Magna Carta

By Stuart Wakefield

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.

Photographed at the Salisbury gallery where the original Carta is kept. It is kept in this special enclosure to protect it. Image source: Karen Loh
Copy of the Magna Carta in the gallery. Image source: Karen Loh

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.

Panel depicting the four surviving original document. Image source: Karen Loh
Translation of the Carta. It was written in Latin. (Click to view) Image source: Karen Loh

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.

Taxidermy “The Eternal Life Exhibition”

By Nancy Cheah

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 became 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 Muzium 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 become 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 did 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, led the early Taxidermy works together with Zainal Abidin and Abdullah Abu Hassan (2nd Generation Taxidermists). Taxidermy projects started as early as 1962 and animals which were 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 a Danish taxidermist, Arne Stockholm Dyhrberg. These two animals deserved special mention because they were the first preserved animals exhibited in Muzium Negara.

Pheasant found in Malaysia, prepared by Wee Ho Cheng
Stuffed Otter.  Prepared by Wee and Zainal.

Collection of specimens is still ongoing subject to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. Muzium Negara’s taxidermist team used animals which were 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 iguana specimen.

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 (an endangered species) is an icon of Malaysia, just as the panda is to China. There is also an Asian elephant fetus that was preserved in 1973. The fetus died while being removed from its mother which was found dead.  A preserved tiger, which was donated by Datuk Mahmood, had bullet wounds.  As you can see, each of the displays has a story behind it.

A 120-year-old taxidermied rhinoceros specimen.

The 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 singing from members of the group. There was a bird, the hawkeyed eagle that was preserved at the time when the country was experiencing a haze. Apparently the bird dropped dead in front of a member of the museum staff due to the haze. The bird was quickly taxidermized. Khairill even showed how to differentiate between 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.

Our group photo taken at the end of the tour.

Z is for Za’aba

by Sam Pei Ying

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.

Image source: Universiti Malaya Library

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.

A portrait of Za’aba at the National Museum, Malaysia.

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.

 Za’aba died at the age of 78 on 23 October 1973.


  1. ‘Ketokohan Za’ba Bermula dari Penulisan di atas Pelepah Pisang’, Malaysiakini, 25 July 2020. Available at (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  2. ‘Zainal Abidin Bin Ahmad (Za’aba)’, Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia, 8 October 2019. Available at (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  3. Hussain (2000) Pendeta Za’ba dalam Kenangan, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

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“Power of Gold” Exhibition

by Josiane Reggane

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.

Golden shoes won by Hashim Mustapha during the 1994 Dunhill Premier League

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.

Y is for Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA)

by Casper Kaun


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.

Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Negeri Sembilan, the first YDPA of the country. Image attribution: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

  1. Appointments
    • 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Judiciary
    • The YDPA also has the power to grant pardons and appoints the Chief Justice of the Federal Court.
The Oath of Office of His Majesty, the XV Yang di-Pertuan Agong

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

The Letter of Appointment of His Majesty, the XV Yang di-Pertuan Agong

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.

Queen Consort

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.

Deputy YDPA

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.

Tengkolok diraja (royal headdress). The headdress worn by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong follows the design of ‘Dendam Tak Sudah’ (Unending Vengeance), but it is black with gold embroidery.


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.


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

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Gamelan: A Cultural Trace in the Malay Archipelago

by Inge-Marie and Dr. Hans Peter Holst (phD)

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[1], our growing awareness of the Gamelan[2] music[3] and the Wayang theatre[4] 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.[5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

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[10].

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[11], the local manufacture of its instruments during wartime, and its musicians, who were young and musically gifted, and none of whom were Indonesians[12], 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”[13].

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. 1986. A people inspired by the sea. Serenading water, bliss and sunset; a Sundanese flute, one of the Gamelan instruments. 27×39 cm. Gouache on paper.
Demung, a Gamelan instrument. Note the likeness with the bow and stern of the boat above.
Otto Djaya. 1986.  Fishing boats and fish vendors by the flamboyant tree. 27×39 cm. Pastel on paper.
Gambang, a Gamelan instrument. Some Gamelan designs are inspired more or less by the boat shapes.

