“Reading Resistance in the Malay Heritage Centre” by Khairulanwar Zaini

“Reading Resistance in the Malay Heritage Centre”
Khairulanwar Zaini

As the institutional custodian of Malay heritage in Singapore,[1] the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) negotiates between the imperatives of group memory and national consciousness. This positioning play is however not peculiar to the MHC: most ethnographic museums situated in plural societies confront a similar challenge. The politics of diversity compel such museums to honour their respective group identities while simultaneously buttressing (or at least avoid undermining) the super-arching personality of the nation-state. This situation is made more acute for the MHC given the hegemonic nature of the state and the museum’s reliance on that very same state for funding.[2]


This essay sees culture as performative and recognises museums[3] as active agents in this process of meaning-making. In rejecting a foundationalist structure of identity, it pays heed to Butler’s insistence that identity is neither given nor fixed: “identity categories are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin”.[4] Identity, in effect, is rendered by iterated practices.  If these practices were to change, it would similarly modulate the meaning of that identity. Against the notion of culture as a stable referent, this suggests that culture is a flux congealed by the continuous and repeated processes of production and reproduction by its agents – in effect, a ‘performance’. This is where we can locate ethnographic museums such as the MHC as performative agents in the production of cultural identity.

Given the performative nature of culture, these museums are engaged in the active production, rather than mere representation, of culture. In “performing memory and cultural history”, museums are “performative cultural instruments”.[5] They become “active agents in the production of knowledge” about their own culture.[6] Their exhibits are “signifiers in a symbolic narrative”[7] – a meaning-making narrative about cultural identity that simultaneously functions as a productive intervention in the performance of that self-same culture.

The active dimension of the museums’ performance of identity should not be understated. For the most part, performativity operates on a subconscious register. There is generally minimal to no deliberateness to our everyday (re)productions of identity; more often than not, we lack sensitivity to this performance. Museums however are particularly deliberate and sensitive about their curation of culture, and this is never clearer than when it constructs a heritage narrative. Heritage is never about the past, but the present.[8] It is a conscious and selective retrieval of the past for contemporary necessities, a constructed discourse that furnishes not only a linear continuity between the past, present, and future, but more importantly, a collective consciousness, or an in-group affect. Heritage is “an ideological and symbolic production … based upon highly valued cultural referents that have the ability to enact and enforce a shared feeling of connection and belonging to a place, a time, a community”.[9] Here, we should unpack further the observation about heritage’s ‘ideological’ character. The communitarian ethos that heritage aspires is ideological, but ideology does not end there. The curatorship of heritage is fraught with interventions. Socio-political contingencies will intrude into the construction of heritage. External stakeholders, such as the state (particularly with its financial leverage), may insist and impose their own particular considerations. Heritage can become a vehicle for interests that extend well beyond the community concerned. In other words, heritage may be ideological in the sense that it has a purposive agenda, but that agenda is not necessarily limited to cohering “a shared feeling of connection and belonging to a place, a time, a community”. The purposive agenda of heritage is always susceptible to subversion by other agents.

The agonal tension that envelops any curation of heritage is a testament to its power, since “all heritage holds with it a process of legitimation and authenticating”.[10] If culture is performative, it becomes open to contestations from ‘alternative’ performances. The meaning of an identity category can change if these alternative performances are reiterated and reproduced sufficiently enough. This is what makes heritage important: it has a certain power because it has the trappings of an authoritative performance. Heritage is not considered the ordinary, the everyday, the quotidian; it is generally viewed as a ‘formal’, ‘institutional’, or ‘official’ production of cultural identity. This lends it an authoritative aura that may contribute to the reification of a particular performance of identity. Hence, if one was interested in inflecting a culture in certain directions that will prove amenable to one’s interests, heritage will prove to be an effective mechanism. Peralta recognised this well when he conceptualised heritage as “mediums of social control and ways of legitimating power”.[11] Heritage can be manipulated to generate consent. Hence, for whom and what purpose heritage serves, and how far the state is implicated in the process of heritage construction, remains an open question – one that is pertinent to the MHC. 



