“The Intellectual Legacy of Kampung Glam” by Fadli Fawzi and Faris Joraimi

“The Intellectual Legacy of Kampung Glam”
Fadli Fawzi and Faris Joraimi

Kampung Glam today is a mixture of Middle Eastern cafes and shops catering to tourists. It would be difficult to contemplate that the area was once the centre of intellectual life not only of the Malay Muslim community in Singapore but the Malay World. Its historical significance as the premier Malay intellectual space has been obscured by the changes imposed by colonial and post-colonial authorities. In the colonial order, ethnicity was essentialised into monolithic blocs to facilitate divide and rule. Such perceptions shaped the identity of spaces, eventually emphasising one ethnic identity as the chief characteristic of such places over a more complex, multifaceted one. Post-colonial programs of urban development were driven by commercial interests as well as to pursue national policy objectives in areas such as housing.

The Sultan Mosque is a structure synonymous with Kampung Glam. Photographed here in the 1940s, this is how the surrounding area appeared then. Kampung Glam at this time would have been host to the Malay press’ vibrant post-war boom.

The erasure of Kampung Glam as part of the Malay World can be seen in the naming and renaming of its landmarks and facilities. Malay place names often indicated the place of origin, crafts or industry associated with the area. For example, Kampung Intan, Kampung Jawa or Kampung Kaji were local markers of its identity. These were community names, having been bestowed by people who lived on and knew these streets intimately for generations. However, the colonial street renaming process emphasized the Islamo-Arabic rather than the Malay identity of Kampung Glam. As early as 1909, place names referenced Middle Eastern Muslim cities even though the majority of the inhabitants of the area continued to be of Bugis or Javanese descent. As recent as 2012, an Omani-style archway was installed at Muscat Street, an area with tenuous links with Oman or Muscat.

The demolition of large parts of Kampung Glam in the process of urban renewal has further diminished its physical extent. The greater Kampung Glam area used to stretch from what is today the shopping district known as Bugis in the west, to Crawford Street in the east. In the north, Kampung Kapor and Jalan Besar bordered it. Beach Road formed its southern fringe. In the 19th Century, Victoria Street and North Bridge Road were built right across Kampung Glam’s royal enclave in a display of British colonial dominance. This episode was recorded in Munshi Abdullah’s autobiography, first published in 1849. The streets severed among other things, the cemetery, which further excised an important part of Kampung Glam’s heritage. The whole Rochor area designated as precinct “N1” was demolished around 1965-70, the first area to go under Singapore’s urban renewal plan.

A map of Kampung Glam from c. 1860-1890: by then, two trunk roads, Victoria Street and North Bridge Road had cut through the once-walled royal enclave. Source: National Archives

The heart of Kampung Glam, the Sultan mosque, still stands. But while this heart still beats prominently near the city’s main arteries, its spirit lies submerged beneath the layered façade of modern reconstruction. The spirit of endeavour, entrepreneurship and the intellectual legacy of the Malays in Singapore that the area witnessed is now invisible.

Beginnings – a Kampung Glam Manuscript
In the Malay world, the earliest recorded forms of intellectual production were the various manuscripts produced by court scribes: syair – lengthy lyrical poems that were often epic in scale; and hikayat, – prose works that narrated mythical tales as well as stories concerning the royal courts. Prominent authors included Hamzah Fansuri who was a scholar of Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf) from the court of the Aceh Sultanate. Attributed to him is a prolific collection of Sufi poetry – amongst the finest produced in the Malay language. Nuruddin Ar-Raniri, authored Bustan al-Salatin (The Garden of Kings), a political treatise that describes a code of conduct for rulers. Raja Ali Haji from Riau authored Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious Gift), a historical epic that relates two centuries of intrigue and dynastic struggle between the region’s Malay and Bugis aristocracy.

Three manuscripts from Singapore dating to the 1830s were discovered by MH Salleh in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris in 1982. Two manuscripts detailed the sufferings of the native populace at the threshold of the capitalist age.

Sya’ir Dagang Berjual-beli (Sya’ir of Buying and Selling) mentions the difficulties of a Malay trading vessel trying to navigate the realities of a biased colonial administration. Their goods which were taken at a much lower value were often resold in the international market at a much higher margin.

Sya’ir Potong Gaji (Sya’ir of Cut Wages) illustrates the condition of Malay coolies forced to accept pay cuts even while their workload was increased, and being ordered to labour at different places at the whims of their employers (“Gaji dipotong kerja-kerja ditambah/Tempat pekerjaan ditukar pindah”). Their suffering reveals the trauma of Malay society transitioning to the free-market system within the global economic order. These poems also indicate that Malays actively participated in the economic life of the region, following long-established patterns of trade and movement of labour.

