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The building is painted a strong yellow, the colour of Malay royalty. IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@TAMANWARISANMELAYU

National Monuments Of Singapore: Istana Kampong Gelam

What is a National Monument? Who gazettes them? How many national monuments are there in Singapore? To date, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division of National Heritage Board, has identified and gazetted 75 buildings, structures and sites of national significance as an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage.

And we're here to tell you all about them - one National Monument at a time!

You've probably passed by or stepped into more than a few of them without realising they were National Monuments: Al-Abrar Mosque, Asian Civilisations Museum, the Civilian War Memorial, Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Esplanade Park Memorials, Fort Siloso on Sentosa - no need to plan an itinerary for friends visiting from overseas; just show them this article ✌️

In this edition, we zoom in on a building that was once the seat and historic home of Malay royalty in Singapore, Istana Kampong Gelam.

📍 Location

Kampong Istana Gelam was the 70th building to be gazetted as a National Monument, and is located near other National Monuments such as Sultan Mosque and Hajjah Fatimah Mosque. The MRT stations nearest to it are Nicoll Highway and Bugis.

📅 Significant dates

Dates built:

  • 1819: The original Istana Kampong Gelam building was built
  • 1836-1843: The structure that exists today was constructed on the site of the original building
  • 1999-2004: The building underwent refurbishment works and reopened as the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC)


  • 12 Mar 1999-2004: Istana Kampong Gelam underwent refurbishment works
  • 2005: Istana Kampong Gelam reopened as the MHC

Date gazetted: 6 Aug 2015

📜 History

In his 1822 town plan, Stamford Raffles allocated Kampong Glam to the Malays, Bugis and Arabs. On 14 Mar 1823, the location east of the European town and lying between Rochor River and the sea – amounting to 56 acres (around 42 football fields) – was given to Sultan Hussein Mohamed Shah.

Sultan Gate and Istana Kampong Gelam then became the seat of Malay royalty in Singapore, beginning with Sultan Hussein who later ceded Singapore to the British East India Company (EIC) on 2 Aug 1824. The estate was given to him as his “personal accommodation”.

Sultan Hussein built his residence at Kampong Glam – a large, rambling attap habitation – and took his whole family and hundreds of followers from Riau, Indonesia, to settle there. However, the sultan never resided in the present building, Istana Kampong Glam, as he died on 5 Sept 1835 in Malacca. His eldest son, Tengku Mohammed Ali Iskander Shah, was only 10 years old then.

In 1840, when Tengku Ali arrived in Singapore to claim his father's estate as rightful heir, the colonial government gave him a monthly pension and allowed his family and heirs to continue living at the Kampong Glam estate. Tengku Ali built Istana Kampong Glam in 1840 at Sultan Gate. He was formally recognised by the British as the sultan of Singapore, Sultan Ali Iskandah Shah, in 1855.

With the re-emergence of Singapore as a flourishing port in the 19th century, Kampong Gelam thrived as a trading and commercial hub. Ships from the Malay Archipelago docked along the coastline of Kampong Gelam. Communities of Bugis, Arab, Javanese and Boyanese descent from Malacca, the Riau islands, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi settled within Kampong Gelam.

Merchants trading in various products, including spices, textiles, gemstones and rattan, congregated in different parts of the district. Kampong Gelam became a notable printing and publication hub, attracting intellectuals and artists from the Malay Archipelago and beyond. It was also the centre for Muslim devotees from British Malaya and then-Dutch East Indies (today, Indonesia), preparing to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The original residence for the Sultan took the form of a timber hut. With the cession of Singapore to the EIC in 1824, the EIC pledged to build a mosque for the Sultan and his followers. This resulted in the establishment of Sultan Mosque which was constructed beside Istana Kampong Gelam.

The present two-storey Istana Kampong Gelam was completed in 1843. It was commissioned by Sultan Hussein Shah’s son and heir, Tengku Mohammed Ali, who later became Sultan Mohammed Ali Iskandar Shah, after he was recognised as the Sultan of Singapore in 1855. Following Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah’s passing in 1877, Istana Kampong Gelam continued to serve as a family home for Sultan Hussein Shah’s descendants until the 1990s.

Over the years, it has hosted several meetings and events, such as royal weddings and tea parties that were organised by the Malay community.

Istana Kampong Glam during refurbishment works, circa Aug 2001.| IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@HELMAR2

As early as 1993, the Government planned to develop Istana Kampong Gelam. Six years later, plans were announced to convert it into a Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) to showcase the rich arts and cultural traditions of the Malay community. The building underwent refurbishment works between 1999 and 2004, and was officially declared open as the MHC by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in June 2005.

Today, the configuration of the Malay Heritage Centre honours the layout of the traditional Malay house with five permanent galleries.


📐 Design and architecture

Similar to much of Classical European architecture, Istana Kampong Gelam was symmetrically planned, featuring classical elements such as round arches (found at the entrance porch), and pilasters (rectangular columns) of the Doric order.

Unofficially, some attribute the design of the structure to George D. Coleman (the first Superintendent of Public Works in Singapore), whose other works include the Armenian Church, the first Saint Andrew’s Church, and the Former Parliament House. This is because the architectural style of Istana Kampong Gelam is seemingly reflective of his work.

The residence was also adapted for the tropical climate, evident in the large pitched roof with projecting eaves for sun-shading and large timber-louvered windows for maximum ventilation.

The building also exemplifies several features of traditional Malay architecture, aptly reflecting its function as the Sultan’s palace. The regional practice of constructing houses on stilts is echoed in a second storey supported by columns over the entrance porch. The large pitched roof has been likened to a defining characteristic of a Malay Limas ("pyramidal") House.

The layout of the house corresponds to Malay house typology with the front hall (serambi) where guests were received, leading to the main hall (ibu rumah) which once connected to an annexe (rumah dapur), where the kitchen would traditionally be located.

🕖 Opening hours

The Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) is currently temporarily closed for renovations. Find out more here.

🎟️ Admission

When the MHC was still open, entry was free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.

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