There is one purpose that is conceivably out of reach for the MHC: the museum as a political vehicle. Ethnographic museums, Kaplan notes, are often seen as crucial by “those groups seeking wider visibility in order to be granted greater political rights, autonomy, or ‘national’ status”.[12] This is motivated by the belief that museums, as “material representation of traditionality and age, [can] help to legitimate an ethnic group’s claim to a unique identity and political power”.[13] To endow the MHC a function of agitating for political rights is a non-starter. The ruling PAP government would be disinclined to finance the weakening of its own political dominance through the MHC. The foreclosure of this role implicitly reveals the encroachment of state in the construction of Malay heritage to pre-empt the emergence of any overt political challenge through the MHC.

The curatorial focus of the MHC on trade and culture,[14] as well as the history of the Kampong Glam precinct where it is located,[15] is interesting for what it elides: the politics of Malay monarchy and indigeneity. The erasure of the former is as significant as it is stark, for the MHC is housed in the Istana Kampong Glam: the former abode of Malay royalty and the seat of Malay sovereign power in Singapore. For all its stated commitment to foreground the history of the Kampong Glam district, the MHC understates the royal heritage of its own location. Beyond the obligatory mentions of the building’s royal pedigree on the MHC website and a heritage trail brochure, the token concession to the Malay monarchy was in the design of the museum (following the original layout of the palace, the visitor experience begins from the upper floor before moving down to the ground) and a small gallery wall consisting of eight small photographs pertaining to the royal family, with a brief explanatory text covering the subject of ‘Traditional Malay Authority’. Also appended in seeming haste next to this wall are two cardboard fixtures that trace the royal genealogy from the 14th to 19th century.[16] Although colonialism and infighting had precipitated the royal family’s descent into political irrelevance, the descendants of the royal family did continue to reside at the Istana Kampong Glam until 1999, when the building was acquired by the state to house the MHC. Perhaps the absence of the Malay royalty in the MHC was motivated by the state’s desire to avoid revisiting this politically sensitive episode: the acquisition of the Istana Kampong Glam and the eviction of the residents was construed by some as an attempt to erase “the final trickles of a royal, indigenous, Malay genealogy”.[17]

In any case, the state has a further reason to impose this curatorial silence: the issue of Malay royalty implicates on the claims of Malay sovereignty and indigeneity. To recognise and re-centre the monarchy in the construction of Malay heritage is to acknowledge Singapore as ‘Malay land’. This, the state fears, may empower reading into the constitutional provision that recognises the ‘special position of the Malays’ the notion of bumiputra (sons of the soil) rights.[18] The state’s aversion to minority rights has its roots back in its traumatic experience as a constituent state of Malaysia from 1963-65; it is thus loath to abandon its commitment to meritocratic multiracialism, where all races are held equal and socio-economic advancement is predicated on ability.[19] To that effect, the state has not only employed a minimalist interpretation of the aforementioned constitutional provision,[20] but it has also encouraged the fiction of Singapore as terra nullius prior to the arrival of the British in 1819, hence qualifying Singapore in their eyes as an immigrant society, not a settler society on Malay land. An active recognition of royalty would have unfolded that narrative.

Crucially, this double silence – the forgetting of Malay royalty and indigenousness – enables the state to legitimate its own social imaginary of the Singapore ‘nation’ as modern, multiracial, and meritocratic. As Peralta writes, “social remembering and forgetting are both products of the manipulation of social elites and powers that publicly assert their own versions of history and identity”.[21] The version of history and identity (or simply put, heritage) that erases the issue of monarchy and indigeneity is necessary if the state is to sustain its nation-building project. The need to erase any trace of a disruptive cultural memory calls to mind what Bommes and Wright describe about nationalism: it requires “nothing less than the abolition of all contradictions in the name of a national culture”.[22] In similar vein, Moles understand the construction of national identity as involving “”a linear, teleological history that positions events as contributory to an end point that is the nation”.[23] Malay royalty and indigeneity are thus ‘contradictions’ that do not contribute to that end point of modernity, meritocracy and multiraciality, and must thus be discarded.

