Malay artefacts from around the world on exhibit at National Library

A 19th-century copy of Taj Al-Salatin, or The Crown Of Kings, from the British Library is on display at Tales Of The Malay World: Manuscripts And Early Books.
A 19th-century copy of Taj Al-Salatin, or The Crown Of Kings, from the British Library is on display at Tales Of The Malay World: Manuscripts And Early Books.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

National Library Board exhibition brings together rare, ancient Malay manuscripts from collections across the world

Even in dim light, the gold leaf and jewel hues of the Taj Al-Salatin gleam.

This 19th-century copy of the 17th-century text, the title of which translates to The Crown Of Kings, has spent years in the collection of the British Library. Now, it has finally returned to the part of the world where it came into being.

The Taj Al-Salatin is one of more than 140 artefacts in the latest exhibition by the National Library Board (NLB), Tales Of The Malay World: Manuscripts And Early Books.

The exhibition at the National Library was unveiled last Thursday at a ceremony attended by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim. It will run till February next year.

It is the first to bring together rare manuscripts from the collections of not just the NLB, but also the British Library, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and Leiden University Library in the Netherlands.

Datuk Dr Annabel Teh Gallop, the British Library's lead curator of South-east Asian material, said: "It is very, very poignant to see the manuscripts from our collection come back for the first time to this part of the world. They're part of a big family and it's wonderful to see them reunited."

  • VIEW IT / TALES OF THE MALAY WORLD: MANUSCRIPTS AND EARLY BOOKS

  • WHERE: Level 10 Gallery, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Until Feb 25, 10am to 9pm daily; closed at 5pm on the eves of Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year; closed on public holidays

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.nlb.gov.sg

Exhibition curator Tan Huism hopes the exhibition can raise public awareness not just of the Malay world's rich literary past, but also of Singapore's role in it.

"Most people don't even know Singapore was an important printing hub for the region, that our publishers were entrepreneurs and that we even had copyright laws and lending libraries in the late 19th century."

Items on display include Sir Stamford Raffles' copy of the famous genealogical text Sulalat Al-Salatin (Sejarah Melayu), which includes the tale of how Singapore got its name; and Hikayat Abdullah, the 1849 memoir of scholar and translator Munshi Abdullah, the first Malay work published by a local.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to the syair, a rhyming narrative poem that became popular from the end of the 18th century and was at one point the best-selling genre in the Malay world.

Syair on display include Syair Perang Mengkasar, the earliest known example of the form, which relates the spice war between the Dutch East India Company and the state of Makassar, or south Sulawesi, in the 1660s.

Syair were often romantic, such as Syair Sinyor Kosta, in which a Dutch clerk falls in love with a local merchant's wife and tries to woo her. They were meant to be sung as well as read and the exhibition is accompanied by audio of a woman performing syair.

There are about 10,000 Malay manuscripts that survive in the world today. While their authors are predominantly male, the exhibition does feature the rare female writer, such as 19th-century Riau aristocrat Raja Aisyah, who lived for a time in Singapore.

Visitors can view the manuscript of her debut work, Hikayat Syamsul Anuar, about a princess who finds life in the palace stifling and disguises herself as a man to wander in search of knowledge.

When she ends up in an arranged marriage with a king, she is infuriated and refuses to sleep with her husband, burying herself in her studies instead. However, she comes to love him after she discovers that he, too, shares her passion for the intellectual.

The exhibition also features films related to some of the manuscripts, such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, about the exploits of legendary warrior Hang Tuah and his friends.

A separate display in the library's lobby showcases snippets of seven movies by Cathay Keris and Shaw Brothers, along with Malay film magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Explore the world of Malay stories'. Print Edition | Subscribe