FMS Railways – Part 2: Crossing the Straits

by Stuart Wakefield

Sir Frank Swettenham, (Malay States High Commissioner and Governor of the Straits Settlements, 1901 to 1904), proposed that the FMS Railway link Singapore to Gemas through the State of Johor. Two proposals were made to Sultan Ibrahim, either for Johor to raise the money to pay the FMS to build the line or for a loan to be made for building the line in exchange for a British ‘Auditor’ being positioned in Johor. The Sultan accepted a loan of $11 million for the construction of the line. However, whilst the terms of the loan were for settlement in 21 years, it was repaid in full after 14 years to demonstrate Johor’s economic independence.  The 121 mile long line was leased to the FMS Railway.

Before the causeway was built, the FMS Railway provided a Wagon Ferry service between Tangga Duke in Johor Baru and Kranji in Singapore. The service used two vessels that could each accommodate five trucks. Passengers disembarked at Woodlands Terminus to cross to Johor via steam launch.

8. ferryboat


9. lock
The lock at Johor Bahru. When raised, this structure permitted the passage of small boats to either side of the causeway

A bridge across the Straits had first been suggested in 1904, although this proposal was eventually discarded in favour of a causeway. In 1924, the causeway was opened after four years of construction, when Sir Laurence Guillemard, the Straits Settlements Governor, symbolically deposited two loads of rubble to close the remaining central gap, witnessed by Sultan Ibrahim and the FMS Rulers. The causeway was 60 feet wide and carried twin railway tracks plus a 26 foot roadway. The total length was 3,465 feet, and the greatest depth was 77 feet, with an average depth at low tide of 47 feet. A total of 1,641,712 cubic yards of granite was used in the construction of the causeway.


Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

The design of Tajong Pagar Station was based upon Helsinki’s Central Station. It was built to maximise passenger comfort whilst they waited to embark. The building was planned to be the southern point of an ambitious vision to link Asia with Europe’s vast rail network. It was envisaged that railway lines spanning Asia would eventually connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with Singapore serving as the southern gateway.

Whilst it was theoretically possible to link the many railways between Europe and Asia, both its construction and operation would have required unprecedented cooperation between conflicting interests of many states and colonies.

11. tanjong pagar

The station was equipped with waiting and refreshment rooms, dining rooms, a hairdresser’s shop and dressing rooms. There was also a telegraph office, a parcel room, plus offices and bedrooms for station staff. Restaurant Cars served excellent breakfast, luncheon and dinner at reasonable prices. Sleeping Saloons with two berth cabins were provided on the night trains, and an ample Buffet Parlour Car was attached to night express trains between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

12 gateway

In his speech at the opening of the station in 1932, Sir Cecil Clementi, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, provided an insight into the vision which provided the motivation for building of the station saying: “We stand here at the southernmost tip of the continent of Asia, and, since the Johore Strait is now spanned by a causeway which was opened for traffic in 1924, we may even say that we stand at the southernmost tip of the mainland of Asia. This point is, therefore, a real terminus as well as a natural junction between land-borne and sea-borne traffic; and it is very right that the terminal station of the Malayan railway system should be built at Singapore, the gateway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and immediately opposite the Tanjong Pagar docks, where every facility will be afforded for interchange between railway and ocean shipping”.

13 visit malayaAlthough timetable variations reflected the locomotive power, pre-WWII journey times from Singapore were nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, twenty two hours to Penang, and twenty nine hours for the 580 miles to Padang Besar on the Siamese border. The Japanese increased train speeds during WWII, and reduced the time to the Siamese border by five hours.

The 1948 Malayan Railway Ordinance was created to manage the railways previously managed under the FMS Railway. The Malayan Railway Administration was later renamed as Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

Part 1 of this article can be viewed here.

FMS Railways – Part 1: Early Days

by Stuart Wakefield

Railway development in Malaya differed from that in many other colonies in that it came before the road network. In other colonies, railways followed rough tracks, but Malaya’s tropical jungle was not routinely traversed, as Malays had traditionally found waterways adequate for their transport needs, and the few tracks that existed were often ill-defined.

The building of 3. First Railway Linerailways in Malaya was not a simple task. Whilst the British planned a substantial network, the jungle was often unexplored and was often a major barrier to travel. Significant difficulties were frequently encountered during surveying, constructing and subsequently in maintaining the railway system.

Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor had noted railway lines during a visit to England in 1866, and decided to build a line from Johor Baru to Gunung Pulai, where a sanatorium was planned to be built in the cool hill resort. Johor had a plentiful supply of good quality teak, which was used for the six by four inches rails that sat on round sleepers embedded in the earth; (at that time, stone ballast was considered to be unaffordable). The agreed gauge was one metre, which followed the convention for similar railway lines in India. Construction commenced in 1869, and ten miles were in use by 1875. However, the wooden rails and sleepers fell into disrepair, and by 1889, was reported to have been abandoned  after a locomotive had fallen into a hole because white ants had eaten the track.