This dynamic again pans out with the role of religion: Islam’s appearance in MHC is generally muted. When religion does feature, however, more is made out of its socio-cultural dimensions. The museum’s coverage of Kampong Glam as a Haj travel hub is illustrative of this: it narrates how Singapore was the intermediate stop in the passage to Mecca from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, and how some pilgrims, who never did undertake the second leg of the journey, chose to settle down in Singapore instead, lending to the moniker ‘Haji Singapura’. Here, religion is a cultural artefact, and not much is made out of its spiritual or affective dimension.

For a museum that was supposed to ‘anchor the living heritage of the Malay Muslim community in Singapore’,[24] the significance of Islam as theology been curatorially understated. It is not difficult to imagine why Islam is a source of insecurity for the state: the fundamentalist revivalism/reformism of the 1970-80s and the contemporary emergence of extremism is sufficient to provoke the state’s anxiety. Our immediate neighbours are furthermore large Muslim-dominated countries. A doctrinaire Muslim, one who privileges his religious identity above all else, does not make for a good citizen. He would pose as a disruption to the multicultural ethos of the nation. The practice of Islam in its doctrinaire and fundamentalist fashion is an ‘event’ that needs to be discarded. However, Islam that can coexist with modernity is embraced, as seen in one particular photograph exhibit of scouts from a madrasah – a significant portrait of comfortable congruence between ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ cultural institutions. In a sense, this dovetails into the larger statist project to cultivate what it deems as the ideal Singaporean Muslim who is modern, moderate, and progressive.[25] The subdued portrayal of religion in the MHC reflects this.[26]

These erasures and elisions – of royal memory, indigenous identity, and religious rootedness – points to a statist intervention in the construction of Malay heritage that is directed not only towards inoculating itself from challenges to its political dominance, but to construct as well a public memory of Malayness that is amenable to the nation-building project of modernity, meritocracy, and multiracialism. To articulate it in the racialised register of local politics, the museum, in alignment with the state, is assembling a constructive social imagination of the M in CMIO. What seemingly remains then for the MHC is this: a constrained space for cultural valorisation, but one that is ‘safe’ and state-sanctioned; reduced thus to what a local Malay author/playwright calls a mere exercise in ‘monumentalism’ that ultimately reinforces the identity structures of the state.[27]


To reduce the MHC as a grandiose but hollow monument superficially
bolstering (the community’s) sense of identity and legitimacy” is however too easy and tempting a caricature. [28] Every new construction of heritage discourse plants its own seeds of rupture, because, as Macdonald writes, the very “inclusion of previously excluded memories … may unsettle and disrupt existing accounts of the past”.[29] There are counter-hegemonic structures of resistance against statist narratives that can be found within the MHC.

One particular gallery wall that is dedicated to the Perintis-perintis Masyrakat (Community Pioneers) deserves mention. The wall is adorned with thirty or so old photographs that capture the vignettes of the everyday life of the Malays in the past; its significance lies in its articulation of a polyvalent Malay identity that deconstructs and transcends the state’s racialist CMIO categories.

This gallery testifies to the diversity and permeability of Malay identity: there are photographs of a Jawi Peranakan family (an identity borne out of the cross-community marriage between Malays and Indians) adorning unique traditional attires and headdresses, an Indian Muslim man in a songkok, a Balinese man wearing a sarong up to his chest, two Malay youths in a fez-and-tuxedo attire in the style of the reformist Islamist movement, and three gentlemen identified as Malay and Arabs decked in formal western wear (one of the men wears what looks like an equestrian helmet). The wall also underlines the varietal nature of ‘traditional’ Malay attires. There are, for instance, two photographs that illustrate the Javanese male traditional garb (with the characteristic blangkon hat) and the women’s dressing style of short kebaya tops and sarong-sarong batik. This is however contrasted with another photograph of a group of Baweanese wearing their own distinctive dress. There is also a picture of Malay nobleman in their formal gear attending a Malay court of justice session in the late 19CE; their attire has little in common with either the Javanese or Baweanese dressings that were featured.


