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Malay Culture

Syair Singapura Terbakar

Lithograph 1843. Title Page 1-2. Courtesy: Amin Sweeney, 2006.
Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera.
Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and École française
d’Extrême-Orient., p. 385.

Syair Singapura Terbakar is a Malay verse written by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi about a big fire that took place in British-colonized Singapore. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi wrote the verse in 1830 yet it was not published until 1843.

A. Prologue

Syair Singapura Terbakar is the oldest work of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi. It is reckoned to be written in 1830 and published in 1843 by Mission Press, Singapore, in Jawi lithograph edition and Rumi (Latin) printed edition. The work tells about a devastating fire that took place in Singapore in British colonial times.

Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi also wrote another work in a verse form that tells about the fire, that is Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar (1847). Prior to a serious study by Amin Sweeney (2006), Syair Singapura Terbakar and Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar were often mistaken with one another. It was mainly due to the rarity of both works, making it difficult for documentation and study. Besides, most Dutch and British scholars investigating the works based their researches by and large on Abdullah’s description about them in his well-known prose, Hikayat Abdullah (1849).

Lithograph 1843 edition. Title Page 51-52. Ikat-ikatan.
Courtesy: Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi
Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia
and École française d’Extrême-Orient., p. 386.

Such confusion lasted very long—from the colonial times until after Malay countries began to gain independence—because it was repeated over and over in various books of Malay literature written by Western scholars and taken for granted by Malay intellectuals themselves. At its worst, it could cause a total misunderstanding of both works, as done by Maman S. Mahayana (1995:154) who mistook the title as Syair Singapura Dimakan Api.

B. Manuscripts and Publications

Lithograph 1843 Edition. Last Page.
Courtesy: Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi
Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia
and École française d’Extrême-Orient., p. 389.

The following descriptions about Syair Singapura Terbakar manuscripts and publications are results of Amin Sweeney’s study published in Karya Lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi Jild 2 Puisi dan Ceretera (2006:44-49).

  1. Sya’ir Negeri Singapura Terbakar, Jawi 1843 Edition. Lithograph; 63 pages (2-63) of 20 x 16 cm, 15 x 12 cm text boxes, 12 lines per page. No page numbers.  Publisher: Mission Press, 1843. Text printed in two parallel columns as wide as 5.25 cm each. Narrower columns for pantun and ikat-ikatan, i.e. 4 cm each. Kept in the library of Leiden University.
  2. Shayar Nugri Singapura Tur-bakar, Rumi 1843 Edition. Printed; 63 pages of 22 x 17.5 cm, 15 x 12 cm text boxes, 12 lines per page. No page numbers. English introduction note enclosed. Syair are not arranged in two parallel columns with Malay-style 2-multiple stanzas, or 2 x 2, but rather in single columns with British-style 4-line stanzas, or 4 x 1, six stanzas per page. Publisher: Mission Press, Singapore, 1843. Kept in Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  3. Manuscript Or. 853, Cambridge University Library. Ricklefs and Voorhoeve Catalogue (1977) provides the following description: Shair Singapura Terbakar, by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi; followed with Shair Ikat-ikatan. Dated 16 August 1871. Owner mark: T.J. Chamberlaine, Singapore, December 1871. 24 pages ff. European papers; ‘1870’; 21.5 x 14 cm page. Obtained from G. David, 1910. Taib Osman (1972) mistook its number as 852.
  4. Syair Singapura Terbakar, 2006, as included in Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and École française d’Extrême-Orient: 93 – 1943.

C. Some Studies on Syair Singapura Terbakar

1. Confusion with Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar

a. Mistaken copy

It is likely that H.C. Linkert did not have the real manuscript on his hands when rewriting Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar. On the first page of the real manuscript of Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar he was copying, it is clearly written “Sya’ir Singapura Terbakar”. And on the first page of Codex Orientalis (CO) 3346, which is the real Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar, there is also a hand-writing: “Sjair Singapore terbakar door Abdullah ibn Abd al Kadir”. The manuscript is kept in an indigo envelope, on which there is another hand-writing: “Sjair Singapore terbakar door Abdullah ibn Abdelgader” (Sweeney, 2006:43).