4. Simpang StationThe first successful railway line was constructed from Port Weld to Taiping, and was completed in 1885. Surveyors planned the lines through the virgin jungle to be as straight as practicable. Porters carried all food and supplies for the survey party, who could often only progress at a crawl. The majority of the vast amount of material required to construct the railway line was imported from Britain. The construction party had to follow stakes previously laid out by the surveyors, and substantial roads had to be built to carry the required heavy construction equipment. The roads were continually under threat from torrential rain and vast quantities of ballast were needed to cross unavoidable swamps. A swathe of 100 ft. was cleared on both sides of the track to keep the jungle at bay. The majority of the trees felled were of hard wood varieties, and almost all of the timber was recycled for use either in constructing the line, or stockpiled for subsequent use as fuel for the locomotives (wood eventually became in short supply, which resulted in some trains being converted to run either on newly discovered coal or on  oil). The ground was often saturated and embankments were built with effective drainage to safeguard against subsidence. Lallang grass with fibrous roots was planted to bind the unstable earth.

5. Victoria BridgeMany rivers had to be crossed, and the bridges were often of a standardised design of 100 ft. length which could be extended in 50 ft. stages. Forty nine such bridges were required between Johor Baru and Seremban, of which nineteen exceeded 100 ft. Victoria Bridge in Karai, Perak is the oldest FMS Railway bridge. The structure passes over Sungai Perak and was completed in 1900; it closed to rail traffic in 2002. The bridge is over one thousand feet long, and rests on six brick piers. At the time, it was the most advanced bridge in the Far East.

The formation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 led to centralised power. Sir Frank Swettenham, the newly appointed Resident General, proposed plans to develop the FMS and Province Wellesley railway networks. Three phases were envisaged, a northward line to connect Selangor with Perak, an extension to Kuala Lipis in Pahang, and a southward line to Sungei Ujong, the whole linking Port Dickson to Prai. The British Colonial Office approved the plan which would support economic diversification and link the FMS with the Straits Settlements. Construction began in 1897 and was completed within six years. Whilst the new railway lines opened up new areas for development, they only served narrow corridors, and it was apparent that a complimentary road network was also required.

6. Station Hotel
Station Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

In 1909, the FMS Railway General Manager wrote to the Federal Secretary with recommendations relating to tenders for the building of Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. The lowest tender was from Kee Sen, ($157,000), which was not recommended as the schedule had not been completed. The second tender was from Messrs J. A. and P.C. Russell, ($ 159.289.36),  which was not recommended as P.C. Russell was considered to be too young and to possess insufficient experience.

In August, the Resident General wrote to the High Commissioner and dismissed the tender from Kee Sen as being “only a lump sum suggested by a friend”. With regards to the submission by J. A. and P. C. Russell, significant misgivings were expressed as to whether the younger brother had sufficient knowledge and experience to complete a contract of such importance and magnitude. Ang Seng was acknowledged as being a contractor who had successfully completed previous work for the FMS railway and could be relied upon to carry out the present contract. The Resident General then recommended that the contract be awarded to J. A. and P. C. Russell.

7. Dangerous Animals

In 1894, a train was derailed by an Elephant at Teluk Intan, and the story put around at the time was that this was in retaliation for the train killing her calf. Tigers used to be numerous around Bukit Intan, and a number were shot during the building of the railway line. After the Station was completed, a tigress and two cubs wandered onto the platform. They rested for a short time under the window of the Booking Office before getting up and wandering back into the jungle.

Part 2 of this article can be viewed here.

How European politics influenced colonialism in the Malay World

by Jean-Marie Metzger

Spices were at the centre of European interest in the East, especially in the Malay World. Indeed, it is a recurring theme in our tours. However, it was local political events in Europe that shaped the patterns of European colonial ventures.

Why the Portuguese?

Henri le Navigateur

The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 made the Asian land route for spices more costly and difficult, prompting Portugal to seek out the source of these spices. Before this, Portugal had been exploring new territories in the West coast of Africa for about 40 years and had developed maritime skills and ships especially designed for exploration purposes. Venice, the traditional distributor of spices in Europe, was a maritime power but its sphere of influence was predominantly within the Mediterranean Sea. Its ships, known as galere, though skilfully built and very efficient at war, were of an antique Roman type and could not carry heavy cargo. The Portuguese’s technological leap was the result of the passion of a young prince, Henri, later nicknamed the Navigator. Though he did not navigate much himself, he inspired and financed exploration ventures along the western coasts of Africa and sponsored navigational schools and shipbuilding research. This led, 20 years before the fall of Constantinople, to a new design of ship, the caravelle (Flor de la mar is one example), which would sail the seas for more than 150 years. Therefore, when the need arose to find the source of spices, the Portuguese were, among the Europeans, the best equipped to search for them.

