The late Mr Baharuddin Sulaiman was one of the few remaining songkok (traditional Malay headwear) makers in Singapore. While Mr Baharuddin had student apprentices learning the trade , he never really made plans for the future of the shop before his passing. Today, his daughter Isneli Baharuddin runs the shop together with her husband Hashmy Ridzwan – but even so, with the decline in appreciation for handmade songkoks and the craft, they are just as unsure about the shop’s future as her father once was.

Born in Indonesia, Mr Baharuddin came to Singapore’s Kampong Glam in 1952 after learning how to make songkok in his hometown. He began working for the owner of a songkok shop in 1955, and took over the shop in 1970 when his employer decided to retire. He renamed the Singalang Jaya.

The late Mr Baharuddin. Courtesy of Isneli Baharuddin

One of his daughters, affectionately known as Neli, 54), remembers her father as a man who was absolutely dedicated to his craft, and attentive to a fault. Every songkok he made was tailored to perfection, and anything that was remotely salah (‘wrong’ in Malay) would be remade from scratch. It was evident that Mr Baharuddin took great pride in his work.

With a twinge of regret, Neli lamented that even at a young age, she and her two younger siblings rarely spent time at the shop in Kampong Glam. On the rare occasions that they did,

they cared more about playing and having fun than paying attention to their father at work and picking up the skills of the trade. “We were playful and had no interest in learning how to make songkok. If we did go to the shop, it would just be to help him open or close the shop.”

After Neli and Hashmy got married in 1985, Hashmy started to work fulltime under his father-in-law, doing the accounts and overseeing the operations of the shop. They also moved to diversify the shop’s stock, and began selling other products such as clothing for Muslim men and women, capai (leather footwear worn by Malay men) and Malay instruments such as the kompang and small gamelans.

Hashmy shared that demand for the songkok was a lot higher back in the 1980s, and that Kampong Glam was widely recognised as the go-to place for the traditional headpiece.

Hashmy and Neli in Singalang Jaya. Photo by Tok Wei Cheng

“People would either come here or go to Geylang Serai to buy songkoks,” said Hashmy. “People would come from all around the world like Malaysia, and even Brunei. The Brunei royalty used to come down every year to buy songkok in bulk. Not the king, but the prince himself.”

“And they would buy hundreds of songkok at a go,” continued Hashmy. “They bought for their subjects and their families – each household may have about 20 to 30 people – and they gave them the songkok when they come back from Hajj.”

“But after the ’90s, as the Singapore dollar strengthened, people began to learn how to make songkok themselves, instead of travelling to Singapore to buy them.”

So began the decline in demand for songkok in Singapore. Hashmy said that the proliferation of small shops around the island made it difficult for Singalang Jaya to maintain its business, as what was once the definitive place for people to purchase their traditional garb was no more.

“Now, during the Ramadan period, you can find songkok everywhere – at Expo, Paya Lebar, Jurong East, Woodlands…” said Hashmy. “The competition is there.”

Having spent over 32 years working with his father-in-law, Hashmy recalled a Kampong Glam that was a lot less trendy and varied in terms of retail offerings, compared to the diverse, lively neighbourhood it is today.

“There were no Turkish restaurants,” said Hashmy, as he gestured to the streets outside  their shop. “Only craft shops, sarong shops and batik shops. The only makan (‘eating’ in Malay) places were situated around the corner.”

Hashmy added that local football heroes Fandi Ahmad and Malek Awab used to hang out in the neighbourhood. They’ll come to lepak (‘relax’ in Malay) at Muscat Street.”

While Kampong Glam has seen many changes to its physical make-up, the spirit of community that lends the district its personable character has stayed essentially the same. Some call this the ‘kampong spirit’ – the feeling of neighbourly love and belonging that is born from the social cohesion of a community. This spirit was especially evident when Mr Baharuddin passed away.

Neli shared that they initially wanted to hold a small, private ceremony for her father, but many of the neighbourhood’s shop owners urged her family to bring his body to Masjid Sultan, so that they could all pray for him.

“He was here for over 50 years, and because he was a very social guy, almost all of Kampong Glam knew him,” explained Hashmy. “He was like the ‘grandfather’ of Kampong Glam. They really sayang (“cherished” in Malay) him a lot.”

Since Mr Baharuddin’s passing, Neli has been doing all she can to keep the shop going. She works part-time at Singapore Post, and comes down to Singalang Jaya after work to keep the shop’s doors open until about 6pm.

“Before my father passed away, he told me to continue the shop,” said Neli. “I told him I will try my best to do it.” Although her father had taught the craft of songkok-making to a handful of apprentices – who continue to make songkok and carry out orders for the shop today – he was adamant that the management of the shop be kept within the family only.

“This is because he only trusted family to handle the shop, he didn’t want to employ anyone else to handle it,” said Hashmy. “He would say to me, let the songkok makers do itbecause it’s a tedious job. You just have to be the accounts man and handle the shop.”

However, Neli admitted that she feels sad that no one else might continue her father’s legacy, and is simply taking one day at a time.

Singalang Jaya is located at 9 Baghdad Street. Photo by Tok Wei Cheng

“I can only hope that customers will continue coming here to support us.”

Written by: FJ Sai

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign


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