Taxi Drivers and Workplace Staff: Meet Singapore’s Widespread Kings
© Reuters. A view of the city skyline looking towards Kampong Glam in Singapore
By Chen Lin, Edgar Su and John Geddie
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – In the modern Republic of Singapore, several seemingly commonplace people working in offices or driving taxis can claim to be royal blood, descendants of a 19th-century monarch who passed control of the Southeast Asian island to the British has ceded.
But few residents of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world are even aware of this line, a sore point in Tengku or Prince Shawal, who was recognized by some members of his family as “head of the house of Singapore”.
“Do you still exist?” is an answer the 51-year-old often receives when telling people he is one of the descendants of Sultan Hussein Shah – whose treaties with the British led to colonial rule and the establishment of the modern country.
Shawal is one of several Singaporeans who bear the honorary name Tengku, which means prince or princess in Malay, and who claim ties to the sultan.
Until the turn of the century, some of them lived in their ancestral home, an overcrowded, run-down palace, before they were evicted by the government who turned it into a museum.
79 descendants, 14 of whom lived in the palace, were offered disbursements under a colonial-era deal to support the sultan’s family, the then government said. Many of the others lived abroad, it was said.
The names of the legal beneficiaries were not made public, making it difficult to verify royal claims.
The Singapore government, which has made unbroken rulings since the city-state gained independence in 1965, told Reuters that all but one of the payments had been made, but they were unable to provide details on the beneficiaries.
Shawal, who showed the Reuters government correspondence identifying him as the beneficiary, still regularly visits the palace and museum and the nearby mosque and cemetery in the Malay enclave of the city-state called Kampong Glam.
Despite personal problems with his income cut and his logistics job at risk from the coronavirus pandemic, Shawal dedicates time to keeping the sultan’s legacy alive by dressing in traditional royal costumes and attending ceremonial events.
Gaining broader recognition, however, is challenging, even among an unequal and somewhat divided group of applicants.
Other descendants warn of the dangers of life in the past or are too preoccupied with the needs of the present.
“We’re not a dynasty. It doesn’t matter whether you are a descendant of the royal family or not,” said Tengku Indra, a 67-year-old adviser who lived on the palace grounds as a child.
“The bottom line is that you must earn your life through meritocracy rather than enjoying an ascribed status based on ancestral position.”
Indra was described as the great-great-great-great-grandson of Sultan Hussein in an article by the government-affiliated Heritage Society Friends of the Museums Singapore last year.
Indra’s son, 40-year-old businessman Tengku Azan, has a two-year-old daughter who would be one of the youngest offspring.
He believes future generations will not care much about the Sultan’s story. “The past accidentally fades into the background and remains intact,” he said.
For other former palace residents, living in the outside world was a rude awakening.
Tengku Faizal, 43, said after leaving the palace in 1999 he took a job cleaning a condo and would be teased for being the prince who handles trash.
He now drives a taxi but says he is struggling to make ends meet and has been given financial support to help cover his daughter’s childcare fees. To help out, his wife took a part-time job at a McDonald’s (NYSE 🙂 outlet.
“We’re not smart, we’re not rich,” Faizal said, speaking in English. “We only have titles.”
In neighboring Malaysia, a constitutional monarchy where sultans still play an active role in public life, honorary names are far more common.
Of seven Singapore applicants polled by Reuters, Shawal was most eager to celebrate his legacy.
But even he had his own doubts about passing on the “burden” of the royal title and did not give it to his daughter at birth.
Princess Puteri is 27 years old and works for a biotech company. She has recaptured her name Tengku, but also says that explaining her testimonies is a difficult task for her in a country that has largely forgotten this piece of history.
“Part of me is sad because I have to explain who I am. But the moment you look at Prince Harry, you know he’s the Prince,” she said, referring to the globally popular grandson of Queen Elizabeth II