I saw a poster of the Sultan Mosque (locally known as Masjid Mosque) in the mall and found it wonderfully enchanting. A heritage Mosque in a middle of a bustling city. National day is just around the corner here in Singapore and the government has been heavily promoting heritage structures that represents the different groups and faith in the islands. I got curious and thought it a good idea to see the mosque because like Manila, Singapore was once predominantly Mohamedan (for old Tagalogs Mohammed is “Mahoma” hence the saying “Panahon pa ni Mahoma”).
Early this year I attended the National Library’s exhibit “Stories Behind Singapore Streets” (I think the exhibit is still on going) and found what local historian’s refers to as the “Raffle’s Town Plan”. The British governor mapped and zoned the entire island during his time in the former colony. Such zoning (sectores) also took place during the Spanish era in Manila and all other progressive towns. To get a picture of how this worked back in the day one can visit Malolos which still have the names of the “sectores” as it was implemented in the old days.
Raffles is regarded as the pioneer of modern Singapore and I’ve seen books about his life on sale here. Singaporeans have a mature perspective about their historical evolution and its influence in their modern lives. Around the country, you could still find street names after British royals, British war heroes and even English countrysides. They’re not bothered by these colonial things. What matters to them is what they’ve accomplished when they became independent from the British and Malaysia. Filipinos on the other hand are easily persuaded to give up their historical heritage and replace it with something else. We habitually, for example, change streets names as though they represent nothing more but alphabets. We don’t seem to understand the importance of preserving historical names.
I discovered that the mosque is surrounded by old shops and residential streets that I’ve never seen before. The mosque is located in the Streets of Muscat and Northbridge. This is not the original, as it had to be expanded because of the growing Muslim population. This present structure was built in the 1920’s, interestingly it was designed by a westerner named Denis Santry.
I was impressed by how they managed to preserve the area around the mosque. The district, known as Glam Kampong, is surrounded by towering buildings of is known as central business district. The coexistence of old and new here is something that has long fascinated me. How I wish this is the case in Manila! And I believe that this is possible back home only if we have the the vision to find use for our old buildings.
The pressure to develop space for urban use is real everywhere. Much more in Singapore because they have very limited space but what they do well is manage urban development in a way that it doesn’t harm their historical relics. We’ve seen how urban expansion devastated the heritage structures of Manila, which have bigger space and more options when it comes to urban planning. How Singapore has zoned out certain districts away from development is something we all can learn from.
I would not know that there was an old Muslim settlement in the center of Singapore if I have not seen this district. Although, aside from the mosque, the structures around the district does not appear to be heavily influenced by Islamic art. Its historical significance is that here, their royal and merchant ancestors showed the world the beauty of their culture and religion. This is the beauty of conserving what’s left of the past – it reminds people. The old houses and shops are now mostly commercial spaces but this is good because as long as these structures are utilized – they’ll continue to exist. Architectural reuse is something that our local government in the Philippines needs to catch on. Fast. Before we lose everything.