A Handy Cookbook

In the days before eating at a hawker centre became so commonplace, housewives in Singapore would routinely whip up freshly cooked meals for their families. No good kitchen would be complete without condiments such as sambal belachan (a fiery concoction of chilli and shrimp paste) and tau cheo (fermented bean paste). Yet until the 1950s, cookbooks featuring homespun Asian recipes just did not exist.…

Hear Ye Hear Ye

In Singapore, notifications of all new laws passed by parliament are officially announced in the government gazette, a time-honoured practice that continues to this day. One of its earliest iterations was the Straits Government Gazette, published in 1858 when Singapore was still a part of the Straits Settlements and under the government of the Colonial Office of Calcutta in India. Similar in content to…

The first English and Malay Dictionary

The first-ever English and Malay dictionary was written by an unlikely swashbuckling British trader by the name of Thomas Bowrey. More interestingly, it was published in 1701, more than a century before Stamford Raffles even set foot in Singapore. The hefty 594-page bi-directional dictionary – in English-Malay and Malay- English – includes 468 pages of words and definitions, a section on Malay rules of…

Stories of Abdullah

Quite ironically, the most detailed account of Stamford Raffles’ momentous arrival in Singapore was captured by a man who was not even there. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, gathered reports from those present to piece together a version of the events that occurred during Raffles’ first arrival to Singapore on 29 January 1819. This landmark narrative is included in his autobiography Hikayat…

English Nursery Rhymes with a Malay Spin

Many of us would recognise nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns”, but reading Malay versions of these typically British children’s poems in a culturally misplaced context takes some getting used to. A collection of whimsical nursery rhymes given a delightful Malayan spin is the subject of an illustrated compendium published in 1939. Titled Haji’s Book of Malayan…

Indian Muslim Devotional Poems

The early Indian Muslims who settled in Singapore in the 1800s brought with them a varied heritage: their skills as shopkeepers and office workers, their unique customs and beliefs, and a tradition of devout poetry. Indeed, their religious faith was a key source of solace for these transplanted Muslims from the southern part of India, who often expressed their piety in the form of verse.…

A Singapore-made Qur’an

This edition of the Qur’an in the National Library is unique because it is one of the earliest extant copies to have been printed at Kampong Gelam in Singapore. The date of its publication, “13th Rajab in the (Islamic) year 1286” corresponds to 19 October 1869. This information in Jawi (Malay written in modified Arabic script), along with the address of the printer…