naif (sleepless77) wrote,@ 2008-05-10 20:24:00
voices from the palace 1
Last Wednesday, I visited the Taman Warisan Melayu, the Malay Heritage Centre that now occupies what was known as the Istana Kampong Glam. As far back as 1999, when the government announced plans to evict the residents of the istana, I had felt uneasy. Malaysian newspapers claimed it was an attempt to erase Singapore's Malay history; the Singapore government replied that on the contrary, establishing a Malay Heritage Centre was actually an attempt to preserve Malay history. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. What kind of Malay history do you want to construct? The Taman Warisan represents a history as envisioned by Yaacob Ibrahim, who in 1999 said, 'It should be a symbol of how Malays have contributed, and how they can contribute further to the idea of Singapore.' And thus you have this strange, 'progress'-obsessed, future-oriented layout, where as one of the 'four main races' in Singapore, Malays had 'contributed' to the fields of education, journalism, cinema etc. The exhibition culminates in a TV screen profiling 'prominent' Malay personalities, ie, the usual professionals/celebrities etc who have attained national-level/international recognition. Someone from Berita Harian must have curated this part, with all that 'Anak Melayu Berjaya' (Successful Malay) baggage of minority insecurities. The Istana Kampong Glam, however, represents a pre-colonial Malay history, filled with royal genealogies, succession struggles, political manouverings. It records Singapore as part of the Johor-Riau-Lingga empire, and presents counter-narratives to official histories: 'Raffles founded Singapore' vs 'Riau lost Singapore' in 1819; 'Raffles signed treaty with Sultan Hussein' vs 'Raffles appointed Tengku Long, son of Sultan Mahmud of Johor, the new Sultan Hussein Shah of Singapore--a puppet king of the British'; 'Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman sold Singapore to the British' vs 'British coerced the Sultan and Temenggong to sign ill-named Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, giving them sovereignty over the island'.Most importantly, it establishes the fact that Singapore was not terra incognita--an unknown or unexplored territory. It was under the influence of Johor, and Tengku Long, son of Sultan Mahmud of Johor was supposed to be installed as its ruler. Raja Hamidah of the island of Penyengat, wife and widow of Sultan Mahmud, had wanted to bring the royal regalia, the nobat to Singapore, to conduct the proper rites that would legitimise Tengku Long's rule. However, the Dutch stopped her and confiscated the regalia, as they supported Tengku Long's younger brother, Tengku Abdul Rahman. The British exploited this rivarly between the two brothers and declared support for the beleaguered Tengku Long. In 1999, journalist Zuraidah Ibrahim wrote an article for the Straits Times ('Stay out of S'pore affairs', 7 July 1999). She stated, "As if the Malay royalty is central to the average Singapore Malay's sense of self-identity." Her brother, Yaacob Ibrahim, a Malay MP, said "I don't think others have a right to tell us how we should preserve that memory. It's our right...The Istana is just a building. It reflects the presence of the Malays in Singapore...it is not a symbol of Malay supremacy" ('Kg Glam folk happy with Istana project', 11 July 1999). (By the way, talk about misleading headlines: the 'Kampong Glam folk' did not refer to the residents of the Istana Kampong Glam, but the constituents of the Kampong Glam ward! And it was assumed that their MP, Mr Loh Meng See, could speak on the behalf of his constituents--none of whom were actually interviewed. Any more puzzled heads wondering why we're the most lowly-ranked developed country when it comes to press freedom?)I'm afraid I would have to disagree with the Ibrahim siblings. I am neither a royalist, nor do I subscribe to feudal notions like the asymmetrical relationship between the ruler and the ruled. But the recognition of the royal house is crucial to establishing one's status as the indigenous people of a certain territory. In Malaysia, for example, the continual maintenance of the monarchy (even if it is a constitutional one with limited powers) is instrumental in staking out one's claims as the 'sons of the soil'. The reason for this is simple: when the colonial powers decided to establish their influence, their first formal point of contact was with the reigning sultans and rajas. The treaties signed involved a transfer of sovereignty. What this means is that these Malay rulers had prior sovereignty over the Malay kingdoms. And thus the process of decolonisation and subsequent nationalism involves restoring the power and status of the Sultans.
