Kampong Glam & the Regalia of a Colonial Heir

Introduction

Kampong Glam is today known as an area “steeped in Islamic tradition”.[1] In July 1989, it was designated by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a Historic District where the heritage of the local Malay-Muslim community could be showcased to both local and international audiences.[2]

It is easy on a first encounter with Kampong Glam to mistake the Malay-Muslim heritage of Singapore as one profoundly shaped by a distinct Middle Eastern influence. This is an observation which can be drawn from recurring allusions to Middle Eastern influences in the Historic District. Yet, if we return to the understanding that this District was consciously and deliberately “restored” by the URA;[3] and if furthermore, we understand such reconstructions as a deliberate effort by the state to inscribe, codify and naturalize its version of Malay-Muslim heritage onto physical landscapes, what we see in Kampong Glam emerges as a physical embodiment of the state’s imagination.[4]

Notwithstanding the hegemonic nature of such a narrative, these reconstructions of Malay heritage also reveal contradictions within the state discourse on local Malays. First, such a distinct Middle Eastern dimension to representations of local Malay history does little justice to the vast diversity of identities from the Malay World (and beyond) which used to trade in colonial Singapore.[5] Next, such Middle Eastern characterizations of Malay identity are problematic because they are not reflective of the regional nor even local Malay identities which existed, and continue to exist, in Singapore.

So why has the Kampong Glam Historic District been typified in this manner?

It is not so much Malay heritage on display here, but statist ideologies which are being broadcast, through the lens of conserved Historic Districts like Kampong Glam. Existing scholarship, however, has only briefly examined state policies of conservation through frameworks of historical continuity. The case of Kampong Glam has not been scrutinized as a living artefact of colonial legacies. This essay wants to extend upon conceptions of the “museumizing” impulses of the colonial state, to posit that the way in which Kampong Glam has been “preserved” suggests an extension of colonial ideologies into the present day, realized by the modern nation-state of Singapore.[6] Kampong Glam is not only state influence, but colonial state influence writ large, extended into the present historical moment.

Street and Sight

Middle Eastern influences, tropes and themes continually recur in the physical landscape of Kampong Glam. This section thus seeks to understand the coexistence of this distinct Arab and Middle Eastern (as opposed to Malay) influence on Kampong Glam, supposedly redeveloped as the seat of Malay heritage by local authorities.

The distinct Arab character of Kampong Glam has been pointed out by numerous scholars, who have noted how the main commercial artery of the district, Bussorah Street, has seen a “reloaded” Arab architectural theme, implemented by the URA and the Singapore Tourism Board.[7] Exotic Arab elements, such as Orient-inspired mosaic ornamentation, geometric tile design and gateway arches along with palm trees and old style lamp shades further add to this “Middle Eastern ambience”[8].

Main thoroughfares in the district also bear the marks of this Middle Eastern influence. In an area which used to house Bugis, Achenese and Baweanese amongst a multitude of other migrants and traders from all across the Malay World, it is particularly striking that at least three streets are named after Middle Eastern locations, such as Muscat, Arab and Baghdad streets. Besides the streets of Jalan Pinang and Jalan Pahang, there is a noticeable absence of street names which bear the memory of regional, or even indigenous Malay locales, in contrast to these Middle Eastern ones. The predominant Middle Eastern influence which has been pointed out by academics is corroborated by the street names which have been assigned to this area.