Why the Dutch?

Adriaen_Thomasz_Key_-_Willem,_prins_van_Oranje_001 (1)
William the Silent, led the Dutch revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs

At the beginning of the sixteeth century, when the Portuguese conquered Malacca, Charles V of Habsburg was one of the most powerful sovereigns in Europe, reigning from the Netherlands and Flanders to Spain, Naples, Burgundy, and later, the Holy Roman German Empire. But in the last years of the 16th century, the Dutch decided to break-away from the Spanish rule of Philippe II, heir of Charles V (freedom of religion was the main cause of the secession from an ultra-catholic king). Around the same time, a succession crisis arose in Portugal; the King of Spain claimed the throne and, after defeating the Portuguese army, established himself as King of Portugal. The Dutch used to get spices from Lisbon for trading purposes in Northern Europe. When Spain took over Portugal, it banned Dutch ships from Portuguese ports in retaliation to the secession of Dutch provinces. So the Dutch became enemies of Spain and Portugal, having become a friend (or part) of Spain, naturally became an enemy of the Dutch. Deprived of spices, the Dutch decided to seek and buy them at their source in the Malay world (Celebes, Java and Sumatra first, then Malacca) and break the Portuguese monopoly in the process.

Why the British?

Despite an attempt to establish themselves in Aceh and Ambon in the early years of the seventeenth century, the British had a weak presence in Asia and concentrated their efforts on the exploitation of India (and a ‘factory’ in Sumatra which provided pepper). Valued spices from the Celebes were either traded from the Malay Archipelago or seized from Dutch ships by officers of the East India Company (EIC), who acted more as buccaneers than traders. The rise of British power in the eighteenth century, together with its presence in all Asian seas, was heralded by the introduction of a new fashionable and highly profitable commodity: tea from China (and opium used to pay for tea in place of silver bullions). Far away, European politics were again about to influence Asia: the American war of independence (which started with a customs dispute on tea) saw the Dutch and French aligning with the American insurgents and becoming enemies with Britain (something politically new for the Dutch but not the French). They started to annoy the British by attacking their trading ships, wherever they could, mostly in the Gulf of Bengal (the French from Mauritius and the Dutch from Batavia and Malacca). After the loss of their American colonies, the British increased their colonial interest in Asia. The need to protect their China trade route to India (and Europe) and their will to economically challenge the Dutch, pushed the British to establish a presence at the northern mouth of the Straits of Malacca (the VOC went bankrupt in 1799, while the EIC, though not in much better condition, was bailed out by the British government in 1788 and was able to continue its operations for seventy more years).

boston tea party
The Boston Tea Party, 16 December 1773

And what about the French (and the Germans)?

While the Portuguese, Dutch and British were active in the Malay Archipelago, the French were notably absent: their only colonial venture was concentrated in India during the late seventeenth century, but their presence was drastically limited by British military and diplomatic action. The French had no direct impact but many of their political choices had an indirect impact on colonial policies in Malaya.

First, the French conquered the Netherlands, making them a République batave, and Napoleon made them a kingdom for his younger Brother, Louis. The British, as usual, were enemies of the French while the Dutch, defeated by the French, found themselves allied with the British again. The Dutch Stadthouder, exiled in London, asked the British government (the Kew Letters in 1795) to look after the Dutch colonies and this gave the British in Malacca, a second (though temporary at the time) foothold in the Malay Peninsula.

In the nineteenth century, while Britain was present in Burma and in the Straits Settlements (established by the EIC, and later under the control of the British Colonial office), the British policy of non-intervention in Malay affairs was prompted by the willingness to preserve Siam as a buffer state, thereby restraining potential French colonial expansion which started in Indochina in 1858 (the same year the Straits Settlements became a Crown colony). Even after the establishment of the Federated Malay States under the Residential system, the policy of non-intervention continued, for the same reason, with the northern states (later to become the Unfederated Malay States).

entente_cordiale_by_sweetz_xoxo-d3dpq5vBut all this changed when, after nine centuries spent annoying (and fighting) one another, France and the United Kingdom declared a new friendship – Entente cordiale. Faced with the German Empire threatening the stability of Europe, a series of treaties and protocols were signed in 1904: South-East Asia was affected through the ‘third protocol’, which while safeguarding the independence of Siam, split the country into two ‘spheres of influence’, east of the Chao Phraya river for France, west for Britain.