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’ ensemble of Perakan Salak

The “Gamelan Sari Oneng Parakansalak[14] 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.   

“Kampung Jawa”, the Javanese village on the Netherlands’ site at The World Exposition in Paris 1889. The Gamelan Sari Oneng performed there with Javanese musicians.

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[15] [16]. In 1993, Gamelan was introduced to USA at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois[17]. 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[18]. 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[19] 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[20], 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.[21]

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 Melayu

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[22] 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[23], 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[24]. Having little to no function in Malaysia outside of ceremonial performances, Gamelan Melayu is now largely entertainment music to practitioners, performers, and audiences/connoisseurs[25]. 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[26], Ng Chong Lee [27], Marzelan Salleh [28], and Junita Batubara [29] are immensely interesting and uplifting.

Adrian Lee, Hakikat Air from Arus Gangsa, performed by Rhythm in Bronze

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[30] .

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 [31].

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[32] [33]. 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. [34]

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”[35]. 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)[36], Pagodes[37], 1903.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), String Quartet in F by the Hagen Quartet.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra[38], with Poulenc and Jacques Février on the pianos, 1932.

Colin McPhee (1900-1964)[39]. 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.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)[40]

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)[41], Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra and Varied Trio (1987).

The Otto Djaya images in the article are the property of the authors and may be copied for educational purposes. The authors borrowed the pictures of the Gamelan instruments from


[1] We are currently writing on our final edition of a book about Otto Djaya (1916-2002):,%20THE%20CHRONICLE,%2015-06-2019.pdf







[8] There are four types of wayang kulit in Malaysia, namely Wayang Kulit Jawa, Wayang Kulit Gedek, Wayang Kulit Melayu and Wayang Kulit Kelantan,   In Malaysia, the culture of wayang kulit is slowly dying out as the younger generations are less interested in this wonderfully expressive culture.

[9] “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.

[10] Gamelan musicians were to appear and accompany in many motifs of his paintings.



[13] 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., updated on June 26, 2019.

[14] The pictures of the Gamelan Sari Oneng are borrowed from


[16] 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.

[17] 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.

[18] Encyclopedia Jakarta. December 2020.

[19] Kebyar means “to flare up or burst open”, and refers to the explosive changes in tempo and dynamics characteristic of the style. It is the most popular form of gamelan in Bali.

[20] McPhee, Colin. Music in Bali. Yale University Press; First Printing (April 1, 1966).




[24] Kelantan:
Negri Sembilan:



[27] Ng Chong Lim, Shadows,performed with the Gamelan trio of Kamrul, Shafic and Susan Sarah John at the ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014.
Dragonfly, piano by Celestine Yoong, ASEAN Chopin Competition 2014
Ng Chong Lim, piano and Ion Mazur violin, 2020, performing Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in g minor
A Distant Voice of Rain Forest, piano by Nicolas Ong

[28] Marzelan Salleh, Si Pencuri Epal (A poor boy with his stolen apple). Conducted by Tazul Izan Tajuddin. Performed by UITM Student Chamber Ensemble at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.
Puteri Gunung Ledang, Piano Solo performed by pianist Jamie Tan for the 7th Malaysian Composers Concert Series 2016, at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.




[32] 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.

[33] 2017




[37]   Insight!


[39] Colin McPhee and Benjamin Britten play Balinese Ceremonial Music for Two Pianos



X is for Xing Bao

by Dennis Ong

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.

Layout and components of the newspaper’s front page.
Source: NUS Digital Libraries,

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.

A spread of the Xing Bao newspaper dated 4 November 1890.
Source: NUS Digital Libraries,

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.

