A Different Side of Singapore


JUNE 06, 2013

Many wealthy Jakartans opt for a weekend getaway in Singapore because they enjoy the city’s cleanliness and endless shopping opportunities.

That Singapore also boasts a colorful history and rich culture is often neglected during those trips, when “sightseeing” is reduced to the many malls lining Orchard Road.

But as soon as I got off a bus in Bugis Junction, I noticed I was in a distinctively different part of the city, a place where I could witness the daily life of ordinary Singaporeans.

On the street, I passed by people of different walks of life and ethnicities, many wearing simple, traditional fashions.

Around me were kiosks selling knick-knacks of decent quality, food counters offering package discounts and apartments inhabited by working-class people.

This is different to Orchard Road, where all I could see were glamorous shops and hotels, and pedestrians sporting modern fashions and hairstyles.

I walked further, leaving Bugis Junction behind. Amid the skyscrapers, I noticed the minaret of a mosque that turned out to be Masjid Sultan.

Walking toward the mosque I passed a row of nicely refurbished old two-story houses, and then arrived in Kampong Glam, a tiny village in the middle of busy and modern Singapore.

In this 16-hectare village, I sensed a different atmosphere to the rest of Singapore. Men wearing rimless white hats and modestly covered-up women walked along the streets.

Soon I had a better view of the lovely Masjid Sultan, the oldest and largest mosque in Singapore, built in the mid-19th century.

Those interested in architecture will enjoy a stroll through the kampong, which has been a conservation area since 1989. The two-story houses situated side by side boast colonial architecture with Chinese and local influences. Most houses serve as shophouses now.

Kampong Glam is also pleasant area to shop. Along Arab Street, for example, shops offer fine textiles, Persian and Turkish carpets, shawls, Chinese silks and ornaments from the Middle East, attracting locals and tourists alike.

The old quarter also has many restaurants and cafes offering halal food from Indonesia, India, Turkey and the Middle East.

Some restaurants are run by families that have lived in Kampong Glam for generations, some as far back as the 1900s. Several restaurants beautifully reflect the common journey from village to city.

For the locals, I was told, Kampong Glam is the best place to eat martabak, a wonderfully oily sweet or savory pancake popular in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “Don’t forget to eat martabak in the local restaurant there,” my Singaporean colleague told me before my trip.

I dropped by a crowded local restaurant offering curry, briyani and martabak. Ignoring my friend’s advice, I ordered a plate of nasi briyani instead, because it looked delicious. I wasn’t disappointed.

Despite being popular for its Muslim and Malay foods, Kampong Glam offers more than just halal dishes.

It offers a wide variety of culinary experiences and is a popular spot for Singaporean youth to hang out. For upmarket cafes and restaurants, head to Bussorah Street, just around the corner.

Walking around Kampong Glam, the Middle Eastern origins of many of the quarter’s settlers is reflected in street names — Muscat Street, Kandahar Street and Baghdad Street, among them.

Heritage buildings in Kampong Glam include two former Malay palaces: Istana Kampong Gelam, built during the 1840s, and Gedung Kuning, built around the same time and used as the residence of the country’s prime minister for a time.

Originally, Glam was a fishing village by the mouth of Rochor River. (The word glam comes from the name of a tree that grew in the area.)

In 1819, the Sultan of Singapore signed a treaty with British government representative Thomas Stamford Raffles allowing the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Singapore in return for an annual fee.

A few years later, the Sultan brought his family members from Riau to Kampong Glam, which was subsequently set aside for them. The Sultan ordered his palace be built in Kampong Glam, and the aristocrats lived inside the walled compound.

People whose origins were Malayu, Bugis, Java, Arab and Chinese also settled in Kampong Glam. As a result, there were different settlements nearby: Kampong Bugis, Kampong Java and Kampong Arab.

The initial Masjid Sultan began to be constructed in 1824, with funding from local Muslims and the East India Company. It used Javanese architecture. The mosque was later expanded and renovated in 1924, and now accommodates around 5,000 people.

In 1975, the governor of Singapore acknowledged Masjid Sultan as a national monument. As well as being a place of worship, the mosque with the golden dome is also a center for Islamic activities and offers tours for visitors interested in learning about its history.

Compared to most other parts of Singapore, Kampong Glam is more traditional and Islamic. Its complex of colonial houses serve as a reminder of the early history of Malay-Singapore. It is a place where cultural heritage and tradition survive in modern Singapore.