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 1968 (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.


Another view of the istana in the 1960s (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 1967 (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, 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 (National Archives of Singapore online).

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 (National Archives of Singapore online).

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 such as in an Utusan Malaysia report dated 8 July 1999 (see : 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:


A vestige of 16th Century Singapura?

1 12 2013

Ravaged by the passage of time and probably neglect, a structure which harks back seemingly to the days of empire and dominion, sits somewhat obscurely and well forgotten on the southern slope of Bukit Purmei in Kampong Bahru. Dominated by the emblems near it of a Singapore that spares little thought for such vestiges of its past, the structure, a walled compound, with an entrance archway suggesting a European origin, hides a world that has much to do with the days of empire that is anything but European.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The well hidden reminder of a past we have long discarded.

The walled compound, referred to in the past as Keramat Bukit Kasita, is well hidden from view. Located on what can probably be described as a short spur on the Bukit Purmei slope, it sits on the edge of a public housing estate, behind a disarray of zinc topped shacks. A narrow path leads through the shacks – home to the guardians of the compound, who perhaps are also the keepers of a past which  would otherwise have been discarded; rising up to where the archway is. Beyond the locked gates – a more recent addition to the archway, it is the unmistakeable sight of Malay graves – many have its headstones covered in the yellow cloth that is associated with Malay royalty, that greets the eye. There are also several on which green cloth is wrapped over – green being the colour of Islam.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

The concrete jungle Keramat Bukit Kasita now finds itself in. The blocks of flats painted in light blue and white are of Bukit Purmei.

One of the keepers of the tombs, a rather chatty lady who identified herself as “Umi”, tells the group of us standing by the archway that the tombs are those of the Riau-Lingga branch of the Johor Royal family, hence the yellow cloth and the name Tanah Kubor diRaja by which the site is also known as. The earliest grave there she says, is one which dates back to 1721. She also made mention of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, buried at the site, about which I was rather puzzled as I was intrigued. 

A look into the compound from the back of it.

A look into the compound from the back of it.

“Wouldn’t Sultan Iskandar Shah be buried in Melaka” I ask. Umi tells me there might have been more than one “Iskandar Shah”, as names are often recycled down the line.

A Berita Minggu article from Nov 1998 tells us of a notice which identifies the tomb of a “Sultan Iskandar Shah” under in a yellow shed.

Interestingly a Berita Minggu article published on 29 November 1998 also makes mention of “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, drawing reference to a notice put up at the site on which the words “terdapat sebuah makam seorang sultan, Almahurum Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, di pondok tuning itu“, which translates into “there is a tomb of a sultan, the late Sri Sultan Iskandar Shah, in the yellow shed”.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

A zinc topped dwelling, one which hides the walled compound from view.

The article which is written based on an interview the newspaper did with a previous keeper of the tombs, an En. Azmi Saipan, also mentions that this “Sultan Iskandar Shah”, was thought to have died some 400 years previously – placing him in the 16th Century, well after the passing of the Iskandar Shah, the last king of Sang Nila Utama’s Singapura and the founder of Melaka, that we know well from our history texts.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur.

What greets the eye at the bottom of the spur – used as a barber shop until very recently.

There is a suggestion that is offered by a Radin Mas heritage guide which is put together by the Radin Mas Citizens’s Consultative Community, that the burial site was set up in 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – who established the Johor Sultanate out of the ruins of the Melaka Sultanate which was deposed through the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in the early 16th Century. Whether or not Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II who ruled from 1528 to 1564 could be that “Sultan Iskandar Shah” the keepers speak of isn’t certain, although the association remains a possibility. This does also does date the burial grounds some two hundred years before the “oldest grave” which Umi made a mention of.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

The grounds of the former De La Salle School which opened in 1952 are right next to the keramat.

We also learn from Umi that she was from a family of caretakers appointed by a member of the Johor Royal family to take care of the Istana Woodneuk and the grounds of the former Istana Tyersall until some 15 years ago, before being asked by a “Tunku” to move to Bukit Purmei to look after the Bukit Kasita site, which she says is still in the hands of the State of Johor. A check on the Singapore Land Authority’s one map site shows however that Bukit Kasita is within a parcel of land which is owned by the Housing and Development Board – although I am given to understand that it is possible that the site itself could still be owned by the Johor State.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA's One Map site.

Query on ownership of land on which Keramat Bukit Kasita is on via SLA’s One Map site.