Koh Yew Hean Press when it was located at No. 18 North Bridge Road, Singapore. Source: PictureSG,

You can access digitised copies of Xing Bao in the digital realm here:


Jaime Koh, Koh Yew Hean Press,

Bonny Tan, Lat Pau (Le Bao),

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Malay Architecture & Traditional Houses

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.

Below are writeups on the talk and the tour
Evocations of Serenity – by Annie Chuah
Istana Satu – by Aishah Nadirah

Attribution: K. Kamal, Lilawati Abdul Wahab, A. Ahmad.

Evocations of Serenity

by Annie Chuah

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’.

Attap houses close to the banks of the Klang River, circa 1920. Attribution: Cheah Jin Seng. (2011). Selangor 300 Early Postcards (p. 160). Editions Didier Millet.

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.

Example of a Malay house in Kampung Bharu

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.

Masjid Tanjung Sembeling Lama Seri Siantan before and after conservation. Image credits:

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?

Next: Istana Satu


Presentation Slides – Malay Architectural Houses History Tradition Transitions Najib Nadge Ariffin.pptx 2022.

W is for Wickham

by Fazlin Azrimi Abu Hassan and Dennis Ong

The history of planting rubber trees or Hevea brasiliensis in the Malay Peninsula does not date back very far. We think of rubber when we talk about British botanist Sir Henry Wickham. There was a time when demand for rubber was elevated by industrialisation and the rubber business boomed when British inventors Charles Macintosh and Thomas Hancock figured out how to make good raincoats from rubberized fabric.

A photograph of Sir Henry Wickham.
Source: Library of Congress, USA

Later, due to the properties of rubber, which melted in hot weather and was stiff in the cold, an American inventor named Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation process by accident in 1839 after dropping some latex in sulphur. The vulcanisation process essentially allowed rubber to become more durable and elastic, thus making it more attractive for commercial use. While capitalists and inventors saw great potential, the biggest problem with rubber, however, was that there was still a scarcity of the material. At the time, the world’s rubber was mainly harvested in South America and Africa.

That was about to change in 1876 when about 70,000 rubber seeds wrapped in banana leaves arrived in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. Collected by locals at its source in the hills and plateau in Boim, Brazil, the seeds were purchased at a price of £10 per 100. The expedition was financed by the government of (British) India, and led by Wickham who was then 30 years old.

A sketch of Wickham as a young man.

Bearing the responsibility to re-establish his family’s fortune after his father’s death due to a cholera epidemic, the option to become a planter during that time was one of few viable options to get rich. Finding rubber trees in the Amazon for Britain proved to be promising. Wickham had experience in the Amazon prior to Boim. At 20 years old, he embarked on an exploration in Central America and spent nine months collecting exotic birds whose feathers had been sold and appropriated for millinery use. Subsequently, he returned home and revisited the Amazon where he tapped wild rubber trees as part of his adventure. One can very much see that Wickham had an appetite for thrill and exploration.

Life happened and he married a woman named Violet. It is commonly believed that the publishing business Violet’s family ran helped make Wickham’s travels possible. Wickham’s interest in the Amazon evinced in the first book he published, which has a rather long title: Rough Notes of a Journey Through the Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cataracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro.

A back profile of a woman believed to be Violet, whom Wickham had sketched in some of his journals. She was in Wickham’s company to Boim whence the rubber seeds were collected. Source:

Britain’s intention was simple – to germinate the seeds and plant them for rubber. Soon enough, botanists at Kew successfully germinated some 2,800 seeds. Most of the lot was sent to Ceylon, Singapore, and Java. Then came H.N. Ridley (aka “Mad Ridley”), a botanist at the Singapore Botanic Gardens who zealously propounded the idea of planting rubber as a cash crop. Although there were supplies of seeds, no planters took up cultivation with the exception of Thomas Heslop Hill in Negeri Sembilan. In 1897, the price of rubber shot up. This coupled with recommendations by experts in Ceylon and elsewhere led many planters to begin planting rubber trees. Convinced by Ridley’s proposal, Tan Chay Yan started the first rubber plantation in Malaya with seven million seeds.

