Royal Ibrahim's of Johor

A wealth of Johor history is recorded in these books!
The rakyat has been eagerly anticipating the coronation of Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar and the announcement of this auspicious event on March 23 was met with great excitement.  

According to Johor royal traditions, the Istana Besar will be the venue for the coronation of the state’s fifth sultan in the history of modern Johor.  The state will enjoy a public holiday for this event and at least nine different but related events will be held from March 16 in a grand 3-month long celebration.

The coronation will combine Islamic, Malay and Western culture and rituals that are exclusive and based on Johor royal traditions but I was intrigued by the Western bit.  Historically, Johor developed quite independently and held out against accepting a British Resident until the 1910 appointment of a General Advisor.  I did a bit of online research on Johor history and also arranged to meet with Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen, a professional historian who comes from a family with deep roots in Johor.

Datin Pat, as she is fondly called, is also the great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook, and she has written a biography of her great-grandfather, a pioneer of Johor Baru whose name is synonymous with our city’s main street.  Over tea and cookies, I learnt a great deal from her and she encouraged me to read her book, JOHOR, Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 – 1957 for more details on the early history of Johor.

The steps that lead to the Throne Room in Istana Besar
will be featured in the sultan's coronation
As I read her well-researched book published with priceless photos, the theme that emerged was one of continuity and connectedness between past and present, tradition and modernity and between people of different communities.  Then I cross referenced the information with details recorded in A History of Johore (1365 – 1941) by R O Winstedt, another book a friend who knew about my quest, offered to lend me. 

Whenever I read the old spelling for Johor with the alphabet “e” in Johore, it makes me smile because it’s a throwback to a bygone era when we used to spell the word kampung as kampong.  From 1931 to 1935, Richard Olaf Winstedt, better known as R O Winstedt, was the General Advisor to Johor. 

I find the first paragraph in the Author’s Preface so interesting that I must quote it verbatim for the readers’ benefit:  I owe my best thanks to His Highness the Sultan of Johore, Colonel Sir Ibrahim, D.K., S. P.M.J., G.C.M.G., K.B.E., for the portraits of his father and grandfather that illustrate this book.  His Highness has also been kind enough to read the chapters devoted to Temenggong Daing Ibrahim and Sultan Abu-Bakar and to furnish me with valuable criticism and information, calling my attention to Mr Vaughan’s account of Johore in 1702.  “I congratulate you,” His Highness writes, “on the way you have touched on all Johore affairs.  It appears to me that you conceal nothing.  The work will be authoritative.”

It’s fascinating to read the writings of an Englishman that was reviewed by the Sultan himself and who gave his comments on the accuracy of the accounts.  Educated in an English boarding school, the Sultan, who continued his father’s strong relationship with the British, certainly had a good command of the language.  Besides being decorated with honours from state and nation, he was also knighted by honours from the United Kingdom.  

The sign in front of the Sultan Ibrahim Girls School (SIGS)
Three Johor rulers were mentioned in a single paragraph and at the coronation of HRH Sultan Ibrahim this March, he will be the second Sultan Ibrahim in the history of modern Johor even though there were two Ibrahim’s before him.  Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim (1825 to 1862) founded Iskandar Puteri and established the state of Johor.  The son of the first Ibrahim, Sultan Abu Bakar – the Father of Modern Johor (1862 to 1895), laid the foundations of the state, set the outlines of Johor Baru city, built many buildings and established the state’s political and legal framework.  For his coronation, he adopted the English tradition of pledging the oath of loyalty to the monarchs, the royal regalia and exchanged the traditional Malay head-dress for a crown that was made by royal jeweler, J W Benson of London.

In his long reign from 1895 to 1959, Sultan Ibrahim consolidated the state’s growth, expanded its economy and developed Johor into a modern metropolis.  British Advisor, D G Campbell, reported that the government maintained 39 schools, at two of which English is taught.  Education was a priority and by 1913, two more English schools were founded in JB – the English College, now named Sultan Abu Bakar College, and the Bukit Zahrah English School.  

The plaque and iconic statue in front of
the Johor Baru Convent
The acronym SIGS for Sultan Ibrahim Girls’ School, named after His Royal Highness, was officially opened by Sultan Ibrahim in October 1939.  This all-girls school, now known as SMK (P) Sultan Ibrahim, started as an afternoon session school in the premises of the Ngee Heng Primary Boys’ School before it shifted to the present site a year later.
Sultan Ibrahim also granted the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, land along Jalan Yahya Awal to build their school and his gift of the sculpture of Virgin Mary still holds a place of pride in the school’s façade today.  I remember in 2012, HRH Sultan Ibrahim, our current ruler, responded to the issue of a proposed move of the JB Convent to another site in Nusajaya by stating emphatically that the school will not be moved or renamed because the land for the school and the iconic sculpture was a gift from his great-grandfather and namesake, Sultan Ibrahim!

Unlike the last coronation ceremony in Johor on Feb 10, 1960, that was witnessed only by royalty and dignitaries, this generation of rakyat can be a part of Sultan Ibrahim’s coronation through live telecasts broadcast on RTM TV and on big screens in Dataran Bandaraya JB.  March 23 is a momentous day in the history of Johor – one that we can proudly declare “we witnessed it!”  I join the rakyat in sending our congratulations to HRH Sultan Ibrahim on his coronation – Daulat Tuanku!

A version of this article was published in the April 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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