The secret gift of reading is time.

Booksellers of Kampong Glam: A History​

Arabic Library annexe, Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, Beach Road

At one level, bookshops exist to meet the needs of a literate community. The more vibrant the bookshop trade, chances are the more ideas are being rigorously circulated and discussed. A direct correlation may be impossible to establish, but it could be said that the presence of bookshops may be taken as a proxy indicator of the intellectual life of a community.

And this term ‘community’ leads to another role of bookshops; that of a ‘third space’. A bookshop is not a commercial market place nor is it home. It is not a public area where anything goes nor is it a private cocoon that restricts entry. It is an in-between space where time is slightly unhurried and where the mundane slips away as readers give themselves to exploring new perspectives and re-discovering well-worn truths. Communities need bookshops, whether they realise it or not.

The first Muslim bookshops in Singapore started out at about the same time the Malay print industry here was taking off, about the middle of the 19th century. The first few Malay titles printed by commercial Muslim presses in Singapore began in 1860. The retail of books began in the premises of printers, some of which evolved into very substantial bookshops with significant inventories. These first printshops – or print-cum-bookshops – were clustered in Kampong Glam around Sultan Mosque, especially along Sultan Road (known to the Malays as Lorong Masjid Sultan, but later renamed Bussorah Street in October 1909 by the municipal authorities).

Singapore’s place as a cosmopolitan centre in the region is well established, but it is often overlooked that Singapore was also a free port for the trafficking of new Malay political ideas and Islamic religious attitudes. The medium for all this was print. And the place where readers could readily get hold of their print material was Bussorah Street, right at the heart of Kampong Glam.

The major Singapore Muslim printers of the time were overwhelmingly Javanese from the coastal cities of Java. Some of the most prolific were Haji Muhammad Nuh bin Haji Ismail of Juwana, Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Muhammad Arsyad of Semarang, and Shaikh Haji Muhammad Ali bin Haji Mustafa of Purbalingga. But just a few years later in the 1880s, a pioneering bookseller came onto the scene. Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Salih, was, by all accounts, a game-changer.

Haji Muhammad Siraj, established 1883
Haji Muhammad Siraj arrived from the Javanese regency of Rembang in 1883 and established his bookshop at 43 Sultan Road. While Siraj operated the largest bookshop in Kampong Glam at the time, he had other channels of distribution in the form of agents in towns such as Melaka, Perak and Penang. In addition, most of his religious titles would have been sold through well-established Islamic teaching networks, via Islamic schools or religious teachers who purchased in bulk (berkodi-kodi). What was different about Siraj as a bookseller was his embrace of the new media of the day, the Malay newspaper, which was revolutionary in its ability to disseminate ideas relatively quickly to the far corners of the Malay world. Siraj took out regular advertisements in the first Malay-language newspaper the Jawi Peranakan (published 1876 to 1895), for which he was one of the editors. His advertisements listed titles, prices, postage costs, and gave instructions on how to order and in what currency.

Like the other booksellers, Siraj grouped the books he sold into three categories:

Kitab, religious books such as Mukhtasar al-Hikam and Bidayat al-Mubtadi,

Syair, Malay long-form poems such as Syair Saudagar Bodoh [Poem of the Foolish Merchant] and Syair Panji Semirang, and

Hikayat, stories, often quite imaginative, with some moral or religious message such as Hikayat Tengkorak Kering [Story of the Dry Skull] and Hikayat Alf Laila wa Laila 1001 Malam [1001 Nights] in five volumes.

Siraj’s contemporaries include the prolific publisher Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Muhammad Arsyad who started operations in 1870 from two premises at 47 and 51 Sultan Road. Siraj’s brother Sidek opened a printshop next door to Siraj at 42 Sultan Road in 1891. So by the late 19th century, there were no less than four of these book establishments in that short street between Sultan Mosque and Beach Road. This is probably as good as any indicator of the vibrant intellectual life existing in Kampong Glam at the time.