Limit mentioned in the 1909 Treaty

Five years later, Germany showed renewed interest in Siam and planned a project to build a canal at the Isthmus of Kra. Britain could not accept what would have been a direct threat to its shipping activities in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. This could also have been the start of a colonial move challenging British presence in Malaya. Under the guise of formally recognising the independence of Siam, the kingdom was prompted into signing a treaty abandoning the northern Malay States still under its influence (in November 1909, Edward VII received the Bunga Mas from the former Siamese vassals which became known as the Unfederated Malay States). As usual the British diplomacy, (see Penang, Sabah, etc.) money (a £4 million loan to build a railroad to the south), was put on the table to help the medicine go down and some sultanates, such as Patani or Setul, were left to Siam. For the second time in less than a century (after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824) the British had divided the Malay world. In addition, and probably more importantly in the British eyes, an additional exchange of letters specified that ‘the Siamese government shall not cede or lease, directly or indirectly, to any foreign government any territory situated in the Malay peninsula south of the Monthon of Rajaburi or in any island adjacent to the said territory’. Now being directly present in Burma and Malaya and being a controlling foreign presence in Southern Siam, the British had a hold on the whole of the Malay peninsula.

Seladang vs. Syers

by Maganjeet Kaur

Seladang_MaganThe mounted head of the seladang (Malay for bison) gracing the entrance hall of the Royal Malaysian Police Museum at Jalan Perdana speaks of an era of bold hunters when big game was plentiful in the jungles of Malaya. This particular seladang met its end after it had mortally wounded Captain Harry Charles Syers, the first Commissioner of Police of the Federated Malay States (FMS).

Captain Syers arrived in Klang in March 1875 under instructions to build a police force in Selangor. Efficient and capable, he built a formidable force leading to his appointment as the first Commissioner of Police of the FMS in 1896.  Outside work, his passion was big-game hunting. He formed the Selangor Pack with Dr. E.A.O Travers which went on hunting expeditions to the jungles of Selangor, Pahang, and Negeri Sembilan. Closer to home, he would shoot snipe at, what is today, Dataran Merdeka. Syers was also the prime mover behind the formation of a group that started a collection of natural history specimens which they kept at the house of John F. Klyne, a surveyor with the Public Works Department. He was also its biggest contributor. The collection was eventually moved to a building at Bukit Nanas and this building became the first Selangor Museum. Syers was President, for a time, of the Committee appointed to manage the affairs of the museum.

In July 1897, he went on a hunting expedition in central Pahang with Robert Meikle, a planter friend. Coming across a solitary bull seladang, they promptly fired at it. The wounded seladang retreated but Syers and Meikle tracked it down. The seladang charged Syers but, upon being shot at by Syers, turned around and charged Meikle who also opened fire. It then charged Syers a second time. Although Syers managed another round of fire, the enraged seladang was unstoppable. It knocked Syers to the ground, gored him, and tossed him into the air to a height of 35 feet. Syers somersaulted three times before hitting his head on the branch of a tree. After Syers landed on the ground, the seladang tossed him a second time, to about 18 – 20 feet. Meikle fired at the seladang which retreated and fell to the ground, bellowing in pain. Syers too lay in pain (for about an hour and a half) while Meikle organised help from the Orang Asli at Padang Ali. Syers was insistent, though, that Meikle kill the seladang before transporting him by boat down the Pahang River. Meikle complied and the seladang took another five shots, for a total of fifteen, before finally breathing its last. Syers died just after midnight the next day while still on boat to Pekan. He was initially buried at Pekan but Dr. Travers arranged for the body to be disinterred and brought back to Kuala Lumpur. It was reinterred at the Venning Road cemetery (located where the Department of Islamic Affairs at Jalan Perdana currently is).

The seladang’s head was brought back to Kuala Lumpur, mounted, and hung at Selangor Club. James Meikle (son of Robert Meikle) took it to Scotland in 1931 but brought it back in 1936 and presented it to the FMS Police. The mounted head was hung at the police mess.

Jalan Syers, located at Taman Tunku, honours the memory of Captain Syers.

jln syers

Gaya Street (a.k.a Bond Street), Kota Kinabalu

By Sharifah Seri Lailah (Sherry)

Gaya Street, Kota Kinabalu’s most famous tourist destination, lies in the commercial district of the city.  It was known as Bond Street during the British colonial era when Sabah was known as North Borneo. Bond Street started as a railway track in 1902 for the transportation of rubber all the way from Sapong and Melalap rubber estates in Tenom and ended at the wharf. The Jesselton Harbour was then the gateway to the rest of the world until the arrival of passenger planes.

