The Magic of Kampong Glam | A Humble Homesick Singaporean Pays Homage

Seafaring people do not have roots till they decide to plant them. The Malay word for ‘homeland’ is tanah air. Tanah means ‘land’ and air means ‘water’. The Malay community’s life on land is intrinsically linked to the notion of kampung. Kampung, which means settlement, can also refer to one’s village or roots.

The stories of the founding of a people, a community or even a culture are often shrouded in myth. Texts that are found are discredited by scholars, archeological findings can either confirm or deny our perception of what happened, and folklore that gets passed down through word of mouth has a way of distorting itself over time.

What happened? How did it happen? And what will happen in the future? Whether you’re a historian or a futurist, all three questions remain equally unanswerable. The past, the present and the future are all puzzle pieces. Somehow or another, we must accept that many puzzle pieces have been lost.

With the puzzle pieces that remain, we reconstruct a worldview, knowing that it is and will always be incomplete.

The Malays of Singapore

The Malays of Singapore are not a homogenous group. They hail from the Nusantara Malay Archipelago. Like most migrating groups, they departed their homelands and created new settlements which later became their tanah air. This wave of migration took many centuries, as disparate groups gathered in Singapore from the Malay Peninsula, the Riau Islands, the Western Coast of Sumatra as well as Java and Sulawesi; amongst others.

The early migrants of any land always arrive on the other side of the shore to seek their fortune. He or she who seeks, eventually finds.

The Banjar, who hailed from Borneo, were gemstone traders who congregated on Arab Street. The Boyanese, from the tiny island of Bawean, became drivers and horse-trainers. The Minangkabau, a matrilineal people, also came to Singapore. Today, they are famed for their nasi padang which has became a staple in the Singaporean diet. In addition to these groups, there were the Orang Laut ‘sea people’ who considered the vast expanses of the sky and sea their home. The Orang Laut lived a nomadic lifestyle and lived out at sea in their boats.

Collectively known as the Malays in contemporary society, these groups were the first peoples to arrive on the tiny island of Singapore.

Before Singapura

Before Singapore, there was the Nusantara, and before the Nusantara…. there was… No one can say for certain. It is one of the great mysteries of life to not know the source of our origins with resolute certainty.

What we do know is that they–the earliest migrants–came in early antiquity, settling and colonising the islands of the Nusantara before they arrived on the shores of Singapore.

From the 7th to 13th centuries, it is believed that the Malays were primarily Animist, Buddhist and Hindu. The Srivijaya Empire, which at that time held much sway over the Nusantara, was a Buddhist empire. While very few archeological remains have been discovered, the great Buddhist Temple of Borobudur in East Java still stands tall as a remnant of the Srivijaya Empire.

After the Srivijaya period came the Majapahit Empire (13th to 16th century) which is generally regarded as having been the largest premodern state in the Indonesian archipelago, and perhaps even the most extensive in all of Southeast Asia. This empire of Hindu kings which ruled over almost all of the Nusantara also left behind a vast array of archaeological traces with which we can peer into the past.

The definitive claim of Majapahit rule over the archipelago is found in the Deśavarṇana. This text is a blend of chronicle, royalist propaganda, and personal memoir, written by a Buddhist cleric in 1365. In the manuscript, the Majapahit court is compared to the sun and moon, while the subordinate courts in Java and ‘all the peripheral countries on the other islands’ are like planets; they ‘seek shelter in and humbly approach’ the king.

After the rise and fall of the Srivijaya and the Majapahit Empires, came a significant shift which would be pivotal in establishing a unified Malay cultural identity that endures till today. The establishment of the Malay Sultanate (1411-1511) led to the adoption of Islam as the state religion. Another significant development in this period was the codification of laws and rituals that defined what it meant to be Malay.

During this era, disparate groups finally banded together and became one people.

The Sultan Mosque, Arab Street, Kampong Glam

Kampong Glam in Singapore

I return to the alleys of my childhood. The meandering lanes of shophouses, eateries, and hidden treasures bring back the old stories—the ones my elders told me as I sat on their knees. Growing up, I had no idea that Arab Street would one day be part of Singapore’s heritage trail. To me, it was just home.

Dipa Sanatani. “The Merchant of Stories: A Creative Entrepreneur’s Journey.”

Arab Street has found its place in the history textbooks as the cultural heart of the Malay community of Singapore. The vicinity itself is known as Kampong Glam, thought to have been derived from the cajeput tree, which is called gelam in Malay. When Raffles, the founder of colonial Singapore first arrived, the area boasted the Palace of the Sultan as well as its adjoining Sultan Mosque. The palace of the Sultan, which was built in 1843, has now been gazetted as a national monument which houses The Malay Heritage Centre.

Layer upon layer of forgotten and untold histories come back to haunt, torment and chide me whenever I set foot in the kampung of my childhood. I remember the sellers of spices, textiles, gemstones, basketry items, and songkoks who set up shop along this historic row of shophouses with a five-foot way.