Most striking, however, is the stunning visual landmark that is the Sultan Mosque, which has been variously described as the “spiritual centre” of Singapore’s Muslim community, and Singapore’s “most important mosque” by the URA. The mosque styles itself as a “premier mosque in Singapore”. [9]

Masjid_Sultan.jpg

Picture by: Terence Ong – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=878543

First built in 1824 at the request of the newly-installed, British-recognized Sultan Hussein, the original mosque completed in 1828 was a single-storey building with a double-tiered roof. In 1924, at nearly 100 years of age, the mosque was rebuilt in phases. Its designer was a colonial architect, Denis Santry, of Swan & Mclaren, who fashioned the “key landmark” of the historic district in an “IndoSaracenic” style, in stark contrast to prevailing local architectural styles for mosques in this period.[10]

The Sultan Mosque, which today stands as a “key landmark” in Kampong Glam, is thus a direct, physical manifestation of colonial legacies, which furthermore borrowed again from Middle-Eastern, rather than regional tropes.[11]That even the visual centrepiece for the Kampong Glam Malay heritage district, the Sultan Mosque, is so integrally a product of colonial influences historically and architecturally provides us a possible answer to the conundrum – why does a space which purports to be the centre of Malay heritage in Singapore so distinctly and consciously Middle Eastern in character?

The pervasive Arab influence inscribed into the physical landscape of Kampong Glam may suggest that the Middle East features centrally in how Singaporean Malay heritage is imagined. Yet the works of several scholars examining the redevelopment and rebranding of Kampong Glam by the URA seem to suggest that this Arab influence cannot be taken as a definitive portrait of Malay heritage.

Ideologies and Exigencies

Extensive state involvement in Kampong Glam’s redevelopment suggests that this Arab influence may not necessarily be reflective of the perspectives of the local Malay community. Yeoh and Huang have pointed out that the designation of Kampong Glam as a Historic District in 1989 was part of a wider effort to create a sense of historical continuity, as a foil to the potentially destabilizing effects of Western cultural influences on Singaporean society.[12] The conservation of buildings, and later entire city districts were viewed by the state as crucial to the material preservation of local cultures and “traditional values”, serving as a direct, physical link to the past.[13] In this way, the state was able to rationalize and justify its urban conservation strategies. This in turn allowed the state to codify and naturalize its version of heritage upon the specific physical landscapes which it deigned fit to preserve or restore.[14]  Kampong Glam thus represents a clear instance upon which the state’s policies of multiculturalism and multiracialism are reified and given material substance and made to seem inate to the Singaporean psyche.[15]

Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that Tantow later links his analysis of this prevalent Middle Eastern influence in the redevelopment of Kampong Glam to wider state tourism objectives. [16] In his comprehensive survey of Kampong Glam, he confronts this very issue of the “less Malay than Arab” representation of Kampong Glam. Tantow argues that these skewed depictions have arisen primarily from a shift in how the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) marketed Kampong Glam in the 1990s in response to the state’s repositioning of Singapore as a cosmopolitan, global city”.[17]  Singapore’s legacy as a regional maritime stopover for Muslims performing the hajj in the Middle East was amplified. Local Malay voices and perspectives were however subordinated here to meet the overarching state priorities.[18]

Yet, while Tantow grounds his analysis in a meticulously traced history of the Malay-Muslim presence in Singapore that stretches to the beginnings of Kampong Glam and “how the District came into being”[19], the impact of colonial legacies on the physical landscape of modern-day Kampong Glam has not been as clearly articulated. Academic research has centred primarily upon the exigencies of the nascent, post-colonial nation.

 

Kampong Glam, “Museumized”

Anderson’s Census, Map, Museum explores how the colonial state sought to exert control over its subjects through the means of a “totalizing classificatory grid”, which “serialized” colonial possessions into a series of replicable plurals.[20] Of particular interest here is what Anderson has to say about colonial archaeology:

Monumental archaeology, increasingly linked to tourism, allowed the state to appear as the guardian of a generalized, but also local, Tradition… Moreover, they were to be kept empty of people, except for perambulatory tourists (no religious ceremonies or pilgrimages, so far as possible). Museumized this way, they were repositioned as regalia for a secular colonial state.” (My emphasis)[21]

Here, it is apparent how similar this colonial “monumental archaeology” is to the heritage conservation policies of the modern Singaporean state. By underlining the necessity of safeguarding “local traditions” and subsequently acting to “redevelop” local urban landscapes and districts which it had deemed worthy of conservation, we thus begin to see echoes of colonial legacies not only in the physical buildings of Kampong Glam, but even the underlying paradigms which had led to how the District was conserved.

