Killer Sharks and the Rules of Football

I made my first trip to the National Library this weekend. In some ways I am amazed that it has taken me this long to get there — I am a library fiend — but in other ways, given the generous collecting and lending policies of the Singapore American School library system (which more than serves my borrowing needs), it’s no surprise.

The first library in Singapore was the brainchild of Sir Stamford Raffles, the 1819 British colonizer of the island. It took a while to get his vision off the ground, but in 1837, one room of the newly-built Singapore Institution was set aside for a library. And what started out as the first national library space…


… has been transformed over the decades into this:


Of course, Singapore’s central library has changed tremendously over the years. It started out as an appendage to a school; then it became a book collection for subscribers only (in 1917, a first class subscription would run you $12 for the year). At some point, as interest in tropical exploration and ecology flourished, the library also grew to contain a vast collection of dead and preserved flora and fauna — think books surrounding a natural history museum. But now it’s back to being some combination of books — if you can find them — and entertainment (though I’m sure “learning opportunities” would the the preferred term).

The National Library building is enormous, with at least ten floors of public materials. As far as I can tell, most of these floors are set aside for reference materials in all of Singapore’s national languages: Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, and English. It doesn’t look like much of a lending library. There are lots of spaces for studying — on a Sunday, it was crowded — and plenty of unexpected things. For example, there’s a door with this sign:


But the door was locked, so I truly did have to use my imagination as I wondered what might be inside. I was also disappointed to find this room restricted to invited guests only, which seems to limit what it advertises:


I also found an outdoor courtyard (called The Retreat) …


… a children’s reading room …


… and a large cafe …


… where I sat with a coconut water and watched people line up for an Emperor & The Trees concert at the library’s Drama Theatre:

I did, eventually, find books that you can take home with you. They hide them in the basement:


As it turned out, I ended up spending most of my time up on the tenth floor, where they have a very large gallery and museum space. There, I stumbled on an exhibit called “Tales of the Malay World: Manuscripts and Early Books.” This fascinating show features books — and the stories they tell — of this region from the eighteenth century through the early twentieth.

Malay was long the dominant language of what we now know as Singapore, Malaysia, and most of Indonesia. It was primarily an oral language; books were late in coming to Southeast Asia, and once production began, the tropical climate did not treat them kindly. Even though Raffles did his best to buy manuscripts and ship some of them off to Europe, and the Dutch engaged in a brief collecting craze, there are only about 10,000 Malay manuscripts in existence today. Some of these are housed here in Singapore; others have been borrowed from England and the Netherlands for this exhibit.

The exhibit explained that Malay became the language of diplomacy and trade here because of its easy pronunciation and simple grammatical rules. That might have been true, but when the language took written form — called Jawi, a version of Arabic — it became far more complex.


The look of a letter changes depending on whether the letter comes at the beginning, middle, or end of a word, and short vowels are left out of the written language entirely. And look at all of those dots and squiggles around the letters! The exhibit had a “learn to write your name in Jawi” station, and I will admit to complete failure. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find a vowel that might match the “ee” sound in the first syllable of my first name, but that only scratches the surface of my difficulties (my Malay secretaries at work laughed when they heard this, but they also reassured me that Jawi is nearly impossible to master).

Most Malay texts were meant to be read aloud, so they were not usually illustrated. Here are two pages of a manuscript called the Hikayat Bayan Budiman: 


This book tells the tale of a woman and her pet parrot. It’s a really smart parrot, as it turns out — it tells her a series of tales night after night after night to keep her from sneaking off to meet her lover while her husband is away at sea. I’m not sure which came first, this parrot or Scheherazade, but the story is a good one either way.

Another case of story overlap — this time, Sleeping Beauty enters the picture — can be found in Syair Bidasari:


The summary of the tale here one of a beautiful woman, Bidasari, who is being kept prisoner by a beautiful queen (basically, the queen is worried that the king will take Bidasari as his second wife). Bidasari makes the colossal mistake of showing the queen a magic fish pendant, which the queen then uses to “kill” Bindasari. But never fear: after Bindasari’s father builds a house for her body in the thick forest, the king discovers and falls in love with her.

Despite the fact that most Malay texts don’t contain illustrations, the organizers of the exhibit have done a good job of providing viewers with colors and detail where they can. You can see this Qur’an (19th Century, from Java) …


The Tale of the War of the Victorious Pandawa (a story of Indonesian warriors fighting the Dutch)  …


… and two different books about Iskandar Zulkarnain (Alexander the Great) …IMG_7893


The exhibit also does a little bit to explore European influences in the area. Dutch colonizers — some of whom were my ancestors — were in the region for centuries (they came for the spice trade and stayed for a whole host of reasons). This 1670 journal offers an account of a Dutch war with an Indonesian sultan (“Macassar” in the title refers to a sultanate, not a massacre) …IMG_7915

.. while this 1856 Dutch book — written when the fighting was largely over and the Dutch needed to learn to be responsible colonial administrators — provides a handbook on Malay grammar and literature:


On the lighter side, this 1898 book printed in Singapore provides the rules of football, and offers a handy fold-out map with each of the positions:


Ultimately, though, while the books were interesting and often even beautiful, I was in it for the stories. Multiple Malay tales, called syair, involve female protagonists who disguise themselves as men (sometimes in order to fight and rescue their helpless husbands). Then there are the stories of the tiny but heroic mouse deer, the self-proclaimed lord of the forest realm. This is especially amusing if you’ve ever seen a mouse deer — they’re not exactly what you might think of as imposing or clever — but they are a recurring hero in Malay animal tales.


In this particular story, the mouse deer — as Lord of the Jungle Realm — tricks the crocodiles out of the water so that they will stop eating everyone’s animal babies. Once out of the water, there’s an animal war. The crocodiles lose and have to seek the mouse deer’s forgiveness.

Then there’s the syair about a king who gets eaten by a shark (spoiler alert: when a magic elephant is sent to find a replacement king, he finds the carcass of the king-eating shark washed up on shore, with the old king still alive inside). There are stories of romance, and history, and religion, wonderful tales that I’ve never heard anywhere before. So while I was disappointed not to have found more books, I was glad to have to have made this visit.

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