As we know, the Dongson drum displayed in the burial section of Gallery A is one of two found face down in a boat burial at Kampung Sungai Lang, Selangor. What about the second drum? Where is it located? It rests closer to home at the Jugra Insitu Museum in Kuala Langat.
Examining historical artefacts complements textual research and, hence, knowing what artefacts are available in museums is an important step for historians and researchers. Using Google My Maps as the database, 209 museums and galleries have been identified pertinent to the history, culture, heritage and natural history of Malaysia. Although work is still ongoing to obtain information on the collections, this database is a good starting point to understand the museum scene in Malaysia.
Each state in the country has its own museum showcasing the history and heritage of the state, generally starting from prehistoric times up to the modern era. There are also smaller museums within a state that focus on a district or a town; examples include the Petaling Jaya Museum, Rembau Museum in Negeri Sembilan, the Kemaman District Museum in Terengganu and the Baram Regional Museum in Sarawak. Museums such as the Chitty Museum in Melaka, the Murut Cultural Centre in Sabah and the Sapan Puloh Melanau Museum in Sarawak, celebrate the uniqueness of local communities. The Pogunon Community Museum in Sabah was built in-situ on an ancient megalith site to showcase the archaeological discoveries in the area.
Skimming through the list of museums, you will find that there are three museums dedicated to the kite – Muzium Wau in Kelantan as well as a Muzium Layang Layang in both Johor and Melaka – attesting to the popularity of this pastime. Previously, kites were used to establish contact with the heavens. Hence, they were beautifully shaped and decorated to find favour with the sky and wind spirits. Kites featured in the three museums have shapes and decorations unique to the state, providing valuable insight into kite research.
There are quite a number of other special-purpose museums. Museums such as the Pineapple Museum (Johor), Timber Museum (Sarawak), Petroleum Museum (Sarawak) and the Tanjung Balau Fisherman Museum (Johor) are industry specific while the Ho Yan Hor Museum (Perak) showcases the history of a company. The Bank Kerapu Second World War Memorial in Kota Bharu preserves the memory of the Japanese Occupation. The Mersing Museum, although conceived to showcase the history and culture of Mersing, also provides information on the naval engagement, popularly known as the Battle of Endau, that took place off its shores between the Allied forces and the Japanese Army. The Watercraft and Boat Gallery in Pahang would be an interesting one to visit for those interested in boats, both ancient and contemporary. Melaka is a treasure throve for speciality museums – Submarine Museum, Malaysia Prison Museum, Melaka Stamp Museum and Beauty Museum, to name a few.
Malaysian waters have its fair number of shipwrecks. While the National Museum has a large collection of shipwreck ceramics, some pieces from the Wanli Shipwreck are displayed at the Dungun District Museum while the Tanjung Balau Fisherman Museum provides information on the Desaru Shipwreck.
Tin mining machinery at the Kampar Tin Mining Museum Mural at the Paddy Museum in Alor Setar Metal bowl from the Mamluk Sultanate at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia A display at the Time Tunnel Museum in Cameron Highlands Fossils at the Geology Museum in Ipoh
The National Archives of Malaysia manages a number of galleries dedicated to honouring the contributions of selected individuals to the country, mainly political figures such as former Prime Ministers. However, local communities have also established museums to honour local heroes, such as the House of Sybil Kathigasu in Papan (Perak) and the Mat Kilau Gallery Complex in Pulau Tawar (Pahang). The Bentong Gallery in Pahang is dedicated to Loke Yew’s role in developing this tin mining town.
Big or small, elaborate or simple, each museum/gallery in the list has a story to tell. Click the button below to explore the list of museums on Google My Maps.
A perfect way to spend a Saturday morning is to take a stroll to the National Textile Museum especially with a well-informed volunteer guide, Anne. The Textile Museum gives one a good overview of not just textiles and weaving techniques but also various accessories that can also be worn. One will be surprised that the some of the patterns of the olden textiles will not lose out in terms of beauty with their modern contemporaries.
There are four permanent galleries in the National Textile Museum, viz.:
Pohon Budi Gallery (Ground Floor)
This gallery tells the story of the evolution of textiles and the techniques associated with textile weaving, beginning with the initial use of bark cloth as covering. This involved the simple art of using stone to beat the bark until it was soft. Early fibre used for weaving was from banana trunk or pineapple leaves. Exhibits include techniques of calendaring and gilding, gold thread embroidery on velvet, woven and embroidered textiles, Iban ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu), songket weaving, beading on shoes, collars, head cloth and tapestry as well as a comprehensive section on batik making.
Various looms were displayed and one is made aware that when using the back-strap loom for weaving, the size of the cloth is restricted to the body width though not the length.
Various techniques of creating patterns for example calendaring and gilding, tie and dye method, block printing, canting hand drawn technique as well as gold thread embroidery, using of gold leaf or dust were explained.
Some pieces from The Royal Pahang Weaving are also on display.
Pelangi Gallery (Ground Floor)
This gallery explores the various types of textiles. Batik making started in the 1930’s in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Malaya then). Before that batik cloth was imported mainly from Indonesia. The costly batik imports gave a push to the entrepreneurs in the East Coast to start their own batik making. Examples of tie and dye and hand drawn batik are exhibited. Malaysian batik is more colourful compared to its Indonesian counterpart.
It was pointed out that the square Sabah textile is usually used as headgear.
The Sarawak pua does not use gold thread as supplementary thread unlike the songket. The pattern in the Sarawak pua can weave a story. The pua can be used as a blanket or even to wrap skulls in the old days.
There is also a good display of Baba & Nyonya textile and Indian textile. The Baba & Nyonya textile carries much more vibrant colours compared to textiles used by the Chinese. Indian textiles were mainly imported from India.
Ratna Sari Gallery (First Floor)
If one is interested in having a peep at jewellery and accessories, head toward this gallery. These ornaments are made of not just precious metals like gold, silver, copper but also beads, feathers, etc. and were worn by different ethnicities in Malaysia.
A good variety of necklaces, pendants, kerongsang (brooches), earrings, rings, bracelets and anklets, belts, engraved buckles with floral designs and some inlaid with gold dating back to early 20th century. Hair pins, weapons (keris), modesty discs are also exhibited in this gallery.
A very interesting find is a wedding crown where the blue colour used was made from the feathers of the kingfisher. Some of the pendants in the necklaces can store amulets for the protection of the wearers.
Teluk Berantai Gallery (First Floor)
Fine examples of various Malay textiles covering songket, limar sarung fabric, cloth embellished with gold leaf (telepuk), limar cloth and scripted cloth can be viewed in this gallery.
The arrivals of traders from Arabia, Persia, Turkey, China, India, Siam and the islands of Sumatra and Java in the early days would influence the material used then. Over the years the materials used ranged from simple to elaborate songket in fine cotton or on silk.
Gold paper embroidery collections on display are used as covers for pillows, bridal decoration, wedding dais, etc. Probably the skills required to make them would take time to master as they involved cutting and shaping the gold paper into various designs or motifs sewing them together with coloured threads, spangles and glass-like pieces.
Development of gold thread embroidery (tekat) on textile was largely influenced by imports of gold threads, satin, silk and velvet materials from India and China into the Malayan Peninsular. In tekat the gold threads are laid on the surface of the material and stitched into place.
