The Old Town of Kampong Glam in Singapore

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Once upon a time, long long ago, when Sir Stamford Raffles landed in a small island of Singapore in 1819,  people of many races of countries near or far heard about it by words of mouth.

Communication was slow and unreliable  in primitive ways … such as using “messenger pigeons” or “pigeon post”, Red Indian tribal smoke signals, paintings or drawings on caves, etc.

Later, “snail mails” by slow cargo ships became universal with a small amount of postage stamps, but it took weeks or often months to deliver anywhere in the world.

When our forefathers arrived by slow boats, with danger of pirates and travelling in stormy weather, hoping and praying for a safe trip.

Singapore is not a homogeneous population and people have to learn to live and work together harmoniously with different races, different languages, different religions, different culture, even different food to consume.

Similarly, the birds, insects and animals in the forests and jungles have to learn to survive with their different kinds in the world.  Other than humans,  the birds, the insects, the animals, the plants, the flowers and all living creatures big or small created by God are also not homogeneous.

When Singapore was part of the Straits Settlements under the British colony, Singapore established itself as an important trading port and developed into a major city with rapid increase in population.

As early as 1827, the Chinese had become the largest ethnic group in Singapore.  During the earliest years of the settlement, most of the Chinese in Singapore had been Peranakans, the descendants of Chinese who had settled in the archipelago centuries ago, who were usually well-to-do merchants.

Malays in Singapore were the second largest ethnic group in Singapore until the 1860s. Although many of the Malays continued to live in kampongs, or the traditional Malay villages, most worked as wage earners and craftsmen. This was in contrast to most Malays in Malaya, who remained farmers.

Today, an increasing number of Malay Singaporeans are better educated and are professionals to diversify their occupations in Singapore and overseas to become wealthy businessmen, industrialists, bankers, doctors, engineers, IT software developers and creative ventures in every fields.

Yonders ago, William Farquhar, in charge of the new settlement under Stamford Raffles, invited settlers to Singapore, and stationed a British official on St. John’s island to invite passing ships to stop in Singapore.  As news of the free port spread across the archipelago, Bugis, Peranakan Chinese and Arab traders flocked to the island.

Singapore attracted as many immigrants from China, India, Indonesia and other Southeast Asia countries with hopes for a future of golden opportunities with peace and political stability in the horizon.  They built their families and children to grow their roots in Singapore over the decades.

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Kampong Glam (c.1830 Campong Gelam), estate, one of 10 sub-zones of the Rochore area located in the central region. Kampong Glam covers 56 acres of land located to the east of the 19th century European town in Singapore, between the Rochore River and the sea.

On 7 July 1989, Kampong Glam was gazetted a conservation area, and will become a “Malay Heritage Centre” preserved as a historic part of town.


Kampong Glam was land set aside for Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah and 600 family members in 1823, upon his signing the treaty ceding Singapore to the East India Company.

He instructed the Temenggong Abdul Rahman to build his palace here – a large attap-roofed istana or “palace”. Aside from the Sultan’s family, residents of the area included the Bugis, Arabs, Javanese and Boyanese, and by 1824, at least 1/3 of the residents were Chinese. Immigrants of Muslim faith who were allocated to reside at Kampong Glam.

These migrants settled amongst their own ethnic groups, which gave rise to different “mini-kampongs” such as Kampong Bugis, Kampong Java and Kampong Malacca.

Raffles himself donated S$3,000 for a “respectable mosque” which served the community until 1924 when the current landmark, the Sultan Mosque was built.

At the founding of Singapore, there was a village by the sea where the Orang Laut from the Glam tribe resided. According to Wah Hakim, this was known as Seduyong before it gained the name Kampong Glam, after the tribal group of the Orang Laut.

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The Glam Tree (photo above) planted by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, Singapore.

The bark of the Glam Tree was used by the Orang Laut to make awnings and sails. Its timber was often used for constructing boats and served as firewood. Its fruit was ground and used as pepper – mercha bolong; and its leaves boiled and concocted into the Cajeput Oil, a medication for rheumatism and cramps.

The elegant, Moorish-influenced Sultan Mosque was rebuilt in 1924, and continues to be an important beacon for Muslims.

The phenomenal presence and influence of the early Arab migrants are registered on street names like Muscat, Bagdad, Bussorah etc., all namesakes of Arabian cities. The wealthiest of these Arab familes have contributed to the building and maintenance of mosques and religious schools, the most notable of these were the Alsagoff Arab School (1912) and the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah School.

In 1993, the Singapore Government first announced its plan to develop the Istana Kampong Glam, as it was in the 16 ha Kampong Glam Conservation area. Residents were informed of this and given ample time to make their own housing arrangements.

Then on 12 March 1999 it was announced that the Istana would be converted into a “Malay Heritage Centre”

Within the area also stand significant buildings like Bendahara House (1920s) at No. 73, Sultan Gate; and Pondok Java, a drama house where traditional cultural arts of Javanese migrants e.g. Wayang Kulit (“shadow puppet plays”),Wayang Bangsawan (“drama acting”), were performed.

Chinese name:

(1) In Hokkien means Sio Po or “small town”.

