When we speak of Singapore and Malaysia, we’re usually talking about the urban areas or places that are popular tourist destinations.
Singapore is normally known for its modern buildings, commercial outlets, events and for being technologically advanced.
Malaysia, on the other hand, is not only known for its cities but also for a diverse range of physical landscapes and rich heritage.
Speaking of heritage, it is one of the things that Malaysia and Singapore share. They are both home to several multi-ethnic and multi-cultural people, as a result of their common history till 1965.
1965 was the year that Singapore became an independent state.
Within this shared past, lies the concept of ‘Kampong’ or ‘Kampung’ that many of us aren’t familiar with. It is an important part of the local culture of the two countries and
Kampong is a Malay word that translates to ‘village’ in English. They are a type of traditional village or a cluster of houses normally located near a water body.
This concept is visible within and around the Malay Archipelago in South East Asia. Therefore, Singapore and Malaysia are not the only countries familiar with the idea. Indonesia, Brunei, southern parts of Thailand and even Cambodia have their own kampongs. In Cambodia however, the word refers to a place along a body of water and to a river town. The essence of a kampong is similar everywhere, but the people and their customs are what differentiate each one from the other.
Through extensive research, I found that it was the native people of Malaysia that first inhabited a kampong.
As such, this post will also focus on the concept of kampong in Malaysia and Singapore. Even in this context, there are several types of enclosures as there are multiple cultures within this area too. Different indigenous tribes have their own style of kampong; Chinese-influenced kampongs have their own style; the Peranakan-style kampongs are different too, but, as this post intends to briefly explain the idea of kampongs, it will focus primarily on the general indigenous idea and culture of a kampong in these two countries.
What is a Kampong?
The word kampong generally refers to a small village or an enclosure with a group of traditional houses originally inhabited by the indigenous Malays.
Depending on the location, there would be a paddy field at the outskirts of the village, where the people would work.
Larger kampongs exist as well and have mosques, schools, cemeteries to honour and pray to the ancestors in their afterlife.
The Essence of a Kampong
In a kampong, everyone helps each other out and they all look out for each other. For example, if one household has surplus food, they would share it with their neighbours. To return the favour, they would then help them out with something else. Acts of selflessness and kindness are what make up the majority of the kampong culture.
Here, there is no concept of the individual, everything is shared between the community. The residents often share daily tasks and additional tasks festivals such as Eid, and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
Historically, building houses was a huge deal in the kampong culture and usually, the whole village would be involved in the activity, to help out the new tenants.
Everyone is familiar with each other in these villages, making it a safe space where people have each other’s backs.
Originally, kampongs were led by a village chief called a Penghulu, who also had the authority to resolve civil matters. Some sources mention that this post was inherited but, the individual also had to be someone who had fulfilled the following criteria:
a) Had completed the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca
b) Had a sufficient amount of wealth
c) Had sufficient wisdom and life experience
However, over time, the concept of having a village chief gradually disappears. Instead, there are landlords who charge a small monthly fee for using the land. The land would be used to construct houses and for planting fruit trees and vegetables for self-sustenance.
Other meanings of Kampong
The European colonists referred to kampong as a town, neighbourhood or compound. In fact, the English word compound, meaning an enclosure with a group of buildings, is derived from the Malay word kampong.
In Malaysia specifically, a kampong is referred to as a small Malay village with fewer than 10,000 ethnically Malay people. According to the Sultan of Selangor of the 19th century, the Malay people refer to people of the Malay race who speak the Malay language and practise Islam.
Over the years, kampong is also used to their village or place of origin. More recently, it is also used to describe urban slums.
Origins and Development
Native Malays or the Bumiputera, include the several native tribes of Malaysia. They all moved and settled on the swamps and riverbanks as the lands were more fertile; ideal for their agricultural activities. The original kampong culture is based on myths and beliefs followed by the Bumiputera.
They would construct traditional Malay houses or Rumah Melayu, which resembled the houses found in present-day kampongs. The native people of the Malaysian Peninsula and Borneo would build them with naturally available materials such as wood and bamboo.
Note: Malaysia is divided into west Malaysia, which is the Malay peninsula and into East Malaysia, which is on the island of Borneo. The two are separated by the South China Sea approximately 600km away from each other.
When the Europeans had arrived in the region in the 16th century, they had interacted with the local tribes and learned to source valuable resources from the dense forests and swamps. That is how the Europeans began mining precious metals and extracting rubber.
