Kampong Glam, which means ‘Village of Gelam Trees’ in Malay, is a rich and colourful historical and heritage district in Singapore with strong Malay-Muslim presence. It originated as a small Malay fishing village and took its name after the gelam trees that grew abundantly in the area. Streets carrying names from Middle-Eastern countries and cities such as Arab Street, Baghdad Street, Muscat Street, and Kandahar Street make up the heart of Kampong Glam.
Before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, Kampong Glam was a small and quiet fishing village under the governance of Sultan Abdul Rahman, Sultan of Johor-Riau. He was under Dutch control and would not have permitted the British to set up a trading post in Singapore. Raffles thus formulated a plan with his brother, Tengku Hussein Shah, on his arrival in Singapore in January 1819. He drew up papers recognizing Hussein Shah as the lawful Sultan of Singapore and Johor, and signed a treaty in Feburary 1819 with Hussein Shah and a Temenggong Abdul Rahman declaring the approval of establishing a British East India Company trading post in Singapore. ‘Sultan’ Hussein Shah and the Temenggong would receive annual incomes from the British in return. The British colonization of Singapore began and Raffles drafted a plan dividing Singapore into racial settlements. ‘Sultan’ Hussein Shah, his family and followers were assigned to the Kampong Glam district which soon became known as a Malay settlement.
In the early 1820s, Sultan Hussein Shah had his palace built in the heart of Kampong Glam. Known as Istana Kampong Glam, it was originally twice its present size and spanned from Sultan Gate to Victoria Street. The present Istana Kampong Glam now houses the Malay Heritage Centre and was rebuilt by his son Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah from 1835-1843. He had the Istana rebuilt firstly because the original had fallen into a state of disrepair. Furthermore, Kampong Glam had become increasingly popular as a settlement area and more land was needed for residences. Sultan Ali thus reduced the size of his compound and had his Istana rebuilt out of concrete. Sultan Hussein Shah also commissioned the building of Sultan Mosque with a donation from Raffles. Sultan Mosque is the oldest mosque in Singapore and was rebuilt in the 1920s after it became too small and dilapidated for the Islamic community.
As a Malay settlement, Kampong Glam also became a residential area for Malay and Muslim immigrants from Malaya and Indonesia. Hajjah Fatimah Mosque stands on the land that once belonged to a wealthy Malaccan Malay businesswoman, Hajjah Fatimah. Malabar Muslim Jama-ath Mosque is a place of worship for Malabar Muslims who were originally from Kerala in India. Kampong Glam was also a commercial hub for Malay, Indonesian, and Arab merchants and traders. Many of them settled here eventually and the myriad of textile, carpet, fragrance, Islamic religious stores and Muslim eateries along Arab Street, Bussorah Street, Kandahar Street and Baghdad Street are remnants of the original Kampong Glam.
The shophouses on Haji Lane and Bali Lane also once housed cloth merchants. Today however, one will find home-grown fashion boutiques such as Victoria Jomo and Soon Lee here. In the early 1900s when more shophouses and residences were built in Kampong Glam, people of all races began settling down here, transforming it to a multiracial community.
A strong Malay-Muslim presence however continues to proliferate in Kampong Glam and it is still known as the heart of the Malay community in Singapore. Take our Mosque Tour and/or the Shopping Tour of Kampong Glam and you will certainly gain a better understanding of the history, culture, and lifestyle of the Malay community in Singapore.
Hari Raya Puasa is a significant festival for Malays and would make for a good time to visit.