Despite the thriving industry in the Far East, Wickham suffered significant drawbacks in his life. This included having to pay his debts from loss of possession during his period in Queensland where he planted tobacco and coffee. He then clinched a position as a civil servant in British Honduras. Wickham’s constantly wandering mind yet again got the better of him when he was slapped with a legal problem, which forced him to sell his property, upon which, he returned to Britain. Undeterred, he ventured into other prospects but failed. During these times, Wickham continued to suggest recommendations cultivating rubber trees and even proposed several tools for rubber tapping. However, his ideas were deemed either unsuitable or as impractical failures.

H.N.Ridley with an assistant posing next to a rubber tree tapped using the herringbone method. Source:

Necessity is the mother of invention. The herringbone method for tapping rubber trees was introduced by H.N. Ridley. It left V-shaped channels on the trunk, removing only a thin layer of bark each time, thus allowing a smooth flow of latex. The methods became so efficient that latex can be collected three times a day. On the flip side, this also meant that labourers in the industry were at the mercy of ensuring efficiency and productivity. They were also subject to potential risks at the workplace. To say the least, the industry was reliant on a constant stream of labour to maintain its processes.

Three photographs depicting Indian labourers who made up the majority of the manpower of the rubber industry in Malaya. These labourers were recruited based on the Kangani system and were largely subject to unfair exploitation. The subject of class and employment power structure often form the crux of the historical debate in topics relating to colonial economy.

At the end of 1905, there were 40,000 acres of planted rubber trees in the Federated Malay States and more than 85,000 at the close of 1906. By January 1907, there were 10,000,000 trees planted. The output of dry rubber was about 130 tons in 1905 and three times as much in 1906.

By 1910, Malaya was one of the biggest producers of rubber. Expectedly, the combined production of rubber across Britain’s colonies exceeded that of Brazil’s, causing it to lose its monopoly in the rubber industry.

A fun fact about the rubber tree cultivated for latex.
Source: Wonder Book of Rubber, 1947.

However, there has been a debate about whether Wickham’s actions qualify as an unethical act of smuggling or an act of formal exchange between governments. Laying out the facts, sources have described that Wickham had misrepresented his cargo as ‘exceedingly delicate botanical specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s own Royal Gardens at Kew’ in order to be granted permission to export.

Notwithstanding the trials and tribulations in Wickham’s life, he was knighted for “Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East”. Wickham passed away in 1928, regretfully perhaps, with an unfulfilled dream for enterprise.

Bust of Wickham at Muzium Negara.


Bouncing Balls. (n.d.). Sir Henry Alexander Wickham. Bouncing Balls.

Schurz, William Lytle; Hargis, O.D.; Manifold, Courtland Brenneman & Marbut, Curtis Fletcher. (1925). Rubber Production in the Amazon Valley (p. 169). Washington, Govt. Print. Office.

Sims, Shannon. (2015). The Rubber Thief of Brazil. OXY.

Veloo Saminathan. (2020). The real story behind those faded photos of Tamil plantation workers in Malaya. Aliran.

Wright, ArnoldCartwright, H. A. (1908). Twentieth century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company, Limited.

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V is for VOC Plate

by Daniela Barrier

From Portuguese carracks to Japanese kilns, the power of a company logo

This blue and white porcelain plate is showcased in Gallery C of the National Museum, Malaysia. It sits on a marble-topped wooden table, a typical furnishing of a Dutch family home in Melaka during the Dutch occupation (1641-1795, then 1818-1825). The so called “VOC plate” itself was probably part of a complete porcelain service. These services were used by officers of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC) throughout their colonies, imparting status to the owner and contributing to the dissemination of the VOC’s brand image.

The VOC plate at Gallery C, National Museum, Malaysia.

