Update (March 2016): Keramat Habib Nuh, the mosque of Haji Muhammad Salleh, and Kampung Sambau / “Malay Town” will be discussed in an upcoming Singapura Stories Seminar:
Wednesday Mar 23, 2016
07:00 PM – 09:00 PM
Possibility Room (Level 5), National Library, Singapore
Hope to see you there!
Kampung Sambau / Malay Town – the 19th century context
Kampung Sambau began as a fishing village largely inhabited by Malay fishermen who came from adjacent islands as well as Melaka Malays whose catches were in demand for the fledgling population of early 19th century Singapore Town’s earliest years, when food supply was still limited.
The settlement grew in size and importance, however, and was noted in maps of 1822, 1827, 1842, to 1870 as “Malay Town”, which would have been a multi-ethnic district that also encompassed the old Hakka temple Fook Tet Soo right next door. By the turn of the century Malay Town/Kg Sambau also boasted a Matba’ah Melayu, or Malay Press which was a lithographic printing company. This Malay Town/Kampung Sambau/Palmer Rd area was bounded by what is presently Anson Road, Trafalgar Street and a part of South Quay.
Two Muslim landmarks
Some sense of the cosmopolitan history of this area can be gleaned from the following two individuals behind the two Muslim landmarks that survive in this Town: the shrine at the hill summit, and the old mosque at the foot of the hill. These two buildings are often confused. Let us look at each individual and their associated building in turn.
Habib Noh, and the hilltop mausoleum – the Penang Hadhrami holy man’s keramat
Sayyid Noh bin Sayyid Mohamad (bin Sayyid Ahmad Al-Habshi) is one of Singapore’s pioneers. He arrived in Singapore around 1819 at the age of 31 and was believed to have stayed at Kampung Khaji (Bussorah Street in Kampung Gelam town facing Sultan Mosque), the centre for religious studies and an important centre for the Javanese-Muslim printing industry in Singapore, for the next 47 years or so. Popularly known as known as Habib Noh, he is regarded as one of the seven wali (saint) in Singapore.
Habib Noh frequented a hillock at Tanjung Malang (Reef Promontory) near Mount Palmer (most sources state the hill is Mount Palmer – this is incorrect) to pray in seclusion. As noted above, this area was noted as “Malay Town” in British maps produced from actual surveys from the 1820s to 1870. A close friend of his, Haji Muhammad Salleh (see below), intended to build a surau (small prayer hall) there for him to pray in ease. However Habib Noh passed away before his wish was fulfilled on 27th July 1866 (14 Rabiulawal 1283 H).
Habib Noh was a direct descendant (source: The Grand Saint of Singapore) of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and was a Hadhrami Arab (from Hadhramaut, a valley region in present day Yemen) — but he was from a family of Nusantara-domiciled Arabs. He was born in 1788 enroute to Penang from Palembang. He was revered as a holy man who performed miracles, and was highly respected for his acts of kindness by a great many members of Singapore’s community then (and today), Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who knew him while he was still alive and who, after his death (which was reported in the English newspapers of the then-British colony of Singapore), would visit his mausoleum for supplication or seek his blessings. This practice and his reputation lives on.
The mausoleum (Makam Habib Nuh / Keramat Habib Nuh) has been under the custodianship of a member of the Alsagoff family (Hadhrami dialect pronunciation of the classical Arabic Al-Saqqaf) since Habib Noh’s passing in 1866. The present hilltop mausoleum building was first begun in 1890 by Syed Mohamad bin Ahmad Alsagoff (Nongchik), the son-in-law of the famous Bugis Melaka merchant Hajjah Fatimah (d. c.1890s), whose mosque (first built c.1840) still stands at Java Road, Kampung Rochor, Singapore’s erstwhile Bugis Town.
Haji Muhammad Salleh – the Betawi Malay trader and a friend of Habib Nuh and the mosque at the foot of the hillock
Among the residents of Kampung Sambau was a trader from Batavia (Jakarta), Haji Muhammad Salleh. As noted earlier, Haji Muhammad Salleh was a friend of Habib Nuh, and as a devoted Muslim of means he donated a piece of land at the foot of the hillock where Habib Noh once prayed in seclusion (later known as Bukit Kramat) and where Habib Noh was subsequently buried, where stands the shrine/mausoleum complex today. The existing surau (small prayer hall) which faced the shrine was demolished and replaced with a larger mosque to cater to the shrine’s visitors in 21st April 1902**. The mosque was named Haji Muhammad Salleh Mosque and construction was only fully completed in 1903.