What is significant is that despite the differentiated attires, practices, and nominal cultural identities, these peoples are all taken to be representative of the Malays. The MHC’s constructed portrait of heritage reflects the internal heterogeneity and dynamic of cross-pollination of Malay cultural identity, one that repudiates the reductive essentialism of the CMIO rubric. In the CMIO schema, the state inscribes ethnic groupings into confined ‘racial silos’,[30] situating them into hermetically sealed categories with impermeable boundaries. This ontological closure is however resisted by MHC’s emphasis on interstitial crossings and occupations. In moving beyond the state’s ersatz multiracialism which functions more as an instrument of social control,[31] the MHC engenders the possibility of a more progressive and profound multiculturalism that seeks to genuinely acknowledge both the depth and scope of cultural diversity as well as the porousness of cultural identities.

Another counter-hegemonic narrative can be gleaned in the opening gallery, Anjung (Arrival). The museum experience begins with a stark confrontation for the visitor: they will be faced with a large and imposing map of the Malay Archipelago (Nusantara) that occupies the the entire length of the wall; each major historical port cities of the region are identified by their assorted names in different tongues.[32] This exhibit locates ‘Singapore in the Malay World’ both textually and visually, positioning Singapore in the dead centre of the map to illustrate ‘the strategic node’ that Singapore occupied in the regional maritime trade network since 3CE. Situating Singapore at the heart of the Nusantara is a subtle rebuke to the state’s ‘regional outsider complex’.[33] The Chinese-dominant Singapore state has never been fully at ease with its regional Malay neighbours, and its relations with them are fraught with tension. This exhibit suggests a reorientation of the Singapore psyche back to the region by excavating its historical standing as the cultural and economic heart of the Malay world. Here, the MHC resists looking at the Malay world as a mere economic hinterland whose primary value lies in the surplus that can be appropriated,[34] but instead relocates Singapore as a crucial constituent facet of the larger Nusantara.

3The MHC has furthermore scattered traces of the Malay leftist socio-political history throughout the museum. These fragments include a photograph of A Samad Ismail (a seminal figure of the leftist independence movement) in mid-speech, a dedicated profile in Perintis to Puan Zahara binte Noor Mohamed (a treasurer of AWAS, a youth/women affiliate of the then-formidable leftist Malay Nationalist Party) and her contributions to the advancement of women welfare, the mention of literary figures and organisations who were socio-politically engaged such as Harun Aminurrashid (a prolific writer as well as a Malay nationalist) and ASAS 50 (a literary organisation who advanced activist themes of nationalism), and the appearances in the interactive film and music gallery of (‘Lifeblood of the People’, a song popularised during the revolutionary period of struggle for Indonesian independence in 1945) and Mogok (‘Strike’, a film inspired by a real-life labour action against a film studio in 1957).[35] While neither overt nor detailed a narrative, the mere fact of these inclusions unsettle the official historical narrative that valorises the ‘moderate’ politics of right-of-centre conservatism as much as it castigates the ‘radical reactionism’ of the left. The museum in its own stead offers a small but significant entry into a more balanced historical consciousness of the left.

7More significantly, it is in the MHC’s focus on the everyday in its construction of heritage that it holds its most potent emancipatory promise. By rooting identity in the local, Malay identity is not treated as a rarefied or abstracted notion but rather as an evolving body of meaning(s) that is implicated by the lived realities of the everyone and everyday. In this way, the MHC avoids being an ‘identity bunker’ that heralds “an imagined past which vaguely resonates with the experience of a few”, [36] but rather extends an open and common invitation to conversation of and participation in the construction of cultural memory, heritage, and identity. The museum avoids being didactic and instead returns agency back to the individual by accentuating his role in the performativity of identity and culture.