Linkert’s error might have been caused by the description in the manuscript catalogue Bataviaasch Genootschap (van Ronkel in Sweeney, 2006:42) about a copy of Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar kept in Jakarta. Instead of stating the true title, the description presents the work as “Sja’ir Singapoera Dimakan Api”. When explaining about the two works, van Ronkel came up with another title, “Sja’ir Singapoera Terbakar”. This catalogue is what Winstedt’s study is based on.

b. Description in Hikayat Abdullah

Early 20th century British scholars in general found it difficult to obtain the copy of the two Abdullah’s verses. That being said, most of them relied heavily on the description in Hikayat Abdullah, the most renowned of Abdullah’s works in both Malay and foreign, especially the West, world. The description provides comprehensive explanation about the creation of Syair Singapura Terbakar and Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar. In fact, Abdullah’s account is not reliable.

The 1849 edition of Hikayat Abdullah page 330-334 explains that the fire took place in 1823, which was before the Dutch handed Malacca to the British by London Treaty in 1824. However, in Syair Singapura Terbakar, the devastating tragedy took place in 1830 and did not contain any eulogies for some British officials. Abdullah’s description, hence, is not accurate.

There are two versions of Hikayat Abdullah, namely the manuscript version (1843) and the lithograph version (1830). Both versions allude to the big fire in 1830 (which is told in Syair Singapura Terbakar). However, the 1849 version also contains a description about the other fire that took place in 1847 (which is told in Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar). This explanation is supposedly enough to distinguish Syair Singapura Terbakar from Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar.

c. Scholars’ misunderstanding

R.J. Wilkinson Malay Dictionary adds an entry, which is “tersoja-soja”. This entry refers to Syair Singapura Terbakar page 22. In the bibliography, the work is mentioned as “Syair Singapura Terbakar, romanized, Singapore”. Sweeney (2006:31-32) asserts that the work being referred is Shayar Singapura Tur-Bakar (1843, Mission Press, Singapore). This text was found by Ian Proudfoot in Houghton Library, Harvard University. It is very possible that this is the only copy of the manuscript left.

R.O. Windstedt (in Sweeney, 2006:32) confuses Syair Singapura Terbakar with Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar because he did not have the real manuscript of Syair Singapura Terbakar—he does not mention the title in the bibliography. Moreover, he quoted two stanzas that praised Governor Butterworth from a verse he called as “his Sha’ir Singapura (or Kampung Gelam) Terbakar.”

A.H. Hill (in Sweeney, 2006:33) comments on Windstedt’s error based on his own understanding of Hikayat Abdullah. Hill, however, did not give further explanation about the mistaken works. He only assumed that there must have been two sets of verses written at two different times. At the same time, Hill also criticizes J.T. Thomson, who translated Hikayat Abdullah into English (1874), for mistaking the two fire verses.

Thomson (in Sweeney, 2006:33) states that Abdullah is wrong when stating that the fire took place in 1830. Thomson had only once watched another fire as destructive as the 1830 fire, which was the 1847 fire told in Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar. Abdullah gave the wrong year, not 1823 but 1830. Hill misunderstood Thomson’s opinion as saying that Abdullah’s description referred to the fire in Kampung Gelam. It is of course very unlikely since Thomson’s Hikayat Abdullah manuscript is dated 1846, a year before Kampung Gelam caught fire.

2. First reportage of a Malay journalist

Abdullah, as in any other work of his, is the significant character in Syair Singapura Terbakar. Nevertheless, the objective of the writing is clearly different from other works which usually contained certain rhetoric to support Abdullah’s position in the eyes of his European/Western patrons who protected him. In this particular work, Abdullah tended to be free of the patrons’ surveillance, especially Alfred North, an American missionary who was a very important figure behind the creation of Abdullah’s famous works (Sweeney, 2006:79).

Rumi Printed 1843 edition. Foreword by Alfred North.
Courtesy: Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi
Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia
and École française d’Extrême-Orient., p. 389.