Haji Muhammad Salleh Mosque was a small mosque that catered to up to 200 Muslims living in the vicinity of Kampung Sambau.
The area soon developed and saw workers around the area like police personnel, harbour staff (from PSA Tanjong Pagar and Keppel) and customs men (from Customs Operation Command), in addition to the shrine’s visitors, attending daily prayers and congregations at the mosque.
The mosque was enlarged accordingly in the early 1950s and 1960s to enable it to accommodate approximately 200-250 people**. The funds came in the form of donations by residents and well-wishers. The renovation work carried out by the mosque trustees, namely Almarhum Tuan Akbar Khan and Tuan Haji Hajar Aswad, whose wives are direct descendants of Almarhum Tuan Haji Muhammad Salleh**.
In 1987, MUIS upgraded the mosque at cost of $1 million*. The upgrading was undertaken following a decision by the authorities not to demolish the mosque to give way to the construction of the AYE/ECP expressway, but to curve the expressway around it. The new mosque was designed with a prayer space to accommodate 500 worshippers.
Urbanisation plans called for people residing in the area to be resettled. While the mosque and shrine remained, the surrounding area was completely transformed with high-rise buildings of Shenton Way and Tanjong Pagar, as well as the expressways AYE/ECP.
Extensions carried out around the mosque include additional 2nd level at the rear with a makeshift prayer space, office and meeting room. The mausoleum was entirely tiled in green mosaic, giving it its distinctive appearance today.
The main prayer hall retains the 6 distinctive mock-Corinthian columns till today:
In 2008, a ladder was built from the 1st floor as a ‘saf connector’ to enable the roof terrace beside the mausoleum to be utilised as additional prayer space.
This mosque which was designed to accommodate 500 worshippers back in 1987, now attracts more than 1200 worshipers* for Friday and Eid prayers. Tents need to be erected as makeshift roofs over the roof terrace during these occasions. For the haul (death anniversary) of Habib Noh, happening on the last day of the month Rabi ul-Akhir, the mausoleum (and subsequently the mosque) can attract more than 8000 visitors*.
As of Nov 2012, the mosque declared its intention to embark on another phase of upgrading and is appealing for generous donations and contributions. For more details, visit the mosque’s official website.
Update 13 Feb 2015:
The Mosque’s appeal for contributions to its refurbishment has made it into The Straits Times. Also noteworthy is the mention that the mosque committee hopes that the mosque (and mausoleum) should be considered for heritage protection through gazetting. I could not agree more. However, we should note the distinction between the two buildings (foothill mosque and hilltop mausoleum*) – the two seem to be conflated in the article.
Besides the mosque and the mausoleum, there is a very old Hakka Temple opposite (Fook Tet Soo) which, like Masjid Haji Muhd Salleh, is a small, unassuming building. This building is also not protected. Together with the legacy of the Parsi Lodge, this Malay Town/Palmer Road area is a very significant multi-ethnic, multi-religious and historically important site (including that of a forgotten Malay community here) that has yet to be properly acknowledged by the authorities, and is therefore constantly under threat.
Melody Zaccheus, ‘Historic hilltop mosque* set for upgrade’, Straits Times, 12 February 2015, p. B1.
Link to this article here: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/historic-hilltop-shrine-renowned-muslim-saint-set-upgrad#2
A note on the idea of a “Palmer Road Conservation Area”:
In 2004, Assoc Prof Dr Johannes Widodo of the Dept of Architecture, NUS wrote on the importance of a larger area encompassing the mosque and mausoleum, the Hakka temple, Mount Palmer, and Cursetjee Hill. See article “Preserving the Memory of Place: Case for Support for Palmer Road Area Conservation in Singapore” .
A note regarding Fook Tet Soo archaeological dig:
In 2006 an archaeological team led by Dr Lim Chen Sian (NUS, Dept of Southeast Asian Studies) conducted surface excavations of the area around the Fook Tet Soo Hakka temple just opposite the mausoleum and mosque, at the instigation of the temple leadership. See the article and the report.
The article on this project acknowledged Mr. Chen Po Seng (Ying Fo Fui Kun), Mr. Ng Ching Huei (Singapore History Museum), Dr. Johannes Widodo, Dr. Lai Chee Kien, and Mr. Yeo Kang Shua (Department of Architecture National University of Singapore). It is hoped that such attention to history can be extended to the larger area incorporating the mosque and mausoleum. The temple remains unprotected.
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