It is thus facile to dismiss the MHC as an ideological extension of the state on account of the conspicuous silences of royal memory, indigeneity, and religion in its construction of Malay heritage. These deliberate forgettings might be at the behest of the state, but it is important to recognise that they too may have productive value for the community. As Connerton writes, memory repression “can be at the same time be a form of survival, and the desire to forget may be an essential ingredient in that process of survival”.[37] And nothing testifies to the survivalist ethic much more than the counter-hegemonic narratives that the MHC offers. Deconstructing the state’s racialised logic and offering the prospect of progressive multiculturalism, relocating back the Singaporean imagination into the Malay world, engendering a more nuanced consciousness of history, privileging the agency of the individual in the construction of identity: these are valuable resistances to the statist agenda that more than compensates for the MHC’s curatorial silencing.

Khairulanwar Zaini is a teaching assistant at the National University of Singapore.

[1] The MHC is one of the three heritage institutions in Singapore; the other two are the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the planned Indian Heritage Centre. Overseen by the National Heritage Board (NHB), they function as ‘community museums’ to preserve and exhibit the cultural and social heritage of the major ethnic groups in Singapore. For more, see ‘NHB to help run 3 heritage centres’ (ST, 12 Mar 2009) and ‘Community museums add rich layers to Singapore story’ (ST, 28 Mar 2009).

[2] 95% of the funding for the MHC comes from the state. This came about after MHC’s attempt to be self-sustaining floundered. See ‘Heritage centre seeks full govt funding to stay afloat (ST, 12 Apr 2008), ‘New start for Malay Heritage Centre’ (ST, 28 July 2010), and ‘Centre to focus on Kampong Glam’ (ST, 3 Nov 2011).

[3] There is a distinction and tension between ‘museums’ (as a storehouse of memory) and ‘heritage centres’ (as a platform for the preservation and promotion of collective memory and identity). For this essay, I locate the MHC as an ethnographic museum.

[4] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. vii-ix.

[5] Charles Garoian, ‘Performing the Museum Studies’, Art Education 42, no. 3 (2001): p. 235

[6] Stephanie Moser, ‘The devil is in the detail: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge’, Museum Anthropology 33, no. 1 (2010): p. 22

[7] Julia Petrov, ‘Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture’, Cross Currents 62, no. 2 (2012): p. 231

[8] See Kirshen-Gimblett’s Destination Cultur: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (California: UC Press, 1998) who defines heritage as ‘a mode of cultural production in the present that has a recourse to the past’ (p. 7).

[9] Marta Anico, ‘Representing identities at local municipal museums: Cultural forums or identity bunkers’, in Heritage and Identity, eds. Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), p. 63.

[10] Kate Moles, ‘A landscape of memories: Layers of meaning in a Dublin Park’, in Heritage and Identity, eds. Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), p. 130.

[11] Elsa Peralta, ‘Public silences, private voices: Memory games in a maritime heritage complex’, in Heritage and Identity, eds. Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), p. 106.

[12] Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan, ‘Making and Remaking National Identities’, in A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald  (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 153.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The MHC is organised into two axes located over two floors: dagang (trade) is housed on the upper floor, and budaya (culture) on the ground floor. The dagang axe holds three galleries: Anjung (Arrival) traces the history of Kampong Glam as a trading and cultural pulse of the Malay archipelago; Kehidupan (Living and Working) focuses on the life around the area, particularly the warung kopis (coffeeshops) that served as common spaces and the location of Kampong Glam as an intermediate stop of the pilgrimage voyages; Perintis (Pioneers) profiles various community pioneers. The Perintis gallery spills over to the ground floor where it features cultural and intellectual luminaries. Two other galleries complete the budaya axe: Pustaka highlights the language, literary and publishing industry, which was significantly concentrated in the area; Kesenian (Arts) is composed of two sections covering Bangsawan dan Filem (Bangsawan Theatre and Film) and Muzik (Music). The Kesenian gallery allows the visitor is to watch film snippets and play songs of the past. The final gallery is a contemporary multimedia exhibits by young Malay filmmakers.