This last section showcases the cultural wear of the various ethnic groups in Malaysia and reminds the visitors of Gallery D of the National Museum.
The National Textile Museum building completed in 1905 was designed by Arthur Benison Hubback in the Neo-Mughal architectural style. Throughout its history it had been used to house various government departments before it was turned into the National Textile Museum, and was officially opened in 2012 although it was already opened to the public in 2010. It sits adjacent to the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and holds its own in terms of beauty and grace with its distinctive red and white bonding façade topped with onion-shaped domes.
Ticket entry to the National Textile Museum is a steal at RM2 for an adult ticket (12 years and above) and half the price for senior citizens and the disabled. Non-Malaysians are charged RM5. The National Textile Museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm except the first Monday of each month.
Magna Carta (also known as the Great Charter) was a ground-breaking document that sought to resolve injustices within the feudal system during the early thirteenth century. It was created by militant English Barons to protect their rights and property from the oppressive monarch, King John. The King reluctantly acceded to their demands in June 1215, which included the establishment of the fundamental principle that all subjects, including the King, are subject to the law, as well guaranteeing rights to justice and a fair trial. However, most of the population were peasants whose lives were irrevocably bound to their Lord who owned the land. Initially, the document did not achieve its aims although it eventually became the foundation of the English system of common law.
King John was an unpopular monarch, although he was not the first to accept a charter that granted concessions to English citizens. In 1100, King Henry I issued a Coronation Charter which committed the monarch to curtail its abuse of power as well as limiting taxes and preventing the confiscation of church revenues. Although Henry failed to fully adhere to his promises, his Barons lacked the resolve to oppose him. Barons were high ranking nobles who ruled large areas of land or ‘fiefs’, and they communicated directly with the King. Their principal function was to maintain an army that was available to serve the King.
Barons were at a lower level of the medieval hierarchy, and King John needed their support, both for the Crusades and to pay a ransom for his brother, Richard the Lionheart, who had been imprisoned by the Germans. The King was entitled to feudal rights that he often abused, which included payments to be made when his eldest daughter married or when land was inherited. He also maintained the right of wardship over heirs who were minors, and he controlled the marriage rights of his tenants’ widows and heirs.
In 1204, the King lost the Duchies of Anjou and Normandy in France, and in 1209 he became the first English King to be excommunicated after a quarrel with Pope Innocent III. In 1213, he suffered further humiliating by the French and needed to restore his standing. His coffers were almost exhausted, and he claimed ‘scutage’ tax, which was paid by Barons who had failed to provide support on the battlefield. By this time, the Pope had nominated Stephen Langton to become Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the King’s opposition, However, he was eventually forced to resolve these differences, and he accepted Langton as well as compensating the Church for revenues that he had plundered.
However, civil war erupted in early 1215, and Baron Robert FitzWalter led a force to wrest control of London. On 15 June 1215, King John was forced to submit at Runneymede, a meadow in Surrey by the River Thames, by placing his seal and thereby accepting the terms of the document laid before him. The manuscript was initially referred to as the ‘Articles of the Barons’ and four days later, after some changes, King John and the Barons issued the formal version that become known as Magna Carta. Clause 61 required the future selection of twenty-five Barons which is why their names were not listed in the document. The number of twenty-five is tied to the Bible, and such legitimisation was meaningful at the time.
The Barons realised that King John could renege on the agreement by arguing that it constituted an unlawful breach of his authority. To counter this possibility, Clause 61 was incorporated which provided a novel solution which the King had accepted that ‘… the Barons shall choose any twenty-five Barons of the realm as they wish, who with all their might are to observe, maintain and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted’. A violation by either King John or his officials of Magna Carta’s terms was to be reported to four of the committee; and if no remedy was presented within forty days, the King was to empower the full committee to ‘… distrain and distress us in every way they can, namely by seizing castles, lands and possessions …’ until amends were made. Thereby, the charter established the pioneering way of making the King sanction and organise armed action against himself. The means by which such action was to be accomplished was also indicated by use of the common law doctrine of distraint, which was the means whereby debts were collected from debtors and malefactors obliged to answer for their actions in court. The King also shrewdly accepted the Pope as feudal overlord of England, and subsequently, before many of Magna Carta’s terms were fully implemented, he petitioned the Pope to reject the document, which the Pope declared null and void on 24 August 1215.
Civil war flared up again within three months, and after King John’s death in 1216, advisors to his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, avoided further conflict by reissuing Magna Carta with some of its most controversial clauses removed, and the document was subsequently reissued in both 1217 and 1225. Magna Carta was written in Latin, (although French was the first language of much of the aristocracy). Many of the 63 clauses defined and limited the King’s authority over the property rights of Barons, which reflected the narrow goals of its authors, and for centuries the benefits only applied to the upper classes. Approximately 250 copies of the “final” 1225 document were produced by scribes, (which inevitably resulted in some minor mistakes), and these were dispatched to legal and religious officials throughout England. The only four original copies of Magna Carta remain in existence, of which two are in the British Museum, one is in Lincoln Cathedral and one is in Salisbury Cathedral.
It was a long awaited event. The morning of March 12 saw 8 museum volunteers waiting eagerly at the entrance of Gallery 2 for the walking tour of the taxidermy exhibition. Khairill Jemangin, Deputy Director cum curator from the Natural History Museum, greeted us at the entrance to Gallery 2. He brought along with him two taxidermists (Mohammed Ali Hj Mohaideen and Mohd Hasnor Tajur Amar).
Taxidermy…what is it? To the ordinary folks, the exhibits are just preserved and stuffed animals. Are they real? How is it different from mummification? Well, Khairill answered all our questions as he took us through the wonders of the taxidermy exhibition, otherwise known as the Eternal Life Exhibition.
The tour started with a brief explanation of the meaning of taxidermy. The word taxidermy originated from two Greek words “taxis” and “derma” meaning skin arrangement. It is a technique between art and science where only the skin is preserved and then mounted on an artificial body to make it appear lifelike as if in its natural habitat. The purpose of this preservation is for scientific research, education, exhibitions and even for references.
The tour continued with a journey down memory lane. Taxidermy started in 1400 when people got interested in the art of taxidermy. During those early years, museums all over the world started collecting fauna and flora specimens. However it was the British museum that made taxidermy important. The British museum had a huge collection of specimens and this spurred further interest in taxidermy. Taxidermy started in Malaysia as early as in the 1880s in the Perak Museum, Sarawak Museum and Selangor Museum, pioneered by foreign zoologists. The Selangor Museum at that time had a large collection of fauna and flora specimens. Unfortunately Allied Forces accidentally bombed the museum and its exhibits during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Local taxidermists involvement was believed to have begun when the new Museum Negara was built in 1963, on the same spot as the Selangor Museum. Lack of funding and staffing have been perpetual issues facing the Museum. It was only in 1968 that the first Natural History Gallery was set up.
After the brief explanation on the history of the development of taxidermy in Malaysia, Khairill explained the main purpose of this exhibition was to create an awareness of Taxidermy and an appreciation of the animals that have were preserved as some of the animals may have been extinct. There are 126 preserved specimens in the exhibition and we were told to look out for 2 specimens that are not real! Some specimens were donated by other museums in the world and Malaysian taxidermists did most of the exhibits.
