It was ‘old’, and now it’s ‘new’ but N-O-T: Malay Heritage Centre and how not to revamp a museum

I went to the recently opened Malay Heritage Centre in Kampong Gelam. It was not my 1st trip there as I had been several times to the old exhibition that was opened in 2005. I recall that I don’t have many recollections of the old exhibition. A few kompang, a few P Ramlee movie clips, a few pages of Jawi script, blah blah blah, did not make the exhibition live up to its lofty name – Malay Heritage Centre.

So after closing and revamping its exhibition, and reopening just one month ago, I looked forward to my visit. I expected the new exhibition to be a lot more focused on what makes up Singaporean ‘Malay’ identity in S’pore.  The ‘Malay’ issue in S’pore is a very contentious one – they are a minority in country that is surrounded by the Malay-world giants of Indonesia and Malaysia; their language is the ‘National Language’ of S’pore but most do not even know what the national anthem means; they are accorded some special privileges through our constitution but yet they cannot serve in some combat units and there is a very slim chance that one may become Prime Minister in the near future. I thought the exhibition will, besides the kompang, Ramlee clips and Jawi writings, address the unique place of the Malay in S’pore, and how they got there and where they are heading in our future.

But no. The historical treatment of the ‘Malay’ was was very poorly presented. I got the idea that the ‘Malay’ travelled throughout our region and have been active for many centuries, but didn’t get a sense that they are a united ‘Malay’ people (which they are not – just think of ridiculous it would be to say that tthe ‘Malay’ Malaysian and the ‘Bumi’ Indonesian are ‘one’), or even if the MHC argues that they are, they didn’t explain how they can be considered as such. Beyond indigenous histories, MHC also didn’t focus on how the ‘colonials’ in the region helped shaped who the ‘Malay’ was and is. And abruptly, from the historical Malay who sailed the seas, the exhibition seemed to have jumped straight into the ‘Malay’ in the golden era of Malay culture of post-WW2 (film, literature etc), bypassing altogether the role of the Malays in WW2! And worse, the exhibition ends with images of the ‘traditional’ Malay ringing in my head – songkok and sarong for men and baju kurung for ladies – without any attempt to address who the Malays are today in S’pore and how their contemporary identity is shaping our collective culture.

Oh, and I forget. How can anyone talk about ‘Malay-ness’ without mentioning a cornerstone of that culture, i.e. Islam. If I was a foreign visitor, I would not have learned from the exhibition that Singaporean Malays and Islam are inseparable.

And one last thing about ‘place’. The MHC is located at the old Istana Kampong Gelam for obvious reasons – it was home to the old royalty of the S’pore that Raffles founded and around it settled generations of Muslims that contributed to this Malay identity. But beyond some text on the walls of rooms telling you that this was the ‘Waiting Room of the palace’ or ‘Private Chambers of the royal family’, there was not special mention of the palace in one coherent display. Again, if I was a foreign visitor, I would have hardly realised the significance of the building to the exhibition!

I am especially disappointed with the MHC for having spent all that money to do up a showpiece of the S’pore Malay that most local visitors would already be familiar with even if they did not visit the exhibition. All the interesting aspects of S’pore ‘Malay-ness’ – such as them being the butt of jokes of Malaysian Malays who chide them for not enjoying political privilege in what is essentially a ‘Malay’ country prior to Raffles’ landing – appear to be been glossed over. What we get are cliches of kompang, Ramlee films and Jawi script, that add almost nothing new to my understanding of who the Malay was, is and will be in the S’pore context. I can now only hope that the next big institution of S’pore political correctness – the Indian Heritage Centre – does not go down the same route.

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5 responses to “It was ‘old’, and now it’s ‘new’ but N-O-T: Malay Heritage Centre and how not to revamp a museum

  1. Hello,

    Reading this blog post annoys me, a lot.

    I understand and share some of the concerns that the blogger has; at the same time, the blogger seems to have confused expectations with reality i.e. pertaining exhibitions in museums, specifically the MHC.

    When certain stereotypes and assumptions are mixed with realities then expectations are misplaced, thus not contributing much to moving the conversation forward.

    What is even more frustrating is that the blogger has maintained certain assumptions which are expected to be covered in the displays about the Malay(?) (this is a gross misconception and an attempt at homogenising a heterogeneous group; it should be the MalayS)***, in Singapore in particular.

    I have not been to the MHC since its recent opening. I did visit it once right before the temporary closing, and was greatly disappointed.

    I did write to the ST and BH separately on three different occasions in recent years to highlight certain issues. One being the need to engage the young generation of Singaporeans, specifically students at all levels, to not only visit but given the opportunities to utilise the space accordingly. Also, the scope of activities to be crafted for different groups of museum-goers.