While it is uncertain what origins of the site are, we do know that there is at least the graves of a branch of the Johor Royal line all of which can be traced back to Sang Nila Utama and his successors who ruled Singapura and subsequently the Sultanate of Melaka, is can be found behind the walls. This branch, are the descendants of the rulers of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate which was set up by the Dutch out of the remnants of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate they controlled through the appointment of the Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah the younger son of Sultan Mahmud Shah III following his death in 1812 and cemented by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

The locked gates.

The locked gates.

It was Abdul Rahman’s elder half brother, Hussein who was set up by Raffles as Sultan of Johor and Singapore, in Kampong Glam – Hussein’s descendants are buried in another site at the Old Malay Cemetery in Jalan Kubor.

The 'Tomb of Malayan Princes'.

The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’ at Jalan Kubor.

The Riau Sultanate was abolished when the Dutch drove an uncooperative Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the great-great-grandson of Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah through his great-granddaughter Tengku Fatimah, from his seat in Pulau Penyengat into exile in Singapore in 1911. Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the very last Sultan of Riau-Lingga, died a poor man in 1930 and along with several of his descendants, is buried at Bukit Kasita. This does make the cluster, one of three connected, albeit distantly, with the Johor Royal family.

Sultan Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah II, the last sultan of Riau-Lingga who died in exile in Singapore in 1930 (source:

The other two are the Tanah Kubor Temenggong at Telok Blangah where the Temenggong with whom Raffles negotiated with in setting up the East India Company’s trading post in Singapore, and  from whom the current line of Johor Sultans descended,  Temenggong Abdul Rahman is buried; and the Old Malay Cemetery at Kampong Glam, where the “Tombs of Malayan Princes” – many of whom were descendants of Sultan Hussein, is found. Tanah Kubor Temenggong along with the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim are on land owned by the State of Johor. The tomb of Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim after whom the mosque is named is also found in that burial site. It was Temmenggong Deang Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, who established the current Johor Sultanate.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

Another view of the Tanah Kubor diRaja / Keramat Bukit Kasita.

It is thought that the area where Bukit Kasita is, was where one of the oldest settlements in Singapore was established well before the arrival of Raffles and the resettlement of the Temenggong and his followers by Raffles to the Telok Blangah area. It might have been Abu Bakar as Temenggong who permitted the establishment of a settlement by followers of the ousted last Bendahara of Johor in Pahang Tun Mutahir in 1863, many of whom fled to Singapore and Johor at the end of the Pahang Civil War of 1857 to 1863. Tun Mutahir was defeated by the Bendahara’s younger half brother Tun Ahmad who established the Pahang Sultanate.  The settlement came to be known as Kampong Pahang – which is shown in a map of Singapore from 1907, one of several villages of the same name set up by fleeing followers of Tun Mutahir, another of which was on Pulau Tekong.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

Detail of a 1907 map of Singapore showing Kampong Pahang at Bukit Purmei / Bukit Kasita.

As to how the Bukit Kasita site came to be venerated as a keramat, a clue is found in a paper published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2003 by P.J. Rivers. Rivers identifies two graves which are venerated as keramats, one is of a Raja Ahmad which Rivers identifies as Keramat Bukit Kasita. The second grave is that of a Raja Tengku Fatimah which is venerated on the basis that the waters of spring next to the tomb which is said to have healing powers.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone's throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Another keramat, that of Radin Mas Ayu, just a stone’s throw away on the slopes of Mount Faber.

Outside the gate two urns containing sticks of incense provide evidence of the veneration of the site, which the Berita Minggu article says attracts visitors of all races. Umi does confirm this, telling us that there are indeed visitors who come from as far as Europe, who offer prayers at the site.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Yellow is seen along with the colour green.

Before we leave, we ask Umi about the significance of the green seen on some of the graves. Umi tells us that they are of descendants of “shaikhs” from Iraq, related to Muslim holyman Habib Noh (of Keramat Habib Noh). Whether it is completely true or not is hard to establish. She adds the grave of an infant seen under the tree in the middle of the compound, is that of a grandchild of Habib Noh. As we thank Umi for her information and turn to leave, Umi adds that the tree is a holy one which should never be cut down.

URA's Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

URA’s Draft Master Plan 2013 shows the Keramat Bukit Kasita area as a reserve site.

Whether or not the tree will ever be cut down, would depend very on whether the site and the wealth of history that comes with it is discarded in the same way much of what made us who we as Singaporeans are has been sacrificed for the glitter of the soulless world we have come to embrace. What is known today, based on the latest (2013) draft of the URA Master Plan, is that the site is a reserved site for which there are no immediate plans. In that there is hope that what may be a link we have to a world we might otherwise have lost touch with, may somehow survive.

See also:

A Straits Times Article published on 6 Dec 2013:

HDB estate with grave links to the past. Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance.

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’.