(2) Kampong Glam Beach, in Hokkien Twa Che Kha refers to “The foot of the big well”.

There used to be an old well in the middle of the road at Sultan’s Gate.

(3) Sultan’s Gate in Hokkien is known as (a) Ong Hu Khaurefers to “The mouth of the Palace ” or (b) Phah Thi Koi refers to “The street of the Iron-smiths.

(4) Sultan Road/Jalan Sultan in Hokkien Sio Po Phah Thi Koirefers to “Small Singapore’s Iron-smiths” street.

Malay name: Kampong Glam refers to “The Glam Tree” (Malaleuca leucadendron from the Greek words melasmeaning “black” and leukos meaning “white”).

Indian name: Sultan’s Gate in Tamil is Raja Kottei means “Rajah’s Palace”.

(Source with credit: Infopedia and Author: Vernon Cornelius.

The Malay Heritage Centre in 1970s

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 Sultan Mosque in the Past

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The Sultan Mosque (photo above) was built in 1823 on the initiative of the late Sultan Hussin Shah on its present site.

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Kampong Glam and Its Majestic Past

Andrea Yeo savours the sights of Kampong Glam in his article in The Straits Times dated 27 April, 1989

It is a world unto its own.  Away from the city bustle and thriving in Muslim traditions, this is the “World of Kampong Glam”.

It is the area bounded by Victoria  Street, Jalan Sultan, Beach Road and Arab Street, with shophouses and old spacious bungalows lining the streets and alleys.

The “Leaning Tower of Singapore”


The “Leaning Tower of Singapore” is found at Jalan Sultan.  It is the minaret of Hajah Fatimah Mosque which is visibly inclined at an angle when viewed from afar.  In the 1980s, extensive renovation work was carried out and among other things, its leaning minaret was righted.  It is no longer the “leaning tower of Singapore”.

Built in 1840 by an unknown English architect on the orders of a wealthy Malaccan woman, Hajah Fatimah, the mosque displays traits of Malaccan Indian and Chinese architectural styles.

History has it that Hajah Fatimah’s daughter, Rajah Siti, married into the Alsagoff family, which later became the keepers of the mosque.

Facing the entrance of the mosque is the prayer hall in the direction of the Kiblat (the direction towards Mecca).

One of the most refreshing impressions about the mosque is the serenity and the calmness one feels on stepping insides its main prayer hall.

It is a feeling experienced not only by Muslims, but also by some non-Muslim visitors to the mosque who acknowledge it to their Muslim friends.

Mosques in Singapore are built either by wealthy individuals, as those built by well-known families like the Angulia, Alkaff, Aljunied and Hajah Fatimah, or the community in selected locations to fulfill their spiritual needs.

Many mosques today are built on land either given as “wakaf” (endowment) by individuals or given as a grant by the state.  The majority were built more than a century ago and have undergone successive renovations and upgraded.

Some of the oldest mosques are in the city area like the Sultan Mosque, Abra Mosque, Hajah Fatimah Mosque and Omar Kampong Melaka Mosque.

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Overview of Mosques – Old and New

Excerpts of an article by Yaakub Rashid in Straits Times dated 24 May, 1982

The changing face of Singapore’s mosques is a phenomenon little realized among the public.  The government’s policy to build a mosque in every new housing estate.

The mosque has always been synonymously linked with the Muslims.  And Muslims, the world over, just cannot do without their “House of God” wherever they may be and where they settle down and take roots.

It doe not matter whether they are of different and diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds because under the roof of the mosque they found a common identity and purpose – to serve God and their religion.

Mosque have changed, both physically and in respect of the role they have assumed.  A mosque of the old architecture type was usually a single-storey structure with a prayer hall and perhaps a small room for the Imam, who leads the congregation.

Within the central business district, there are six mosques built by Muslim pioneers who were from different parts of the world in the early days in Singapore.  The area, incidentally, formed the business hub by the Muslim merchants and traders who migrated to Singapore.

The mosques in Singapore are no longer just places of worship.  These are places for community events, exhibitions, tuition classes and other educational activities conducted for Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.

However, religion studies and classes in the mosques are conducted for Muslims only.

As for Muslims in many, if not most parts of the world, this is what they still are, houses where the faithful gather in Muslim fellowship to pray to the Almighty God.

In Singapore, mosques have become multi-functional.

They are all related to efforts to promote the education and well-being of Muslim youngsters.  They are a reflection of the progress of the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore of their contributions to play their part in the economy and development of the country.

These are the roles of the Muslims for the young and old of every generations as Singapore progress together as our home to play, work and live.

Kampong Glam in the Past


This gem of a heritage photo of the ladder in the middle of the  five-foot way of the shophouse in Kampong Glam.  Escape exit?


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Kampong Glam Today


This photo is off topic but just share for a peek to keep everyone in suspense. Pls watch out for the next screening. That’s all for now, folks!

3 thoughts on “The Old Town of Kampong Glam in Singapore

  1. Nice new theme for your blog, maximising the entire width of the screen. It sure made the page shorter. Yesterday I attended a focus group discussion and people mentioned that they are interested in comparing places in the past and now – and I immediately thought of your blog.

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