The tour continued with the showcasing of tools and materials used in the taxidermy process. Techniques have changed from olden days to modern techniques. Technology has enabled body parts to be lighter and easier to handle. Modern day taxidermists now wear protective gear as they go about their tasks. We were shocked to learn that taxidermists during those early years do not wear any protective gear at all. Perhaps during those early years, there were no dangerous viruses lurking in the bodies of the animals that they were working on?
The exhibits range from fishes, birds, frogs, rodents, reptiles and mammals. Many of the displays have their own story to tell. The preservation process sometimes takes a few years to complete. The smaller the animal, the more difficult it was to preserve, (much to our surprise). Wee Ho Cheng, a first generation local Taxidermist, lead the early Taxidermy works together with Zainal Abidin and Abdullah Abu Hassan. Taxidermy projects started as early as 1962 and animals preserved included a strutting pheasant, a sun bear, an otter, a tiger, and a saltwater crocodile, all of which are currently exhibited in the Gallery! Two animals deserve special mention! Wee Ho Cheng and Zainal Abidin stuffed the otter that is now 43 years old. The other animal is the pheasant that was stuffed by Wee Ho Cheng under the supervision of Danish taxidermist Arne Stockholm Dyhrberg. These two animals deserve special mention because they were the first preserved animals exhibited in Museum Negara.
Collection of specimens is still ongoing subject to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. The Museum Negara’s taxidermist team animals found dead or killed. Some were donated by the public. An example was the iguana, which was donated by Jean Leong, one of our museum volunteers.
The Sumatran rhinoceros (preserved in 1902) is now extinct in Malaysia. The display is now 120 years old. Thanks to taxidermy, the younger generation can see a Sumatran rhinoceros. The Malayan tapir (endangered specie) is an icon of Malaysia, just as the panda bear is to China. There is also an Asian elephant fetus that was preserved in 1973. The fetus died while being removed from its mother that was found dead. A preserved tiger, which was donated by Datuk Mahmood had bullet wounds. . As you can see, each of the display has a story behind it.
Museum of Queensland, Australia gifted 2 preserved birds one of which is a Kookaburra. Do you know why it is called a laughing kookaburra? That is because its calls sound like a man laughing! That triggered some members of the group singing. There was a bird, the hawkeyed eagle that was preserved during the time when the country experienced haze. Apparently the bird dropped dead in front of a museum staff due to the haze. The bird was quickly taxidermized. Khairill even showed how to differentiate water birds.
Moving on, there is a section of the gallery dedicated to a video showing the taxidermy process. It was a much-needed break to rest our feet! After the video feed, we were shown a display of animal skeletons. The process is called articulation. Articulation is the technique of cleaning, degreasing, bleaching and assembling animal skeletons for preservation. We could see a lot of time and skill put in to assemble the skeletons. At the exit, there is a skull of an elephant, believed to be about 40 years old.
After about 2 hours, the guided tour ended. It was indeed an eye opener for all who joined the tour. This tour has been a very informative tour, thanks to Khairill, Ali and Hasnor.
The Exhibition has been extended to 17 April 2022 . There are plans to have a travelling museum and the first stop will be in Penang.
Pendeta Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Ahmad, also known as Za’aba, was born on 16 September 1895 in Kampung Bukit Kerdas, Negeri Sembilan. He was a writer, philosopher, linguist and politician. He is known for his pursuit for Malay independence through his writings and his works are still vividly remembered by most.
At a young age, Za’aba learned to read and write by practising on banana leaves, using twigs as his pencils. Seeing this, his father gifted him a writing slate and Za’aba learned to sharpen his writing skills further with his father’s encouragement.
At the age of 12 years, he started school at Sekolah Melayu Batu Kikir. Shortly after, his father transferred him to Sekolah Melayu Linggi so he could expand his knowledge in both the Arabic language and Islam, in hopes that his son would further his studies in Egypt or Mecca, eventually returning as an ulama.
However, in 1910, he continued his education at St. Paul’s Institution, and he was the first Malay who passed the Senior Cambridge test in 1915. Subsequently, Za’aba began his career as a teacher instead. He became a teacher’s assistant at Johor Government English College before transferring to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in 1918. When he was serving as a teacher in MCKK, he started collecting Malay words written in Jawi and consolidating the Malay spelling system, which at that time had various spelling systems. He also incorporated English grammar and Arabic words into the Malay language. He published Pan Malayan Malay Literary in an effort to standardise Jawi spelling.
His work, ‘Pelita Bahasa Melayu’, became a major reference book for the community who wished to learn the Malay language at the time. He also contributed to Journal of Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) in his efforts to introduce the Malay language to foreigners. Suffice to say, Za’aba was a person who devoted himself in expanding the Malay language and literature beyond Malaya and Sumatera.
As a writer, he started questioning the backwardness of the Malay community under the British colonial government. As such, Za’aba’s writings went beyond to other fields such as economics, religion, and the attitude of the Malays themselves, which was largely influenced by colonial powers. He wrote about poverty and touched on how to overcome the economy of the Malay community. Za’aba’s first article was published twice by Utusan Melayu, titled ‘Temasya Mandi Safar di Tanjung Kling’.
Following Za’aba’s expertise in language, he served as a translator to assist British officers in preparing school textbooks for Malay schools. During the Japanese Occupation, he was transferred to the Department of Information as translator for the Japanese to write books, which were used in Malaya and Sumatera. After the Japanese surrender, Za’aba returned to Kuala Lumpur and continued his work as a translator and interpreter for the Malay language dictionary.
The Malayan Union was established when the British returned to Malaya, but it was resisted by the Malay community. The resistance was led by Dato’ Onn Jaafar and subsequently, he established the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in an effort to unite the Malay community. At that time, Za’aba was elected as the first Secretary-General of UMNO, but he did not hold the position for long as his passion was in writing.
Undoubtedly, his interest in writing continued after leaving UMNO. He began to translate books from English to the Malay language such as stories written by William Shakespeare and these books were published in Singapore.
He later became a lecturer for Malay language at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1947; while teaching, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Malay and Arabic studies in 1953.
After returning to Malaya, he held the position as Senior Lecturer and became the first Head of the Department of Malay Studies at University of Malaya, Singapore in 1953. Together with Ungku Aziz, they established ‘Pertubuhan Bahasa Pelajar’ and ‘Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu’ Universiti Malaya, an association to uphold Malay language and literature.
Za’aba’s contribution to Malay language and literature shall not be forgotten easily. He was a teacher, a translator, and one of the individuals responsible for planning school curriculum. He was the source of inspiration that illuminated darkness of poverty in the world of Malay education.
On 17 February 2022, a small group of Museum Volunteers (MVs) had the privilege of a guided tour by the curator of “The Power of Gold” exhibition at Gallery 1, JMM. It was a great opportunity for everyone to experience the exhibition, learn about the artifacts on display and get insider information on the preparation for the exhibition.
This temporary thematic exhibition demonstrates the capacity of JMM to take risks and to venture beyond the historical narrative in the national museum. But taking risks also means having to meet challenges and make choices to offer the audience a pleasant and fruitful experience.
A golden theme for an exhibition
The attractive and ambitious title: “The Power of Gold” sounds like a promise. The viewer expects a journey through time and space that will lead him to better understand the true power of this mysterious and precious metal.