Surrounded by flowers, fruit and deer motifs, the VOC monogram stands out in the centre – a lean capital V with a superposing O on the left and C on the right. It was perhaps the contrast of its clear, simple lines (one could say, almost contemporary) with the exuberant details of the baroque style monograms of the time, which turned the VOC logo into one of the first worldwide recognisable company labels. It was applied with no parsimony to most VOC possessions and everyday objects, from building facades and canons to swords, coins and plates such as the one in Gallery C. [1]

VOC logo on various objects
top-left: VOC logo on a sword. Musée de l’armée, Paris, France.
top-right: Façade of the Castle of Good Hope, South Africa. Image credit: Martinvl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-left: VOC logo on a coin, circa 1760. Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
bottom-right: Canon with VOC logo, 1764, Port of Dejima, Nagasaki, Japan. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers have written extensively on the VOC’s innovative business model, considering it the forbearer of modern corporations (the VOC was the world’s first formally listed public company). The VOC’s idea of producing porcelain services with its own mark on them, however, might have been borrowed from the Portuguese and from a different type of company: The Society of Jesus (or the Jesuit Order, founded in 1540).

Jesuits are thought to be at the source of the introduction of new techniques and of European scenes on Chinese porcelain, in particular under Emperor K’ang Hsi (1654-1722), who held Jesuit priests in high regard (one Father Thomas Cardosa was a personal friend of the emperor and was appointed a mandarin of the highest rank). During this period, it became more and more fashionable in Europe, amongst nobles and high-level clergy, to have their coat of arms painted on their porcelain services and to order specific designs from potters in China. Huge quantities of undecorated porcelain began to be shipped from Jingdezhen (Ching-te-chen) kilns to Canton where they were painted under the supervision of European agents and re-fired.

From left to right:

  • Pedro de Farias bowl, 1541, captain major of Melaka. Portuguese nobles had their coat-of-arms painted on Chinese porcelain.
  • Jesuit Chinese Vase with Company of Jesus monogram, circa 1800. Image credit: Nicolas Fournery.
  • Late 18th century plate in European style with VOC ships. White painted porcelain from Jingdezhen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Kraak porcelain from Japan

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, with more and more Dutch trade ships anchoring in Asian ports, the Portuguese monopoly on porcelain trade was broken. In 1602, the Portuguese carrack Sao Tiago was captured by the Dutch and its porcelain cargo taken back to Holland for the first time. The carrack Santa Maria suffered the same fate in the Straits of Melaka a year later, its cargo being sold to European royals, including Henri IV, king of France, and King James I of England. The Dutch named them kraak porselein because the Portuguese ships in which they were found were called carracks.

Between 1602 and 1682, VOC ships delivered three million pieces of porcelain to Holland and over 12 million were distributed over the Dutch East Indies, of which approximately eighty percent were blue and white wares (kraak) [2].

Kraak blue and white porcelain were thus mostly associated with the Dutch East India Company. They were made of fine porcelain with cobalt blue decorations under a shiny and slightly bluish glaze, and had central themes which included flowers, birds, insects and deer, as well as having the well and the rim of the dish treated as one and divided into panels that were mostly filled with flowers and symbolic motifs.

Like European royals, Japanese tea masters also ordered kraak pieces (called fuyode ware in Japan) from China, which were transported to Japan on VOC ships. These ended up being copied by Japanese artisans and sold all over Europe, often for higher prices than the Chinese originals. However, there was one design the Japanese only produced for the Dutch India offices: it was overall similar to other karrak designs, only it had the VOC logo in the centre. These wares were usually small – less than twenty centimetres in diameter – but some pieces were larger and measured fifty centimetres or more across. That is very likely the provenance of the VOC plate displayed at the National Museum.

VOC plate produced in Japan, late 17th century. In the collection of Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

[1] In The Portuguese Porcelain Trade with China, by Jorge Graca, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

[2] In Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company, by T. Volker, cited in Chinese Ceramics carried by The Dutch East India Company, by Effie B. Allison, Arts of Asia, November-December 1977.

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