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Stories and lessons from the stakeholders of Kampong Gelam

By March 10, 2022No Comments

Creating and sustaining thriving and relevant places over time has become critical and essential for cities not only in creating memorable destinations and contributing to our personal and collective identities, but also building stronger social ties and economic resilience.

It takes a whole community to manage and curate distinctive places. Over the years, communities and stakeholders in key areas have come together to proactively shape favourite places that are close to our hearts. This special feature is on Kampong Gelam, a rich heritage and cultural precinct, and showcases the stakeholders’ views of their roles in the precinct and what they hope to see in the future.

This article is adapted from URA’s placemaking book, How to Make a Great Place (PDF, 12.9MB).


Kampong Gelam has its origins as a thriving port town and is one of Singapore’s oldest urban quarters in the city. In Malay, the word kampung means ‘compound’ or ‘village’, while gelam is often attributed to the long-leaved paperbark tree, which was found and used locally for boat-making, medicine and even as a seasoning for food in the past.

In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles allocated the area to the Malays, Arabs, Bugis, Javanese and other communities. The area subsequently became one of the seats of Malay royalty in Singapore. It developed into an urban area that was an important centre of trade, publishing, intellectual thought, fashion, education, cultural and religious life for the Malay/Muslim world.

Over the years, it has evolved into a mixed-use multi-ethnic neighbourhood while retaining its strong Malay/Muslim heritage and character. The historic core of the precinct, bounded by Ophir Road, Victoria Street, Jalan Sultan and Beach Road, was gazetted as a conservation area in 1989.

Other than the iconic heritage and cultural buildings such as the Sultan Mosque and the Malay Heritage Centre, the area has a diverse and distinctive mix of businesses complemented by its beautiful streetscape.

Malay Heritage Centre
Lively activities along Arab Street


Textile shop at Kampong Gelam
Perfume shop at Kampong Gelam

Different facets of Kampong Gelam, from landmarks such as the Malay Heritage Centre to textiles and long-standing shops and lively activities organised regularly along its streets.

Kampong Gelam’s passionate champion

Place management efforts for the area was initiated by Saeid Labbafi, a Singapore resident and long-time stakeholder of the area. He and his family own eight carpet shops along Arab Street and they have been operating in this historic precinct for close to 20 years.

Seeing the potential and opportunity to enhance the area, coupled with his love for the neighbourhood, Saeid felt that more could be done if everyone banded together. Thus in 2011, he approached 10 shops to get initial support to work together to lead improvements and other efforts for the area.

At the beginning, the challenge was how to prioritise focus areas. Saeid identified improvements that were of common interest to the stakeholders. Efforts included improving the cleanliness of the area, introducing relevant events and regular bazaars that helped to increase footfall to the precinct, and creating outdoor refreshment areas.

The success of such early efforts demonstrated the value of place management. And that gave Saeid greater confidence to form One Kampong Gelam (OKG) in 2014, to actively drive place management initiatives for the area. The group grew to have about 60 members over time.

To further expand on OKG’s efforts, an informal partnership, the Kampong Gelam Alliance (KGA), was set up in 2018. Made up of a more diverse group of stakeholders, including property owners, businesses, hotels, residents and institutions in the neighbourhood, KGA seeks to complement OKG’s efforts to deepen place management efforts for the area.

Reflections on shaping Kampong Gelam

Kampong Gelam’s active stakeholders, some of whom are members of OKG and KGA, reflect on what this precinct means to them, their roles in contributing to placemaking for the area and what they hope to see for its future.

They are Julina Khusaini, General Manager, The Malay Heritage Foundation; Zaini Osman, Senior Director, Mosque & Community Development and former Chief Executive Officer, Warees Investments; Kenneth Chng, Centre Manager, Aliwal Arts Centre and Mohamed Patail, Chairman, Board of Trustee, Masjid Sultan.

What is special about Kampong Gelam to you?

Patail: It is the warm atmosphere and the personal attachment people have to this place that make it special. I remember my growing up years at Bussorah Street. Everyone knew each other. Neighbours would drop by to makan (eat), have a chat or even take a nap. This same street remains, and it is a physical reminder of this wonderful atmosphere.

Many also have a personal connection to the Sultan Mosque as a historic landmark and social anchor. Former residents come back to visit the mosque even after they have moved away for years. People from all over Singapore also come to pray at this mosque. This is partly because of its special aura and location at Bussorah Street.

Julina: It is unique because so many of us have a part of this place in our hearts. I remember my growing up years often visiting this place with my mother to choose the best fabric at Arab Street for Hari Raya, which is still known as the place where you can get a unique selection of textiles.

Textile shop at Kampong Gelam

Textile shop at Kampong Gelam.

Now that I have been working in this area for some years, my experience of the place has deepened as I share more about its history, culture and community. I also discovered the best Nasi Padang (rice with dishes) here!

Zaini: What makes this area stand out is that it is a tangible reminder of our past. I recall often visiting Kampong Gelam as an architecture student because it is the place to experience our historic streetscapes firsthand.

Had it not been for the early conservation efforts to protect many of the shophouses and buildings in this area, it would be difficult for us to imagine what our streets really looked like in the past. These historic buildings contribute to the soul of the place.

Tell us more about your roles, challenges and examples of placemaking efforts that you have been a part of for Kampong Gelam.

