Sultan initially proved to be an elusive one on which Tengku Ali was conferred only in 1855. The price Ali did pay for that was huge – he signed away his rights to sovereignty over Johor to the favoured Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim and this would have repercussions on the succession rights of his descendants – cutting them off from ruling a territory that if not for the events of the early 19th century, might still have been in their hands.

Sultan Gate and the istana in 1968 (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

It was in 1897 that a court ruling to a succession dispute brought to the courts had it that no one would be able to claim rights they may have had to succession following Sultan Ali’s passing in 1877. That also meant the 56 acres or 23 ha. property on which the istana stood with the ownership of the istana and its grounds reverting back to the Crown.  An ordinance, the Sultan Hussain Ordinance of 1904, was subsequently passed to allow descendants of Sultan Hussein to instead receive a stipend from the Crown. The descendents were also allowed to continue staying at the istana, vacating it only in 1999, when attempts in 1999 by the State (as a successor to the Crown) to repossess the building and its grounds, for conversion into the Malay Heritage Centre, were to be met with resistance.

The istana in 1971 (source:

While some of its 170 residents, some living in makeshift extensions, were happy to accept the resettlement benefits and move out of the istana’s desperately overcrowded premises, there were also many who objected (see: Letter of Appeal signed by 32 of the istana’s residents – on the Gedung Kuning website).

The istana in 1982 (source:

There was also much controversy that was to follow when several media organisations in Malaysia decided to weigh in on the issue. Coming at a time when tensions between Malaysia and its former state were at a high with several highly contentious bilateral issues lying unresolved, this was to lead to several angry exchanges. Singapore was accused of attempting to erase a part of its history, and with the istana being referred to as “benteng terakhir Melayu Singapura” or the “last bastion of Malay Singapore” in several instances (see Utusan Malaysia report dated 8 July 1999; and also, Main Point of Remarks by Minister S Jayakumar on 6 July 1999 and Speech by Mr Yatiman Yusof  on 6 July 1999).

Other sources of information:

Other posts related to the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate and to Sultan Hussein Shah:

Documentation work at Jalan Kubor

31 12 2013

Spotted by a friend at the cemetery at Jalan Kubor on the side of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah – raffia string being strung around grave stones, sparking some concern that the site may be cleared soon. The site, along with the Old Malay Cemetery across the road, is of historical significance with links to the early days of modern Singapore and is slated for future residential development (see a previous post: Grave losses). As I now understand it, the laying of string and tags that is seen, is the beginnings of what is now a important documentation project that being undertaken by Dr Imran Tajudeen, that will map the site as well as involve a study of the inscriptions on the grave stones.

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P.S. For further information, kindly refer to a report in the 3 Jan 2014 edition of the Straits Times: NHB project to document Malay cemetery

More on the cemeteries at Jalan Kubor:


Grave losses

20 12 2013

Of late, I seem to have taken to wandering around spaces for the dead of late, spaces that my irrational fears would usually keep me well away from. I now find myself drawn to them, seeking out the stories they hold of a past we in Singapore have discarded, in the knowledge that the existence of such spaces in an island nation obsessed with building for a soulless future, can only be temporary.

The old Muslim cemeteries at Jalan Kubor provide a gateway to a discarded past.

A gate at a mausoleum like structure at the Old Malay Cemetery at Jalan Kubor – cemeteries provide gateways to a discarded past.

We in Singapore would be well aware of the brouhaha surrounding the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. While that hasn’t prevented the intended construction of the road through it, which can perhaps be seen as the beginning of its probable end (work to exhume graves affected by the road has just started), it has raised awareness of the historical value of what may possibly be the largest concentration of Chinese graves outside of China. More significantly, found among the estimated 100,000 graves, are several of ethnic Chinese luminaries associated with modern Singapore’s development.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Tree clearing at Jalan Kubor. Several historic grave sites in Singapore are under threat of being cleared.

Besides Bukit Brown, another concentration of graves under threat that is thought to be of historical value, can be found close to the heart of the city, straddling Jalan Kubor, on the fringe of the historic Kampong Glam district. While much of the Kampong Glam area, once the seat of Sultan Hussein – the British installed Sultan of Johor and Singapore, has been identified as a conservation area, the two cemeteries at Jalan Kubor are located on the wrong side of Victoria Street – which delineates the northern boundary of the conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

A view from the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery across to the Kampong Glam conservation area.

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

Keeping a watchful eye on history?

On the eastern side of Jalan Kubor is the plot of land on which what is referred to as the Old Malay Cemetery lies, along with what has become a very distinctive Masjid Malabar at its southeastern corner. While the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 does identify the mosque as being considered for conservation, the land on which the cemetery rests has for several revisions of the 5 yearly Master Plan including the current draft, along with the second cemetery across Jalan Kubor (which translates from Malay into “Grave Street”) from it, been identified for future residential development (with a plot ratio of 4.9).

