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.