Historic hills and palaces

Johor's iconic Sultan Ibrahim Building on Bukit Timbalan
When I read about the Johor Sultan’s coronation on March 23 with the many celebratory events, I feel a ripple of excitement because we are witnessing a momentous day in the history of Johor.  Unlike past coronations that were witnessed only by royalty and dignitaries, now the rakyat can also be a part of the event because the coronation of Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar as the fifth ruler of modern Johor will be broadcast live on TV and big screens at Dataran Bandaraya Johor Baru.


Sultan Abu Bakar in his coronation robes;
Note the crown [Left] the sultan adopted as part
of Johor's royal regalia and established Johor
royal traditions that are followed to this day
I must confess that I’m caught up with the royal fever that’s sweeping through the state as the rakyat eagerly anticipates the coronation followed by a traditional royal motorcade through the city.  They will also enjoy boat parades on the Johor Straits, sports, music and cultural carnivals at Danga Bay and thrill to spectacular fireworks. Burning with royal fever, my recent bedtime reading was history books like, JOHOR, Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 – 1957, a book by historian and great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook, Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, and A History of Johore by R. O. Windstedt, former British General Advisor in Johor. 

While reading about the founder of Iskandar Puteri, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, and the rulers of modern Johor, I discover the stories behind the hills and palaces in the state’s early history.  I realise that while palaces like Istana Besar and Istana Bukit Serene will be in the spotlight for the coronation, JB has a number of historic hills and palaces that we know little about.  A glimpse of these notable and obscure names is aimed to intrigue you to find out more about the wealth of heritage sites and buildings here.

Iconic Sites

When Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim gained sovereignty over the territory of Johor in 1855, he claimed the most suitable site along the coast for a new state capital and named it Iskandar Puteri.  To mark the event, a flag was put up on the hill which was called Bukit Bendera or Flagstaff Hill.  Today the Johor flag still flies from the same spot on the hill which was renamed Bukit Timbalan after the site was used as a fort by Askar Timbalan Setia Negeri Johor

Map of Istana Besar or Grand Palace and its vicinity, 1902.
The palace and buildings in its grounds were not only royal
residences but formed the seat of government
Just before the Second World War, three distinctive buildings were completed, each with distinctive features that distinguished them from other buildings.  Work on the State Government Secretariat started in 1939 and this impressive structure on Bukit Timbalan, now known as the Sultan Ibrahim Building, dominates the city skyline and remains an iconic landmark in JB. 

The official residence of the Sultan of Johor, Istana Bukit Serene, is situated on Bukit Serene, the tallest hill in JB.  Built on the west side of the hill, this majestic palace features a tower and green roof tiles, and commands a panoramic view of straits and beyond.  The third building, the JB General Hospital, now renamed Hospital Sultanah Aminah, was built along the coast road and when it was opened, it was rated, “one of the finest in the East.”

A distant view of Balai Zaharah [Left], a building that was
recently used by the Indonesian Consulate [Centre] and
the Medical Department [Right], now the site of the Tabung
Haji Tower [Photo Credit: National Museum Singapore]
A 1902 map of Istana Besar indicates that this magnificent palace was built near Bukit Bintang and has two grand entrances with imposing facades, each characterized by an impressive flight of stairs.  As boats were the only means of transport from Singapore, a long flight of stairs on the seaward side leads up from the water while the broad flight of stairs from the park leads directly to the Throne Room.  This main entrance, used particularly for official and ceremonial events, will once again be a focal point at the sultan’s coronation on March 23.

In 1889, the royal family relocated from Telok Belangah in Singapore to Istana Zaharah in JB.  Built on Bukit Zaharah, this palace was named after Sultan Abu Bakar’s younger sister, Ungku Zaharah.  The adjacent Balai Zaharah was an audience hall, popularly known as Balai Cengkih not only because it was decorated with ornamental designs of the clove (cengkih) plant but also because the building structure has four projections shaped like the stem of the clove.  Nearby, at Bukit Mahmoodiah, stands the imposing structure of the Royal Mausoleum in Kampung Mahmoodiah, the final resting place of the royals.

