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September 26, 2011

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Strolling through Singapore's Malay history

KNOWN mostly as a cosmopolitan city for its great food and shopping, 46-year-old Singapore actually has as much culture and history as any other Southeast Asian city, despite young post-independence age.

To begin to understand Singapore history, it's suggested to visit Kampong Glam neighborhood, a Malay area that combines modernity with a rich Malay heritage. As the native inhabitants of Singapore, Malays today are the country's second largest ethnic group, most of them being Sunni Muslims.

Once a fishing village at the mouth of Rochor River, Kampong Glam rose to prominence following a treaty signed in 1819 between the East India Company and the Sultan of Singapore, Hussein Mohammed Shah and the Temenggong, a Malay official.

Today the area includes Arab Street, the famous Sultan mosque and the fascinating Malay heritage museum.

Walking down Haji Lane, one sees an eclectic mix of preserved shop-houses selling items ranging from colorful Malay scarves to modern-day vintage clothes. Although it's a short road, it's one of the most attractive, with its mix of the Malay world and the West.

During "mid-day gatherings" a few shop owners may sit under shade on Arab carpets with cushions and a table for an afternoon tea break.

On Bussorah Street stands the majestic Sultan Mosque, also known as Masjid Sultan, with its grand, palm-lined walkway. It's one of the most important mosques in Singapore and the main building is oriented at an angle so that when worshippers enter they face the mihrab or main altar and Mecca.

Further down the road is the Malay Heritage Center or Istana Kampong Glam, the historic seat of the Malay royalty of Singapore. Built in 1842 by renowned architect George Coleman, it was the palace of Malay royals. Today it is a museum.

The area of Kampong Glam is also famous for its varied food and there are many shisha bars, also known as hookah bars, Malay cafes and restaurants.

An important part of Singapore, Kampong Glam has evolved from being the home of the Sultan and his household, as well as Malay and Arab communities. It is now a Muslim quarter and center of Muslim activities and heritage.

It's an area not to be missed when trying to understand the traditional lifestyles of ethnic Singaporeans.


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