The third details a scandal gripping the istana of Kampung Glam involving the Sultan’s consort – Tengku Prabu – behaving intimately with another man. The writer, likely a member of the Royal Court, launched outright criticism of the Sultan, calling him “gagap-gagap dan buta, lalai dan tuli” (stuttering and blind, negligent and deaf). As the symbol of Malay sovereignty on the island, the Sultan had tarnished the reputation of the community by letting his consort be the subject of obscene talk. To the poet, the ruler was “sedikit tak malu” (quite lacking in modesty).

These manuscripts provide rare evidence of the literary activity that had already been taking place in Kampung Glam as early as the 1830s. Such manuscripts contained the germ of intellectual activity which would feature prominently in the years to come: defiance of established and often oppressive authorities. However, the manuscript would be overshadowed by a technological revolution, one that accelerated Kampung Glam’s progress into a hub of intellectual enterprise.

Type, Lithography and the Birth of an Industry

The manuscript was superseded by the advent of print technology in the 19th century. The printing press allowed for reproduction of texts at far greater speed, and increased their accessibility. It was Christian missionaries from the West that introduced print technology to what was essentially a manuscript culture. Tracts and pamphlets carrying Christian teachings were produced in Jawi script to attract potential converts.

A Malay translation of the Sermon on the Mount dated 1829 printed in Singapore. It is believed to be translated by Henri Thomsen under the guidance of Munshi Abdullah. Judging by Abdullah’s frustration with Thomsen over his insistence on using inaccurate Malay expressions, it is little wonder that these Christian pamphlets were poorly received amongst the Malays. Source: National Library Board, Singapore

Malays were used to the elegance of manually written text. Typeset translations of Biblical material, such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were poor and awkward. Lithography changed all that, however. This method essentially sought to reproduce text written in manuscript style rather than with pre-made type. Master copyists transcribed the text directly onto smooth limestone blocks, which were then impressed onto paper. The result was a more effective imitation of the medium that Malays were used to, but with a faster reproduction rate. The adoption of this technology by Malay Muslim publishers allowed Kampung Glam’s book-making industry to take off.

By the mid-1800s, Muslim printing centres began to mushroom in the streets around the Sultan Mosque, mainly in Lorong Masjid Sultan (Bussorah Street today). Others were located in Baghdad Street, Arab Street, Haji Lane as well as Bali Lane. The pioneering decades, from around 1860-1880 were marked by experimentation. Production of publications combined techniques from the manuscript tradition as well as the lithographic method, as experienced scribes had to continue doing the process of rubrication by hand. Several prominent copyists from the peninsular Malay states worked in Kampung Glam in this period. The earliest Qur’an printed in Kampung Glam is attributed to the hand of one Tengku Yusuf bin Tengku Ibrahim from Terengganu. This 1869 book, illuminated in classic Terengganu style, mentions his name in its colophon; the printer, one Muhammad Nuh bin Haji Ismail, and the address (Lorong Masjid Sultan).

A brightly coloured frontispiece of Chermin Mata Bagi Segala Orang Yang Menuntut Pengetahuan (Eyeglass for All who seek Knowledge), an early Malay serial produced by the lithographic method by missionary Benjamin Keasberry together with Munshi Abdullah in Singapore. Source: National Library Board, Singapore

Among the copyists, Ibrahim of Riau emerged as the pre-eminent figure, even dabbling in publishing himself. He set up shop at 720 North Bridge Road in 1881. His time as a publisher appears to have ended by 1889, when he returned to what he did best – copying. Ibrahim was a tremendously productive copyist; he worked for nearly all the big publishers of Kampung Glam, retiring only in 1910.

The early book trade in Kampong Glam was dominated by Javanese entrepreneurs. They worked with artisans from the Malay Peninsula to forge a formidable trade. Central Singapore—more specifically Kampong Glam became the axis of intellectual and commercial energy in the Malay world; it was the staging area and a point of synthesis.

The early enterprises operated in the manner of the cottage industry. The colophon of books of this period usually gave credit to the owners of the press, the copyist, and those who provided the materials. Editions were put out on an ad-hoc basis and informal cooperation among businesses which pooled resources were common.

The Golden Age of the Book Industry at Kampung Glam

The 1880s saw less of such informal collaboration and the growing institutionalisation of dominant players. The last two decades of the nineteenth century were the heyday of Kampung Glam’s publishing industry.

