NLB launches exhibition on early Malay manuscripts and literature

Minister of Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim looks at a letter Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak sent to Sir Stamford Raffles in 1811 to request British aid against the sultan of Sambas.
Minister of Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim looks at a letter Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak sent to Sir Stamford Raffles in 1811 to request British aid against the sultan of Sambas.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

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

This 19th-century manuscript, 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 first 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 was unveiled on Thursday (Aug 17) at a ceremony attended by Minister of Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim. It will run until 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.

Dato' Dr Annabel Teh Gallop, the British Library's lead curator of Southeast 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."

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 real entrepreneurs and that we even had copyright laws and lending libraries in the late 19th century."

The 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 the Hikayat Abdullah, the 1849 memoir of scholar and translator Munshi Abdullah, which was 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 bestselling genre in the Malay world.

The syair on display include the 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 the 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 the 19th-century Riau aristocrat Raja Aisyah, who lived for a time in Singapore.

Visitors can view the manuscript of her debut work, the Hikayat Syamsul Anuar, about a princess who finds her 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 he too shares her passion for the intellectual.

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


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

WHEN: Until Feb 25, 2018, 10am to 9pm daily; closed at 5pm on eves of Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year; closed on public holidays