    And, with a particular concern that the MHC does not turn into a space for – only – receiving foreign dignitaries and political figures that touches superficially on cultural grounds.
    ===

    “A few kompang, a few P Ramlee movie clips, a few pages of Jawi script”

    => I don’t recall seeing any kompang when I was there. However, I do agree that more could be done. Perhaps, a temporary major exhibition which revolves around certain themes. This would certainly sustain interest in Singaporeans, and draw tourists. More importantly, the cultural explorations could be deepened and widened with P. Ramlee movies; Jawi script et al.

    “blah blah blah, did not make the exhibition live up to its lofty name – Malay Heritage Centre”

    => I wouldn’t say lofty. Ambition is good. Instead, over-simplification is not desired.

    “I expected the new exhibition to be a lot more focused on what makes up Singaporean ‘Malay’ identity in S’pore”

    => This is problematic. When the issue of articulating a Singaporean identity is stilll being debated, as such, to expect the above-mentioned identity to be manifested is a challenge on its own. Is this even relevant?

    The ‘Malay’ issue in S’pore is a very contentious one – they are a minority in country that is surrounded by the Malay-world giants of Indonesia and Malaysia; their language is the ‘National Language’ of S’pore but most do not even know what the national anthem means; they are accorded some special privileges through our constitution but yet they cannot serve in some combat units and there is a very slim chance that one may become Prime Minister in the near future.

    => It seems contentious – to a few Singaporeans, Malays and non-Malays, including the blogger – because of certain policies, and when repeatedly the “Malay problem” is highlighted by prominent political figures in Singapore. [I did raise this issue in another letter to BH, in response to a remark made by ESM Goh, 2011.]*** I don’t get what exactly the blogger is trying to articulate here. Please elaborate.

    “address the unique place of the Malay in S’pore, and how they got there and where they are heading in our future”

    => Where or what precisely is this “unique place?” How is an exhibition that is supposed to trace the roots – history – of the Malays (granted, that in my opinion the MHC didn’t do this job greatly; and based on the personal experience of the blogger that even after the revamp, it is still tremendously lacking) in Singapore expected to cover the scope of the future? This is irrelevant.

    “The historical treatment of the ‘Malay’ was was very poorly presented.”

    => I agree, based on my previous visit. And, if what the blogger
    conveyed, about the exhibitions now, is true then this is really disheartening, and the MHC should take note.

    “didn’t get a sense that they are a united ‘Malay’ people (which they are not – just think of ridiculous it would be to say that tthe ‘Malay’ Malaysian and the ‘Bumi’ Indonesian are ‘one’), or even if the MHC argues that they are, they didn’t explain how they can be considered as such”

    => There is a difference in understanding the shared cultural root/history and lumping the Malays* in contemporary period when circumstances in every nation dictate and indicate otherwise. Did the MHC argue the latter – as highlighted above – in any way?

    “Beyond indigenous histories, MHC also didn’t focus on how the ‘colonials’ in the region helped shaped who the ‘Malay’ was and is.”

    => What about the reactions of the Malays to colonialism? If this is supposed to be a space to explore the Malays from the Malays’ perspective then the colonial period should be scrutinised as such. Not the other way.

    “and worse, the exhibition ends with images of the ‘traditional’ Malay ringing in my head – songkok and sarong for men and baju kurung for ladies”

    => The context is key here. What was the context that dictate certain images to be displayed such as the one highlighted above?

    “without any attempt to address who the Malays are today in S’pore and how their contemporary identity is shaping our collective culture”

    => Again, is this relevant for the MHC to address specifically? Is it within its scope? Even if it is, shouldn’t this be an issue for visitors to contemplate and shape individual ideas about it instead of being ‘told.’

    “Oh, and I forget. How can anyone talk about ‘Malay-ness’ without mentioning a cornerstone of that culture, i.e. Islam. If I was a foreign visitor, I would not have learned from the exhibition that Singaporean Malays and Islam are inseparable.”

    => I reckon the blogger is confused about this particular strand of Malayness with Malaysia’s idea. I, personally, would not want a foreign visitor to be informed as such through the exhibitions in the MHC. The fundamental point being not all Malays, even Singaporean Malays, are Muslims.

    “Again, if I was a foreign visitor, I would have hardly realised the significance of the building to the exhibition!”