The 1869 Qur’an produced in Kampung Glam by Hj. Muhammad Nuh, copied by Tengku Yusof of Terengganu. It is the earliest surviving Qur’an made in Kampung Glam. Source: National Library Board, Singapore

By this time, Malay books (publications written in the Malay language in either Jawi or Roman script) published either within or outside the Malay world, that were produced in Kampung Glam were categorised into three main genres: the kitab (religious books), popular sya’ir as well as the hikayat.

The most successful printer of the time was HM Said. He was prolific in the publication of print materials. In 1890 alone, HM Said – out of a mere 10 titles – printed up to 10,000 books. This is equal to the number of all surviving manuscripts of Malay literature in the past four centuries. Another successful commercial printer of the time was Haji Muhammad Siraj, who arrived in 1883 and set up shop at 43 Sultan Rd (Bussorah Street today). He was the son of Haji Muhammad Salih, a Javanese from Rembang who had earlier set up a publishing business in Kampung Glam as well.

While HM Said specialised in book production, HM Siraj’s specialty was distribution. He capitalised on Singapore’s position as a regional hub of commerce, from which shipping lines radiated to every major port city or coastal town in the Archipelago. He also took advantage of advances in distribution technology, like the railways and the expansion of the postal service. His widely distributed free catalogues included detailed instructions on how to place an order, even instructing customers how to convert the listed price of each item into their local currency.

Amongst all the Kampung Glam book traders, he had the most developed network of distribution. In Java, he enlisted Albrecht & Rusche, a Dutch publishing firm based in Batavia. He also had representatives in Johor, Muar, Melaka, Deli, Sandakan and Taiping. HM Siraj not only sold books published in Kampung Glam, but also carried textbooks from the East Indies as well as newspapers from Cairo. It is possible to imagine his shop as an emporium of reading material from across the Muslim world.

In one sense, Kampung Glam’s publishing industry was a revolution in the history of Malay literature. What started out as a Christian project to evangelise the Malay world became an ironic success for Muslim publishing, and Malay publishing in general. The total output all the publishers of Kampung Glam at the time was equivalent to all surviving Malay manuscripts from the same time period being printed every two weeks!

The Kampung Glam bookshop was thus an important institution in shaping the collective consciousness amongst Singapore’s Malay and Muslim community with the wider Islamic world. The written word bridged natural maritime barriers and vast distances. By not just bringing in books from the other major Muslim metropolitan centres but also producing and exporting them, Kampung Glam helped facilitate the creation of an imagined community. Malay readers from Singapore to Penang, from Sumatra to the urban ports of Java were increasingly acquainted with books in the same language, and read about the same heroes and personalities of widely circulated sya’ir and hikayat. This deepened the relationship between the diverse literate communities of the Malay world, joined in a common discourse.

Technological and Social Change at the Turn of the Century

From 1900-1920, the once well-oiled machinery of Kampung Glam’s publishing industry revealed signs of atrophy. By the early 1900s, HM Said’s business shifted from producing books to purely retailing imported ones. This period also saw the invasion of superior quality Malay books produced by the presses of Bombay, Cairo and Mecca. By 1912, Malay books were coming to the Kampung Glam shelves from printers as far away as Istanbul and even Russia.

The internationalisation of the Malay book trade is likely attributable to the growth of overseas Malay communities in the Middle East during the early 20th century. Growing prosperity in Malaya due to, among other things, the rubber trade allowed more Malays to afford going abroad to study in the Islamic world’s major urban centres. Thus, printing presses were established there to feed the rising demand. Notable among the presses was the Maktabah Fataniah, founded in Mecca by the renowned Malay scholar of Islam, Wan Ahmad al-Fatani who was given license to edit and publish books by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Increasingly, Singapore found itself an increasingly peripheral node in the expanding list of cities joining the Malay publishing industry, which was now a global affair.

Typography, or arranging pre-forged type to produce chunks of legible text was also gaining increasing popularity. Local publishers, who were mostly lithographers, were unable to adopt typography into their production model when this capital-intensive technology made its appearance. To some at the time, typography also reflected a new spirit in the Malay literati – one of greater political consciousness, and with a mind for religious reform. While lithography brought forth a Renaissance of classical Malay manuscript culture, typography with its neat and sharp appearance symbolised modernity and technological progress.