Syair Singapura Terbakar had a tendency to become a work of reportage, which only presented the actual and factual, not the ideal as in most Malay traditional literary works. Referring to the report on the 1830 fire in Hikayat Abdullah, Thomson (in Sweeney, 2006:78) deemed Abdullah as the first Malay journalist, saying: “By his own account, he was a true Times reporter.”

Syair Singapura Terbakar tried to tell many things and almost every occasion, including the situation in the Chinese New Year’s Eve before the fire happened, some happenings after that, and how the people managed the goods that were saved. The scope is indeed very wide that it even tells things the author never saw, such as the reaction of Malacca people to the Singapore fire (Sweeney, 2006:76).

Sweeney (2006:77) believed that Abdullah was motivated to write the long verse because at that time, there was only one newspaper in Singapore, namely Singapore Chronicle that was published once every fortnight. The English newspaper did actually cover the fire, but the focus was more on the European point of view. Abdullah, on the contrary, emphasized on the Baba people (Chinese descendant)—he did not even stress on the condition of his own people, the Keling.

The reportage characteristics are apparent in the work since it is not eulogistic. The coverage of the people does not favor the European, but on the contrary. There are 34 Chinese names mentioned in the verses. This is a much bigger number compared to 12 Europeans and 9 Indian Muslims. The work also describes the bad and good behaviors of different people including Chinese, Indians, Armenians, and even Europeans. For instance, Mr. Frazer “menggeletar kaki tangan” (had his hands and feet shiver) as he tried to save his arrack barrels; Baba Kim Swee was at a loss that he threw his goods into the river because “sungai besar dikiranya daratan” (he thought the big river was a land); and “Baba Sab terlentang di tengah rumahnya. Ia hendak mati bersama2 hartanya” (Baba Sab lay down in the middle of his house. He wanted to die with his goods) (Sweeney, 2006:77).

The stress on the Chinese victims is also evident in the calendar system used by the writer. To show when the fire took place, Abdullah does not apply Hijri or Gregorian calendar but rather, Chinese calendar, which is on 14, Moon day, Cap Gomeh Eve (year 1830, New Year’s Eve fell on Sunday, 25 January). Ti Kong Si Ceremony as told in the verses is also mentioned to be held on 9, Moon day (Sweeney, 2006:79).

It seems that Baba people were not unfamiliar to Abdullah. Sweeney (2006:80) explains that usually, in his works Abdullah would provide explanations on words he thought unfamiliar for his readers. But many words in this verse are left without explanation, such as pek ji, nenek duit, tangkapan, loksan, tek ho, and so on. The then Malay Dictionary did not contain these words, but Abdullah did not feel the need to explain what each of them meant. It is noticeable that Abdullah also counted the Baba people, whose mother language was Malay, as part of his readers.

3. Malay poetics

Syair Singapura Terbakar is a verse whose form looks like but different with the common verses at the time when it was written. Syair is a Malay traditional form of literature which has a distinctive formula or rules of writing. It is composed of stanzas, mostly quatrain, and every line in the stanzas consists of four words with a certain number of syllables. Lines in a stanza share a rhythmic vocal in the end that it forms a pattern (in a four-line stanza) a-a-a-a.

Sweeney (2006:66) explains that Abdullah did not write Syair Singapura Terbakar based on the principles of formulaic composition which is traditionally embodied in most Malay verses. At a glance, the work was written in the same way as a common Malay traditional verse, for instance, with the ending rhymes form an a-a-a-a pattern. However, Abdullah modified the rules or formula about the number of words and syllables within a line.

Sweeney (2006:68) found that there are only 56% of the lines containing four words. Therefore, it is very likely that the verse is never meant to get an appreciation in a usual treatment as what is applied to traditional verses, for example by singing as in societies with strong oral traditions. It is more for visual reading, which is a practice only coming up in a society after the people know or live with the culture of literacy. Some of the longer lines are as follows.