[15] See ‘Centre to focus on Kampong Glam’, (ST 3 Nov 2011).

[16] The suspicion that the addition of these cardboard fixtures was more of an afterthought is seemingly confirmed if one was to take the ‘virtual tour’ of the museum available on its website. In this virtual tour which was recorded in May 2013, these cardboard fixtures are not to be found.

[17] Alfian Sa’at, “Istana”, Alfian’s Secret Wank Shed, 9 Apr 2004 (3:09 p.m.), http://alfian.diaryland.com/istana.html. See also ‘Malaysian media slammed’ (ST, 7 Apr 1999).

[18] Article 152 reads as follows: ‘It shall be a deliberate and conscious policy of the Government of Singapore at all times to recognize the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of the island and who are most in need of assistance and accordingly, it shall be the responsibility of the Government of Singapore to protect, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests, and the Malay language’.

[19] To what extent the state’s meritocratic commitment is genuine has been doubted. See, for example Michael D. Barr & Zlatko Skrbis’s Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity, and the Nation-Building Project (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008) and Kenneth Paul Tan’s ‘Meritocracy and Elitism in a Global City: Ideological Shifts in Singapore’ (2008).

[20] Lily Zubaidah Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma: the political and educational marginality of the Malay community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[21] Peralta, ‘Public silence, private voices’, p. 106.

[22] Michael Bommes and Patrick Wright, ‘Charms of residence: The public and the past’, in Making Histories: Studies in History Writing and Politics, eds. R Johnson, G McLenon, W Schwartz, and D Sutton (London: Hutchinson, 1982), p. 264

[23] Moles, ‘A landscape of memories’, p. 130.

[24]New centre for Malay heritage’ (ST, 13 Mar 1999). Emphasis mine.

[25] This project, undertaken by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), identifies the ‘10 Desired Attributes of a Muslim Community of Excellence’. The ideal Singaporean Muslim is one who, inter alia, is ‘progressive, practices Islam beyond form or rituals, and rides the modernisation wave’, is ‘inclusive and practices pluralism without contradicting Islam’, is ‘well-adjusted as contributing members of a multi-religious society and secular state’, and ‘believes that good Muslims are good citizens’.

[26] It can be fairly argued that the Malay community themselves (or at least a segment of it) have an interest in de-centring Islam from Malay identity, and it is mere fact of historical coincidence that the state shares similar motivations. I do not deny this. However, what this essay is interested in is showing how the interests of the state permeate into the construction of Malay heritage. The fact that some interests of the state happen to align with the interests of the community is not an argument that proves against the hegemonic influence of the state in heritage construction.

[27] Alfian Sa’at, ‘Istana’.

[28] Sharon Macdonald, ‘Unsettling memories: Intervention and controversy over difficult public heritage’, in Heritage and Identity, eds. Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), p. 93.

[29] Ibid.

[30] See Barr and Skrbis’s Constructing Singapore (2008).

[31] See Chua Beng Huat’s ‘Multiculturalism in Singapore: an instrument of social control’ (2003).

[32] For instance, Singapore was known variously as ‘Temasek’, ‘Tan-ma-hsi’, ‘Tiyumah’, and ‘Sabara Emporion’.

[33] See (the coincidentally similarly-titled) Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Singapore in the Malay world (Oxford: Routledge, 2009).

[34] For an account about Singapore’s economic relations with its neighbours and its strategy of exploiting regional surplus, see Christopher Tremewan’s The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore (Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), chap. 2.

[35] An account of this strike can be found in Timothy Bernard and Jan van der Putten’s chapter ‘Malay cosmopolitanism in the Malay world’ in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-war Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008). The authors also explore the involvement of literary figures and organisations in the socio-political activism of that era.

[36] Anico, ‘Representing identities’, p. 63.

[37] Paul Connerton, ‘Seven types of forgetting’, in Memory Studies 1, no. 1 (2008), p. 68.