Gold is found all over the world from the earliest times until today. Thus, covering such a vast territory and such a long period of time in the restricted space of Gallery 1 is a real challenge. The main problem being that extensive research leads to so much knowledge that it is difficult to render it all in one exhibition.
The multitude of themes resulting from this two years extensive research can be found in the titles of a dozen panels arranged on the walls of the gallery. These are: “Gold the king of metal”, “Gold and history”, “Gold and conflict”, “Gold and social status”, “Gold and Governing status”, “Gold from cultural perspective”, “Emas dalam sosio budaya masyarakat melayu” (Gold in Malay socio-cultural society), “Gold in the socio-cultural Chinese society”, “Gold in the socio-cultural Indian society”, “Gold and transformation”, “Gold in expressions”, and “Did you know?”
Each theme covers a field of knowledge so large that it could form an exhibition on its own. So, it can be a little frustrating not to have more detail on each topic. However, the absence of detail can also be seen as an invitation for viewers to dig deeper on their own.
Another challenge in dealing with a subject from so many different angles is to articulate the narrative of the whole exhibition. These panels refer to various places and periods of history ranging from the time of the pharaohs in Egypt, the Inca and Aztec civilizations, the gold rush in California (1848-1855) and contemporary and historic Malaysia. Switching from one to the other can be a little confusing for some viewers. But again, it can also be a choice to let the audience wander around the room.
When gold is an eyeful
The exhibition stretches the entire gallery guiding the viewer through a U-shaped path to end up in the small viewing room, which reconnect to the departing point. Hence, the exhibition can be visited both ways – beginning or ending – with a short film featuring what is gold, how it is shaped and some extract of archival films about gold rush and gold mining.
The numerous artifacts are displayed in glass cases on pedestals, at eye level, all along the path. Labels affixed to each window provide information on the artifact. The labels (printed in black on transparent stickers) are sometimes difficult to read due to the small size of the characters and the light reflections. However, a QR code pasted on each window also allows access to this information (in Bahasa Melayu and English) via a mobile phone.
The floor covered with yellow carpet and the walls painted in a goldish yellow might recall gold and royalty, but the choice of a tone on tone for the walls and the floor does not allow gold artifacts to show their true brilliance. A more sober design with darker colours and few directional lights projected onto the objects would certainly have given a more dramatic effect to the exhibition. This would have avoided eye strain and enhanced the magnificence of the shine of gold.
When gold triggers creativity
The exhibition reveals an interesting collection of pieces, most of which are not exhibited in the museum but kept in a secure place with limited access. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to discover these artifacts and learn more about them.
The exhibition includes a wide variety of artifacts from various countries in the region such as a few beautiful keris from Sulawesi, a long sword from Java and a sword from Turkey. There are also some memorabilia. Beside two gold commemorative coins issued on 31 August 2013 for the National Museum’s Golden Jubilee celebration, there also stands a replica of a golden rubber tree produced in 1903, by the Malaysian Rubber Farmers Association.
Some exquisite royalty-owned artifacts are also on display, such as sets of betel, belt buckles, and a modesty belt (a heart-shaped piece of silver, partially gold-plated, used to protect the genitals of the daughters of kings and aristocracy on the coast east of Peninsular Malaysia).
A section is dedicated to regalia with a Tengkolok diRaja (Royal headdress), a Royal Tiara, a Keris and two sceptres. Not forgetting two replicas of Bunga Emas, one from Kedah and the second from Kelantan
Sir Franck Swettenham’s walking stick is on display. The head of his wooden stick is decorated with a gold-carved ‘awan larat’ design (traditional Malay motif recalling ‘meandering clouds’).
The show also features ornaments and jewellery such as hair combs, hair pins, a Melanau (an indigenous group of Sarawak) headdress, an amulet necklace, some dokoh (a necklace with three vertical pendants with a pin behind each pendant to fix the kebaya.), various earrings from different communities in the region and two theatre headdresses from Thailand. Also on display are glass holders, a kendi and a rebab (music instrument) from Bali.
Additionally, a tribute is paid to Paralympic Athletes Muhammad Ziyad Bin Zolkifli, Mohamad Ridzuan Bin Mohamad Puzi and Latif Bin Romly for their gold medals in their respective fields. And to Hashim Mustapha for the ‘Golden Shoes’ award in 1993 and 1994.
All the displayed objects are beautiful, but some attract attention because of their originality or because they are rarely displayed. This is notably the case of the examples in the following section.
The golden nuggets of the exhibition
A Zam-Zam water drink set. This silver and half gold-plated set with Jawi-engraved inscriptions and gold covers was finely crafted in 1786. The quality of the artwork demonstrates the value and significance of this water brought back by pilgrims from Umrah or Haj.
A beautiful bowl dated 1816 with a floral motif carved outside and inside the bowl, and with a Jawi inscription on the base – “Tuanku Ampuan Besar Selangor”. It was used by the royal family on special occasions such as weddings and berendui (a Malay ceremony to present a newly born baby in a swing along with various ceremonies to bless the infant and the mother).
Penyangkut Kelambu / Mosquito Net Hanger: This gold mosquito net hanger has the shape of a cassowary. It is used by the Royal family and the aristocracy as a tool to hang curtains or mosquito net on the head of the bed. It is also used as a luxurious decoration in the bedroom.
Penyangkut Kain / Cloth Hanger: the small sparrow-shaped gold item from Kelantan (circa 1800) was used as a sheet hanger after the circumcision ceremony to cover the body of the young boy while preventing any contact with the sheet.
Hiasan Tepi Bantal / Pillow Edge Decoration (Melaka, 19th century): made from gold pieces and used to decorate the edges of a round pillow, this piece is finely decorated with peacocks and Chinese flowers motifs.
It is the power of gold to transcend human imagination and lead to the creation of such refined and beautiful artifacts. But it is the power of the exhibition to share this important collection of the National Museum. To be accessible to a wider audience, the exhibition, which runs until March 18 at Gallery 1, will then travel to Melaka and other locations around the country.
P.S. Many thanks to Lam Lai Meng from Batch 33 for translating from Bahasa Malaysia to English during the tour.
Malaysia is unique among the countries of the world as it adopts the constitutional monarchy system through a parliamentary democracy. The Head of State in nine of its component States is a constitutional monarch, a Malay ruler, known as Sultan, Raja (Perlis), or Yang di-Pertuan Besar (Negeri Sembilan), while the other four states (Melaka, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak) are represented by a Yang di-Pertua Negeri, or Governor.
The nine royal houses of Malaysia are Kedah, Perlis, Selangor, Perak, Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. At least one of the nine royal houses can trace its lineage as far back as 800 years. Malay kingship can be traced to the pre-Islamic period when they had systematic system of governance.
The birth of the modern Malaysian Monarchy followed the inception of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. This united the nine Malay states and the former straits settlements of Penang and Melaka and was the stepping-stone to independence in 1957. It was at independence that the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA), or paramount ruler, was elected as the Head of State, from and by the Malay rulers for a five-year term.
The first YDPA was Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Almarhum Tuanku Muhammad of Negeri Sembilan, and the current YDPA (16th YDPA to date) is Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah of Pahang.
This appointment is systematic and each of the nine Sultans has the opportunity to ascend the throne of YDPA based on his turn in the cycle. This arrangement has been important in playing a substantive role in forging national unity.