My memories are incoherent and haphazard; yet strong and distinct. The old abode of my childhood is still there. I walk past it as a stranger, visiting a long lost chapter of my personal history. Seafaring peoples do not have roots till we decide to plant them. And sometimes, we seafaring people are uprooted and replanted elsewhere.

Once upon a time, Kampong Glam and the surrounding Rochor and Kallang areas were a bustling port settlement. But long gone are the traders, the shopkeepers and the neighbours I knew and loved. I see a long lost uncle or two from a forgotten era as I return to the old streets of my childhood as an adult. Our eyes meet and there is a slight recollection–of having known one another–perhaps even in another lifetime.

I hear the call and cry of the Azan. I see the old and young cats prance around the alleyways undeterred and undisturbed. I revisit the roads I stumbled my way through as I walked to school each day.

There are so many memories, preserved in a time capsule that exists only in my mind. Do I miss living there? It is not an easy question to answer for the Arab Street of my childhood turned to dust a long time ago.

I have pictures of my once-lived existence there and stories–so many stories. The unreliable folklore, the memories with missing puzzle pieces, and a childhood that has shaped and crafted me beyond measure. Like many others during that period, my family moved out of the kampung in my early adolescent years.

A childhood, however, is forever one’s foundation stone for life.

There is a magic to Kampong Glam that I cannot put into words. It is perhaps a magic that only I feel and only I know. I have spoken to many others who grew up there and they do not share my sentiments. In the absence of tangibles to hold onto, all we have are our memories.

As an adult, I went on and out into the world… When I returned, I discovered the official versions of history that had been documented in my absence. I mused on how incomplete the historical documents are. They do not take into account all the voices that remain unheard and unsung.

In 2007, barely a year after I left Singapore, I embarked on a journey to become a writer. Some 14 years later, I have memory of the moment when I made that pivotal decision, but very little understanding of why I did so–only that I had to. However, my decision alone was not enough. Many external factors had to come together to support me on my path. There were many moments when it appeared that nothing was happening and many other moments where it all happened at once.

Once upon a time, well before I was born, Kampong Glam was known for its printing and publishing industry. It found a temporary home there during the second half of the 19th century following the immigration of Javanese printers who were fleeing restrictions placed upon them by the Dutch on printing and publishing. In its heyday in the 20th century, Kampong Glam was recognised as the most important Malay publishing centre in the region.

While the industry initially focused on the production of religious texts, it eventually expanded to include newspapers, novels and magazines. The industry was critical to the promotion of intellectual debate and the print medium served as an effective channel for disseminating discussions on Malay identity and other social issues.

As a key Malay publishing centre, Singapore attracted intellectuals, writers and artists from all over the Nusantara. On display at the Malay Heritage Centre are a range of creative writing from modern novels, to poetry compilations, to historical fiction to comic books which draw from Malay legends and folktales.

An ancient writer’s toolkit, Asian Civilisations Museum

As I walked through the alleys of my childhood with friends I had made as an adult, I knew that I was not the same girl who left home. There are new memories now. New memories of new lands, new friends and new possibilities.

I had officially outgrown the alleyways of my childhood.

A new tanah air awaited.

The Power of Voice

“Dipa San,” my colleague says addressing me as though I were still living in Japan. “I consider myself someone who knows Singapore very well, but I can’t claim to having spent much time here…”

Long before hipsters began charging too much for designer coffee, there was the uncle on Kandahar Street who sold the best teh halia ginger tea in town for the not-so-exorbitant price of 80 cents. When I was deemed too young for the late afternoon pleasures of caffeine, I would order a Horlicks putih, a sweet malted drink that tastes like I’m not exactly sure what.

“Do you miss it?” my colleague asks. “Kampung living?”

“Oh,” I say laughing, “Who can defy the tides of commerce?”

It is true. My Gujarati ancestors, like the ancestors of most Singaporeans, came to this land as fortune seekers. And in some sense, you can even say that they found it. Lady Fortuna, however, has always been a fickle friend and foe, going wherever the tides take her. There are many tides that have come for me as well as tides that I have missed. The 1966 Land Acquisition Act would be pivotal in changing the face and landscape of Singapore.

Long gone are the days of kampung living and they are not coming back. But I am still glad that areas such as Arab Street have been preserved, for they give us the opportunity to not solely rely on the maladies of memory and half-destroyed artefacts to piece together the important questions of who we are and where we come from.

After a long period of asking questions that can never be answered, I came to a not-so-unexpected conclusion.

The voice that is heard the loudest and the one that is remembered by the annals and architects of history; is not the only voice that matters. There are so many voices, so many memories, and so many histories, that it would be impossible to collate it all and have it all take centre stage.

Being a writer has given me a voice. A voice that can never be silenced. After spending a long time mastering the art of words, the truth that I arrived at has led me to a converse conclusion.

In our silence, we speak the loudest. It is not always in what one says, but on all that one is silent; that the naked truth is revealed. The short-lived victors rewrite history to suit their agenda, but it does not change what actually happened.

In the missing pieces of the puzzle, I finally found the story I was looking for. It is a story that is untold. But it is the only story that is worth telling; and the only story, the world truly longs to hear.


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