Culture of Singapore's smallest Malay sub-group on show at 8-month long exhibition

(From left) Deputy Chief Executive (Policy and Community) NHB Alvin Tan, Banjar community representative Mr Latiff Omar, and Minister Edwin Tong viewing the Urang Banjar exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre on Nov 27, 2020.
(From left) Deputy Chief Executive (Policy and Community) NHB Alvin Tan, Banjar community representative Mr Latiff Omar, and Minister Edwin Tong viewing the Urang Banjar exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre on Nov 27, 2020.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - An exhibition showcasing the culture and heritage of the smallest sub-ethnic group in Singapore's Malay community opens on Saturday (Nov 28) and will run for eight months.

Singapore's Banjarese community, mostly hailing from South Kalimantan, was known here for their diamond trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, and many set up shop in Kampong Intan, or Diamond Village, in Jalan Pisang today.

A 1911 census indicated there were 377 Banjarese in Singapore - the largest group in the Straits Settlements then - said Ms Suhaili Osman, a curator at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC).

However, in a 1990 census, just 12 people identified themselves as Banjarese, she noted.

The spotlight on the Banjar community here is the MHC's fifth exhibition in its Se-Nusantara a series of community co-curated exhibitions. 

The Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore exhibition, will run from Saturday (Nov 28) to July 25 next year (2021).

Mr Jamal Mohamad, a senior programmes manager at MHC, said the series is important for Singaporeans, as many have a "shallow" understanding of what it means to be Malay.

"It is important to learn about the differences between the sub-groups, who we are, where we came from and how different communities contributed to the country," he said.

Meanwhile, this year's Malay CultureFest, which was launched on Friday (Nov 27), will also feature Bajar cultural heritage.

The festival runs for two weeks till Dec 13, and will largely take place virtually but with in-person elements, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at the exhibition and festival's launch on Friday, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong cited a Banjar idiom, "Haram manyarah waja sampai kaputing", which means "Let not the steel (of a blade) stop short until its very point".

He said the idiom "is an exhortation for a Banjar to undertake all endeavours with determination, and not to give up until his goals are achieved".

"It is through this steely determination that the Banjar community and MHC have succeeded in presenting Urang Banjar and Malay CultureFest 2020 to us amid this pandemic," said Mr Tong.

Highlights of the festival include Kala: New Music for Gamelan Banjar, a gamelan performance in the Banjar style by NSA Project Movement, an experimental music group, and a cooking demonstration of Banjar kueh like talam banjar and bingka ubi.


Members of the Banjar community and exhibition contributors, sisters Fauziah Jamal (right) and Faridah Jamal. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Sisters Faridah Jamal, 58, and Fauziah Jamal, 64, whose father Haji Ahmad Jamal worked as a diamond trader and jeweller in Jalan Pisang for most of his adult life, said they are proud of their heritage and were honoured to have their stories told through the exhibition.

The sisters, who loaned artefacts such as their father's gem and diamond weighing tools to the MHC for the exhibition, said recounting their stories for the showcase brought back many childhood memories, like that of watching their father practice his craft at the family's home in the 1960s, which doubled as his office.

Mr Gazali Arshad, 77, whose uncle Haji Mohamed Sanusi was the first Mufti of Singapore and also a Banjar, said he was grateful for an opportunity to contribute his stories to the exhibition.

"It is important to showcase that we exist, and that we have made meaningful contributions to the community through the diamond trade," said Mr Gazali, who is also a descendent of the Banjar industry pioneer Haji Mahmood.

On display at the exhibition is a model of his childhood home in Lorong Marican in Kembangan that Mr Gazali made in 2006 to commemorate his growing years.


Mr Gazali Arshad, said he was grateful for an opportunity to contribute his stories to the exhibition. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

The exhibition also features augmented reality, or AR experiences - a first for MHC's exhibitions - that stemmed from a collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), with students
designing elements available on the festival website.

SUTD first-year student Gabriel Teng, 21, who designed a game in which players step into the shoes of a Banjarese voyager, said the digital elements will make history more accessible to younger audiences.

On the game he designed with four other students, he said: "Rather than have stories told to you, you can experience the stories for yourself, and this makes them come alive."

Admission to MHC is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents, while foreigners pay $8 per entry.

Those who wish to find out more about the exhibition and festival can visit this website.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article misspelt a word in the Banjarese idiom cited by Minister Edwin Tong. The National Heritage Board has since clarified the correct spelling.