In 1887, Mat Salleh, a local chieftain who rebelled against the British, burned the original settlement at Gaya Island. It was from that incident, the capital was named “Api-Api” (Fire-Fire). It was renamed as Jesselton in 1899 after Charles Jessel, a Director of the British North Borneo Company.  Jesselton suffered severe destruction when it was razed by the British on retreat from the Japanese and suffered more destruction when the Allied Forces bombed it in 1945.

After the war, the British North Borneo Company returned to administer Jesselton. However, as the costs of reconstruction was colossal; the Company then was on the fringe of bankruptcy, gave control of North Borneo to the British Crown on 15 July 1946.

When North Borneo together with Sarawak, Singapore and the Federation of Malaya formed the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, it became known as Sabah, and Jesselton remained its capital. On 22 December 1967, State Legislative Assembly under Chief Minister Tun Mustapha bin Datu Harun, passed a bill renaming Jesselton to Kota Kinabalu. The city was upgraded to city status on 2 February 2000.

Local fruits2


Sunday Market (Tamu)

In the early 20th century, farmers from the highlands and fishermen from coastal areas met once a week at Bond Street to barter their local products with the immigrant Chinese, Indonesian and Filipino traders. The locals traded fruits, vegetables, rattan, poultry, deer and wild boar meat, and local handicrafts for cotton and silk, spices, medicinal ointment, jewellery and kitchen utensils. This weekly Sunday Market is known locally as Tamu (Fair). The word Tamu is derived from the word ‘temu’ which means “to meet”.

fruit treeStrolling along Gaya Street is like walking down memory lane as we can still see some evidence of the bygone era. The old Jesselton Post Office which has now been converted into the main office of Sabah Tourism Corporation (STC) is located at this street and it still maintains its colonial architecture. This building was originally built by the British to house the Government Printing House. Another remnant of the colonial era is the Jesselton Hotel established in 1954, where a genuine London Taxi cab is available for the exclusive use of hotel guests. The Atkinson Clock Tower, a landmark of the city, was built on the slope of a hill in 1903 where at one time it had a view overlooking Bond Street. It survived the World War 2 bomb raids though riddled with bullets.

Today, Gaya Street has become a favourite hang-out for both locals and tourists alike due to its vibrant and bustling commercial activities. The Gaya Street Tamu (Gaya Street Fair) starts as early as 5.30 am until 1.00 pm in the afternoon every Sunday. You can get anything and everything from pets to souvenirs, herbs, medicinal roots, antiques and brass wares, coins and collectibles, local beads and cultured pearls, crystals and accessories as well as clothes, food, vegetables, fruits and plants. For orchid enthusiasts, wild orchids as well as hybrid orchids are also available.

Tourists are awed by local exotic fruits such as Bambangan, Tarap, Belunu, Rambai which are found only in Borneo. It’s interesting to watch local vendors cajoling the foreign tourists to taste the local fruits and be amazed that language is not a problem as they would simply communicate via gestures or signs. During festive seasons, one can watch local entertainers singing and performing traditional dances.  Tired with walking, one can get a foot reflexology massage right at the pavement of Gaya Street.

tapioca yam ginger etcThe fun is in the mingling of people moving at a snail’s pace along the narrow stretch of Gaya Street. The aroma of Tenom coffee freshly grinded and the local delicacies fried on the spot, is simply tantalizing and irresistible for one’s taste buds. The competing human sounds, colours and smells are just awesome; making Gaya Street Fair… a must visit place of interest for tourists. Even if it rained, the fair would still go on. It is simply packed with people either to shop, to meet friends or just to be there and savour the “tamu” experience.

Gaya Street is Kota Kinabalu’s own cultural heritage of keeping up and maintaining the local trademark of a bustling Sunday weekly market where trades go on since historic past.

My Favourite Museum

by Louise Macul

“His Highness the Rajah intends on a future day to establish a museum, for which a suitable building will be constructed at Kuching by the Government.” Sarawak Gazette 28 March 1878

This place being Sarawak, it took thirty-five years for the museum to be officially opened in a new building on 4 August 1891. The original Queen Anne style building is now believed to have been a copy of a children’s hospital in Adelaide. Further extensions brought it to its present day form in 1911. This building, and its entire collection, complete with Victorian cabinets and specimens preserved with methods of that same era, belongs in a museum itself. Many visitors have commented that it is a museum of a museum. Thus lies its charm and thus it has drawn me into its world from the darkest recesses of Borneo. The Rajah was encouraged to establish a museum by the evolutionary theorist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who did research here from 1854 to1856. The first collection of ethnographic specimens was purchased from H. Brooke Low, a Sarawak Government Servant and author of The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo. Some of that original collection is still on display on the first floor.

“The objectives of the museum were then as now, to be an all-round museum and not to over-specialize; to try and be interested in everything; and to collect everything – plants, snakes, butterflies, as well as arrange them in a way that even illiterate people from the ulu can enjoy them….” T. Harrison 1959.

