Last week Claire and I visited the Malay Heritage Centre. We checked in right as a guided tour was starting, and joined the tour in time to learn that the Kampong Glam area gets the name from the Gelim tree. This answered a question flashed across my mind every time I hear the term. I’d been wondering if it was called that because it’s a trendy area. Which shows what I know….
However, this would prove to be one of the last comfortable moments on the tour. Our guide was an older white woman who has been in Singapore for as long as I have been. She clearly has studied her material–her knowledge of how Malaysia and Singapore’s history divert, rejoin, and divert again was enviable.
The docent shared a story about the origins of Singapore that I have since learned was (unsurprisingly not the full story). She noted that the Shah of Johor died, leaving two sons–the elder was away, so the youngest was installed as Shah and stole the throne from beneath him. Raffles arrived on the scene and offered a solution–that he would make the older son the Shah of Singapore. Missing from the narrative was that the Patriarchal Shah was already a British Puppet, or that the British actually declared the elder son the Shah of Singapore and Johor, rather than dividing the kingdom. The Dutch then declared the younger brother Shah of Riau in retaliation, as until the British had gotten involved with the Sultanate of Johor, they’d been the dominant European power.
This is not only an interesting story, but relevant to why Claire and I eventually drifted away from the tour. Firstly, our guide was knowledgeable, but not a particularly compelling presenter. Secondly, and far more awkwardly, was the way white privilege kept showing up in her narrative–that no one was here before the British, which she then backtracked to clarify that she meant no other European colonial power had claimed Singapore, but those sorts of slips kept happening. Unintentional minimization of local culture, uplifting of European power/culture. That, more than the lack of stage presence had us exchanging looks and drifting away from the group, eventually breaking with it altogether to explore on our own.
I wish our tour guide had been a local. There’s something awkward about a white person trying to explain to a bunch of white people about a tertiary culture. I think everyone there had good intentions—but that doesn’t lessen the awkwardness. There is an audio tour, which I would recommend trying over the guided tour (unless led by a local) if you prefer a structured tour.
Once we began to explore on our own, we really enjoyed taking our time to explore the various rooms on the second floor. In one there is a wall full of gorgeous period photography (the photo above is one–but as a photo of a photo, the quality is poor). We found these batik stamps in a display case with traditional men and women’s outfits, and next to a display case with jewelry.
The room where we found the pictures, the stamps and the jewelry also included a reproduction of the treating that established the Sultanate of Singapore, traditional hats, and a period gun. The jewelry display and wall of photos are worth the 4SGD admission alone.
The museum has space devoted to the history of Malay music in Singapore, including headphones where you can listen to musical recording artists who became big in the 60’s and 70’s.
There’s also a manuscript room with this gorgeous Koran, along with a French-Malay dictionary and other texts. This is another great room for lingering.
Although it’s a small museum, it packs a lot of artifacts and a variety of topics into that small space. I definitely encourage you to go spend some time there (30-60 minutes depending on how long you want to linger at various displays), and then to walk in the Kampong Glam area, including the fabric stores on Arab street.