Passion to preserve Johor heritage buildings


When I read the poster for the event organised by UTM in partnership with KALAM, my interest went up a few notches when I read that the two guest speakers featured were Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahim Ramli and Dato’ Dr Haji Kassim Thukiman.


The guest speakers with KALAM Director,
AR IDR TS Noraslinda Abdul Rahman

The topic for this event, Kajian Seni Bina dan Tarikan Pelancongan Berasaskan Warisan Bandar di Bandaraya Johor Baru, was of interest to me and as this was an only by-invitation event, I was more than pleased to receive an invitation.


Concerned for the rapid disintegration and elimination of Malaysia’s architectural heritage, KALAM, the shortform for Pusat Kajian Alam Bina Dunia Melayu or the Centre for the Study of Built Environment in the Malay World, was set up in June 1996.


I met with Dato’ Dr Kassim in 2018 when he was Associate Professor with UTM as a guest speaker at Bicarawara Tokoh – Lada Hitam dan Gambir, where he shared his knowledge on Johor’s pepper and gambier heritage.


In 2020, Dato’ Kassim was appointed by His Highness the Johor Sultan, as Advisor in the Johor Council of Royal Court.


[L to R] Dato' Kassim, Dato' Rahim and
AR IDR TS Noraslinda Abdul Rahman

Meanwhile Dato’ Rahim, President of the Johor Council of Royal Court, is an authority in Johor culture and heritage and a family friend who generously shared his knowledge with me while I was preparing the manuscript for Book Three of My Johor Stories.


Dato’ Rahim also graciously wrote the Foreword and officially launched My Johor Stories 3: Proudly Johor, Then and Now, the third and final instalment to complete the trilogy of My Johor Stories books in a simple ceremony in December 2022.


That morning when I arrived at the event, Dato’ Kassim and Dato’ Rahim, were chatting over coffee with KALAM Director, AR IDR TS Noraslinda Abdul Rahman.


Dato' Kassim sharing his knowledge on
Johor History from 1528 to 1855

Then we were ushered into the event hall where the participants comprised members of KALAM along with representatives from architectural firms, the Johor Baru City Council, the Abu Bakar Royal Museum and Polytechnic Ibrahim Sultan.


The event opened with an introduction to KALAM by AR Noraslinda who shared more about KALAM’s role, responsibilities and activities.


Since 1975, the research in the identification, classification and analysis of architectural heritage was established through Undergraduate and Post-Graduate studies in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).


Now KALAM has a documentary collection of more than 600 buildings that include residences, palaces, mosques, public buildings, commercial buildings, wakaf, madrasah and tombs.


The majestic Sultan Ibrahim Building

She also shared that the work of KALAM Gallery included preserving heritage buildings by building models of landmark buildings, some of which were proudly presented as gifts and souvenirs to visiting dignitaries from abroad.


I was delighted to see their building models of familiar Johor landmarks with unique characteristics, easily identified as the majestic Sultan Ibrahim Building on Bukit Timbalan and the Dato’ Jaafar Building on Bukit Senyum.


Although I had already featured these landmark buildings under Historic Hills and Palaces published in, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, I was keen to discover more from the two learned speakers.


In fact, when I first published, Historic Hills and Palaces in Life & Times, the Travel section of The New Straits Times in 2015, I received a surprising response in 2016 from Richard Dunn, an Englishman in the UK.


A wooden model of Sultan Ibrahim Building
made by KALAM

In his presentation, Dato’ Kassim shared valuable details on Johor History from 1528 to 1855 that included a list of former names of Johor, garnered from historical records by local and foreign authors.


I was pleased to see that he had listed more ancient names in Malay than the collection I had shared in, Johor’s many names, a piece published in My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


Dato’ Rahim then clarified that the kingdom of Johor that developed in Johor Lama was forced to flee up-river to escape the onslaught of Portuguese attacks so that their galleons could not sail through smaller rivers to reach them.


A view of the Dato' Jaafar Building

He regretted that the historical buildings from this era that were only temporary shelters of crude houses with thatched roofs, have been lost but encouraged KALAM to do the research into discovering more about these buildings.