Patail: Beyond managing Sultan Mosque as a key landmark in the area and contributing views to how the mosque and the area can continue to attract people and stay relevant, I have been helping to also informally serve as a form of liaison between businesses and the relevant authorities over the years.

Whether it is explaining certain policies to businesses to adhere to or to share business concerns and interests with the authorities, it is a challenging job that can take place at any time of the day. I sometimes get calls late at night to attend to an issue on ground.

Julina: In helping to manage the Malay Heritage Centre as part of the Malay Heritage Foundation, I have always been interested in how the narrative of Kampong Gelam is told.

One of the initiatives I was proud to be part of was the introduction of 14 new heritage markers in 2017. This is in addition to those earlier set up by the National Heritage Board. The stories and contents on these markers placed throughout Kampong Gelam deepened the narratives and stories about this area. This is the challenge that such historic areas face – how to continue to tell compelling and interesting stories to keep their heritage and culture alive.

The heritage markers introduced were not just presenting historical facts, we also included how people interact with the place in more contemporary times. We featured more untold stories, more people stories and even included relevant song lyrics to bring across richer narratives.

Zaini: Managing historic buildings and shophouses in Kampong Gelam and other areas across Singapore, we see our role as not just enhancing the value of these properties for its social beneficiaries, but we are also honouring and protecting their heritage.

Many of us may forget that these buildings in Kampong Gelam were bequeathed to us by our forefathers and traders as heritage assets so that we can continue to use these buildings for meaningful purposes till today. Perhaps they had some foresight. They saw that the buildings and this place were going to be a critical part of the city.

A key challenge in how we manage such buildings today in a historic district like Kampong Gelam is being very mindful and careful about choosing the right tenants and business models that can contribute to and add to the strong character of the buildings and the area.

Kenneth: In overseeing the Aliwal Arts Centre, a key arts institution in the area, I see our role as trying to build a collaborative arts community for the area that includes artists, residences and businesses.

Aside from programming, we also collaborate with other arts institutions and businesses in the neighbourhood to showcase the diversity of arts and culture in Kampong Gelam from the traditional arts to contemporary and urban art. By creating a buzz on all fronts, we hope to cultivate public interest in discovering more about our local art scene and uncovering the creative energies that gives spaces like Kampong Gelam its unique character.

Aliwal Arts Night Crawl
Aliwal Arts Night Crawl

Cultural performances featured during the 2017 Aliwal Arts Night Crawl.


What can help sustain the relevance of Kampong Gelam and what would you hope to see for its future?

Julina: I think we need to have a good balance of culture, community and business for the area to continue to thrive. You cannot just focus on business alone without taking into consideration the rich culture and the kind of community you have in this area. You also cannot forget to build upon and strengthen the strong character and identity of the area. Any future efforts must manage and balance all three of these elements carefully.

We could also have a stronger focus on sustainability for the precinct, for example, whether it is in upcycling of materials or in promoting car-free zones. There are also various green spaces throughout the precinct which is quite unique for the area. It would be good to see how we can further enhance these and its overall greenery.

Kenneth: I would like people to see Kampong Gelam as a truly unique cultural melting pot made possible from years of understanding and working together as a community. Sure, every story has its ups and downs, ultimately it is the will to thrive together as a community that has persisted through the generations and will hopefully continue to do so.

Beyond the popular eateries, nightlife joints and tourist spots, Kampong Gelam also offers visual and aesthetic nuances that excite the soul. We hope in the long run that Singaporeans and tourists alike will also think of this precinct as an arts destination that embodies stories of our local culture.

Patail: We must continue to be innovative in how we adapt to the changing times for Kampong Gelam in ensuring that it remains relevant. I hope more can be done to help the younger generation better appreciate and understand Kampong Gelam’s rich heritage and culture and the importance of sustaining such a historic area for generations to come.

Zaini: I hope that we can allow for things to grow and evolve more organically in Kampong Gelam in terms of its spaces and uses. We can explore and see how to encourage and enable a greater amount of experimentation and ground-up efforts. Kampong Gelam can serve as a form of testbed and urban lab to try out new things, creating new cultural experiences and products that best reflect its identity.

Aliwal Arts Night Crawl

Food trucks at Aliwal Arts Night Crawl.

Getting started

Inspired by the sharing by Kampong Gelam’s stakeholders? For those thinking about contributing to, initiating or leading placemaking efforts for your precincts and neighbourhoods, here are 10 things to think about:

  1. Know the place

    Get to know the place and stakeholders well;
    walk around often to familiarise yourself with the place and its people.
  2. Have a clear vision

    Have a clear vision and plan for the area.
  3. Start small

    Start with very small activities and efforts to benefit stakeholders and communities in the area.
  4. Focus on common interests

    Find common causes to work on that will interest and bring communities together.
  5. Bring out the unique identity

    Focus on efforts that reflect and bring out the unique values and identities of the place to create memorable experiences for the place.
  6. Cultivate strong partnerships

    Communicate actively and regularly to share the vision and progress of efforts; build strong partnerships and relationships to leverage on synergies and pool resources collectively.
  7. Build strong capabilities and champions

    Focus on building strong capabilities over time; identify and empower more people to be able to contribute, lead and become champions.
  8. Track efforts, show impact

    Track the outcomes and impact of efforts; use data and other means to show the benefits of the initiatives to the community.
  9. Keep trying and experimenting

    Placemaking takes time; implement pilot projects to learn what works and what doesn’t.
  10. Adapt with the times

    Be creative and innovative; be ready to change and adapt.

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