Malay Heritage Centre: A peek behind the colonial veil

The building housing the Malay Heritage Centre and the Centre's sign in the foreground.We want to take advantage of living in Singapore so I have a spreadsheet listing all the things we want to see and do. During the week I prepare the weekend’s itinerary. On Saturday morning we don our walking shoes, grab our public transport cards and set forth.

The Malay Heritage Centre was on last weekend’s itinerary. We have had our serve of British colonial history at other museums. This museum is for those who want to get beyond ‘the founder of Singapore’, Sir Stamford Raffles and his landing in Singapore in 1819. Like any British colony, Singapore has a much longer history, and it wasn’t British.

The building which houses the Malay Heritage Centre was the former istana, or palace, of the Sultan of Johor and Singapore. As the design of the building shows, it was built during colonial times in the nineteenth century.

Visitors are first directed upstairs and enter the map room. As the writing on the wall explains to visitors, maps are not merely pictures conveying facts. They are subjective representations that reveal the attitudes and goals of the creator of the map. A map is a summary and the choices of places to represent and the names to give them reveals much.

At the National Museum of Singapore we had learned how the British and Dutch drew a line through south-east Asia and determined which colonial ruler would govern the two segments. Through this process the British acquired what would become known as Malaya and Singapore.

The map room lifted the colonial veil and gave us a peak into Singapore as experienced by the Malays through history. Through Australian history we know that the history of a place does not start with colonial rule no matter how much traditional histories of the nation may give that impression. I came to the Malay Heritage Centre because I wanted to go beyond the colonial perspective and learn about the greater history.

Through maps visitors learn how Singapore belonged in the region called the Nusantara. The Heritage Centre’s map showed the Nusantara region covered the hundreds of islands in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos and islands such as Singapore, Timor, Borneo etc. There were significant trading routes throughout this region and hence strong cultural and political connections.

There was both a regional and a local focus in this room. The Malay Heritage centre is located in the area of Kampong Glam which the British, who were assiduous in their racial classification and  ordering of people, designated as a Malay and Muslim quarter. We spent some time viewing a map on a table that had overlays beamed down via a projector demonstrating the changes in urban development in this area over time.

The map room at this Centre is beautifully and effectively presented. The following rooms kept up the standard. I’ll highlight just some of them.

The maritime room was excellent. A whole wall shows model boats of the types used around Singapore. I particularly appreciated the section about the Muslim pilgrimage, the Haj, and the important role that Singapore has historically played for Muslims in this region. We learned that during the colonial times Muslim pilgrims came to Singapore and from here boarded the ships to the Middle East. Travel agents developed businesses specialising in the pilgrimage. Pilgrims were often poor and the journey was long and dangerous. One photo in particular conveyed this. It showed the pilgrims stuffed into the bowels of the boat, their bedding covering every space. They had to provide their own food for the journey. The arduous nature of the journey helped us appreciate why Muslims who successfully completed the pilgrimage have been traditionally honoured with the title, Haji. They earned it.

Some Muslims came to Singapore to do the Haj but didn’t end up going on pilgrimage. These people settled in Singapore and became known as ‘Haji Singapura’.

I had always wondered about the script that the Malays and Indonesians now use. Thailand has another script but the neighbouring Malays and Indonesians use the Roman script which their colonial rulers used. Clearly there was a story behind this and it is told in the Language, Literature and Publishing room at the Malay Heritage Centre.

During the colonial era the Malay language was written in the Jawi script. This is an adaptation of the Arabic script with characters added to express sounds that are particular to the Malay language. In 1956, at the third Malayan Congress of Malay Language and Letters held in 1956 a proposal was put forward to adopt the Roman script.

Language conveys a lot about the strong connections between communities in the past. Visitors can see this through an interactive screen which shows the loan words used in Malay from English, Hokkien, Arab-Persian and Portuguese.

Singapore was a Malay publishing hub. Perspex screens in the shape of a book enable visitors to flick through electronic samples of books, comics and newsletters from the twentieth century. Visitors with a background in the Malay language would gain a lot more from this room than we did. However, just learning about the Jawi script and the publishing industry was a highlight for me.

The Singaporean Malay entertainment industry of the twentieth century is presented in a couple of excellent rooms. Using a juke box type set up visitors can hear recordings from the middle of the twentieth century. Another room shows excerpts from mid-twentieth century movies, complete with old cinema seats for visitors to sit down and watch the movies.

The Sultan Mosque of Singapore (Masjid Sultan). The British East India Company financed the construction of the first mosque here. This mosque was built in 1924 and designed by an Irish architet, Denis Santry of the firm, Swan and MacLaren. Click on this photo to find out more about this architect.

The Sultan Mosque of Singapore (Masjid Sultan). The British East India Company financed the construction of the first mosque here. This mosque was built in 1924 and designed by an Irish architet, Denis Santry of the firm, Swan and MacLaren. Click on this photo to find out more about this architect.

Underlying our enjoyment of the Malay Heritage Centre was the spacious nature of the rooms and the seats which were thoughtfully provided throughout the building. This is good as often tourists will have spent the morning wandering around the surrounding Kampong Glam district with the famed niche shops in Arab Street and Haji Lane. The Sultan Mosque is just a one minute walk from the Malay Heritage Centre.

On entering the museum the visitor’s first experience is through their feet. The Malay Heritage Centre is housed in the former palace of the Sultan of Johor. As guests in any home in this region, visitors are asked to take off their shoes before entering. After the busyness of the surrounding area and feet well exercised by pounding the pavements, the dark wooden floors felt beautiful under our feet and the quietness of the Heritage Centre was a welcome relief.

I highly recommend the Malay Heritage Centre for those people who want a less colonial perspective of the history of Singapore. Make sure you allow a good two hours or more to view this permanent exhibition. There are also two other galleries for visiting or temporary exhibitions which we did not view. At the ticket office you can also pick up a heritage trail booklet of the Kampong Glam district. This has a lot of interesting information and enables visitors to have an informed walk through the area.


6 thoughts on “Malay Heritage Centre: A peek behind the colonial veil

  1. Fantastic, thank you so much for this. I have taken Singapore stopovers eight times now, but I have never heard of this museum, and never seen it promoted in any of the tourism brochures or websites either. This will definitely be on our next itinerary.


  2. PPS There’s an Indian heritage centre and a Chinese one too, I found links to them right at the bottom of the Malay heritage page, have you been there too?


    • I believe that the Chinese Heritage Centre is closed for renovations at the moment. The website for the Indian Heritage Centre says it is scheduled to be opened in 2015 – presumably it is new. I would be interested in exploring the Indian history of Singapore…


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