I have been scouring news articles on the Istana Kampong Glam controversy, from 1993 to 2008. Unsurprisingly, only the Malaysian newspapers covered the responses from the descendants of Sultan Hussein with any depth. The Singapore newspapers, which included the Malay-language Berita Harian, were predictably supportive of the government. I remember walking through the various rooms of the Malay Heritage Centre, struck by how a structure designed for the display of history could actually void itself of its actual history. I wanted the walls to speak. I wanted to see the faces of the 79 members of the royal bloodline, whose names bear the royal honorifics of Raja and Tengku but who are now scattered across Singapore and Malaysia: some in real estate, business, and others: a taxi driver, forklift operator, security guard, hawker. I collated all the quotes I could find; for the moment they would suffice as the driftwood to prevent me from drowning in the silence of my history.
"There is nothing to say."
Tengku Abdul Aziz bin Tengku Hussain
"The Malay Village can house the heritage centre. As long as the sun and the moon exist, the palace cannot be taken away from us to be converted into a museum."
Tengku Ishak Tengku Salim
"This is our birthright. How can we give it up just like that and sign away our property?" "It will be another dead Malay Village." "If my forefather, Sultan Hussain, had not ceded the property to the British, there would not be a city like this today."
Tengku Damaishah Tengku Abdul Aziz
"Our families are hoping to stay on the land of our grandfathers.""I want to defend our home.”
Tengku Mohamed Tengku Jamil
“I cannot stomach the idea that my children may one day have to actually pay a fee to enter this istana, my home.”
"I will never move out, not even for $10 million. Even if I am forcibly evicted, I would rather sleep under a bridge than accept the money."
Raja Abdul Rahman
"Money is really no substitute. Just look at our family. We too previously had a lot of money, but all of that is gone now. Only the palace remains. So what good is money to us?”
Tengku Hendon Tengku Mohamed
"From our perspective, Sultan Hussain and Sultan Ali gave their endorsement for Singapore to be modernised by the British and from this royal generosity, Singapore was founded. At least, we should honour both Sultans with proper decorum and decency."
"Regrettably, we were told of a meagre compensation of hardly S$7 million.” (To be distributed to 79 descendants over 30 years, which works out to S$2916 per year)
"We humbly urge the Singapore authorities and Parliament to show good faith."
Tengku Osman Tengku Abdul Aziz
"We would rather jump from a 20-storey building than give up our fight."
"We're not trespassing on anyone's land. But it is the government that has trespassed on our land.”
"We plan to bring this matter up to the President himself."
(This is a painful statement, of course, because the President's official residence is called the 'Istana'. The name was adopted when the building, formerly known as Government House--and which housed the colonial governors of Singapore--was handed over to the new Singapore Government in 1959 when self-rule was attained.)
Raja Abdul Rahman Raja Saad
"We would have wanted to hire a Queen's Counsel but we cannot afford to do so."
Tengku Mohamed Tengku Jamil
“When I left the Istana, I couldn't even bring myself to pass by the place, let alone look at it. I used to cry thinking about it. But now, I don't cry any more.”
Tengku Jamiah Tengku Puteh
“All these years, we receive pensions from the Government, but those are very little compared to the value of the land.” (Estimated at $S2.2 billion)“If the Government is willing to negotiate, we are willing to be amicable. Otherwise, we may go to a higher authority such as the International Court of Justice.”
Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah
"They just take our land without permission and open their centre."
"If Singapore plays a deaf ear, I may go to the International Court of Justice and claim the whole island of Singapore.”
"It is not only unfair. They disregard the existence of the royal family. Even the British were not as harsh as them, the British they housed my family."
"Either they buy the land from us or jointly develop it. Both ways, all parties can gain."
"This is the most complicated land-ownership issue in Singapore and the most well-documented disputed property in the history of the Republic." “They never answer our letters.”
Tengku Abdul Aziz bin Tengku Hussain