The Role of the King
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is a symbol of unity. His role is that of a constitutional monarch. The extent of his powers as the Federal Head of State is defined in the Federal Constitution and Parliamentary Acts.
The YDPA has the executive power to appoint the Prime Minister. With the Prime Ministers help and advice, the YDPA appoints the other members of the cabinet. He also has the power to dissolve the cabinet and elect the members of the election commission.
The YDPA also appoints the Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governors), of the states of Penang, Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak, at his discretion, after considering the advice of the state’s Chief Minister. The YDPA also appoints the Mayor and City Council of Kuala Lumpur, which is a Federal Territory.
Head of Islam
Under the Federal and State constitutions, the YDPA and the Rulers of the Malay States are the heads of Islam, the religion of the Federation.
Safeguarding Malay and Indigenous Rights
The Rulers also have the constitutional responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities. The indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak are afforded the same special position as the Malays under the guardianship of the YDPA.
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces
The YDPA is the Supreme Commander of the Federation’s Armed Forces.As Supreme Commander, the YDPA appoints the Chief of the Armed Forces Staff alongside the service heads of each of the three branches of the military forces.
The YDPA also has the power to grant pardons and appoints the Chief Justice of the Federal Court.
Appointment of the King
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is formally elected to a five-year term by and from among the nine rulers of the Malay states (nine of the thirteen states of Malaysia that have royal rulers), who form the Conference of Rulers known as Majlis Raja-raja. After a ruler had served as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, he may not stand for election until all rulers of the other states have also stood for election.
In the event of a vacancy of the office (by death, resignation, or deposition by a majority vote of the rulers), the Conference of Rulers elects a new Yang di-Pertuan Agong as if the previous term had expired. The new Yang di-Pertuan Agong is elected for a full five-year term. The position rotates among the nine Rulers. The selection of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong initially followed an order based on the seniority (calculated
Coronation of the King
During his coronation, he will be presented with a Quran, to symbolize that he is the head of Islam of the country. The Prime Minister will read a proclamation of installation whereupon the newly appointed YDPA will be given a long royal Kris as a symbol of his commitment to the protection of the Malays and to serving the interests of the nation as a whole. Then the YDPA is presented with an oath that he will read and sign in the presence of all the rulers and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will then read a message of felicitation and pledge of loyalty to the new YDPA on behalf of government and the people.
The Queen Consort is known as the Raja Permaisuri Agong. She represents Malaysian women at the highest level. According to the Federal Constitution, the Raja Permaisuri Agong shall take precedence next after the YDPA over all other persons in the Federation. Just like the YDPA, the Raja Permaisuri Agong is not allowed to hold any appointment carrying any remuneration or actively engage in any commercial enterprise.
The Deputy YDPA, also known as Timbalan Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is to assume the role of the YDPA during a vacancy in that office or under any other circumstances enumerated in the Federal Constitution. There have been a few circumstances in which the Deputy YDPA had to assume the YDPA’s office throughout the years. The Deputy YDPA holds office for five years and may resign from office by writing under his own hand addressed to the Conference of Rulers.
Conference of Rulers
The Conference of Rulers, also known as ‘Majlis Raja-Raja,’ began with the first Durbar that was first held to convene British Officers and the Rulers of the Federated Malay States (FMS). The states are Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. The Durbar initially served as a type of consultative and advisory council; it also served to improve relations between the Malay Rulers and the British Officials. The Durbar was later replaced by the Conference of Rulers where the first meeting took place on 15th February 1948.
Today, the Conference of Rulers includes the nine Rulers of the Malay States and four Yang di-Pertua Negeri. However, the four Yang di-Pertua Negeri are not involved for matters relating to the election of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, his removal and so on. The chairmanship of the Conference of Rulers rotates among the rulers. These Rulers are each accompanied by their respective Chief Minister (Menteri Besar). On the second day of each meeting, the YDPA is accompanied by the Prime Minister.
According to the Federal Constitution, the Conference of Rulers plays an important role in the constitutional process. The main functions and power of the Conference of Rulers are: electing the YDPA and Deputy YDPA; agree and disagree to any religious Acts religious observances or ceremonies to the Federation as a whole; consenting or withholding consent to any law and giving advice on any appointments that requires the Conference of Ruler’s consent; appointing members of the Special Court (court of justice for offenses committed by the YDPA or any Malay Rulers); and granting pardons, reprieves, and respites, or remitting, suspending, or commuting sentences.
Any amendments to the constitution that affects the Ruler’s privileges, position, honour or dignities will not become law without consent of the Conference of Rulers. The Conference of Rulers provides and effective forum for consultation, participation, and in some cases sanction of the Federal-State relationship, thus reinforcing the concept of Federation.
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia plays a unique role, as he is the embodiment of the nation’s history and tradition. His Majesty not only plays an important role in national unity, but also shapes the relationship between state, people and law.
The Rulers of Malaysia, Editorial Advisory Board chaired by Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid
Display at Gallery D, Muzium Negara.
FUAT GÖKÇE, A. 2013. FEDERAL PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY WITH A CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY: MALAYSIA. The Journal of Academic Social Science Studies, Volume 6 Issue 5.
DZULKIFL, F. Z. & MOHD ZAMERI, N. D. 2010. The Functions of Constitutional Monarchy in Malaysian Political System: Th e Perceptions of Malay Community. Proceedings Seminar on Nasional Resilience (SNAR 2010) “Political Managements and Policies in Malaysia”, 353-369.
Ampun Tuanku: A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government, Zaid Ibrahim, 2012
In this Series
Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.
On our travels around Sundanese Java to research about the art and life of Otto Djaya (1916-2002), the indigenous visual artist and folk painter from Banten, West Java, our growing awareness of the Gamelan music and the Wayang theatre increased and the two art forms became peripheral research objectives on their own. It heightened our interest that in Malaysia, where we live, the two art forms are similarly traditional and wonderful.
Gamelan and, more so, Wayang theatre may be vanishing in Malaysia. However, visual evidence produced by YouTube search suggests that currently there is some Gamelan activity in all the states in Malaysia. In fact, Gamelan seems to be attracting a keen amount of interest among the people and the scholars in several States. On the other hand, the Wayang theatre in Malaysia is threatened with imminent extinction. We wanted to know more about the big picture.
In this article, we focus on the music, the Gamelan, because recently we discovered and acquired two ink drawings by Otto Djaya of the Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble visiting Paris. Both the Ensemble and Otto Djaya were based in Amsterdam at the time.
The signed drawings of Babar Lajar in “Parijs” enabled us to date Otto Djaya’s visit to Paris to exhibit his paintings to December 1947 and to anchor his interest in the Gamelan music.
The Gamelan would turn out to be an unparalleled Indonesian cultural treasure similar to the visual arts treasure, painting, contributed by Otto Djaya and his generation of peers. The Babar Lajar Gamelan ensemble was founded in Amsterdam in about 1943. The ensemble was unique by its founder, the local manufacture of its instruments during wartime, and its musicians, who were young and musically gifted, and none of whom were Indonesians, suggesting the almost hypnotic, cult-like, appeal of Gamelan in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II.
Indonesian President Sukarno introduced government funded Gamelan schools during the 1950s and 1960s, same as what he did for the visual arts earlier on, in order to encourage and sustain national art forms. “Some Indonesians objected to this elevation of a musical style associated primarily with Java and Bali as a “national” art form – as in a multi-ethnic, multicultural country there are no universal cultural properties”.