With this new technology however, new institutions surfaced. One of the most important printing institutions in this regard was located a few blocks away along Jalan Sultan, where now stands the Sultan Hotel. The Al-Ahmadiah Press was set up in 1911 by Malay aristocrats from Natuna and Penyengat. Amidst rising nationalist sentiments, the Dutch dissolved the Riau Sultanate in 1911. As a result, many of the aristocrats left for Singapore where they set up various establishments. One of these was Ahmadi & Co. Midai, a joint-stock trading company set up by Raja Haji Ahmad that specialized in the import and export of goods to as far as Europe, India and China. This trading company helped support Al-Ahmadiah Press, which had initially been established in Penyengat, a product of the strong intellectual tradition of the Riau aristocracy. Although it published lifestyle magazines, books of fictional prose were also produced.

Al-Ahmadiah Press as it looked like in 1967, on 101 Sultan Road. The building now houses the Sultan Hotel. Source: National Library Board, Singapore

The turn of the century did not just herald technological change but was also a period of social change. One source was the rise of vernacular education and mass literacy. The establishment of the Sultan Idris Training College is an important milestone in this regard. SITC inculcated a sense of nationhood which went beyond traditional state boundaries. Its alumni played important roles in both the lead up to independence and beyond.

With regards to education, there were various schools in Kampong Glam area. One of the earliest was Rochore Malay Girls School at Palembang Road which was important for training local teachers. Another school is Kota Raja Malay school depicted above. (Pic credit: Khir Johari)

Another source of social change emerged from new religious ideas by Muslim intellectuals such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh who strove to reinvigorate the Muslim world by looking through the sacred text with fresh understanding in relation to their context. Such ideas eventually came to the Malay world via scholars such as Sheikh Syed al-Hady. These intellectuals used the new print technology to disseminate their ideas. For instance, Syed al-Hady is famous for his novel, Hikayat Faridah Hanom (1925) in which a young woman from a bourgeois Cairo family resisted an arranged marriage. Described as the first feminist novel in the region, it reflected the ideas of the Muslim modernist movement that was beginning to seep into Malay society, including women’s emancipation.

Kampong Glam and Social Change

These changes engendered a new social consciousness. An increasing number of Malays became aware of the communal bonds arising from a shared identity and experience. This was most keenly felt amongst the Malays living in the urban centres due to the heightened sense of economic marginalization and social fragmentation the Malay community felt under colonial rule. An early response to this sense of economic and social alienation was the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (KMS). The association, launched in Kampung Glam, was made up of English-educated Malays. Most prominent was Eunos Abdullah who was the Malay member of the Legislative Council.

A newspaper headline from Berita Harian, April 1985. Under the column ‘Catatan Sejarah’ (History Notes), the newspaper recalls the establishment of the first-ever Malay political party, Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (Singapore Malays Association) at the Istana Kampung Glam (now the Malay Heritage Centre) on 14th May 1926. Depicted alongside the article are portraits of key founders Haji Ambo Suloh (left) and Eunos Abdullah (right).

Their major project was the Kampung Melayu development. As a result of the economic conditions, land value in the areas originally leased to the Malays, such as Kampung Glam, had risen substantially. Many Malays were forced into poor housing conditions in the fringes of the city. The proposal of the KMS was to appeal to the government to reserve a piece of land for a new Malay Kampung, modelled on Kampung Bahru in Kuala Lumpur. The idea was to create a social unit that preserved the traditional patterns of life in urban Singapore. Despite considerable difficulties, 620 acres of land was eventually bought in the eastern part of the city and Kampung Melayu came into being. Some of the streets of Kampung Melayu were named after those responsible for bringing it to fruition but sadly were erased after the demolition of the area. The area itself however is still known as Eunos, named after the head of KMS.

While KMS was a pioneering organisation, it was not a radical one. KMS supported the colonial system, and in turn received colonial support for its projects. However, its spirit was a nascent nationalist one, for the betterment of the Malay people, regardless of their station in life.

Post-war boom: Newspapers and Periodicals
By the 1920s, the development of a publishing industry for an increasingly sophisticated population was evident. With the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), the end of the western colonial empires became inevitable. The Indonesian war against the Dutch and its declaration of independence in 1947 captured the imagination of the people of Malaya and Singapore, and fueled their own struggle for self-determination.

A brigtly-coloured cover of Hiboran from the 1950s (Photo taken from Malay Heritage Centre exhibition).

Two significant literary modes developed from such ferment: the periodical and the newspaper. The outstanding Malay newspaper at this time was Utusan Melayu, headed by Yusof Ishak and Samad Ismail, and located at Queen Street on the outskirts of Kampung Glam. Under their leadership, Utusan became the leading voice of the Malays and of independence for Malaya. Utusan also published a periodical named Mastika which was helmed by renowned Malay writers such as Kamaluddin Mohammad (Keris Mas) and Usman Awang (Tongkat Warrant).

