The Figure Museum in Johor Bahru (March 2018)

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At the present time, the only state-run museum in Johor Bahru which I have found to be open to the public is the Figure Museum (Muzium Tokoh Johor) at Bukit Senyum (closed on Fridays). The word “Figure” is a little confusing but refers to the figure head of the state, so the upper floor contains information about Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim and his family. More about that later, but first let’s look at the real point of this museum for foreign visitors, and that is to imagine the life of the Malay elite who lived in houses such as this at the turn of the 19th century.

The building was completed in 1896 on 100 acres of land on Senyum Hill, overlooking the Tebrau Straits and Singapore. It was the official residence of Dato’ Jaafar bin Haji Muhammad, the first Chief Minister of Johor serving from 1886 - 1919. He had accompanied Sultan Abu Bakar on several trips to Europe, and had his house modeled on Hardwick Hall in England.  Apparently, Sultan Abu Bakar had acknowledged Dato’ Jaafar’s request for permission to build such a big house with a smile. The word “Senyum” means “smile”, hence this building was known as Senyum Castle.

There is not a lot to see on the ground floor, but there are information panels in Malay and English to tell you about the occupants. Three of Dato’ Jaafar bin Haji Muhammad’s sons also served as Chief Minister (Menteri Besar) after him, including Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar who was the founder of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation). So, this building holds the stories of one of the most important Malay families in Johor Bahru in the late 19th century. 

On the ground floor is a large book describing the lifestyle on Bukit Senyum. Only a few pages are available to read, but they are enough to allow you to imagine how things were for the Malay elite of Johor.

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Dato’ Jaafar bin Haji Muhammad had five wives and many children. In addition, it was the fashion at the time for the Malay elite to adopt Chinese girls to become playmates and attendents to their daughters. So, this was a large household indeed. In fact, Senyum Castle was quite a self-sufficient place, with a Chinese farmer to cultivate vegetables and tend the vast orchard, an Indian cowherd to provide produce from cows and goats, and an Afghan caretaker to look after water and power supplies. For recreation, there were two bathing pools and a Japanese garden.

Dato’ Jaafar believed his children should not only we well educated, but they should also be cultured, enlightened, and enjoy music. So, they all learnt to play a musical instrument and together made up a ghazal orchestra, performing music with Arabic and Indian influences. Being invited to an event here must have been very special indeed.

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If you walk upstairs, you walk into an exhibition of our Sultan and his family. But, there is no English here so it will not take you long to look around. The only object on display which I recognised was this toy model of one of the Sultan’s Harly Davidson motorbikes, painted in tiger stripes.

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Also upstairs, is an exhibition about the famous Johorian film producer, Jamil Sulong. I do not know why this is in a museum concerning the figure head of Johor, because again there is no English accompanying this display.

This beautiful building has served several roles over the years. It was taken over by the Johor government after the death of Dato’ Jaafar in 1919, and was abandoned until the Japanese occupation in 1941. Later, it was used by the Forest Police force, then as a Language Teaching College, then for adult learning classes, and finally became part of the Johor Heritage Foundation from 1996. Its current form as Johor's Figure Museum came about in 2011. But as I was leaving the museum, I saw another use for this heritage building as a backdrop for modern advertisers!

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