Standing outside the grand black-and-gold gates of Istana Negara on a balmy Friday morning, I let my imagination run and imagine how it would be like to be royalty and speak Bahasa Istana (royal language).
That thought is fuelled by having spent much time tracing various royal genealogies on the Internet as well as the many instances of seeing the former national palace while I was stuck in traffic along Jalan Istana, and wondering what it looked like inside.
At the risk of sounding like a Disney prince, this dream did come true – when I was invited to visit the palace.
Breaking away from my reverie, I walk towards the security post at the side of the palace – thrilled at being inside the palace grounds – and utter my first words: “Bro, outside can park car, ah?”
Not the most royal-like query, I know (and certainly not very becoming of the “royal dignitary” fantasy I’ve concocted in my mind). But the man behind the post isn’t a royal guard. And this fancy venue in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is no longer the official residence of Malaysia’s monarch and head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. (The new national palace is located at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim.)
Today, the former national palace is a royal museum and is open to the public (for a minimal fee of RM5 for Malaysians and RM10 for non-Malaysians).
As I step inside the main foyer of the two-storey building, the beautiful crystal chandeliers and intricately designed ceilings come into view.
Just ahead, at the small audience hall – where the King and Queen once received dignitaries – luscious fabric in golden hues cascade over the elaborately furnished room.
With the grandiose sight before me, it’s easy to become drawn into a fantasy of this former royal residence, also known as the Old Istana Negara. Perhaps that’s because I’m inside a “living” museum, reckons museum director Miti Fateema Sherzeella Mohd Yusoff, who is my guide for the day.
“We did not change anything in terms of the layout and decoration of the place. What you see now, was how the palace looked like when it was handed over to our care,” she says.
“The arrangement here,” Miti says, “follows the protocol of Terengganu,” – and she directs my attention to the lavish crockery and cutlery on the dining table in the room to the left of the small audience hall.
Why the coastal state?
“Well, the last King who resided here was from Terengganu,” she answers, referring to the 13th Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the current Terengganu Sultan, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin.
In 2011, when the old palace was replaced by the new one, it also ceased to become the official residence of the King. Then, in 2013, it was converted into a royal museum.
“It (the old palace) was originally built by a millionaire from China by the name of Chan Wing,” Miti explains. She says that it was occupied by the Japanese Governor during the tumultuous Japanese occupation, and subsequently was used as a senior military officers’ mess by the British Military Administration.
A historical structure
Curiously, I couldn’t find a description of the palace’s illustrious history in the museum.
“Our primary aim here is more of explaining the function of the spaces within the palace,” Miti says. To that end, the museum excels, providing explanations in English and Bahasa Malaysia, about the past usage of each room.
For instance, at the posh Minister’s Room, I learn that it was the waiting place for guests accompanying heads of states and dignitaries, who were not involved in an audience with the King. Meanwhile, the small throne room on the first floor was only used for ceremonies or small functions with fewer than 40 guests.
Royalty and responsibility
Upstairs, on the first floor, is also where the King’s office is located. It’s a reminder that being royal comes with responsibilities, too.
“That is where the King deliberates on granting royal pardons,” says Miti, as she points at an oval wooden table with eight ivory-coloured chairs, just outside the office.
“Part of what we do here is also educating people about how power is shared between the Federal and the State governments – and how these two systems complement each other,” she points out, adding that the museum also seeks to highlight the role and function of the country’s unique monarchy system.
For the uninitiated, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is formally selected by and from among nine sultans – who form the Conference of Rulers, and also act as custodians of culture and religion – from states that have hereditary Malay royal rulers. The King will then serve a five-year term.
The above is something I learned in History at school. What I’m really curious about, though, is the life of the King and the royal family behind the walls of Istana Negara.
My curiosity is partly satiated when I enter a long corridor lined with royal bedrooms as well as the family and reading room. Although, I must say, I’m slightly disappointed that my guide doesn’t have many insider tales to share.
“As far as juicy gossip goes, there is none,” she says, with an amused look. “What we’ve heard from the palace staff are more formal stories, such as where meetings were held, or which rooms dignitaries convened at before an audience with the King.”
Even then, Miti says, compiling the past events and happenings of the palace took some time.
“There’s not much writing on the personal lives of the sultans, unlike our past Prime Ministers who have biographies published,” she says, when I mention that personal stories are aplenty at Galeria Sri Perdana (the former residence of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which is open to the public).
“All the information that we sourced has to be consented to by the palace. At the same time, we don’t want to violate any adat,” Miti adds, referring to the royal customs.
A wealth of knowledge
Now, that isn’t to say that the Royal Museum is devoid of any personal touches. Over at the Apartment, a separate and more private wing, visitors get to see the sleeping chamber of the King and Queen.
Like the rest of the palace, the Apartment is also a lavish space with marble bathrooms, luxurious carpets and upholstered furniture. On the day of my visit, the King and Queen’s private bedroom is uncharacteristically dim. In an effort to conserve energy, Miti says the unique ceiling lights (which can be adjusted to reflect the four seasons) are only switched on when there are larger groups of tourists (the museum receives about 10,000 visitors a month).
“Maintenance costs for a building like this are quite high,” she explains. The cost of maintaining the museum is borne by the Department of Museums Malaysia, with occasional donations from the private sector.
In the past, Miti says, the royal museum received queries about the relevance of the venue.
“Some people just don’t understand why we open the museum. But I feel this museum is important in disseminating knowledge about our country’s monarchy system and history,” she explains, adding that it’s of great educational value to complement the History syllabus in schools.
That aside, the museum does provide some insight into the lives of the King and Queen who, with the exception of formal occasions, tend to shy away from the limelight.
For instance, visitors can view the sultans’ private collections, which are kept in the Balairung Seri (throne room). They are displayed in bi-annual exhibitions, with each one lasting three to six months.
During my visit, I saw the personal collection of Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, which shows a King who likes to approach his subjects through community activities.
Perhaps that’s the best way to approach the royal museum. It’s a reminder that, behind all the titles and riches, ultimately the King is one who has set his sights on making the nation great.
The Pameran Raja Kita exhibition is now showing at the royal museum, until Sept 4.
The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm. Tel: (03) 2272 1896. E-mail: email@example.com