The indigenous music as well as the visual arts became important propaganda for internationally showing Indonesian culture in the runup to the Netherlands handing over sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949; Indonesia was no longer a colony.
Otto Djaya was a Sundanese of West Java. Besides painting Gamelan ensembles into his many paintings of folk dancing and festivals, the boats in his paintings are Sundanese and show an unmistakable resemblance to Gamelan instrument architecture. The Sundanese were captivated by water: stream, lake, ocean. Otto Djaya’s paintings imparted a union of popular culture and music.
Gamelan, an Indonesian Institution
The “Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak”  of Sumedang, West Java travelled far from its birth place, a tea plantation in Sukabumi to, first, The International Exposition in Amsterdam in 1883, second, The World Exposition in Paris in 1889 and, third, The World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
In a remarkable coincidence, sixty years after Chicago, at the end December 1945, a 29 years old Otto Djaya, the artist, now a company commander with the rank of Major in the revolutionary Indonesian forces, and his troops played a key role in stopping an advancing British/Dutch tank column at the Bojong Kokasan Ridge, Sukabumi, east of the Parakan Salak area and the tea plantations, the origin of the Gamelan Sari Oneng.
Gamelan music was formally staged in Europe at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Javanese musicians performed Gamelan in the East Indies section of the Netherlands’ pavilion. In 1993, Gamelan was introduced to USA at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Western composers and musicians were intrigued and interested to listen and to experiment with the new sound.
In 2021, Indonesian Gamelan was listed by UNESCO on its Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In comparison, Wayang was listed in 2003, two decades earlier.
In Indonesia, particularly in Java and Bali, Gamelan is the most popular form of traditional music. A Gamelan ensemble typically consists of a variety of metal percussion instruments, usually made of bronze or brass, including gongs, xylophones, and drums. It may also be extended with bamboo flutes, stringed instruments, and vocalists, but the focus is on the percussion. Metal instruments are expensive to make, compared with those of wood or bamboo. However, they will not deteriorate or change tune in a hot, humid climate. Some scholars suggest that this may be one of the reasons that gamelan developed, with its signature metallic sound.
Gamelan was a feature of court life among the Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms of Java, Sumatra, and Bali. The Buddhist monument of Borobudur in central Java has a bas-relief depicting a Gamelan ensemble from the time of the Srivijaya Empire, 600s-1200s; the musicians play stringed instruments, metal drums, and flutes.
The Majapahit Empire (1293-1597) had a government office in charge of supervising the performing arts, including Gamelan. The Gamelan ensemble was important to court life. Inscriptions and bas-reliefs from Bali, also under the control of the Majapahit emperors, show that the same types of musical ensembles and instruments were as prevalent there as in Java. The gong made its appearance in Indonesian Gamelan during this era as did the stitched-skin drums and bowed strings, at first probably imported as trade goods.
Islam came to Java during the 1400s by Muslim traders from Arabia and south Asia. The most influential strain of Islam then introduced was Sufism that values music as one of the pathways to experiencing the divine. Had a more conservative strain of Islam been introduced, Gamelan in Java and Sumatra might not have flourished.
In keeping with Sufi teachings, Javanese Gamelan tended to be slower in tempo and more meditative or trance-like. Most of the rhythms are generally soft and reflect the harmony of life, the principles of life generally adopted by Javanese society. Gamelan has become inseparable from Javanese customs and human life and is almost always there in every Javanese ceremony, to accompany dances, dance dramas, theatre, puppets, rituals, events and festivals. In general, no two gamelan ensembles are the same, and those that originated in prestigious courts have their own style and tuning. Varieties of gamelan are distinguished by their complement of instruments and use of tunings, repertoire, style, voice, and cultural context.
There is a principal division between the styles favoured by the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese. While Javanese Gamelan has soft and slow tones, Sundanese gamelan with its sound of flutes makes it both soft, mellow and romantic. Balinese gamelan has strong and dynamic tones with fast rhythms. Perhaps it can be said that Javanese Gamelan is played for formal dancing and ceremony, Sundanese Gamelan is played for dreamers and lovers, and Balinese for rituals.
Bali is Different
Bali remained predominantly Hindu, wherefore Java and Bali developed different forms of gamelan. Balinese Gamelan emphasizes virtuosity and quick tempos, a trend encouraged by the Dutch colonists. Balinese instruments are built in pairs tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent pace. This concept communicates the idea of repeating rising and falling waves of music.
Bali with its Kebyar music broke away from the Javanese gamelan and the ceremonial gamelan. The Balinese refashioned their music and dance style by Kebyar, which originated in North Bali villages a century ago and spread rapidly over Bali’s music and dance landscape. Soon, ensembles in Central and South Bali were refashioning their ceremonial Gamelan orchestras of suspended gongs, bronze-keyed metallophones, tuned gong chimes, and drums to accommodate the new style, additional keys were added to extend ranges, some instruments were melted down and re-forged to respond to Kebyar requirements. Musicians wanted lighter bronze keys and more of them, and longer racks of gong chimes, to play the rapid melodies and sharp accents. Playing techniques and innovations in one realm led to innovations in the other. Kebyar dancing embodies the music’s restless energy and vice versa. It was popularly said that Kebyar is a modernist’s hallucinogenic dream, cast in bronze.
Today most Indonesians have embraced the Gamelan as their national sound and it is heard frequently on the air. Even so, stand-alone gamelan concerts are unusual.
Gamelan is said to have originated late in the Srivijaya Empire around the 900s and to have migrated to the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, a long stone throw from Johore. Gamelan instruments were brought to Pahang in the 1800s making it one of the oldest musical instruments found in Peninsular Malaysia today. Gamelan music existed primarily amongst the ruling class at the Pahang, Terengganu, and Johor palaces, as an accompaniment to the traditional dance known as Joget, usually performed for guests of the palace, at elaborate ceremonies and festivals.
Since then, Gamelan has continued to be played among the people and has spread to other states. Having little to no function in Malaysia outside of ceremonial performances, Gamelan Melayu is now largely entertainment music to practitioners, performers, and audiences/connoisseurs. We noted that there are many enthusiastic Gamelan performers in Peninsular Malaysia.
Before 1982, Gamelan instruments in the UK existed only at the Indonesian Embassy. Today, the interest in Gamelan flourishes. Today, there are some 150 Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese Gamelans in the UK. Clearly, the British did not think as much of Gamelan during colonial times as the Dutch did.
Contemporary compositions of Adrian Lee for the Rhythm in Bronze ensemble, Ng Chong Lee , Marzelan Salleh , and Junita Batubara  are immensely interesting and uplifting.
A Gamelan Symphony Festival was held in 2018 at the Sultan Alam Shah Islamic College as a showcase of Gamelan Melayu, with six local Gamelan groups from both secondary and tertiary education institutions participating. In 2019, the project called for a Gamelan competition, bringing in competitors from a total of eight secondary and tertiary education institutions, with the host emerging as the winner. In 2020, the Virtual Gamelan Symphony Festival (VGSF), aimed to make Gamelan Melayu accessible to the masses, through simple and easy-to-follow video lessons .