Harun Aminurrashid, an SITC graduate, was responsible for the success of a number of periodicals. His first challenge had been to revive the failing Hiboran magazine, published by Royal Press in North Bridge Road. Harun managed to save it, and it lived on for another ten years, till 1958. Harun also collaborated with the owner of Ahmadiah press, Raja Muhammad Yusuf to form the publishing company HARMY (a portmanteau of the founders’ names – Harun Aminurrashid and Raja Muhammad Yusof’s initials).

They published a number of important publications, notably Mutiara (1948-1962), which rivalled both Mastika (1942-present) and Hiboran. These periodicals touched upon a variety of topics, ranging from social issues, current affairs and literary works such as short stories. As the Space Age arrived with the launch of Sputnik in 1960, these periodicals carried pieces with themes of science and science fiction. Reflecting the increased literacy amongst women, HARMY also produced Fesyen, a magazine aimed at female readership.

Harun subsequently became the head the left wing Parti Rakyat Singapura while Raja Muhammad Yusuf’s remained more conservative in his outlook. While HARMY was an interesting partnership, the right and left wings of Malay nationalism would not always remain in a harmonious relationship.

An issue of Mutiara from the 1960s featuring scientific motifs on its cover. (Photo taken from Malay Heritage Centre exhibition.)

The involvement of publishers in politics reflected the increasingly politicised role of the intelligentsia then, engaged in the key questions of the time. This aspect had actually sparked a debate where one camp advocated that the purpose of art should be art alone and the other which argued that the arts should play an important role in shaping society. The latter camp was led by writers in Angkatan Sasterawan 50 (ASAS 50) who believed strongly that writers, poets and journalists should be involved in one form or another in social issues and political struggles of the time. The latter was arguably the dominant perspective of that era as the periodicals and newspapers often reflected these ideals.

The Exodus Post-independence

If the struggle for independence fueled the publishing industry, the period post-independence saw a decline. The post-colonial governments of Malaya and Singapore were far more interested in nation-building project rather than cultivating intellectual spaces. Beyond politics, economic reasons also led to the shift. Singapore’s rising GDP also brought another problem, that of increasing land prices. Increasingly it became comparatively cheaper to conduct publishing elsewhere. An exodus followed the shifting political and economic landscape. By 1958, the premier Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu moved to Kuala Lumpur. Other publications such as Hiboran followed suit in the 1970s. Tokoh Haji Hashim, which was a bookshop founded by its namesake at 34 Arab Street in 1922, is still in Singapore but has since moved from Kampong Glam to Joo Chiat Complex.

Some of Kampong Glam’s book industry did adapt to such shifting times. For example, the prominent Malay scholar of religion, Syed Ahmad Semait, founded Pustaka Nasional in 1963 at 40 Kandahar Street. He published mostly religious books but also some fictional works by local authors, that were adopted as teaching tools in local schools. In 1996, Pustaka Nasional was appointed by MUIS to produce standard textbooks for the local madrasahs.

The Intellectual Legacy of Kampung Glam

While much of Kampung Glam’s proud history has been forgotten, its intellectual legacy is still relevant today. That a thriving enterprise dedicated to the authoring and producing of written material for a wide readership existed challenges the notion that Malays are simply not pre-disposed towards intellectual pursuits. That people from various parts of the Malay Archipelago had once gathered at Kampung Glam to create a publishing industry with sophisticated distribution networks puts into question the assumption that Malays lack entrepreneurial spirit or have an aversion to work.

This legacy is a mosaic of historical actors: the intrigue of court scribes, the enterprise of book merchants, the fervour of religious reformists and the passion of committed nationalists. Yet the intellectual legacy of Kampong Glam represents more than just an academic curiosity. It is part of the multi-faceted spirit of the people; an unease at complacency and orthodoxy, an introspection into deeply held values, a sense of agency and responsibility that comes with knowledge but most of all a genuine concern for the fate of fellow human beings.

Uncovering this legacy is like pulling back the shroud off a faded mirror. The shadows in the mirror may seem unfamiliar but the spirit which silhouette the figures who once travelled these streets are not.

May the echoes of this past stir us from the fitful slumber of today.

Fadli Fawzi is currently working in the legal industry. He has interests in a wide range of areas ranging from religion, history, politics and the law.

Faris Joraimi is currently an undergraduate and heritage enthusiast. When not reading up on classical Malay literature, he is often found writing long, impassioned captions to articles he shares on Facebook.


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