Still Functional

The first and most impressive of the public buildings constructed at this time was the state mosque, named Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, on Bukit Redan.  The hill got its name from Redan trees growing here that bore edible fruits similar to the rambutan.  This elegant mosque with four graceful minarets was officially opened by Sultan Ibrahim for Friday prayers on Feb 2, 1900.

The building for the former Officers' Ward of the then JB
General Hospital on Bukit Cengkih, is still used today as
the Hematology Ward [Photo Credit: JB Chinese Association]
Saujana, a sprawling bungalow built on Bukit Saujana, was originally the official residence for the General Advisors to Johor.  Historically, Johor developed quite independently and held out against accepting a British Resident until the 1910 appointment of a General Advisor.  Saujana is now the official residence of Johor Menteri Besar or Chief Minister.

Bukit Lallang, a hill covered by lallang, a tall common weed, is situated further down Jalan Abdul Rahman Andak, the site of Sri Lallang, the residence of Johor’s first state secretary, Datuk Amar DiRaja Abdul Rahman Andak.  At his demise in 1930, Sultan Ibrahim’s sister, Tunku Ampuan Besar Mariam renamed the palace, Istana Mastika Embun or Palace of the Radiant Jewel of Dew, when she moved in.  The building was later used as the Tunku Ampuan Mariam College and is now occupied by an Islamic primary school, the Sri Johor Bahru School.

Well Reused

In 1928, the residence of Ungku Khatijah, sister of Sultan Abu Bakar, was completed on Bukit Cengkih.  The hill, situated close to the JB General Hospital, earned its name from the clove (cengkih) plantation here.  After her demise, the palace was renovated for use as the hospital’s Officers’ Ward and now as the Hematology Ward.  Her royal emblem is still on the building façade!

A house marked Bukit Kurnia on the 1902 map was the former
home of Indian Muslim lawyer, M. Ismail, located behind
a petrol station on Jalan Ismail off Jalan Yahya Awal
The hillock between Jalan Mariamah and Jalan Petri was named, Bukit Jepun, because the Japanese built a bunker here during Second World War.  Buildings on this hill are now occupied by the offices of Yayasan Warisan Johor or the Johor Heritage Foundation.

Bukit Kurnia on Jalan Ismail off Jalan Yahya Awal was technically not a hill but the former home of Indian Muslim lawyer, M. Ismail, a senior member of the Johor Bar and a member of the Council of State.  Located behind a petrol station opposite the Johor Baru Convent, it was used as a Russian restaurant in the 1970s and until recently, occupied by Sri Andalas private school.

Sri Gambir on Bukit Gambir, was the official residence of
Dato Jaafar bin Mohamed; It is the oldest surviving
non-royal residential building in JB
Sri Gambir, the official residence of Johor’s first Menteri Besar, Dato Jaafar Mohamed, is located on Jalan Dato Menteri 1/1 at Bukit Gambir, a site between Jalan Yahya Awal, Jalan Gertak Merah and Jalan Mahmoodiah.  After the Jaafar family moved out, Sri Gambir was occupied by a club for the members of the Johor Civil Service and from 1984, by the Johor Library Corporation.  It was vacant since 2004 and has fallen into a sad state of disrepair.

In 1893, Dato Jaafar built another home at Bukit Senyum which was modeled after Hardwick Hall, an Elizabethan country mansion with four square towers that belonged to the Duke of Devonshire.  It is believed that he named the mansion, Senyum (Malay word for smile) because when he sought permission from Sultan Abu Bakar, the sultan conveyed his approval with a smile!

The mansion, first named Senyum, was renamed the
Dato Jaafar Building and is still in use today
After Dato Jaafar’s demise in 1919, the building was renamed Dato Jaafar Building, and used for various purposes and recently reopened as a museum.

New Buildings

One of the more recognizable hills in the city must be Bukit Cagar, the site where low-cost flats were cleared for the construction of Johor Baru Sentral and the Sultan Iskandar Customs Immigration Quarantine Complex.  This site is also earmarked for the JB terminal of the proposed Singapore-JB Rapid Transit System.

