Years ago, Mdm Fauziah Jamal had offered some of her family’s artefacts to be displayed at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), noticing the lack of representation of the Banjar people, or Banjarese, at the centre.
Today her dream has become a reality with the latest exhibition Urang Banjar: Heritage and Culture of the Banjar in Singapore. Urang Banjar is the fifth installment in MHC’s Se-Nusantara series of community co-curated exhibitions on the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Malay community in Singapore. The exhibition complements MHC’s annual Malay CultureFest, which returns with diverse on-site and online offerings up to 13 December 2020.
A story waiting to be told
Mdm Fauziah, and her younger sister, Mdm Faridah Jamal, are considered second generation Banjarese in Singapore — their mother was born in Indonesia, while their father Haji Ahmad Jamal bin Haji Mohd Hassan, also of Banjarese descent, was born in Singapore. The sisters are among the community contributors whom MHC worked closely with for the exhibition through the recollection of personal anecdotes and gathering of valuable insights.
Known as an ethnic group native to Indonesia, the local Banjar community seem to be lesser-known counterparts to fellow Indonesian natives like the Javanese. As a Javanese-Malay, I found myself foolishly unaware of the presence of such a closely-related community in Singapore. This, according to Mdm Faridah, isn’t surprising and lends a greater impetus for her to share her community’s story.
“For the last, maybe two decades or so, I have been wanting to do this (share our story). I was thinking that nobody, among Malays even, know anything about the Banjarese.”
She admits that the community is “very much under the radar” and adds, “If not now, nobody else would know. […] The younger ones know even less because we are the real connection between the seniors — many of whom have already passed on — and the younger ones.”
A preservation of a culture
The loss of elders as the carriers of Banjar culture and legacy is a huge blow to the community, and the sisters took it upon themselves to share what they had.
“It just so happened that […] we have some documents, which are important and on display, and […] the diamonds that were passed down,” Mdm Faridah said. Her sister added, “We wish that we had more to contribute. If we only knew; unfortunately, […] my father’s not around. Why couldn’t this have happened while he was around? Then we would have had more (to share).”
The sisters come from a long line of family in the diamond business; their father was a diamond merchant pioneer. Their family’s chosen trade is representative of the flourishing Diamond Village that the Banjar people once famously established in old Singapore. Thus it seems fitting that the exhibition of its rich history returned to the MHC — the same area where the diamond trade in Singapore first took root, right in the heart of Kampong Gelam at Kampong Intan (Diamond Village), with the Banjar traders.
Artefacts on display
In fact, visitors of the exhibition will be able to view a replica of the Banjarmasin Diamond – originally a hefty 77-carat uncut stone set in a gold pendant which once belonged to Sultan Panenleka Adam of Banjarmasin and is widely regarded as a ‘war booty’ today. The diamond was seized by the Dutch after civil war erupted following the Sultan’s death in 1859 and subsequently cut into a 44-carat gem.
Besides diamonds, Urang Banjar also brings together over 100 exhibits, featuring ethnographic objects, photographs, community stories, and treasured family belongings, that trace the migration history of the Banjar community into Singapore, and highlights the contributions of the Banjar in the fields of entrepreneurship, Islamic scholarship, and language.
Banjar community researcher, Abdul Latiff bin Omar who is a descendant of a prominent Banjar diamond merchant pioneer in Singapore and has amassed a large collection of Banjar-related memorabilia and family heirlooms, hopes that “the exhibition will encourage a deeper appreciation of and instill greater pride amongst young Banjar for their heritage and culture”.
Food not forgotten
The practices that the sisters hope will not be completely lost within their community is the Banjarese language, which is “not too far from Bahasa Melayu (Malay)” and the sharing of culinary practices; to know the difference between “what is essentially Banjar and what are the kinds of cuisines which are actually influenced from others”.
Not available commercially, Banjar food is mostly a family affair and a best kept secret among its people. Mdm Fauziah claims, “If you’re not invited to a Banjarese family’s home, you will not be able to taste it.”
So a definite highlight of the Malay CultureFest 2020 is the cooking demonstrations of Banjar cuisine where visitors can try their hand at cooking two popular Banjar dishes, Talam Banjar and Bingka Ubi. Visitors can also see these kueh come alive on a porcelain serving dish, or asahan, through an Augmented Reality experience set up in collaboration with students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design as they navigate the galleries — a first for an MHC exhibition.
While proud of being Banjarese, Mdm Faridah claims there is still “a level of shyness” among the community in promoting their culture and cuisine to outsiders. This special exhibition may just be the long-awaited showcase needed for Singapore’s smallest sub-ethnic Malay community to shine under the spotlight.
For more information about the exhibition and festival programmes, visit www.malayheritage.org.sg.