I’ve written a few different blogposts about Singapore being a cultural melting pot, focussing each time on different racial groups of Singapore. Yes, in one tiny country, you can see mid-autumn festivals in Chinatown, Thaipusam festivals in Little India, Javanese Kuda kepang dancing, and even the young expats doing the dance-walking around Orchard or Clarke Quay.
But one important cultural icon of Singapore is the Kampong Glam and Bugis area, which is where you want to be if you want to enjoy the best of Arab/Malay food and culture.
The Buginese people were one of the ethnic groups of South Sulawesi, in Indonesia. And they gave their name to the small area of Bugis. This area was then home to the Hainanese and then the Japanese during World War II, who used this place to house their prostitutes. Even after the Japanese left, this area continued to be a little red-light district until the government cracked down on the region in recent decades and converted it to the modern place it is. Why? Because one Geylang is more than enough!
And when Stamford Raffles drew up his famous Jackson plan of Singapore, the neighbouring Kampong Glam area was reserved for the Malay community. Understandable, because the region was long settled by the Arab settlers. But again, the original settlers have moved on to other regions, and nowadays you are more inclined to find the muslim population of Singapore in Geylang Serai, and not Bugis.
But Bugis and Kampong glam, does have one very important building from the Arab/Malay days. The Sultan Mosque, or the Masjid Sultana.
Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor – who once ruled over Singapore – decided that he needed a mosque that was befitting his status. So, he went on to build the largest mosque in Singapore in 1828, which was enlarged and restructured in 1932.
The mosque is easily visible from anywhere in Kampong glam, thanks to the golden domes. Entry is free, but note that shorts, short skirts and sleeveless t-shirts are not permitted. But because this is Singapore with its hot, sunny climate, almost every tourist that gets here is definitely dressed in short clothes. So, the mosque has cloaks that can be loaned for a while, to take a walk inside. And also do note that tourists are discouraged praying hours.
First of all, please talk to a tour guide. These guys do it for free here, volunteering to explain Islam to tourists. And they can explain more to you about the mosque than any lonely planet book. (Fun fact: The mosque is Saracenic and Mogul in design, but the current design was done by an Irish guy named Denis Santry, for the firm Swan and McLaren)
The base of the Mosque dome is a ring of black bottles which were donated by the people to build it. The legend goes that the Sultan wanted contributions from everybody – not just the rich people – in building the mosque, so he asked everyone to give black bottles. The huge red carpeting inside the mosque was donated by a rich Saudi Prince, and you can even see his emblem on it.
Large enough to hold 5000 worshippers, the mosque is oriented towards the direction of Mecca, which makes it a unique structure that runs contrary to the rigid Singapore urban planning grid. And an interesting sight – if you get to see it – is the adjacent mausoleum of Tunku Alam, who died in 1891.
I have always searched for calm places in Singapore where the maddened crowds cannot enter. I think I found one in the Sultan Mosque.