 

Successor and Symbol: Colonial Regalia

Occupying a diminutive corner in the city amidst towering skyscrapers, Kampong Glam is far and away from the immense grandeur of ancient structures like Borobudur or Angkor, which Anderson describes as being restored by the efforts of colonial archaeology in the Dutch East Indies or French Indochina. Yet the experience of the District’s restoration mirrors that of these monuments. Kampong Glam too, has been “successively disinterred, unjungled, measured, photographed, reconstructed, fenced off, analysed, and displayed”.[22]

While the area has not witnessed the absolute desacralization which monuments like Borobudur have experienced, Tantow has brought up compelling evidence to suggest that the Muslim dimension identity of the District has been increasingly restricted and marginalized.[23]

Appropriated to suit the needs of the emerging, modern nation-state, stripped largely of its original purposes and now marketed more as a touristic space, the redevelopment of Kampong Glam stands arguably as a space which has been “museumized”. Divested largely off its original context, the District has been repositioned as regalia: as a symbol of the power and legitimacy of the modern, secular nation-state, the successor of Anderson’s “secular colonial state”.

 

Conclusion: The Regalia of a Colonial Heir

By examining how the Kampong Glam Historic District was “restored” and “redeveloped” to suit the changing needs, values and identities of an ascendant nation-state, we witness heritage as fluid and unstable; an ideological tool wielded by the state to normalize and entrench its paradigms upon the urban landscapes of Singapore. In this manner, we see how state ideologies of multiracialism and cosmopolitanism are given physical shape. Kampong Glam emerges as an instance of state discourses embodied, realized in every “restored” building and street within the Historic District.

Borrowing from Anderson, we clearly see how this objectification of landscapes, which affirms but one particular version of “Malay heritage” is far from a recent phenomenon.[24] By locating the Singaporean state’s restoration of Kampong Glam in the historical continuum of colonial archaeology, we evidence the legacy of our colonial forebears still very much still at work.

Commoditized and packaged slickly for an international audience, Kampong Glam and its attendant representations of Malay identity and heritage have emerged ultimately as regalia for the modern, secular nation-state. We see more clearly than before the government of Singapore as heir, and not substitute, to the patterns and paradigms first established by its colonial predecessor.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

A Manual for Kampong Glam Conservation Area, 1988, p.30, cited in Yeoh, Brenda SA, and Shirlena Huang. “The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore: the case of the Kampong

Glam historic district.” Cities13, no. 6 (1996): p.418.

 

Anderson, Benedict. “Census, Map, Museum”. In Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin

and spread of nationalism, p.163-185. Verso Books, 2006.

 

“Conservation: Kampong Glam.” URA Online Revamp. October 29, 2014. Accessed November

2, 2014.

 

Jackson, Phillip. Plan Of The British Settlement Of Singapore By Captain Franklin And

Lieut. Jackson (b) Plan Of The Town Of Singapore. Survey Map. Singapore:
Survey Department, 1828. From National Archives of Singapore. Maps and Building Plans, http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/f890d098-115c-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad (accessed 5 November, 2014)

 

Lee, Sim Loo. “Urban conservation policy and the preservation of historical and cultural

heritage: The case of Singapore.” Cities 13, no. 6 (1996): 399-409.

 

“Sultan Mosque History.” Sultan Mosque. Accessed November 2, 2014.

 

Tan, Joanna HS. “Sultan Mosque.” Singapore Infopedia. November 1, 2010. Accessed

November 5, 2014. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_753_2005-01-

03.html.

 

Tantow, David. “Chapter 19 Islamic heritage in Singapore.” In Tourism in the Muslim World, edited

by Noel Scott, and Jafar Jafari, pp. 303-319. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2010.

