In November 2021, the Malay Heritage Foundation (MHF) announced its first Teman Warisan (Cultural Heritage Ambassador) recipients at the inaugural Hari Warisan (Cultural Heritage Appreciation Day) organised by the foundation. Guest-of-Honour Madam Halimah Yacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, presented 28-year-old Muhammad Hafiz Rashid with an award in recognition of his dedication and contribution to the Malay arts and heritage sector. In total, 3 recipients were selected to be the foundation’s first Teman Warisan.
Often seen at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in his traditional Javanese attire (complete with the blangkon and keris) or the Baju Melayu complete with samping and songkok, so much so that many consider Hafiz the ‘living mascot’ for MHC. He has an avid interest in the sub-ethnic languages of the Malay community (particularly Baweanese and the Javanese language). He is currently learning to pick up Kristang – the sub-ethnic language of the Portuguese Peranakans of Malacca. He is also an avid collector of Malay textiles and takes the initiative to attend workshops and talks by experts to gather his own knowledge about the subject matter.
MHF had the pleasure of interviewing Hafiz to find out about what sparked his interest and hunger to explore his roots, which led him to an inspiring journey to become one of the youngest docents at MHC.
Q: What influenced or inspired you to be active in the Malay heritage scene that led you to become one of the youngest docents at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC)?
Although I’ve been asked that question many times, I still don’t have an exact answer for that. Believe it or not, I am still unsure about my original inspiration for becoming a docent at Malay Heritage Centre.
I think it started when I visited the Malay Heritage Centre for the first time in 2013 and saw the “Ilham Alam” exhibition. During my final year break, I studied at Temasek Polytechnic, taking the Biomedical Engineering & Informatics course.
The “Ilham Alam” exhibition touched on traditional healing practices in the Malay World and their relation to Nature. This was something related to my course on Biomedical sciences. Still, I realised that I knew so little about traditional Malay medicine or, for that matter, aspects of my own culture despite being raised as a Malay.
Additionally, MHC had an ongoing Malay Culture Fest, showcasing performing arts such as Main Teri, which is rarely seen in Singapore. There were also talks, which allowed me to network with other groups and individuals involved in history, heritage and culture. This led me to want to learn more about my heritage, and I eventually became a part-time Gallery Ambassador for MHC and was trained as a docent.
Q: Share with us more about your role and responsibilities as a docent at MHC.
As a docent, I conduct tours of MHC’s permanent and special exhibitions for members of the public, school groups, tourists as well as various community groups. I bring the stories of the artefacts to life by curating and narrating these stories for visitors while presenting them in a way that the layperson quickly understands. Despite dealing with historical facts and trivia, there is a degree of storytelling involved. During a tour, one has to ensure a coherent flow in the storytelling as one highlights the artefacts in each gallery.
Through our docent tours, we help visitors understand the museum, its content, and artefacts, and we also help to answer any visitors’ enquiries to the best of our abilities. As docents, we act as intermediaries between the museum and the public. We will help convey feedback and suggestions to the museum staff and highlight any issues we encounter during our tours.
Q: You are often seen in your traditional Javanese attire or baju Melayu at MHC, and many have described you as a ‘living mascot’ for Malay heritage. Why do you choose to don the traditional costume even though it is not compulsory for you to do so?
I feel that donning traditional attire or textiles aid in my storytelling as I conduct my tours. Though we usually see traditional textiles such as batik and songket as a piece of cloth or garment, I see them as a written narrative. There are many unique motifs in songket and batik, each with unique meaning and symbolism. Hence, in a way, these motifs can be “read”. There is a unique visual language behind the traditional textiles found in this region, and even the way they are worn reveals a lot about the wearer, such as their social status, marital status, age and place of origin.
Oft-times, the textiles we encounter in museums are behind glass walls since old textiles tend to be quite fragile. Hence, when I wear traditional textiles during my tours, visitors get to see how they would look when worn, and they get to touch, feel and look at these textiles up close and personal. This enriches the learning process and helps visitors better appreciate these traditional textiles.
