Malaysian Royalty Revisited

Whether it is borne out of reverence, historical interest or just plain nosey curiosity, there is little doubt that the life of royal families piques the interest of many Malaysians.

I have seen people patiently wait, for instance, more than an hour at an event to catch a glimpse of a Sultan and his family, curious to see in the flesh people who otherwise appear only in the papers or on TV.

That interest was again apparent at a packed media preview for the opening of the old Istana Negara last week, which was attended by more than 40 journalists and photographers, including myself.

The old Istana - which was bought over from a Chinese tycoon - had served as the official residence of Malaysia's King for 54 years, until it was relocated to a new RM935 million (S$372.5 million) complex in 2011.

Much of the excitement among the press centred around being given access to a place that was, for more than 50 years, off-limits to most people. One palace staff told us he had never been into the King's bedroom, although he had worked there for 32 years.

As we walked around the two-storey building, the palatial feel was obvious, though with a stronger Western influence than I expected. The palace boasts Victorian style décor that recalled yesteryear grandeur, with grand chandeliers, floral carpets and marble finishing.

Its 22 rooms include throne rooms, an office, bedrooms, a dining hall and a library. Some of the more quirky installations include a small cinema on the ground floor - P. Ramlee films are a common favourite, we were told - as well as an in-house clinic with a dentist chair, where a nurse is stationed every Wednesday.

But in some other aspects, the Istana was surprisingly modest.

For instance, the King's bedroom - which got the most interest from us nosey journalists - was actually quite simple and bare, although it had a large sitting area with four different kinds of lighting to emulate the four seasons.

At 11ha, the old complex at Jalan Istana is also dwarfed by the new Istana Negara, which is housed in a sprawling 96ha area at Jalan Duta.

The Malaysian Department of Museums director-general Ibrahim Ismail hopes to attract about 90,000 visitors monthly, believing it can emulate the success of, say, palaces in the United Kingdom.

He believes the target is achievable, considering that up to 15,000 people a day visit the Our King exhibition, which has been held in an adjoining wing of the Istana since last April last year.

The Istana Negara is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Tickets are sold at RM5 for foreigners and RM2 for locals.

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