He said that the founding of Iskandar Puteri in 1855 marked the start of the era of Modern Johor where people still lived in wooden houses with thatched roofs while buildings with concrete pillars were used as government offices.


I observed that the audience was listening with avid attention as Dato’ Rahim talked about the Water Village where houses were built on stilts into the sea at Kampung Stulang Laut.


A building model of Dato' Jaafar Building
made by KALAM

When this village was demolished for redevelopment, Malays were relocated to an area in Majidee named Kampung Stulang Baru while non-Malays were moved to Kampung Ungku Mohsin.


He went to enlighten the audience with nuggets of nostalgic information concerning ancient settlements called Kampung Kereta Asap, Kampung Dok, Kampung Baru, Kampung Tarom, Kampung Kandang Ayam and Kampung Wong Ah Fook and its revenue farms that earned a reputation as the Asian Monte Carlo.


Dato’ Rahim then discussed about the istana or palaces built in Singapore during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakar that included Istana Bidadari, Istana Tyersall and Istana Woodneuk.


Old photo of Sri Gambir, former residence
of Dato' Menteri Besar

With the use of old photographs, he gave the audience a glimpse of the grand palaces in Johor starting with the Istana Besar or Grand Palace, along with Istana Menara Empat, Istana Zahrah and Balai Cengkih, Istana Semayam, Istana Marbal, Istana Tanjung, and Istana Mustika Embun.


Other grand buildings highlighted were residences named Sri Gambir, Sri Kopi, Sri Ledang, Sri Lalang and Taban Tunggal.


Photo from my last visit to the building
formerly known as Sri Gambir

The old photograph of Sri Gambir, which was once the residence of Dato’ Menteri Besar, struck a familiar chord because I visited this building when it was used as a public library and later when the building had fallen into ruin. [Please see photo!]


I was simply thrilled to see (for the very first time!) an old photo of Alexandar Hall that was built on Bukit Meldrum. It was the residence of James Alexander Meldrum, supervisor of the Johor Steam Sawmill, the first industry established in Johor.


It was fascinating to see Alexandar Hall, a wooden building which I believe, was built with timber from the Johor jungles and planks sawn by the Johor Steam Sawmill.


Old photo of Alexander Hall

Dato’ Rahim also discussed how the Johor Ruler invited Chinese planters to come to Johor to cultivate pepper and gambier and had the foresight to promote unity among the multi-cultural people who settled here.


He said the Ruler wanted people to practice their own religions and presented them with land to build their places of worship that ranged from churches to temples.


My story on Our Street of Harmony was published in My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage and we can be proud of this Street of Harmony which emerged from the vision of a Ruler who placed the unity of people as a priority.


That's me [Far Right] paying close attention
to the presentation at the event

Dato’ Rahim made particular mention of the Johor Old Temple, a temple that united the five main Chinese dialect groups here and Dewan Cina, a building next to the Grand Palace, presented to the Johor Ruler by the Chinese business community.


Dato’ Rahim – a proud historian who is loyal to the State – was a fountain of information who provided valuable insights into our heritage buildings, palaces, residences, places of worship and even the landmark arches in the city.


He said the Jubilee Arch at the entrance to the Istana Besar was built in 1925 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the rule of Sultan Sir Ibrahim while the Coronation Arch at the entrance of Istana Bukit Serene, was built to commemorate the coronation of present-day Sultan Ibrahim in 2015.


Dato' Rahim and AR IDR TS Noraslinda
during the Question & Answer time

As Dato’ Rahim regaled us with juicy anecdotes and urban legends linked to heritage buildings, he also expressed his disappointment with developers who have built modern monstrosities without consideration to the environment and future generations, and which turned out to be white elephants that have sadly, destroyed our city skyline.


The event closed with a Question & Answer session and discussion on model buildings created by KALAM using Artificial Intelligence technology, for research and study purposes.


The KALAM Gallery at the Centre for the Study of Built Environment in the Malay World (KALAM) is located at B12, Level 3, Faculty of Built Environment and Surveying, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, 81310 Skudai, Johor Baru, Johor.


Open daily from 8am to 5pm.

For enquires, Tel: +607 555 7345, email:

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