Changing Landscapes: Geylang, aired SBC, 14 August 1981


The story of Geylang can be traced to the nineteenth century when there was a small settlement on the banks of Geylang River. It is said that the Malays of Singapore originally lived in kampongs of houses built on stilts and the first kampong was at the mouth of Singapore River and was called Kampong Busong. (Busong is a Malay word for sand dune.)

Most of the floating villages had to give way when the British pursuit of trade forced the sea population to stay clear of the sea lanes. The Malays then moved inland in the nineteenth century as the British used Chinese and Indians as their source of labour. Some of the Malay families established the nucleus of Kampong Melayu in Geylang by settling down on the river banks.

Geylang in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was known as Geylang Kelapa (kelapa means coconuts), in view of the many coconut plantations there.


With the cultivatiop/of lemon grass, Geylang became known as Geylang Serai. Serai is the Malay word for lemon grass or citronella. There was a factory called the Citronella Press near the river bank which was a processing centre for the farm produce from Geylang. It is said that the word "Geylang" is from the word kilang, meaning factory. The distortion of "k" into "g" gave Geylang its name.

According to historians, the colonial government did not do enough to promote the social and occupational integration of the main ethnic groups. The Malays of Geylang were left to be farmers, to rear poultry and to be self-supporting. Gradually, the farming area itself became smaller to make way for the growing populace.

The growth of Geylang Serai as a forefront of the Malay settlement continued until after the First World War. By then, the settlement had expanded eastwards, away from the river. Ten years after the war, in the late 1920s, more and more Malays from other parts of Singapore settled in


A turn of events occurred on the 25th and 26th of December, 1940. Those were the days of the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese troops who came from the east through Tekong and Changi. Geylang was easily captured and occupied, without any defence or resistance.

The Second World War further changed the landscape of the area. The coconut and rubber plantations in Geylang became tapioca farms, as tapioca (ubi kayu) replaced rice as the staple food. That part of Geylang was called Kampong Ubi, a name that has been retained till today.


The reminders of military rule in Geylang, camouflaged by thickets somewhere on tapioca farms, are tombs of Japanese soldiers killed during the Second World War.


Immediately after the Second World War there was a baby boom which continued until the sixties at the rate of 4 to 6% per annum. The problems of unchecked growth, physical degeneration and the social ills accompanying it, began to appear and by the sixties, Geylang was on the verge of becoming an urban slum.


In 1963, Geylang River was widened to overcome problems of flooding. The banks were paved into a canal and a change in the physical environment appeared inevitable.


The first sign of change in Geylang Serai came with the appearance of these three blocks of flats built in 1963. They stand on the site of the factory that gave Geylang Serai its name.


The Geylang Serai flats are situated about 2 000 metres away from the Geylang canal, right at the hub of Geylang. The market is built on the site of the Eastern Trade Fair. Before the 1970s, the fair was the trade centre of the eastern region of Singapore.

Farm produce of all sorts was sold at only slightly more than the cost price because a ready supply was available right at the doorstep.

Although Malay women were generally home-bound, enthusiasm to venture into small trading among the older generation was not unusual.


This is the place where contact with other communities is still strongly felt.

Geylang's popularity has attracted tourists from Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, The market is affectionately known as "Geylang Square". Once, it was the bus terminal that attracted shoppers to the Square. Now, with easy communication, many come here on their own, at any time of day. To the tourists of Malay origin, Geylang is as famous as Orchard Road is to the Western tourists. They come in buses organized by tour agents in search of bargains.

The Chinese had settled in Geylang since the nineteenth century but only on the fringes of the kampong. The first Chinese shop set up in Geylang is said to be a jewellery shop. Alongside the jewellery shop was the Chinese pawnshop. It still exercises the role of a bank where instant loans are obtainable by pledging jewellery at low interest rates.


The Indians, too, have always been an integral part of kampong life. Some even settled down and intermarried into the community. They are fondly referred to as mama, or "uncle". The mamma shopkeeper knows his customers very well and he knows who pays cash and who needs credit.

Most of Geylang has been transformed. High-rise living is the result of the efforts of a city state to raise the quality of life. With the new life-style, the people are fortunate that there is still the older generation who can recall the early days and the life-style of the past.


Pak Hamid is a long-time Geylang resident. He had his early education in Sepoy Line Malay School and completed Standard IV in the Malay medium. Being an intelligent and enterprising child, he proceeded to the Victoria English School while his friends dropped out to become farmers, labourers or peons. He had a desire to see the world and so he went to sea. He was a sailor, first with the British navy and later he signed on with a merchant ship.


Pak Hamid's family began their house move in the early seventies to an environment totally different from what they had been used to. The kampong they left was Geylang Serai.


Pak Hamid had moved into the kampong in the early 1950s. With the passing of years, Pak Hamid's family had grown in size and like any other family house, roofs had been extended and more rooms added.


He recalls those days:

" I was living in Geylang Serai for the past fifteen to eighteen years. I had my second child when I was living at Lorong Engku Aman.

"Most of the people in Geylang worked as peons and hawkers. They sold cakes from morning until evening. I reckon, at best they worked as film operators. Others worked as sailors, peons or drivers. It all depended on their level of education.

"Now, the occupations of my children are so much better. My eldest daughter is a businesswoman and my eldest son is a designer. My third child, a daughter, works as a technician. Another son was a salesman. He switched to a hotel job and now he is a delivery clerk. My youngest daughter is still in school.

"In the past, the value of money was high. Most things were cheaper than today. However, the future seems brighter as there has been progress. Geylang of the past was different; the houses were haphazardly built. There was lack of cleanliness. On the other hand, life in a flat seems restricted. Everyone owns an apartment and each keeps to himself indoors. We only meet each other in the morning on our way to work or in the evening on our way home. "


Now Pak Hamid, his wife, children and grandchildren live in a modern high-rise flat. When the flat was allotted five years ago, Mak Yah's main problem was to overcome the fear of using lifts. The thought of climbing eleven floors when the lift should breakdown deterred Mak Yah from moving into the flat. It was their eldest son, Haron, who influenced his parents to move with the times. Haron had moved into the flat a couple of years ahead of his parents. And daughter Sakdiah gave Mak Yah the courage and comfort to overcome her fear.

To Mak Yah, Geylang Serai was her childhood 'hometown'. She was an only child and when she was sixteen, she married Pak Hamid, who moved into her family home. In the kampong were her aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives. Everyone was known to each other.


Following tradition, Mak Yah was not to leave home to work, for this would have implied the inability of her husband to provide for her. Leaving the kitchen unattended would invite certain censure from her relatives and it would be a loss of face not only to her, but to her whole family.

Today, Geylang has grown from a rural village to an industrial town to be a part of the throbbing, modern metropolis of Singapore. For Mak Yah and her husband, the adjustment has not been easy. But they are now used to the comfort and convenience of modern living. It's no more charcoal or wood for Mak Yah. And the little rock garden in their five-room flat is Pak Hamid's pride and joy.


In a crowded, dynamic country, with almost two and a half million people occupying six hundred square kilometres of land, life is a continuous series of challenges. Growth and change become inevitable. Modernization does not mean an end to traditions or values. There must be a balance between old and new to create a sense of continuity and identity. Is the past just the past?


The future means progress and the changing landscape of Geylang calls for the strength to respond to change. But in the endeavour for a better life, the past is not totally discarded in Geylang and the future, not taken for granted.