Gamelan travelled from Indonesia and inspired others
When western composers presented music inspired by the Gamelan they were met with both derision and enduring admiration at the premiere as, typically, within days, the confusion among audiences and critics had turned into pleasure.
Was it mere coincidence that the formation of vast stylistic ecosystems came into being simultaneously with modernists in Western music and the first Gamelan presenters coming together? The musical scale was different but the musical characteristics were similar. The Western composers and the Gamelan artists must have shared some deep cultural commonality and instinct of sounds, tuning, and timing. We shall not know, but ecosystems continue to grow. The attraction of Gamelan to Western composers and audiences resulted in both adaption and adoption .
The most significant characteristic of Asian music is the use of pentatonic scale and gong chimes, also used in western music along with other instruments. This describes the relationship between Asian and Western music. In Javanese Gamelan music, the slendro scale has five tones per octave, of which four are emphasized in classical music. The pelog scale has six or seven tones, and is generally played using one of three five-tone subsets in which certain notes are avoided while others are emphasized. 
We find in our travels that music is spanning the world across cultures. With music compositions of today, especially what suggests to be symphonic, it is difficult to tell if Eastern heritage instruments and tonal systems are inspiring Western heritage or the other way around. Either way, the output is typically capturing the ear and senses and does not give reason to reject classical Western music and/or music and composers of previous centuries and of antiquity. It is deeply satisfactory to witness by ear that music makers have tremendous ambitions and see few boundaries ahead of them.
The tonality and rhythm of Indonesian Gamelan contributed to the ‘atonal’ ideas and compositions by Western composers from around 1900 onward, for instance, Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok, and many others.
Erik Satie (1866-1925). The composers Satie and Debussy were the earliest to use the exotic and highly dissonant Gamelan scales. Satie’s Gnossiennes compositions for piano are among his earliest compositions and evokes ‘another world’ by its “highly original modal harmonies, pure simplicity, and monotonous repetition”. The originality and simplicity could possibly have been influenced by Debussy – or it was Satie who influenced Debussy; both were thinking in terms of Gamelan scales in the late 19th century.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Pagodes, 1903.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), String Quartet in F by the Hagen Quartet.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, with Poulenc and Jacques Février on the pianos, 1932.
Colin McPhee (1900-1964). Returning to North America from Bali end of the 1930s, he composed Tabuh Tabuhan for 2 pianos and orchestra, without a single Gamelan instrument in the orchestra.
 There are four types of wayang kulit in Malaysia, namely Wayang Kulit Jawa, Wayang Kulit Gedek, Wayang Kulit Melayu and Wayang Kulit Kelantan, http://mpunasilemak.blogspot.com/. In Malaysia, the culture of wayang kulit is slowly dying out as the younger generations are less interested in this wonderfully expressive culture.
 “In Malaysia, Wayang Kulit Kelantan is the pre-eminent form of shadow puppet theatre. However, it is threatened with imminent extinction nowadays. There were more than 300 dalangs (shadow puppeteers and narrators) in the 1960s but the number decreased tremendously to 11 in 1999.” Khor, Khengia (2011). Segi University. The Use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to Capture the Visual Styles of Wayang Kulit Kelantan, in International Journal of the Arts in Society, No. 4, pg 203-214. Wayang was placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. In comparison, Gamelan was not listed until 2021.
 Gamelan musicians were to appear and accompany in many motifs of his paintings.
 Dr. Kallie Szczepanski, Ph.D. History, Boston University, is a history teacher specializing in Asian history and culture. She has taught at the high school and university levels in the U.S. and South Korea. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-gamelan-195131, updated on June 26, 2019.
 The first appearing at the 1899 Paris World Exhibition when the Netherlands’ exhibited of its East Indies colony. The British pavilion at the Exhibition did not have a similar Malaya element.
 On an area of approx. 700 acres at Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. Pavilions were built by 46 countries; some 27 million people visited the expo. It was synonymous with a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus. The ‘Syndicate Java Chicago’, formed by two West Java tea plantations, arranged to send a Gamelan with musicians to the Expo. The Gamelan and the free servings of Java tea was enthusiastically received.
 Batubara, Junita. Story of Tjong A Fie: Programmatic Music Composition Combining Chinese, Malay and Western Music Elements, in International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 7, No. 9, 2017.
A star was born on Saint Valentine’s feast day in 1890 – the Xing Bao (also Sing Pau, Sing Po or Sing Poh), literally Star Newspaper, or Xing Newspaper – “Xing” as in Xing Jia Po or Xing Zhou (variations of the word for Singapore in Chinese). The first issue of this eight-page spread came hot off the press at the Koh Yew Hean Press located at Nos. 100, 101 and 102 Teluk Ayer Street, Singapore.
Published daily, except on Sundays and public holidays, the newspaper’s political agenda has been described as either vague or unclear, although it did take on a pro-China political stance while retaining its commercial interests as a business. Politically strategic and functional at the same time, it displayed three dating systems on its front page – the imperial calendar showing the regnal calendar of the Chinese emperor, the lunar calendar, and the Gregorian calendar. From this, we are able to take a learned guess of the composition of its target market and the general cosmopolitanism of the area in which the newspaper was circulated.
Through Huang Nai Siang’s contribution as chief writer of Xing Bao, readers had for themselves a medium through which they could be informed and ponder about the current affairs in China while better understand their civic roles within the local Chinese community. Alongside him was Lin Hengnan (a.k.a Lim Kong Chuan), founder and editor of the newspaper. Lin, who was also the father-in-law of Dr Wu Lien-Teh and Dr Lim Boon Keng, both distinguished personalities in Malaya-Singapore, likely envisioned Xing Bao to share the same entrepreneurial optimism he had for Koh Yew Hean Press. This press had been well known for its respected printing and publishing repertoire, such as the Tong Yi Xin Yu, a Chinese-Malay dictionary published in 1877, which secured a reprint in 1883 as Hua Yi Tong Yu; the first volume of the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1897; and the second edition of Hikayat Abdullah in 1880.
From the song ti font of the individual Chinese characters and the meticulous, strict typesetting in the content, we can very certainly tell that Xing Bao was printed using the letterpress printing technique – a technique that although was mechanised still relied on the skilful and tedious attention of the printer to align the letterpresses, to say the least. On the other hand, a striking visual contrast is conjured in its branding where a thicker kai ti font is used for the newspaper’s masthead. Content wise, it was evidently written in relatively modern classical Chinese style. Characteristic of classical Chinese literature, Xing Bao’s contents boasted no punctuation marks albeit with sparring section breaks between titles and sections, with vertical and horizontal lines, white spaces or with advertising visuals. Helpful to one while navigating the pages, the newspaper came with a simple table of contents.
The story of Xing Bao cannot be disassociated from Koh Yew Hean Press, which remained in business for over a century until 2006. The last reported owner of the Koh Yew Hean Press was Zhang Gensong, who revealed that the 70-80 year-old business had been managed by his family – his father and grandfather. Over the course of over a century, the business had put up its book press, hand press, lithographing machines, cutting, perforating and rolling machines, and English and Chinese type for auction at least two to three times. By comparison, Xing Bao was short-lived, being in circulation for roughly nine years until 1898 and succeeded by Rixin Bao of the same Press, for just four years. While the peak of its daily circulation at 970 in 1896, beating Lat Pau, it was Lat Pau (founded in 1881 by See Ewe Lay) that fared better at the endurance category, having lasted in business for 52 years. Be it Xing Bao or Lat Pau, these newspapers played a crucial role as a source of information and a vehicle to transport ideas, not only for those in the past but also those in the present, in a way, they are our time-machines.
