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Istana Kampong Gelam


85 Sultan Gate, Singapore 198501
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Istana Kampong Gelam, located within the historic district of Kampong Gelam in Singapore, was once the palace of Malay royalty and the seat of the sultanate. The building bears testimony to Singapore's historical links to the Malay world.

Before Singapore became a British trading post, Malay communities had settled on the river banks of Rochor River near Kampong Gelam. The Sultan moved into Kampong Gelam, built his palace, and brought his whole family and hundreds of followers from Riau to Singapore. With the re-emergence of Singapore as a flourishing port in the 19th century, Kampong Gelam thrived as a trading and commercial hub.

The original residence for the Sultan took the form of a timber hut. With the cession of Singapore to the EIC in 1824, the EIC pledged to build a mosque for the Sultan and his followers. This resulted in the establishment of Sultan Mosque which was constructed beside Istana Kampong Gelam. The present two-storey Istana Kampong Gelam was completed in 1843. It was commissioned by Sultan Hussein Shah's son and heir, Tengku Mohammed Ali who later became Sultan Mohammed Ali Iskandar Shah after he was recognised as the Sultan of Singapore in 1855. George D. Coleman is believed to have designed this building, although there are no sources to confirm this. After Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah's passing in 1877, Istana Kampong Gelam continued to serve as a family home for Sultan Hussein Shah's descendants until the 1990s. Over the years, it has hosted several meetings and events, such as royal weddings and tea parties that were organised by the Malay community.

Similar to much of Classical European architecture, Istana Kampong Gelam was symmetrically planned, featuring classical elements such as round arches (found at the entrance porch), and pilasters of the Doric order. The residence was also adapted for the tropical climate, evident in the large pitched roof with projecting eaves for sun-shading and large timber-louvered windows for maximum ventilation. The building also exemplifies several features of traditional Malay architecture, aptly reflecting its function as the Sultan's palace. The regional practice of constructing houses on stilts is echoed in a second storey supported by columns over the entrance porch. The large pitched roof has been likened to a defining characteristic of a Malay Limas ('pyramidal') House. The layout of the house corresponds to Malay house typology with the front hall (serambi) where guests were received, leading to the main hall (ibu rumah) which once connected to an annexe (rumah dapur), where the kitchen would traditionally be located.

As early as 1993, the Government planned to develop Istana Kampong Gelam. Six years later, plans were announced to convert the former Istana into a Malay Heritage Centreto showcase the rich arts and cultural traditions of the Malay community. The building underwent refurbishment works between 1999 and 2004 and was officially declared open as the Malay Heritage Centre by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in June 2005. Today, the configuration of the Malay Heritage Centre honours the layout of the traditional Malay house with five permanent galleries.

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