Nadirah Norruddin (National Library, Singapore) on Munshi Abdullah's Sejarah Melayu

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Close Looking
from the 03/2019 Issue

Filed under: books
Amidst a full calendar of art happenings, thoughtful exhibitions surrounding historical artefacts have been few and far between. Situated on Level 11 of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, The First Print: Stories and Legends of Early Singaporeoccupies a modest exhibition area and is the result of rigorous research. The show is curated around the library’s copy of the Sejarah Melayu. We speak with the curator, Nadirah Norruddin, about this rare book and how it still is relevant to us today.
Nadirah Norruddin is an Associate Librarian with the National Library, Singapore. Her main responsibility lies in managing and developing the Singapore and Southeast Asian collections.

¹ Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir
National Library, Singapore, c. 1840

Credit: National Library, Singapore


Nadirah Norruddin (NN): The Sejarah Melayu is also known by the title, Sulalat al-Salatin, which means Genealogy of the Kings. It was likely composed in the 17th century.

Within the Sejarah Melayu itself, you get these depictions of the power and glory of Malacca itself. In the first few episodes of the book, we also see the significance of early Singapore. The book talks about the presence of a thriving port in Singapore, and notes its dynamic and cosmopolitan nature. There’s a quote at the end of Chapter 3 that I find very interesting. After Singapore was established by Sang Nila Utama, the book states that it grew into a prosperous port, frequented by merchants from every quarter. This bustling trading port was observed as early on as the thirteenth century.

The book is written in Jawi, and the earliest known inscription of the Jawi script is dated to about 1303, as seen on the Terengganu Stone. It can be said that the advent of Islam presupposes the use of Jawi in the region because the Quran and many liturgical texts were all written in Arabic. When Islam and the language of Arabic began to spread into non-Arabic speaking regions, the language was adapted and localised to appeal to the new faithful. Jawi script was not just used in prayer books and liturgical texts. It can also be seen in textbooks and literary works. We see this sort of development across the Malay Archipelago, up until the late 1950s to the early 1960s. From then on, Malay was written in romanicised alphabets as we see it today.

As a historical book, the Sejarah Melayu remained relevant through several centuries. Before the arrival of the British, the book was used to highlight the illustrious lineage of Malaccan rulers. Upon the arrival of the British, parts of the Sejarah Melayu were included in textbooks. In these excerpts, the British highlighted aspects of the book that referenced feudal loyalties and the demise of the Malaccan kingdoms. By charting how it has been used historically, we can see how the Sejarah Melayu was reconfigured and repurposed for later socio-political landscapes.


NN: For our Rare Materials Collection, we acquire our holdings through purchase or through donations. This particular book is from the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, which was the personal library of the 25th Earl of Crawford. The book ended up in Lindsay’s collection, and the particular text we have on display is one of five known copies in public institutions today. The exact print run for this book is unknown, but we’re lucky to have one of extant five copies with us.

We have more than 15,000 items in our Rare Materials Collection and this consists of Singapore and Southeast Asian imprints. Many of these are dated as pre-1945 or even pre-1900s. In our collection, we have maps, photographs, correspondences, and of course, books.
² The First Print: Stories and Legends of Early Singapore
2019, Installation View at National Library, Singapore

Credit: National Library, Singapore


NN: The copy we have on display is the first printed version of Sulalat al-Salatin. Previously, this book would have been produced in the manuscript tradition by a group of copyists and scribes. At present, we know of 32 extant manuscript copies of the Sejarah Melayu. These manuscripts would have only been read in courtly settings by royalty, and sometimes formed part of the royal regalia as well. For example in the Riau courts, these manuscripts were wrapped in yellow silk, and read only during special functions. Access to the manuscripts were thus governed by social relationships, and would have been incredibly exclusive.

What Munshi Abdullah, or Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, did was to bring this book to the masses by printing it. Because the book had been in circulation for a long time in the form of manuscripts, the fact that it was printed in about 1840 was a revolutionary fact in and of itself. In the preface of the book, Munshi Abdullah states this clearly. He wanted more people to read this book, especially students, because he thought of Sejarah Melayu as being the pinnacle of good Malay. Thus, he saw it both as a work of historical significance and literary merit.