On 22nd January 2022, Ar. Ahmad Najib Ariffin (Nadge) hosted a talk on “Malay Architecture and Traditional Houses” for MVJMM. Following the talk, he gave a detailed tour of Istana Satu, located on Muzium Negara’s grounds.
In our haste to embrace the ‘modern’ and the ‘progressive’, Malay houses in rural areas have been and are being abandoned in favour of modern structures in the city. However, some scholars and traditionalists have come to appreciate the intrinsic philosophy and beauty of Malay houses not only in Malaysia, but also throughout Nusantara and the wider Malay World.
Elevated dwelling spaces built with organic materials, these examples of vernacular architecture are prone to the ravages of climate, and many have not survived the centuries. Conservation efforts are being undertaken to preserve some fine examples of built structures, which stand testimony to the architectural mastery and artistry of the peoples of the Malay World.
Ar. Ahmad Najib Ariffin (Nadge), Director, Nusantara Academy of Development, Geoculture & Ethnolinguistics, is at the forefront of preservation and conservation of some of the existing structures of traditional buildings in Malaysia. Historian, conservationist and educationist, this zealous architect is fervent in his mission to raise awareness of the value of Malay architecture and tradition.
In a talk to Museum Volunteers on 22 January 2022 titled Malay Architecture & Traditional Houses: history, traditions and transitions, he explained how architectural heritage plays an important role in providing a wealth of materials in comparative forms of styles and their applications in structures meant to be comfortable dwelling spaces in harmony with the natural environment.
In his opening slide of a Malay Kampung in Klang, Nadge introduced the setting as ‘one of the most environment-friendly civilisations in the history of Earth’.
In a virtual experience with Nadge, we heard five Malaysian stories spanning 15,000 years. He spoke on:
Sundaland, the submerged continent.
Sungai Batu in Kedah. Dating to the 8th century BCE, it is Southeast Asia’s oldest-known built site. It was an iron smelting and export complex made of brick structures.
The Melaka Empire, which was the centre of trade and religion in the region until the Portuguese conquest in 1511.
Through these stories, Nadge shed light on the architectural origins of the Malay House. The layout of traditional Malay houses is seemingly random and gives a non-uniform look but the wisdom behind Malay architecture surprises the uninitiated. The well thought out design, use of natural resources and the overall functionality represents the identity of a people who have lived in harmony with nature since ancient times.
Raised on stilts, the post and lintel structure with wooden or bamboo walls, topped by sloping roofs of thatch with gables on both sides, the typical Malay houses are a fine example of sophisticated rural domestic architecture.
Stilts ensure minimal impact on the ground, the earth space they respect, to avoid human-animal conflict. The raised dwelling is also a safeguard from floods. Height of stilts of hard, durable wood such as cengal, vary according to location – inland or coastal. Being in the tropics with generally high daily temperatures, the earth-floor space allows temperature regulation, ventilation and unimpeded air circulation. A member of the audience commented that it also facilitates sweeping the floor with the dust and dirt passing through the gaps of the wooden floor to the ground beneath!
Of the three sections of the house, the main section is the Rumah Ibu where the family eats, relaxes and entertains guests. The length of this section is determined by the span (depa) of the mother’s/matriarch’s arms. Windows along the walls are long and the entrance is through a short flight of steps or stairs.
Rumah Dapur is the kitchen annexe. It is a separate building but linked to the main section by a passageway. It is an ingenious plan for when the kitchen catches fire – the stilts are cut off and thrown away from the house to be doused or into the river if there is one nearby.
Rumah Tengah is the area for sleeping. The rooms are partitioned off, usually by curtains. The lavatory and bathroom are not within the main house, but built some distance away. The outside of the house is usually shaded with trees and vegetation. A short flight of steps or stairs leads to the elevated main section. The steps may be plain or decorated with tiles.
It can be observed here that the house is of a modular construction. As the family expands, additional units are added on, as in the longhouses of Sarawak.
Every region has its own style and this is most prominent in the style of the tropically suited roof – the long ridge roof with slopes for humble dwellings. Wealthier families have the five-ridge roof. Carved panels below the roof edges cut glare during the day while they adorn and add a touch of finesse to the home.
Sometimes a crossed frontal structure is used to anchor and stabilise the roof edges against strong monsoon winds and heavy rain as experienced in the east coast although this crossbeam is a feature on palaces and public/government buildings. Look out for this in Museum Negara’s front entrance.
Traditional Malay houses have their own form of geomancy. The ‘tiang seri’, a freestanding pillar without any joints, is the main pillar of the house and is in the main section.
A defining characteristic of the traditional Malay house is its construction without nails or metal supports. Builder artisans are adept in the art of cutting wood in such a manner that pieces slide together and solidly interlock. Interlocking edges and ends of wood are tightened by wedges. What a genius of wooden carpentry! Such a construction can withstand earthquakes. Another advantage is that it can be easily dismantled and rebuilt in another location.
Traditional Malay construction methods have been applied in palace and mosque architecture, with details that are more intricate, scale and complexity. Nadge cited Istana Kenangan in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, and Istana Sri Menanti in Negeri Sembilan as buildings with great cultural aesthetic value.
Istana Lama Seri Menanti, an elegant five-storey timber palace, was built in the 20th century by expert Malay craftsmen and carvers. Designed by two skilful local master builders, no piece of iron nail or metal screw was used. It is recognised as the tallest wooden palace in Southeast Asia. Recently restored, this architectural gem was opened as a Royal Museum in July 1992. A visit by Museum Volunteers with Nadge as guide is scheduled on 2 March 2022 for an on-site study of the elements of Malay architecture incorporated in its construction.
Istana Kenangan was once a royal residence, but now the Royal Museum of Perak. This 2-storey building was built in 1925 without a single nail. Its facade is beautified in its state colours of yellow, white and black. The elements of Malay architecture – the stilts, long windows for ventilation, multiple roof ridges and carved overhangs – are plainly evident.
The flexibility of Malay architectural designs in traditional mosques is another fascinating area of observation and study. Built of wood, old traditional mosques are in need of conservation. Among these are Masjid Lama Kampung Kuala Dal in Kuala Kangsar, Perak and Masjid Tanjung Sembeling Lama Seri Siantan in Negeri Sembilan.
Other extant examples of palaces, mosques and houses with designs and range of Malay craftsmanship can still be seen in Malaysia. With increased awareness in the value of these buildings comes renewed interest in their conservation.
Restoration of Rumah Empang Batu, Negeri Sembilan. Images taken from Nadge’s presentation slides.
Internationalisation and mechanisation leading to shorter building time have led to rejection of traditional architecture. Ardent architects such as Nadge and those of like mind draw attention to the Malay contribution to the technology of architecture. The Malays were among the pioneers in the art of modular construction and prefabrication long before these ideas re-surfaced in architectural journals.
Let us not forget and discard previous knowledge of principles of building construction that were very suitable in the circumstances where people lived. Although some may appear outdated, it is only because we have forgotten the wisdom that came with traditions. Have modern designs and technologies that replaced those solved present living problems while creating new unsustainable ones?