The state has envisioned the touristic landscape of Kampong Glam as one that served a deeper ideological purpose—to anchor, spatially and materially, the ethnic identity and history of Singapore’s Malay community (see Kong & Yeoh, 1994; Chang, 1997; Tajudeen, 2007). Beyond the touristic gaze and state planning, however, Eunos and its surrounding areas are important landscapes of ‘Malayness’. From the first Kampong Melayu—subsequently renamed Kampong Eunos—to the present day markets in the nearby Geylang Serai, the place-identity of Eunos is closely associated with the histories and the everyday lives of various Malay communities in Singapore. Arguably, this was also the main site of Malay nationalism during the early 20th century. Since the colonial era, this district embeds a spatial representation and legacy of the Malay community’s political agency. Within such spatial sense of ‘Malayness’ are cosmopolitan connections with other ethnic communities, notably the Arabs and the Chinese. Despite the resettlement of Kampong Eunos later in the 1980s to make way for the Pan Island Expressway (PIE), Eunos is still a significant landscape for, and is closely integrated in the daily lives of, many Singaporean Malays today.
During the late 19th century, a significant number of Malay settlers congregated around the present-day Geylang Serai—the designated ethnic quarter for the Malay community and the regional port in colonial Singapore. The former grew around a transport terminus and trade fair site (see Tajudeen, 2007). By the early 1920s, the region was a patchwork of Malay villages with hundreds of traditional elevated timber houses. In 1926, a vocal Malay political body – Singapore Malay Union (SMU) – was formed. Led by Mohamed Eunos bin Abdullah, one of SMU’s first political actions was to relentlessly campaign for a plot of land for the Malay community in colonial Singapore (see Savage & Yeoh, 2013: 168). The colonial government agreed—the SMU was given a symbolic grant of $70,000 in 1927, and with that, 620 acres of vacant land northeast of Geylang Serai was purchased. The site was chosen for its proximity to Geylang Serai. It became known as Kampong Melayu, and later, Kampong Jalan Eunos. According to Aljunied (2009: 7), place and territoriality play an important part cementing the identity and sense of belonging for Malays—this was obviously the case for Kampong Jalan Eunos. The Kampong became the epicenter of Malay community life—decentralization of the Malay communities from Kampong Glam meant an exodus of Malays to Kampong Jalan Eunos; the Malays in Kallang also resettled in Kampong Jalan Eunos in 1936 because of the development of Kallang airport, and so did Malays who subsequently moved from Katong, Siglap and Bedok. With this influx of settlers over the years, the Kampong expanded in 1960 to include the Kaki Bukit area. With the newly independent Singapore government, the site was gazetted as a place for the Malay community, further perpetuating the area’s Malay exclusiveness.
This sense of ‘Malay exclusiveness’, however, is incomplete without examining the connections with the Arabs and Chinese settlers in this area. The influence of the Arab merchants in this area is undeniable. Geylang Serai was named after the Lemongrass (‘Serai’) plantation owned by the Alsagoffs. A member of the Alsagoff family founded the first madrasah in the eastern part of Singapore, Madrasah Al-Khariah at Still Road near Jalan Eunos (see Hack, n.d.: 27-29). In 1932, the Alkaff family built a mosque to serve the large Muslim community—both Malays and Arabs—living in Kampong Jalan Eunos. Thus, the Arabs contributed to the development of key communal spaces in the area. Furthermore, while the Kampong was commonly recognized largely as a Malay settlement, Chinese families were not uncommon within the Kampong. In fact, both Chinese and Malays families settled at the area near the intersection of Jalan Eunos and Changi Road. According to heritage blogger, Philip Chew, who used to live in this area of Kampong Jalan Eunos during the 1960s, there were regular day-to-day interactions between Malay and Chinese families. He recalls mutual visits during Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Chinese New Year, the sharing of television sets and helping one another with household chores and groceries shopping. Thus, while the landscape was predominantly identified with the Malay community, the lived aspects of the landscape were closely entangled with the Arab and Chinese communities.
With the rise of public housing and the development of road networks in the eastern parts of Singapore during the late 1970s and 1980s, Kampong Jalan Eunos was eventually de-gazetted and reacquired by the state for redevelopment in 1988. However, the place association and identity of Eunos with the Malay community remains. Despite the government’s plans to resettle the Malay community to various public housing estates across the island, many gravitated to public housing apartments in Eunos and its surrounding areas such as Geylang, Bedok and Kembangan (Aljunied, 2010: 310). Geylang Serai is currently still an important focal point of the Malay community where strong ethnic relationships are maintained. The Geylang Serai market is a key site where such relationships are affirmed. Some claimed that the ‘Kampong Spirit’ or gotong royong, of this area is still strong in the market. This is exemplified by the fact that many have regularly returned—some all the way from Jurong and Hougang —to support the stallholders who, after all these years, have become friends. While the physical structures of Kampong Jalan Eunos and its surrounding areas may have disappeared due to the state’s developmentalist ethos, the networks and relationships established in the landscape over the years remain steadfast. These contributed in part to the continuous identification of the area as a landscape associated with the Malay community.
Aljunied, S. M. K (2010), ‘Ethnic Resurgence, Minority Communities, and State Policies in a Network Society: The Dynamics of Malay Identity Formation in Postcolonial Singapore’, Identities, 17(2): 304-362.
Aljunied, S. M. K. (2009), ‘British Discourses and Malay Identity in Colonial Singapore’, Indonesia and Malay World, 37(107): 1-21.
Chang, T. C. (1997), ‘From “Instant Asia” to “Multifaceted Jewel”: Urban Imaging Strategies and Tourism Development in Singapore’, Urban Geography, 18(6): 542-562.
Hack, K. (N.d.), The Singapore Malay Community: Enclaves and Cultural Domains, retrieved from: http://www.hsse.nie.edu.sg/staff/blackburn/MalayenclavesSingapore.pdf
Kong, L. and Yeoh, B. S. A. (1994), ‘Urban Conservation in Singapore: A Survey of State Policies and Popular Attitudes’, Urban Studies, 31(2): 247-265.
Savage, V. R. and Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013), Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
Tajudeen, I. (2007), ‘State Constructs of Ethnicity in the Reinvention of Malay-Indonesian Heritage in Singapore’, Traditional Dwellings and Settlement Review, 18(2): 7-27. http://iaste.berkeley.edu/pdfs/18.2b-Spr07imran-sml.pdf
map modified from Imran bin Tajudeen at: http://singapurastories.com/2012/07/geylang-serai-1920s-to-1950s-intensive-growth/#prettyPhoto