How to Enjoy Kampong Glam, Singapore's Malay/Arab Quarter

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(Video: Slideshow of interesting Kampong Glam sights)
Enjoy Kampong Glam in Singapore, where the shopping is as interesting as its community culture...

On this page: [History of Malay-Arab Quarter] [Suggested Walking Tour]

Imagine this.... You run a textile business and you have run out of a fabric which your customer is looking for. Would you point her/him to a competitor just down the road and say, "Have you tried ABC Trading at Unit 36?"

Well, that was what I saw when I first shopped at Kampong Glam a few years ago. We were looking for fabrics to make a wedding gown. And when one shop after another realised they have run out of the stuff we needed, each just referred us to another in the area. "They may have it," each gentleman would say. What generous business culture!

It simply blew my mind off. Here were businesses in direct competition with each other, and yet each referred customers to the other! I found this truly amazing in competition-driven Singapore. And for that, I recommend that you at least browse the shops here when you visit Singapore.

A Very Brief History of Kampong Glam

Kampong Glam Singapore - Tree bark of the gelam tree.
Bark of the gelam tree. Several of these trees have been re-planted on the grass patch beside Kandahar Street. They come from the same family as the eucalyptus.

Kampong Glam got its name from the gelam tree that used to grow abundantly in the area. Kampong in Malay means village. So Kampong Glam may loosely be translated 'Village of Gelam Trees'.

Before land was reclaimed around the Beach Road area, Kampong Glam was actually very near a harbour. Here, Bugis sailors used the bark of the gelam tree to seal gaps in their boats.

When Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819, he negotiated with a Sultan Hussein to set up a trading post for the British East India Company. They also agreed to set aside Kampong Glam as a settlement for the Malay-Muslims in Singapore. By the end of 1819, Sultan Hussein had built his palace-of-sorts in this area. It was commonly referred to as Istana Kampong Glam.

The palace was rebuilt by Sultan Hussein's son, Tunku Ali, in the 1840s. Today, the 2-storey building has been restored and used as a Malay Heritage Centre.

Sultan Hussein also negotiated with Raffles to build a mosque near his palace. Raffles eventually contributed $3000 Spanish dollars to the building of this mosque, which was predictably called Sultan Mosque.

The original mosque was a single-storey building. In the 1920s, Singapore's Muslim community undertook a major fund-raising project to rebuild the mosque. The splendid building was completed in 1928. Even today, it stands as Singapore's largest mosque, and easily accommodates up to 5000 worshippers at any one time.

The Malays of colonial Singapore also traded extensively with the Arabs and enjoyed a good relationship with them. Many Arabs felt so comfortable they actually settled in Kampong Glam. They were a major influence in this area. If you take a walking tour of Kampong Glam today, you'll see streets named after Middle Eastern places - Arab Street, Busorrah Street, Baghdad Street, Muscat Street.

Kampong Glam Walking Tour

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(see the blue route on map below)

Allow me to take you on a virtual Kampong Glam Walking Tour. On this tour, you may

  • shop for distinctly Malay/Arab goods,
  • visit Singapore's largest mosque,
  • admire early-Singapore shophouse architecture,
  • get a better understanding of Malay heritage, and
  • even try your hand at pottery and batik-painting.

Getting Here (see the red route above)

The easiest way to get to Kampong Glam is to take the MRT train to Bugis Station. Once you exit, walk along Victoria Street in the direction of Raffles Hospital and Golden Landmark Hotel. (You can't miss these two huge buildings) Once past Golden Landmark Hotel, turn right onto Arab Street where you begin the Walking Tour.

Part 1 - Arab Street (between North Bridge Road and Baghdad Street)

Kampong Glam Singapore - Arab Street shop selling multi-coloured fabrics.

Arab Street is a great place to find bargains for textiles - fabrics, dresses, beads, sequins, scarfs, women's wear. There are also a handful of shops selling carpets and other hand-woven household stuff.

Do look out also for rattan home decor - laundry baskets, chairs, flower-hangs, etc. You may think that this is a tourist street, but the locals actually shop here.

Once you've had enough of Arab Street, turn left onto Baghdad Street and left again onto Bussorah Street Pedestrian Mall.

Part 2 - Bussorah Street Pedestrian Mall

Kampong Glam Singapore - Restored old Singapore shophouse.

Bussorah Street has 2 sections - one open to vehicles, another only for pedestrians. Both sections are worth a look. Most people spend their time browsing the fascinating souvenir shops at the pedestrian section.

Bussorah Street is also home to Singapore's best-rated hostel, Sleepy Sam's. It is also a great place to see pretty restored shophouses from the colonial era.

Part 3 - Sultan Mosque (at end of Bussorah Street Mall)

Kampong Glam Singapore - Sultan Mosque as seen from Kandahar Street.
Sultan Mosque as seen from Kandahar Street.

A visit to Sultan Mosque is a must on this walk. The mosque is the largest in Singapore.

Do look up at its main dome, which sits on a black-rimmed structure.

This black rim is actually formed with soft drink bottles! Find out why bottles were used in the building of Sultan Mosque.

Part 4 - Malay Heritage Centre

Walk along the perimeter fence of Sultan Mosque towards Kandahar Street.

Kampong Glam Singapore - the restored Istana now used as the Malay Heritage Centre.
The Malay Heritage Centre
-once the palace of Malay sultans.

You'll see a restored 2-storey building in a lovely compound. This was once the palace of Sultan Hussein.

It is now called the Malay Heritage Centre, but its old name of Istana Kampong Glam still sticks in many people's minds. The various sections of the Centre are worth spending time on.

The Malay Heritage Centre also houses 2 little-known workshops in its backyard - one for pottery and the other for batik-painting. Be amazed as you watch lumps of clay turn into beautiful pottery. Or when a white piece of cloth becomes a multi-coloured piece of art.

You may sign up for a half-day or full-day workshop here. Even if you don't join the workshops, you're welcome to watch the artists in action. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the pottery workshop is run by Singapore's most talented (yet amazingly humble) potter - Mr Iskandar Jalil.

Call (+65) 63910450 or (+65) 63910465 to enquire.

Related Pages

Visitor Information & Photos on Sultan Mosque

Photo Tour of Kampong Glam Shops

Sights and activities at Istana Kampong Glam (Malay Heritage Centre)

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