In the 18th century, the European colonizers in the region had begun mining tin and other valuable metals and extracting rubber. To help with these tasks, Arab, Chinese and Indian immigrants were brought in as labour. With the influx of immigrants at the time, new areas close to the trading ports were established for their accommodation. Over the years, those areas have turned into modern towns filled with people of different backgrounds.
This concept was new to the indigenous Malays living in kampongs, making them reluctant to move to these urban areas. So, they decided to stay in their calm and familiar rural areas. This is one reason why kampong culture is regarded as ‘backward’ and ‘anti-urban.’
Kampong Culture Explained
People living in these villages embrace togetherness and have a strong sense of community. People believe in sharing the joint burden of a task. This is known as the kampong spirit.
The villagers also respect each other, especially the elderly. However, they place their faith in God more than anything else.
People believe in spirits and superstitions. This plays an important role when choosing a place to build their house. A local priest would perform rituals to check whether the place would be appropriate enough not to disturb the spirits. They believe if the spirits are disturbed, they will disturb the residents of the new house and bring them misfortune.
Building houses is, therefore, not planned according to the surroundings and the accessibility to resources. There are usually 20 to 30 houses in one village, however larger areas have could even have 50 houses. The houses have enough space separating them from each other for the necessary space to plant trees, raise animals and grow crops.
As the villages were normally located near water or in swamp areas, dwellings were built on wooden stilts.
Rumah Melayu houses
As mentioned earlier, these were traditional houses made of wood and bamboo built by the native people.
As they did not have nails to join the materials together, they would cut indentations on the materials and lock them with the other pieces to join them.
Without any permanent fixtures, it was easy for them to dismantle the building materials, carry them and build new houses in new locations. This supported their original nomadic lifestyle as well. These types of houses existed way before the arrival of the Europeans and the same style continued even after their arrival and even after they introduced new materials such as bricks and nails.
The hot and humid weather and its location presented several challenges in maintaining the structural integrity of the house. They faced problems of flooding, termites, wild animals, heat and even thieves.
To solve all these problems, they came up with an innovative solution: to build their houses on stilts 1-3 metres from the ground level. The raised platforms would allow ventilation underneath the main living space, cooling the house down in the tropical climate and, solve the other issues.
The traditional houses would follow a specific order from the exterior to the interior. The order is as follows:
- Anjung: The porch area where guests would be received and welcomed into the house.
- Serambi: The veranda at the front of the house. This place was used for relaxation and to entertain guests in a space that is slightly away from the main living space.
- Rumah Ibu: This refers to the main living space or even the part of the house that is away from the kitchen. This area is separated into smaller rooms called Bilik.
- Selang: The space between the Rumah Ibu and Dapur. This also led to the second staircase of the house.
- Dapur: The part of the house with the kitchen. This would be located at the end of the house, away from the Rumah Ibu to avoid the possibility of catching fire. The Dapur normally wouldn’t have a roof.
The iconic feature of these houses was their gable style-roofs. Just like the stilts, the roofs would also allow cross-ventilation and cool down the living space.
Stairs would connect the ground and the porch. They would sometimes have designs on them. The decorative designs, aesthetic details and even the structure of the house would depend on the location and on what the residents wanted.
These houses had no fences as there was no sense of formality among people. Nobody would think that they were overstepping their boundaries, they would just invite themselves into other people’s households. The concept of trespassing did not exist here and the people of the village would like a giant, loving family.
Jendala or windows were constructed after the availability of nails.
It is interesting to note that the kampong houses that exist today are a hybrid of the traditional Rumah Melayu and colonial dwellings. This is either in terms of their architecture, the type of materials used or the method of construction.
Lifestyle and Diet
The occupation of the villagers would depend on the location. For example, those kampongs near the coast or river would engage in fishing. Those with paddy fields at the boundary of the village would work there. Those along the shore and mangrove swamps would work as woodcutters and fishermen.
The villagers would eat whatever was locally available to them. Traditionally, the inhabitants of the kampongs would grow their own crops and even raise farm animals, such as the kampong chicken. This custom continued and hence, their diet would consist of seafood, local chicken, rice, organic homegrown vegetables and fruits, traditional biscuits and tea. These are the same food items that are visible in present-day Malay cuisine.
Kampong houses had no access to running water, cooking gas or electricity. Kerosene lamps were the source of light after dark and the main cooking fuel was firewood.
Originally, hygiene practices weren’t advanced either. Initially, bathing spaces and bathrooms were common spaces, used by all. Later on, every household had its own toilet in the form of wooden planks. Under these planks, a hole would be dug up and a bucket would be placed. A person was assigned to empty these buckets every 2 days.