In the preface, Munshi Abdullah also writes that the work of two hundred scribes can now be done by a single printer. With the advent of printing technologies, knowledge could now be disseminated quicker than ever before. It changed the way in which readers now interacted with the text itself, and in a way, spelt the demise of the manuscript tradition.


NN: Munshi Abdullah was a prolific writer, and we all know about Munshi Abdullah’s semi-autobiographical work, or his magnum opus, the Hikayat Abdullah. This book documented the socio-political landscape of Singapore and the Malay Kingdoms of Riau-Lingga. He was able to give such insight into the happenings of the time because he had a front row seat to how the region was developing. One of his lesser known works is a syair, or a poem, titled A Malay Poem On New Year’s Day, 1848. With this, he wrote about how it was really like to celebrate an occasion like the New Year’s Day of 1848 in Singapore. He was at the Esplanade, on the Padang, and this was way back in the mid-nineteenth century. He describes events such as races and celebrations that were enjoyed by both the British and local communities. His works are important not just because they describe the geopolitical landscape of the time, but also for their accounts of social life as well.

Working contemporaneously with Munshi Abdullah was John Turnbull Thomson. Thomson was a government surveyor between 1841 to 1853, and he was in charge of surveying and charting the land through maps. His work included overseeing the construction of buildings and infrastructural capabilities in Singapore. Aside from this, Thomson published books that included some personal anecdotes from his time in the Straits Settlements. What’s interesting is that Thomson was a student of Munshi Abdullah, and he learnt the Malay language from Munshi Abdullah himself.

Another local writer who was writing during this time was Tuan Simi. Unfortunately, not much is known about him. His poems are a firsthand account of the economic landscape of Singapore in the mid-nineteenth century. In his poems, he also speaks of how locals were exploited by the British. One of his better known works is Syair Dagang Berjual Beli (Poem on Trade and Commerce), in which he narrates the bustling Customs Office.

Through both foreign and local writers and poets, a multi-faceted picture emerges of how early Singapore was like in terms of social, political and economic aspects. Most of the writings and visualisations of this time come to us from foreigners. As such, the perspectives of the locals might have been left out of these texts. Nevertheless, these materials are still valuable sources of information for researchers working today.


NN: This is a book of great rarity and significance, so it has to be kept under controlled conditions. We try to mediate this experience for viewers through digital technology. The book is accessible online through our digital book platform, BookSG, where we upload most of our Rare Materials Collection. We try to recreate that personal experience with the book by allowing viewers to flip through the pages digitally, and I think that’s the closest we can get to how that would have been like.

The exhibition will also be roving to four public libraries, namely the Woodlands Regional Library, Tampines Regional Library, Jurong Regional Library and Central Public Library. For those exhibitions, the Sejarah Melayu will be available in the format of a digital screen. Viewers will be able to flip through it, sort of like they would a giant Kindle. This allows people to interact with the book in ways that they might not have been able to if they were reading it in real life. With the screen, viewers can zoom into particular portions.

For us, we wanted to use this exhibition to highlight the various episodes within the Sejarah Melayu that relate to early Singapore. There are a couple of stories within this book that would be familiar to many Singaporeans. This includes the founding of Singapore by Sang Nila Utama, the attack on Singapore by garfish, or even the story of Badang. These are stories that are in the collective minds and imaginations of Singaporeans, so that really attests to the enduring legacy Sejarah Melayu, despite the fact that many might not know that these stories have their roots in this particular book. We hope the display will also highlight how early Singapore was described as a cosmopolitan port city. The book is testament to the significance of Singapore within the Malay Archipelago and to traders from all around the world. Singapore has gone through many historical periods and developments, and we can learn more about the breadth of our history through books such as the Sejarah Melayu. We also hope the display will entice students, researchers and even the general public to come peruse and work with our Rare Materials Collection, because we have more of such artefacts documenting these moments in history.
The First Print: Stories and Legends of Early Singapore is now open.
The exhibition will run at the National Library, Singapore until 24 March 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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