Sometimes a museum appeals to us because it offers an exploration of something we have never seen before. Sometimes we walk into a museum because it reminds us of something. For me the appeal was both: a new world, the island of Borneo, and a pleasant memory. For me, walking into the Sarawak Museum reminded me of the very first museum I ever walked into as a child – the Abbe Museum of Bar Harbor, Maine (U.S.A.) An early 20th century museum with old wooden cases filled with the personal archeological collections from Mount Desert Island and 10, 000 years of cultural history of the Wabanaki Nation of costal Maine, complete with a teepee! I remember peering into the corners of the dusty exhibits with wonder at the how, when, and who of times gone by.  Wondering to myself “How did this stuff get here?” And so it is with the Sarawak Museum; I wonder how things got there as I look at the old specimens of things endangered (culturally and naturally). One of my favourite collections is of the seashells of Mary Saul, the wife of a British officer posted in Sarawak and Sabah some fifty years ago. I have so many favourites from boat coffins to beads to baskets in the galleries that contain the 47,000-year-old cultural heritage of a vibrant present-day people.  I now walk beneath the heads of an authentic replica of a longhouse built by Ibans just as I did as a little girl trying to crawl into a teepee built by the Penobscot.

For me, the appeal is in the totality of this museum and not just the objects displayed. To me, the museum as a whole is greater than the sum of its collections. The Sarawak Museum is the only single repository for Borneo collections: zoological, botanical, ethnological, and archeological in the entire world.  “All Things Borneo” should be its tag line. Today it is comprised of 12 museums in and outside of Kuching showcasing collections of Dayak material culture including textiles, Malay Islamic heritage, Chinese history and culture, archaeology, local contemporary art, and local historical material.

There is a place in our world and communities for all the bells and whistles of modern museums replete with interactive exhibits that can take us back hundreds, or thousands of years in time with a push of a button and the donning of a headset. There is also a place for historical museums that display to us people’s interests, research, and a desire for preservation and education from many generations ago. All museums start with people and their collections; the museums within each of us to share with others.

“Longhouse” Gallery


Photo credits:


Facts, Form, Feelings and Future in Museum Guiding

by Asma Abdullah

As volunteers we have to remember a lot of facts on the various artefacts, events, personalities and exhibits displayed in the four galleries of Muzium Negara, Malaysia.  So, how do we organise our presentation in an interesting (not amusing), informative (not teaching), stimulating (not astonishing), and convincing (not influencing) manner when we take our visitors through the museum?

One structured approach that I want to recommend is to use the whole brain thinking model based on the left and right brain research done by Ned Hermann.  This model states that we can segment our delivery by using the 4Fs of Facts, Form, Feelings and Future to sieve through the voluminous information that we have gathered from various sources.


In the first segment, FACTS, we can include dates, numbers, and anything quantifiable relating to the specific artefact or event. It has to be logical and technically accurate as dates are important especially when we are describing a particular event. These facts are processed in the left hemisphere of our “thinking” brain.

For the second segment, FORM, we can describe the features, fixtures, format and if there is a  particular sequence on how and when the artefact was constructed.  It would also be useful to highlight the planning process, procedures involved and how the tasks were completed in giving shape to the object/event we are describing. These are processes in our left brain which likes order, system and sequence.

In the third segment, FEELINGS, we highlight the personalities involved in the construction of the artefact and the people involved in order to give it a human perspective. After all, there is always a personal attachment of a person to the artefact if we care to look for it. This takes place in our right emotional brain.

For the last segment, FUTURE, we can use a big picture or overview about the artefact/event and its meaning and significance to people who are associated with it. At this stage we can begin to draw some implications that the artefact may have in modern times. This is our “abstract” right thinking brain.

These 4Fs can be remembered through color coding: Blue for Facts, Green for Form, Red for Expressed emotions and Yellow for Future.

To illustrate the use of the 4Fs the national heritage artefact, Avalokiteswara, located in Gallery B will be used.

12-1 AvalokiteshwaraFACT: It is a Boddhisatva which is a Buddha-to-be.  Ava means down, Lokita means to notice/observe and Isvara means lord/master.  Avalokitesvara means the lord that looks down to observe in compassion those who are suffering. Avalokitesvara first appeared in Indian Buddhism as one of a number of Bodhisattvas who are personifications of various attributes of the Buddha relating to compassion. It was found in a tin mine belonging to Anglo Oriental at Bidor, Perak in 1936 and dated to being between the  7 – 12th centuries when the culture of the region was Hindu-Buddhist.

FORM:  The statue is made of bronze and has 8 arms, each arm representing a different aspect of his compassionate nature. One of its arms has broken off.