    => I agree with the blogger on this point. More attention should be given on explicating on the Malay idea, traditions, customs relating to royalty. One might not be in favour of aristocracy, but it remains a facet of the past especially for the Singaporean Malays.
    ===

    Recommendations:

    Do watch “Jalan” (Season 5) on SURIA; xinmsn.com/catchup; in a nutshell – history/histories of the Malay(s):

    http://video.xin.msn.com/watch/video/jalan-sr-5-episode-1/2b2wsz9pr

    Do read these books for a start:

    The Malays / Anthony Milner.
    Milner, Anthony Crothers, 1945-
    Malden, MA ; Oxford : Wiley-Blackwell Pub., 2008.

    Leaves of the same tree : trade and ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka / Leonard Y. Andaya.
    Andaya, Leonard Y.
    Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.
    ===

    • The Malays do have a special place in S’pore. Which other ‘ethnic group’ has a Minister in-charge of Muslim Affairs, or a govt-funded body MUIS that overseas the Muslim faith? And to seal the fate of Malays as unique in Spore, let’s not forget that our Constitution says unequivocally: “The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.” If a visitor doesn’t already know these facts, he would not have learnt about them going through this gallery. Dealing with ‘identity’ in a museum will always be difficult, and the end-result will always be contentious. If we don’t deal with any stereotypes in a display, then the exhibition would not be realistic, since stereotypes only exist because most of them are perpetuated due to some element of ‘truth’ in them. But if we deal only in stereotypes, the other non-typical but no less real aspects of a culture would not be acknowledged. Right till the end of the exhibition, there were large screens showing new short-films made by local Malays. Intended or not, the one screen that faced the visitors directly was showing Malay teens dressed in traditional baju, playing traditional games (rubber-band yay-yay I think) with a kampong as backdrop!!! If that isn’t a valiant attempt at perpetuating a Malay stereotype, I don’t know what is?

      In short, I don’t know what the exact aim of MHC is. Is it just to be seen as simple, innocent entertaining display and nothing more? Or should we read more into the displays to think about who has crafted the displays and why? I have some clues: 1. it is funded through National Heritage Board, and therefore it must have a higher mission (of ethnic-identity formation??) other than just exhibiting stuff for foreigners to see 2. it’s name MHC has a huge implication; it wants to be a ‘centre’ for/of Malay Heritage, simply put. Putting these 2 things together, I’m afraid that MHC has fallen short on so many levels. Perhaps it is an exhibition that has bitten off more than it could chew, simply by having huge burden hanging on its neck in the form of its name MHC. But moving aside from the physical display, I hope the MHC – as a very prominent govt-led project – gives rise to many opportunities for Malays and non-Malays alike to ponder/discuss who they/we are in this small country of ours.

      And haha! Your recommendations of books are also very telling: they are non-Malays writing about Malays. Nothing wrong with that, but there are also many Malays who have written reflexively about their own cultures. Read those for a balanced view!

  2. It is important to take note that I recommended reading these books, as a start. Not just these 2 books (aforementioned). Of course, the list is inexhaustible. And, non-Malays writing about the Malays does not necessarily translate into immediate skewing of portrayal. There are “Malays” who have written about the Malays and yet these books don’t provide anywhere near an accurate depiction. Examples include “The Malay dilemma” / by Mahathir bin Mohamad (Singapore : Times Books International, 1970), & “Revolusi mental” / Disusun oleh Senu Abdul Rahman [et al.] (Kuala Lumpur , Penerbitan Utusan Melayu, 1971.) As such, the need to read “Siapa yang salah : sekitar revolusi mental dan peribadi Melayu” / Alatas, Hussein, Syed, 1928-2007 (Singapura : Pustaka Nasional, 1972) in order to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding. Obviously, another issue is the language barrier whereby many books written in the Malay language have yet to be translated into other languages, particularly English, thus issue of accessibility crops up.

    • Just to point out that the ‘Malay’ authors you listed – Mahathir & Alatas – also have their ‘Malay’ identity contested! Mahathir is popularly known as ‘Mamak’ in M’sia due to his Indian-Muslim background, and Alatas has an Arabic background. But then again, the examples of ‘Malay’ authors you raised precisely emphasise our point that ‘Malay-ness’ is a very much contested notion; one where no one person or government has a monopoly over. It is this contested notion that I feel that a place like the Malay Heritage Centre should address – by stating the complications up front and let visitors understand that Malay-identity (like all other identities) are always in a flux as the cliches of past-present-future tug and pull at its very core.

  3. [There are “Malays” who have written about the Malays and yet these books don’t provide anywhere near an accurate depiction.]

    “Malays” : yet these books don’t provide anywhere near an accurate depiction.

    No one can claim to be a pure Malay. Yeah, it is always contested and being negotiated.

    More importantly, pay attention to the content of the books I highlighted. It is more relevant to what was discussed earlier.

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