 

Tantow, David. “POLITICS OF HERITAGE IN SINGAPORE: The Malay-Muslim legacy of

Kampong Glam.” Indonesia and the Malay World 40, no. 118 (2012): 332-353.

 

Yeoh, Brenda, and Lily Kong. “The notion of place in the construction of history, nostalgia and

heritage in Singapore.” Singapore journal of tropical geography 17, no. 1 (1997): 52-65.

 

Yeoh, Brenda SA, and Shirlena Huang. “The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore:

the case of the Kampong Glam historic district.” Cities13, no. 6 (1996): 411-422.

 

Urban Redevelopment Authority. Conservation Plan, Kampong Glam Historic District. Map.

Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, Conservation Department, June 2014.

From Urban Redevelopment Authority. Plans & Maps, http://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/conservation-xml.aspx?id=KPGL# (accessed 5 November 2014)

 

 

[1] A Manual for Kampong Glam Conservation Area, 1988, p.30, cited in Yeoh, Brenda SA, and Shirlena Huang. “The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore: the case of the Kampong Glam historic district.” Cities13, no. 6 (1996): p.418.

[2] Yeoh, Brenda SA, and Shirlena Huang. “The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore: the case of the Kampong Glam historic district.” Cities13, no. 6 (1996): 411-422.

[3] Tantow, Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p.344

[4] Yeoh, Brenda, and Lily Kong. “The notion of place in the construction of history, nostalgia and heritage in Singapore.” Singapore journal of tropical geography 17, no. 1 (1997): 52-65.

[5] Tantow points to the how “native Malays mixed with a rich spectrum of migrants, mostly from other Muslim societies”, so extensively that “it became impossible to clearly distinguish cultures and to determine which Asian culture was the leading one” in Singapore. Tantow, Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p.337

[6] Anderson, Benedict. “Census, Map, Museum”. In Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, p.163-185. Verso Books, 2006.

[7] Tantow, Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p.344

[8] Yeoh and Huang, The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore, p.417

[9] “Conservation: Kampong Glam.” URA Online Revamp. October 29, 2014. Accessed November 2, 2014.; “Sultan Mosque History.” Sultan Mosque. Accessed November 2, 2014.

[10] Tan, Joanna HS. “Sultan Mosque.” Singapore Infopedia. November 1, 2010. Accessed November 5, 2014. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_753_2005-01-03.html.

[11] Tellingly, this aspect of the Mosque’s past is not represented in the description of the Mosque’s history on its website. Observed on the Mosque’s website. Sultan Mosque. Sultan Mosque History.

[12] Yeoh and Huang, The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore, p.416

[13] Yeoh and Huang, The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore, p.413

[14] Ibid.

[15] Yeoh, Brenda, and Lily Kong. “The notion of place in the construction of history, nostalgia and heritage in Singapore.” Singapore journal of tropical geography 17, no. 1 (1997): 52-65.

[16] Tantow, The Politics of Heritage in Singapore.

[17] Tantow, The Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p. 343

[18] Tantow, The Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p. 345

[19] Tantow, The Politics of Heritage in Singapore, p. 336

[20] Anderson, Census, Map, Museum, p. 175

[21] Anderson, Census, Map, Museum, p. 174

[22] Anderson, Census, Map, Museum, p. 173

[23] Tantow, Islamic Heritage in Singapore, p.316: Tantow cites how the presence of a 7-11 convenience store selling alcohol immediately outside the conservation zone’s “dry area” and within sight of the Mosque has caused disquiet amongst many in the Malay-Muslim community; p.317: The presence of karaoke lounges, (which occasionally double as brothels) on the adjacent North Bridge Road, “in direct proximity” to the Mosque has also raised protests

[24] Yeoh and Huang, The conservation-redevelopment dilemma in Singapore, p.419

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