Additionally, I would try to wear a different textile each time I give a tour to showcase the rich diversity of our region, the Nusantara.
Q: Which is your favourite outfit?
Personally, I feel that I don’t have a favourite outfit. It depends on what I think, and if I am conducting a tour on that day, what would be the topic I would like to highlight. The general attire that most would likely see me would be a headgear (e.g., blangkon, songkok, or headcloth), a long-sleeved jacket or shirt, and a sarong paired with a sash.
For sarongs, I would typically wear either a batik sarong or a kain tenun (literally woven cloth) as I feel that they do not look too extravagant as compared to songket and since they are made using natural fibers such as cotton, they are well-suited to be worn in Singapore’s tropical climate.
Q: Share with us any memorable experience you’ve encountered during the tours you conduct as a docent.
The word “docent” is ultimately derived from the Latin “docere” which means to teach. While we educate people about the museum in our tours, it is a learning journey for us. We learn a lot from our visitors who impart their invaluable knowledge, experience and stories.
As a docent, you meet with people from all walks of life and backgrounds. For example, I once had the unexpected privilege of guiding a Cape Malay couple from Capetown in South Africa. We had an exciting exchange; I shared about the history of Kampong Gelam and the Malays in Singapore. They, in turn, shared about their lives in South Africa and their experiences growing up as a Cape Malay as aspects of their culture.
I have also met with former residents of Kampong Gelam during my tours. One of them was Nenek Hasnah. She was visiting MHC with her daughter, and while taking her through the first gallery on the map of the Malay world, Nenek Hasnah started to speak of her personal experiences. Born of a Javanese mother and a Malay father, she made the treacherous journey with her family to Singapore. Their ship caught fire near the coast of Pulau Buaya, and eventually, they had no choice but to jump into the sea. She survived the ordeal and settled in Arab Street (then known as Kampong Java). She remembers the Arab Street of old very well, including her neighbours.
Q: When you are not at MHC as a docent, what do you do in your spare time?
Since my passion and hobby revolve around history, culture and heritage, I would visit other museums and art exhibitions when I am not on docent duty at MHC. Otherwise, I would be library-hopping, reading and borrowing books to hone my knowledge further. I also like to go for evening walks at Pasir Ris Park to get in touch with nature. Why Pasir Ris park? It is because I stay in Pasir Ris and go for evening walks as I am not a morning person, so I will never wake up early to go for walks.
Q: What does being a Teman Warisan recipient mean to you?
For me, being a Teman Warisan recipient means being a friendly ambassador to people interested in learning more about Malay heritage and culture. As a docent, I interact with members of the public. In the process, I would also give book recommendations and direct them to other institutions, heritage groups and individuals they can turn to for further information on Malay heritage.
Q: As a Teman Warisan recipient, what do you aim to accomplish to continue championing Malay heritage?
As a Teman Warisan recipient, I plan to continue volunteering as a docent at the Malay Heritage Centre to play my part in aiding Malay Heritage Centre’s outreach to the public. I also plan to conduct more children’s storytelling sessions at MHC and the public libraries focusing on folktales from the Nusantara to encourage the young to be interested in learning more about the culture of this region.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for Malay heritage in Singapore, especially for the local artists and practitioners? Any advice for young Singaporeans who are interested in Malay heritage activities?
I hope there will be more opportunities and platforms for like-minded individuals interested in Malay heritage in Singapore (such as local artists & practitioners) to network, share ideas and collaborate to raise greater awareness of Malay heritage and culture to the general public.
As for young Singaporeans interested in delving more into Malay heritage, I would advise them to seek out knowledge and read books from our public libraries. The National Library has a perfect reference collection on Malay heritage, history, and cultural topics. They also conduct talks and workshops in collaboration with NUS Malay & Southeast Asian Studies. They can also turn to museums and NHB for heritage-related programmes. Additionally, many of these institutions and groups have a social media presence on various platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, so you only need to follow them to get updated on any activities they will be conducting or hosting.
Q: Describe yourself in three words.
Lover of Stories.
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