FEELINGS:  Avalokiteswara is shown as a female Boddhisatva, seen as a light for the blind, shade for those hot and weary, a stream for the thirsty, a remedy for the ill, father and mother to those who suffer and a guide for the beings in Hell. It has a mantra Om mani padme hum which translated means jewel (compassion) in the lotus (wisdom). This mantra is widely chanted in Tibet and carved onto stones, printed on flags and embossed onto prayer wheels.

FUTURE:  If you go to Ayer Itam in Penang there is a big statue of the Goddess of Mercy or Kuan Yin – an important deity to Buddhists on the island.  This deity is also found in the homes of Malaysian Chinese of Buddhist faith. Kuan Yin is a manifestation of Avalokiteswara.

So, the next time when you have to take visitors through the galleries in Muzium Negara, try using the 4Fs to remember your historical facts and information and to make your one hour guiding an easy task.  Good luck!

Hubback Walk

by Rose Chin with photos by Eunice Moss

The National Textile Museum
The National Textile Museum

Last Saturday (14 June 2014), we participated in a walk that was organised as part of the ongoing Hubback Exhibition. The walk was led by Ar. Ahmad Najib Ariffin and Ar. Rosli Mohd. Ali and covered three heritage buildings designed by A. B. Hubback who was then an assistant architect at the Public Works Department. We started at the National Textile Museum (1905), then went on to the Sultan Abdul Samad building (1896) and ended at the Jamek Mosque (1907).

The purpose of the walk was to sensitise the lay-person to the unique architectural styles and construction techniques employed by Hubback and the state engineer he worked with, C. E. Spooner.

The highlights of the walk were:

1. Past Lives

The Sultan Abdul Samad building
The Sultan Abdul Samad building

The National Textile Museum (2007) started life as the Headquarters of the Federated Malay States Railways Service, then housed the FMS Public Works Department. From 1959-1971 it served as the Headquarters of Bank Negara Malaysia.

The Sultan Abdul Samad building was built as a Government building to house the FMS. Administrative Office. From 1957 it housed the High Court and the Supreme Court and today, since 2007, it houses the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture.

2. Mughal Architectural Style

This is a north Indian Islamic style characterised by onion-shaped domes and chatris (spires). The domes of the Sultan Abdul Samad building are unique in that they are made of copper, the original ones having been donated by the Australian government.

3. ‘Blood and Bandages’

This is a term used to refer to the red and white banding pattern of the exterior walls, the result of alternating fair-faced bricks with plastered ones, so typical of Hubback.

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4. Thick ‘load-bearing’ brick walls and columns

A good example are the ones used to support the 40 metre tall clock tower of the Sultan Abdul Samad building.

5. Cast iron columns

These are filled with concrete for added weight bearing strength.

6. Arches

Inside the Sultan Abdul Samad building
Inside the Sultan Abdul Samad building

Pointed arches and horseshoe arches are predominant features.

7. Towers

All three buildings are characterized by their onion domed towers with their functionary purposes, one as a clock tower, four as watch towers and the two at the Jamek Mosque for the muadhins to call the people to prayer.

From halfway up one of the towers in the Jamek Mosque-note the many little chatris and the tower to the right
From halfway up one of the towers in the Jamek Mosque-note the many little chatris and the tower to the right

We came away from the walk a little wiser and very much more appreciative of the architectural legacy left by the British and, in particular, Arthur Benison Hubback.



The Cinnamon Route

by Maganjeet Kaur

The Museum Volunteers hosted a talk by Ian Burnet on 25 January 2014 on his two books, The Spice Islands and The East Indies. Spices, native to islands in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago found their way to Africa, the Middle East, India and China through trade voyages made by the intrepid, sea-faring Indonesians. The earliest proof comes from the journey made by cloves from its homeland in the Maluka Islands in Eastern Indonesia to Syria where cloves buds dated to 1721 BC were found preserved in a ceramic jar in the ancient city of Terqa.

Bas-relief of Borobudur Boat
Bas-relief of Borobudur Boat

One of the routes taken by these Malay-Indonesian traders was the direct sea-route from Indonesia to the island of Madagascar off Eastern Africa. The Malagasy people of Madagascar are descended from these Indonesian traders as shown by their language as well as DNA analysis which places their nearest living ancestors on the island of Kalimantan.

This ancient sea-route has been dubbed the ‘Cinnamon Route’ by modern researchers.  Although the term is a bit of a misnomer as cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and the correct term would have been ‘cassia’ which grows in South-east Asia, these journeys saw spices from the Indonesian islands reach Africa and the Middle East millennia ago.

replica of Majapahit Boat, on display at Muzium Negara
Replica of Majapahit Boat, on display at Muzium Negara

How did they make the journey across open seas? The Greeks have described Malay vessels plying the Indian Ocean as early as the first century AD. Further clues as to the design of the vessels comes from the five bas-reliefs of ships on the walls of Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist monument. This design survived through the centuries as evidenced by Majapahit boats of the 14 century; a replica of which can be found at Muzium Negara.