In 1860 a steam sawmill was set up at the mouth of Sungai Segget by Scotsman, James Meldrum, the site of the former customs and immigration checkpoint.  Jalan Sawmill and Bukit Meldrum were named after the founder and owner for his contributions to Johor’s development.  Iskandar Hall, his residence on Bukit Meldrum no longer exists but the site is now occupied by the Grand Blue Wave Hotel and other hotels and shops.

Istana Tambatan also known as Istana Pantai, the Palace by
the Beach or as Gedung Empat Menara, the Mansion of
Four Towers, was a replica of the Dato Jaafar Building.
This site is now occupied by the Straits View Hotel JB.
Bukit Tanjung Puteri was leveled to build the former Customs Department’s JB office and after it was demolished, the site is being redeveloped.  Bukit Stulang, a hill near the Zon, was the site of a state government VIP guest house that once was a palace.

On the other side of the causeway, the site where the Straits View Hotel stands was Bukit Seri Manggis, a hill that faces the deep water mooring place called the Tambatan.  The palace that once stood here was named Istana Tambatan, also known as Istana Pantai, the Palace by the Beach, or Gedung Empat Menara, the Mansion of Four Towers – in a design similar to Bangunan Dato Jaafar.

Istana Tunku Fatimah, the residence of Sultan Ibrahim's
younger sister, is an elegant mansion carefully restored
and used as the Gallery of Gracious Ladies

A hill near Wisma Persekutuan was named Bukit Kopi because it was a coffee plantation and the residence of Mohd Khalid Abdullah Munsyi at nearby Jalan Dato Dalam was nicknamed, Sri Kopi.  At his demise, his home was used as a school named Sri Kopi Malay School.  The school moved to Bukit Saujana in 1934 and was known as the Saujana Malay School.  In 1935 the school finally moved to premises built on the site of Johor Dato Bendara Dalam, Datuk Munsyi Muhammad Ibrahim Munsyi Abdullah’s old home at Jalan Ayer Molek and renamed Ayer Molek Malay School.  It’s now known as Sekolah Kebangsaan Ayer Molek.

Bukit Polis, so named because it was the former site of the Police Headquarters, is located opposite the Puteri Pacific Hotel where the Telekom Malaysia Johor headquarters now stands.

Two kampungs to the north of the city developed around Jalan Wadi Hana and Jalan Sekolah Arab, at the site known as Bukit Sekolah Arab.  The Arab community had a role in JB’s history because they not only brought along their skills and business acumen as traders but also a deep knowledge of Islam and an interest in promoting religious education. 

Istana Marbal, named after Marlborough House in London,
was first occupied by Principal Medical Officer, Dr G. H.
Garlick, and then by Tunku Abu Bakar, second son of
Sultan Ibrahim
More Palaces

A closer look at the 1902 map of Istana Besar and its vicinity revealed interesting points of interest including more palaces that have ceased to exist.  Istana Marbal, a palace named after Malborough House in London, was first occupied by Principal Medical Officer, Dr G. H. Garlick, and then by Tunku Abu Bakar, the second son of Sultan Ibrahim.

The other is Istana Persemayaman or Istana Semayam, the residence of Sultanah Fatimah, the consort of Sultan Abu Bakar.  It was also used as the residence of the General Advisors and later Sultan Ismail occupied this palace when he was Tunku Mahkota.  Now only the steps remain.

Sultan Abu Bakar’s preferred residence, Istana Zaharah, was destroyed during the Second World War but the surviving audience hall, Balai Zaharah, has been given a new lease of life and restored to its former grandeur for use at the sultan’s coronation.  Besides the grand palaces, JB certainly has some beautiful heritage buildings and pre-war shops with social and economic value that can be successfully put to adaptive use.  

I hope this glimpse into Johor’s rich history will encourage people with a common passion for conservation, to work together to preserve the character of our city.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 26 March 2015

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