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A Palace Of Modern Malay Culture Rooted In History

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By John Stanley Marsh

Malay Heritage Centre
Credit: Amsyar Ashaary

Istana Kampong Glam is more than just a building; it represents the legacy of Malay Royalty which once ruled over the region. At the pinnacle, it was a symbol and the historic home of the Sultan in Singapore. It illustrates the Sultan’s empire as it grew in influence throughout history, from its humble beginnings to its expansion into the world as he expanded his influence. A focal point of the Istana was how the Sultan’s power was ceded to the British, who would later colonise the region. Today, it has been converted into Malay Heritage Centre, with galleries that showcase the history and culture of Malays in Singapore.

Empire Built On Stilts

Istana Kampong Gelam

The first Istana Kampong Gelam, built in 1819, was originally a timber structure built on stilts. It occupied an area twice the size of the present compound, which was reduced in 1824 for the construction of North Bridge Road. Before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, it was part of the Johor-Lingga-Riau sultanate. Sir Stamford Raffles got Sultan Hussein Shah and Temenggong Abdul Rahman to agree to set up a British trading port in Singapore which later became part of British East India Company.

A new building was commissioned by Sultan Hussein’s eldest son, Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah of the Johor RiauLingga Empire in 1835. The new concrete palace was built on the site of the original building between 1836 and 1843. Its design combines European Palladian style, with traditional Malay motifs.


Istana Kampong Glam
Credit: Wikipedia

A King’s Gateway

Sultan Gate got its name from its location near Istana Kampong Gelam, where the outer roads converge. The gates were installed in 1840 and originally painted yellow, which signifies the colour of Malay royalty. The main building features yellow French windows with arched entrances. On the upper level was the panggung, or the living quarters, while at the ground level was the kolong, which was used for storage, work or service areas, and even as a playground for children. The Istana Kampong Glam and compounds have since been refurbished as part of the development of the Malay Heritage Centre in 2004. The Istana was faithfully restored according to its original design with special emphasis on its setting, retaining the compound, its walled enclosure, including Sultan Gate and the road leading to the building. In the front courtyard, a central water feature highlights the main complex, updating the design while maintaining the regal feel of the former palace.


The Pride of Kampong Gelam

MHC Gallery
Credit: Amsyar Ashaary

On the eve of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee weekend, the Istana Kampong Gelam was gazetted as a national monument on 6 August 2015. Restored and rebranded as Singapore’s Malay Heritage Center, its reinterpretation of traditional architecture enables the building to reflect its traditional yet modern attributes. The Malay Heritage Center is now a place of pride in Kampong Glam and celebrates the richness of Malay culture.


Hari Raya Open House

Rainbow Connection II
Credit: Amsyar Ashaary

After a hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, an Open House event in conjunction with Hari Raya will be held in May 2022 at the Malay Heritage Center. For two years starting end of the year, this majestic building will be closed for renovations, so do not miss your opportunity to visit soon.

The Malay Heritage Centre has launched a new light installation just in time for Hari Raya entitled ‘Rainbow Connection II’ .

Come on down to the lawn and immerse yourself in the glow of the lights! From 29 Apr to 29 May, the operating hours have been extended till 9pm every Tues to Sun.

Fun Fact: In its heyday, the Istana was home to around 170 occupants 

Malay Heritage Centre
85 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198501


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