Ada pula yang berteriak katanya: “Sahaya menumpang!” (236c)

Banyaklah pula orang yang tunggang langgang (102a)

Sebab sahaya ini orang yang belum biasa (360a)

This distinctive characteristic turned to affect the format of the copies. The lithograph 1843 edition and Or. 853 contain many differences as to the length of the lines. Sweeney (2006:69) explained that the copier of the Or. 853 manuscript tried to trim the lines of the lithograph edition. Not only to intact words, the copier also modified some derivatives when trimming the lines. Some monosyllabic words or affixes are omitted, such as lah, nya, dan, pun, yang (these are monosyllabic words and affixes that do not contain any emphasizes and are usually not significant).

Rumi Printed 1843 edition. Page 1-2.
Courtesy: Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi
Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia
and École française d’Extrême-Orient., p. 387.

Line modifications do not occur in every stanza though. Abdullah created some kind of interlude in the fire narration, which is the main content of the work, with some pantuns and another section called “Ikat-ikatan”. In this part, almost all stanzas comply with the conservative rules of verses in terms of number of words, i.e. containing four words. This is how the printed editions were formatted. The columns in the ikat-ikatan part are presented parallel in a width of 4 cm while for the rest of the verse is 5.25 cm. This strategy is apparently related to the fire narration: the chronological tempo slows down.

The presence of the “Ikat-ikatan” section as well as the pantun proves that Abdullah had the ability to create a work that complies with traditional “aesthetics”. However, with some modifications he did, Abdullah intentionally chose to disobey the rules. Sweeney (2006:70) stresses that this way, Abdullah wanted his work not for performance, which would make it tend to carry away and give literary appreciative enjoyment, but rather as a report that targets the rational aspects of literary appreciation. This in fact is the basis for Winstedt to be unhappy with the disobedience and to consider the Abdullah work pulp poetry (Sweeney, 2006:70).

Abdullah did not ignore all “aesthetic” values from the older times. At least, he still used some certain formulas to compose his lines. Sweeney (2006:74-75) elucidates further that Abdullah used single-line formula or half-line formula here and there to go on to a new line. This formula is often found in traditional verses, such as bukan kepalang, berperi2, tempuh-menempuh, tunggang-langgang, bukan buatan, tunduk tengadah, etc. This helps to keep the rhyme as well as fulfills the “taste” of conventional verses.

These phrases are present in the conventional lines and function to fill the half of the lines that contain caesura. This is apparent in the following lines.

Celakanya badan bukan kepalang (295a)

Duduk di kursi tunduk tengadah (348d)

Ketakutan berlarilah tunggang-langgang (145c)

This kind of phrases also exists in some of the elongated lines, as seen in the following lines.

Seperti laku orang hendak berperang (229b)

Waktu itulah seperti orang berperang (183a)

Ada yang kena pukul jatuhlah terkangkang (236d)

Hendak bangun jatuh pula terkangkang (102c)

Sweeney (2006:75) concludes that Abdullah did not count on the oral-formula of composition but it does not necessarily mean he wants to avoid repetition as well. When Latin alphabet is getting familiar, formula will begin to become cliché. This did not happen yet to Abdullah so that he still used old poetics. He did not seek for “original” words but instead, used practical ways to advance the narration. If the used phrases or lines were seen fit with the situation in the narration, he would use them again albeit for the umpteenth time.

D. Epilogue

Syair Singapura Terbakar is the first modern Malay verse written by Abdullah Abdul Kadir Munsyi, a poet known as the pioneer of modern Malay literature. Despite staying under traditional aesthetics (or “canons”) of poetry, Abdullah did modify and develop the aesthetical values and came up with some changes. However, since there is quite a long time interval between the creation (1830) and the publication (1843), the manuscript and edition of this work has been very scarce. This difficulty in obtaining the work seems to account for the errors in the appreciations.

(An. Ismanto/sas/07/05-2010)

Translation: Reza Daffi


Amin Sweeney, 2006. Karya lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi Jilid 2 Puisi dan Ceretera. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and École française d’Extrême-Orient.

Maman S. Mahayana, 1995. Kesusastraan Malaysia modern. Jakarta: Pustaka Jaya.

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