Maktabah Marie, established 1938, and Pustaka Abdul Hafiz At-Tamimi
Another important figure in the history of the Islamic book trade in Singapore was an Arab by the name of Sulaiman Marie. Sulaiman was born in Hyderabad, India in 1862, and later migrated to the Dutch Indies where he started a printing company in Surabaya in 1927, chiefly to print the Qur’an. At the time, virtually all the Qur’an available in Southeast Asia was obtained from printers in Bombay. The printing of the Qur’an was, and remains, a technically challenging and tedious process because of the zero tolerance for typographical errors or other printing or binding errors. In the early 1930s Sulaiman came to learn about the growing print industry in Japan and its ready supply of cheap high-quality paper. He decided to open a branch in Osaka and sent his son Mansour Marie there to oversee the printing of the Qur’an and other Islamic texts in Japan. The Qur’an and books published in Osaka were exported to Southeast Asia. In 1938, Sulaiman Marie arrived in Singapore and opened the bookshop Maktabah Marie in Bussorah Street, thereby becoming the first Singapore-based publisher to print the Qur’an. He also operated a print shop and printed religious books. In 1940, after a brief but illustrious publishing career in Singapore, Sulaiman returned to Surabaya and left the business to his son Mansour who had just closed the company’s operations in Osaka after eight years.

Maktabah Marie continued to print the Qur’an in Singapore and expanded to the publishing of the works of the Patani Malay scholar Shaykh Daud Fatani. The books were printed in handy serialized form on relatively cheap paper.

Eventually, due to increasing cost of labour and paper, it was more economical to import Qur’an than to print, and so Maktabah Marie ceased printing the Qur'an in the late 1970s. Mansour Marie operated a printing press in Geylang, while his retail operations were at 60 Bussorah Street. By the 1980s, the business was under the care of Mansour’s sons, Saud and Faris, as well as a talented bookseller, Abdul Kadir Attamimi.

When the Marie siblings left the company, the bookshop was renamed Pustaka Abdul Hafiz At-Tamimi, after Abdul Kadir's son. Abdul Kadir’s easy-going personality made his bookshop an important meeting place for students and regional scholars, as well as Malay youth in general. The famous Malay rock singer Ramli Sarip spent much time in his youth in Abdul Kadir’s establishment and the circle of friends, comprising artists, musicians and sportsmen, that grew out of this association came to be known as the Bussorah Connection. This has been immortalized in Ramli’s song ‘Blues Yang Hilang’. Abdul Kadir’s bookshop was quintessentially a ‘third space’.

Before we move on, it is important to mention Toko Haji Hashim, which was established in 1922 at 34 Arab Street. Still run by the descendants of Haji Hashim, with another branch at Joo Chiat Complex, Toko Haji Hashim may well be the longest running bookshop in Singapore.

Pustaka Nasional, established 1963
Pustaka Nasional is a publisher and bookseller that had its offices and bookshop at 40 Kandahar Street. It was established by Syed Ahmad Semait who was one of the most prominent Muslim publishing entrepreneurs of his time. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, and from 2001 to 2003, Pustaka Nasional was active in publishing Malay literary books, but gradually faced stiff competition from publishers in Malaysia. One very successful book, no doubt helped by the fact that it was adopted as a Malay literature text in schools, was Mail Mahu Kahwin [Mail Wants to Marry] by Muhammad Arif Ahmad, a celebrated Malay writer. However the bulk of the books published by Pustaka were religious books in Rumi that were adapted from the original Jawi or that were translated from Arabic. Syed Ahmad himself translated many of the key works in Pustaka’s catalogue such as Nasihat Agama Wasiat Iman that has remained a mainstay in religious classes in mosques throughout Singapore and Malaysia. In 1996, Pustaka was appointed by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to develop textbooks for the unified madrasah syllabus; previously the madrasah used different textbooks.

Syed Ahmad’s tireless effort in translating religious titles, and his unflagging support of Malay literary works, often in collaboration with literary groups such as ASAS 50, changed the landscape of not only the Singapore Malay book industry in the 1980s and 1990s, but also of religious education, both formal (in madrasah) and informal (in mosques).

Today
Specialist Islamic bookshops remain an important feature in the mix of businesses at Kampong Glam. While Javanese and Arabic books are no longer widely sold, imported Malay and English books on Islam are readily found on the shelves of these bookshops. Like their counterparts elsewhere, booksellers here face the challenge of a dwindling readership as media consumptions shift towards the electronic.

We still believe in the timeless relevance of books because they remain the only technology that is able to preserve, announce, expound, and transmit knowledge to a literate readership across time and space. The objects we call books are in reality potentialities that are only realized in the mind of the reader; it comes into being when an active reader is reading it. The book is an interface where the mind of the author and the mind of the reader meets. It is now, more than ever, that if people are without bookshops that stock quality reading material, they would, quite literally, be left to their own devices.

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