For laundry, either rainwater was collected or it was drawn from the local well.
Many families would not be able to afford to send their kids to school, so they would pass their time by doing household chores, catch fish or playing traditional games such as chasing a chicken, five stones and chapteh. Chapteh is a game that is played with a colourful weighted shuttlecock. The shuttlecock is kicked and passed around to the players using their legs and feet. The objective is to keep it in the air for as long as possible.
Overall, life was laid back, simple and enjoyable. This attitude to life is still seen among the ethnic Malays.
Over time, it became easier to distinguish between the wealthy and the poor in the neighbourhood. The poor would live in attap houses, where the thatched roof was built with the attap palm leaves. The wealthy, on the other hand, would construct the whole house, including the roof with wood.
Stories are a form of intangible cultural heritage and Malay stories were passed on verbally. They are often based on native philosophies, supernatural characters based on Malay myths, healing rituals and even historical events.
The Ulun-no-Bokun people live in several kampongs in North Borneo. They have a tale about a beast named Magaiyun. This beast has bat-like wings, lives in a cave, barks like a deer and can eat human beings. The tale revolves around how the surviving villagers successfully defeated the beast and survived its wrath.
Stories would also be recounted by a professional storyteller called the Penglipur lara from one kampong to the other, in public places and even royal courts. He would recite them in the form of melodic poems which are still familiar with the ethnic Malays. These stories would be about princes and princesses.
Kampong Culture Today
Today, the remaining kampongs in Singapore and Malaysia have their own toilets with access to electricity, water and cooking gas.
Nowadays, the paying fees to the landlord of a kampong is more visible. However, tenants no longer need to construct their own houses.
The residents of today also appreciate more privacy and they do believe in trespassing, dissimilar to their ancestors.
Kampongs have been victims of urbanization for the past 40 years. In Singapore, the government sponsored the displacement of villagers to urban areas for the sake of developing the rural areas in the 1970s. Therefore, only 2 active kampongs remain in Singapore.
This weakened the kampong lifestyle and brought about a sudden change in lifestyle to those who were previously living in villages. While they took time to adjust to the urban lifestyle from their relatively primitive one; the people already living in those areas started associating their habits with being undisciplined and uncivilized in the urban context. Their natural lifestyle was unfavourable in the urban Malay and Singaporean spaces. As such, it is another reason why the word Kampong is regarded as anti-urban.
In Malaysia, 1/4th of the population still live in kampongs, in rural areas.
Relevant Places to Visit
If you would like to experience and feel the ambience of what these traditional villages may be like. I recommend the following places to visit.
Please note that some of these places are not meant to be tourist attractions. Those kampongs are still active with people living in their own homes. So, in some of these areas are only to get the vibe of the place and enjoy the ambience, while in some it is also possible to engage with the residents.
Pulau Ubin, Singapore: An island 15 minutes away from mainland Singapore. This island houses some of the fishing kampongs. It is even possible to enter one of the houses and see what a traditional kampong house feels like. Bumboats are available from Changi Ferry Terminal for SGD 3.
Kampong Lorong Buangkok, Singapore: Located on the northeastern side of Singapore. This is a kampong established in 1956, where a mix of Chinese and Malay populations live together. It is the last active Kampong remaining on the main island of Singapore.
Kampong Glam, Singapore: Home to the Sultan of Johore in the 19th century and a community of Arabs and, Muslims from various communities from present-day Indonesia. Back in the day, it housed shophouses which were both shops and residences for the locals. These shophouses have now been converted to commercial outlets, cafes and ethnic restaurants. The Sultan Mosque and the Malay Heritage Centre are also located in this area.
Kampong Bharu, Kuala Lumpur: Established in 1899, the traditional Malay houses of this urban kampong have classic Malay elements along with some colonial architectural elements. The hybrid houses were built by local builders keeping the owner’s vision in mind.
Sarawak, Borneo: Visit this state on the island of Borneo in East Malaysia and stay in the ethnic houses of the many tribes inhabiting the land. Engage and interact with the locals and their culture. For more information visit the official website of the Sarawak Cultural Village.
Both Singapore and Malaysia are popular destinations not only in South East Asia but also in the world. The kampong way of life is not something tourists usually come across in these two places, so, it could be hard to believe that such a culture and lifestyle even exists and, that it is so deeply instilled in the locals, especially the ethnic Malays. As tourists, it is, therefore, important to sometimes look beyond the usual to truly understand the places we visit.
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