How best to determine if the ships on the bas-reliefs at Borobudur were really capable of making this open sea journey than by building an actual life-size ship and sailing it along the Cinnamon Route. This is exactly what Philip Beale did with the help of Indonesian shipwrights under the leadership of Assad Abdullah.

The Samudra Raksa
The Samudra Raksa, now housed at the Borobudur Museum

The Samudra Raksa (Defender of the Seas) set sail from Jakarta on 15 August 2003 and reached Seychelles on 12 September 2003. From here, it sailed south passing the Comoros to Madagascar. The journey did not end at Madagascar and the ship sailed further south rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Cape Town on 5 January 2004. On 23 February 2004 Samudra Raksa reached Accra in Ghana and the journey terminated here.

Communications equipment on the Samudra Raksa
Communications equipment on the Samudra Raksa (at Borobudur Museum)

This journey led by Philip Beale not only showed that it was feasible for Borobudur ships to made open-sea voyages across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to Africa but that there was also the possibility that these ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope to western Africa, making the Indonesian seafarers the first to achieve this feat. There is circumstantial evidence pointing to this by the presence of yams, taro, bananas and Asian rice in West Africa in the first millennium AD.

The Samudra Raksa is now housed at the Borobudur Museum.

A day in Melaka

by Magan

Last Wed (16 Oct), Ashok, Karen and I headed to Melaka. Ashok was going there to get more information on the Chitty community for his article for the MV Coffee Table Book and Karen and I begged a ride and tagged along.

The Chitty Museum
At the Chitty Museum

The Chitty are Tamil Peranakan who have been in Melaka since the time of the Melaka Sultanate. Similar to the Chinese Peranakan, the men married into Malay families and adopted Malay culture while retaining the Hindu religion and practices associated with the religion.

Read more about the Chitty community in the MV Coffee Table Book which will, hopefully, be published in the middle of next year.

047After visiting the Chitty Museum and being given a good briefing on the Chitty community, we headed for the Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy temple which was built in 1781 by the Chitty leader of the time and it has the distinction of being the oldest functioning Hindu temple in Malaysia. It is situated at a street informally known as “Harmony Street”.

We quickly found out why the street was known as “Harmony Street”. A few doors away from the temple is the Kampung Kling Mosque and a few doors away from that is the Cheng Hoon Teng temple.

058The Kampung Kling Mosque was built in 1748 by Indian Muslim traders. It was originally a wooden structure which was re-built in brick in 1872 with the original design intact. It is a beautiful mosque with a very unique design – the adjective ‘eclectic’ would probably best describe it. The minaret looks like a pagoda and inside, Corinthian columns and a Victorian chandelier compete for attention with Chinese styled windows as well as Sumatran, Indian and Chinese carvings.

067The Cheng Hoon Teng temple was built in 1645 making it the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia. It is a blend of Buddhism and Taoism with Kuan Yin being the main deity. The picture on the left shows part of the roof. My untutored eyes noticed nothing but Karen pointed out that broken pieces of ceramics have been included in the design.

Coincidentally, a few days before our trip, Effa had emailed Karen on an interesting place in Melaka – The Royal Press – and we went to check that out. The Royal Press is a printing press company that was set up in 1938 and 75 years later, the company is still in operation; printing mostly invoices and labels for long-standing customers.


This complicated looking machine is a Linotype. It was invented by a German, Ottmar Mergenthaler, and its introduction revolutionised the printing industry especially the publication of newspapers. The Royal Press purchased this machine in 1961 and it can still be used. Unfortunately though, none remain who have the knowledge to operate it and it is used as a showpiece in the semi-museum that The Royal Press has setup 076within its printing house. With this setup, not only are the paraphernalia of a bygone printing age on display, but visitors also get to see workers going about their daily job using some of the antiquated machinery still in use for production.

In the past, The Royal Press not only printed in Mandarin, but also in English, Tamil and Arabic. If you squint hard enough and look closely at the picture on the left, you would notice Jawi characters above the Roman alphabet on this ancient gizmo.

The Royal Press occupies an old colonial shop-house off Jonkers Street and the old world shutters and window carvings in the building charmingly reflect the character of the museum.079

We were in Melaka. Cendol was must and we had this next to the Melaka River while imagining how The Battle must have been fought.

Melaka seems to have many gems little explored by the typical tourist. Do share if you know of any quaint places in Melaka with an interesting history.