An extremely rare book worth thousands is on display in Singapore until next month – and it’s got the original story of how Sang Nila Utama gave the country its name

An 1840 version of the Sejarah Melayu is currently on display at the National Library Building as part of a showcase around the famous literary work.
The Straits Times

The National Library Board (NLB) has got its hands on an extremely rare book from Singapore’s history – and it’s on public display here for the first time ever.

The Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, is one of the few surviving texts documenting Singapore’s early history.

On its site, NLB described the book as “one of the most important and finest literary works of the Malay world“.

The book is currently on display at the National Library Building as part of an exhibition titled “The First Print: Stories and Legends of Early Singapore”. While the exhibition runs until October, the actual Sejarah Melayu will only be on display until Mar 24, and subsequently replaced with a digital version.

The exhibit coincides with Singapore’s bicentennial year, which commemorates the republic’s 700-year history.

Read also: Four new statues, including one of Sang Nila Utama, will share Raffles Landing Site with Sir Stamford Raffles in honour of Singapore Bicentennial

Through research, Business Insider found five unique facts about the historical gem that make it a must-see before it gets locked away once more.

#1: The book is where Singapore got its knowledge about Sang Nila Utama from.

The statue of Sang Nila Utama erected by the Singapore Bicentennial Office at the Singapore River.
The Straits Times

The Sejarah Melayu, which is written in Jawi, a modified Arabic script, includes familiar stories like how Sang Nila Utama gave Singapore its name, and the legend of the strong man Badang.

In fact, it’s considered the standard text for information on early Singapore, and is used both by scholars and students.

#2: It’s extremely rare – and probably worth thousands of dollars.

While multiple versions of the Sejarah Melayu are available, the copy NLB is exhibiting – the book’s first printed version, published in 1840 – is arguably the rarest. NLB bought it from the private collection of a British library.

While it did not disclose the name of the library, or the price of the book, a search online showed that a later version of the Sejarah Melayu, printed in 1881, was sold by a rare books site in Singapore for S$1,800.

There are currently only five copies of the book in public institutions worldwide, two in the US Library of Congress and one each in Malaysia and Indonesia, The Straits Times said.

One of the books in the US was bought from Singapore for $3 in 1842, according to a document from the University of Malaya Library.

#3: It was originally a court text – and considered so precious, it was wrapped in silk.

The Sejarah Melayu records what Singapore was like back in the 13th century, when it was a capital city under the rule of Malay Kings.

According to NLB, a copy of the text, wrapped in yellow silk, was considered an emblem of the 19th century Riau court and was read aloud during court ceremonies.

After it was printed as a book, many more people were then able to access it. According to Biblioasia, even Sir Stamford Raffles was said to have owned a manuscript copy.

#4: The book was edited by a writer dubbed “the Father of Modern Malay Literature”.

An artist’s impression of Abdullah Abdul Kadir (left), and a statue of him (right) erected along the Singapore River for the Singapore Bicentennial project.
Raman Daud and The Straits Times

The Sejarah Melayu’s editor, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir – better known as Munsyi Abdullah – was secretary and interpreter to Sir Stamford Raffles, and the first non-European to have his works published in Malay.

According to NLB, Abdullah considered the Sejarah Melayu “the paragon of Malay literature” because the language was so “refined and vivid”.

He also “presumably” collated six manuscripts to produce the printed version of the Sejarah Melayu, with three of these manuscripts currently located in the UK.

#5: The book has three different names.

As a court text, it was originally called the Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of Kings), and subsequently named the Sejarah Melayu by translator John Leyden.

Leyden, a Scottish poet and close friend of Raffles, then coined the name “Malay Annals” to describe the book, a name which remains in use today.

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