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The cemetery, is also the plot identified in early maps of British Singapore, as the “Tomb of Malayan Princes”  – a reference perhaps to the raised burial plot found in the site that is reserved for the family of Sultan Hussein. There are also several graves of significance on the site, about which Dr. Imran Tajudeen, an academic who has devoted much time to the study of the area and the cemeteries, has shed some light on in a talk on 7 July 2013 (which has been posted on YouTube).

The "Tombs of Malayan Princes".

The “Tombs of Malayan Princes”.

Amongst Dr Imran’s findings, are the links the graveyard does have with the early immigrants from the Islamic world around us, including connections with the Bugis and Banjarese traders who were prominent members of the communities that grew around the Sultan’s compound. He also mentioned finding gravestones bearing inscriptions written in the Bugis script, Lontara – a indication perhaps of the use of the Bugis language in the early days of the settlement of Kampong Glam.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Inscriptions on a gravestone.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Older wooden grave markers are also found amongst the gravestones.

Another wooden grave marker.

Another wooden grave marker.

The are several interesting structures, otherwise mysterious, that Dr Imran has also identified during his talk. One, is the house-like structure under a banyan tree just behind Masjid Malabar. That contains the graves of a Bugis merchant, Haji Omar Ali and his wife. The grave of Haji Omar’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh, is also found there, placed under an awning at the structure’s entrance. 

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

The back of the structure housing the grave of Bugis merchant Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali's son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

A view of the front of the structure where Haji Omar Ali’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh can be found.

The mausoleum like structure above the grave of another Bugis merchant.

The walled compound which contains the second cemetery at Jalan Kubor does also have several rather interesting stories. Referred to as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, after the Islamic School nestled in its northwest corner, the land on which this (and the Madrasah) sits on a Wakaf that was donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a prominent Arab pioneer of modern Singapore. Besides being where Syed Omar and many of his descendants were buried (Dr. Imran mentions that the family has since exhumed the graves), the cemetery was also where Ngah Ibrahim of Perak was buried. Implicated in the murder of the first British Resident of Perak, James Birch, in 1875, Ngah Ibrahim died in exile in Singapore. His remains have since been moved back to Perak. 

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

The presence of the grave sites close to the city does draw the curiosity of visitors to the area.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

Structures which once contained the graves of the Aljunieds.

The cemetery is also associated with an incident in 1972 during which two gunmen, brothers at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, took their lives  after being cornered by the police. More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery.

A view of the Madrasah Aljunied al-Islamiah Cemetery, which was the scene of an incident in December 1972.

It probably is only a matter of time before the two sites, and the links to history they do hold, are erased from a Singapore that is reluctant to recognise the significance of its pre-independence past. As mentioned above, the URA Masterplan including a current draft, does point to the land on which the sites are on accommodating future high-rise residential developments. A check on the land ownership status with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) maintained OneMap site, does also show that the land is already in the hands of the State. With the acceleration seen in pace of development that is taking place in and around it area, it is likely that time will soon be called on a world that takes us back two hundred years.

A view down Jalan Kubor - the pace of development in the area is gathering pace.

A view down Jalan Kubor – the pace of development in the area is gathering speed.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

Another view towards the structure housing the graves of Haji Omar Ali and his wife.

Some spaces for the dead that are under threat:



The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’

16 07 2013

Lying somewhat obscurely and hidden at Jalan Kubor off Victoria Street is the Old Malay Cemetery. The cemetery, which is across Jalan Kubor from the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, another old Muslim cemetery better know perhaps for an incident in 1972 involving two gunmen, is the oldest Malay burial ground in Singapore on record. Quite prominently identified on maps dating from the 1820s and 1830s, it is shown on J. B. Tassin’s Map (Map of The Town and Environs, Singapore) of 1836,  as the ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’.


The burial grounds are described in a heritage trail guide put together by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Kampong Glam:


In the early maps of Singapore, these burial grounds were marked as “Mohamedan cemetery” and “Tombs of Malayan Princes”. According to 19th century reports, there were three distinct burial plots here – a 5 1/3 acre Malay cemetery, the 3-acre Sultan’s family burial grounds located within the Malay cemetery and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875, the municipality closed down the Malay cemetery but agreed to the Sultan’s request that his family could continue to use the royal burial grounds. The sultan’s burial grounds were walled in and the graves were situated in elevated plots. It was noted in the early 20th century that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter them.

An extract of Tassin's map of 1836 showing the location of the "Tombs of the Malayan Princes".

An extract of Tassin’s map of 1836 showing the location of the ‘Tombs of the Malayan Princes’.

More information on the cemetery also came to light during a recent talk by A/Prof Imran bin Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture. A synopsis written for the talk also provides some insight into the area and the cemetery:

Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’.