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Pictures | Wed Oct 28, 2020 | 6:53am IST

Cabbies and office workers: Meet Singapore's ordinary royals

Tengku Shawal looks on as he speaks about his ancestors in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. In the modern republic of Singapore, several seemingly ordinary people working in offices or driving taxis can claim to be of royal blood, descendants of a 19th century monarch who ceded control of the Southeast Asian island to the British.

But few residents in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities are even aware of this lineage, a sore point with Tengku, or Prince, Shawal, acclaimed by some members of his family as 'head of the house of Singapore'.

"They still exist?" is a response the 51-year-old says he often receives when he tells people he is one of the descendants of Sultan Hussein Shah - whose treaties with the British led to colonial rule and the founding of the modern country.

Shawal is one of several Singaporeans who bear the honorific name Tengku, meaning prince or princess in Malay, and claim links to the Sultan. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal looks on as he speaks about his ancestors in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. In the modern republic of Singapore, several seemingly ordinary people working in offices or driving taxis can claim to be of royal blood,...more

Tengku Shawal looks on as he speaks about his ancestors in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. In the modern republic of Singapore, several seemingly ordinary people working in offices or driving taxis can claim to be of royal blood, descendants of a 19th century monarch who ceded control of the Southeast Asian island to the British. But few residents in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities are even aware of this lineage, a sore point with Tengku, or Prince, Shawal, acclaimed by some members of his family as 'head of the house of Singapore'. "They still exist?" is a response the 51-year-old says he often receives when he tells people he is one of the descendants of Sultan Hussein Shah - whose treaties with the British led to colonial rule and the founding of the modern country. Shawal is one of several Singaporeans who bear the honorific name Tengku, meaning prince or princess in Malay, and claim links to the Sultan. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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A view of the Malay Heritage Centre museum in Singapore October 2, 2020. Until the turn of this century, some of them still lived in their ancestral home, a crowded, dilapidated palace, before they were evicted by the government which turned it into a museum.

Seventy nine descendants, of whom 14 were living in the palace, were offered payouts as part of colonial-era deal to provide for the Sultan's family, the government said at the time. Many of the others were living overseas, it said.

The legal beneficiaries' names were not made public, making it difficult to verify royal claims. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of the Malay Heritage Centre museum in Singapore October 2, 2020. Until the turn of this century, some of them still lived in their ancestral home, a crowded, dilapidated palace, before they were evicted by the government which turned it into...more

A view of the Malay Heritage Centre museum in Singapore October 2, 2020. Until the turn of this century, some of them still lived in their ancestral home, a crowded, dilapidated palace, before they were evicted by the government which turned it into a museum. Seventy nine descendants, of whom 14 were living in the palace, were offered payouts as part of colonial-era deal to provide for the Sultan's family, the government said at the time. Many of the others were living overseas, it said. The legal beneficiaries' names were not made public, making it difficult to verify royal claims. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, says a prayer next to the tombstone of his great-great-grandfather, Tengku Alam, at the ancestral mausoleum in Sultan Mosque, Singapore, October 2, 2020. Despite facing personal issues with his income cut and his logistics job at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shawal says he devotes time to keeping the Sultan's heritage alive by dressing in traditional royal costume and attending celebratory events.

But gaining wider recognition is a challenge, even among a disparate and somewhat divided band of claimants. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, says a prayer next to the tombstone of his great-great-grandfather, Tengku Alam, at the ancestral mausoleum in Sultan Mosque, Singapore, October 2, 2020. Despite facing personal issues with his income cut and his...more

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, says a prayer next to the tombstone of his great-great-grandfather, Tengku Alam, at the ancestral mausoleum in Sultan Mosque, Singapore, October 2, 2020. Despite facing personal issues with his income cut and his logistics job at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shawal says he devotes time to keeping the Sultan's heritage alive by dressing in traditional royal costume and attending celebratory events. But gaining wider recognition is a challenge, even among a disparate and somewhat divided band of claimants. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Indra, who says he is a royal descendant, sits in front of a green backdrop as he attends a Zoom meeting as a C-suite coach at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Other descendants warn about the dangers of living in the past or are too preoccupied with hardships of the present.

"We are not a dynasty. It is not important whether you are a descendant of the royal family or not," said Tengku Indra, a 67-year-old consultant who lived in the palace grounds as a child.

"What is crucial is you must earn your life through meritocracy instead of enjoying an ascribed status based on ancestral position." REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Indra, who says he is a royal descendant, sits in front of a green backdrop as he attends a Zoom meeting as a C-suite coach at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Other descendants warn about the dangers of living in the past or are too...more

Tengku Indra, who says he is a royal descendant, sits in front of a green backdrop as he attends a Zoom meeting as a C-suite coach at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Other descendants warn about the dangers of living in the past or are too preoccupied with hardships of the present. "We are not a dynasty. It is not important whether you are a descendant of the royal family or not," said Tengku Indra, a 67-year-old consultant who lived in the palace grounds as a child. "What is crucial is you must earn your life through meritocracy instead of enjoying an ascribed status based on ancestral position." REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Azan and his father Tengku Indra pose for photos in their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Indra was described as the great-great-great-great grandson of Sultan Hussein in an article by 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 descendants. He thinks future generations will not take much interest in the Sultan's history. "The past inadvertently takes a back seat and remains uncherished," he said. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Azan and his father Tengku Indra pose for photos in their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Indra was described as the great-great-great-great grandson of Sultan Hussein in an article by government-affiliated heritage society Friends of...more

Tengku Azan and his father Tengku Indra pose for photos in their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. Indra was described as the great-great-great-great grandson of Sultan Hussein in an article by 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 descendants. He thinks future generations will not take much interest in the Sultan's history. "The past inadvertently takes a back seat and remains uncherished," he said. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, waits for taxi bookings in Singapore October 16, 2020. For other former palace residents, life in the outside world has been a rude awakening.

Tengku Faizal, 43, said after he left the palace in 1999 he took a job as a cleaner in a condominium and would get teased for being the prince who handles garbage.

He now drives a taxi but says he is struggling to make ends meet and has been given financial assistance to cover his daughter's childcare fees. To help out, his wife has taken a part-time job in a McDonald's outlet.

"We are not smart, we are not rich," Faizal said, speaking in English. "We got title only." REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, waits for taxi bookings in Singapore October 16, 2020. For other former palace residents, life in the outside world has been a rude awakening. Tengku Faizal, 43, said after he left the palace in 1999...more

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, waits for taxi bookings in Singapore October 16, 2020. For other former palace residents, life in the outside world has been a rude awakening. Tengku Faizal, 43, said after he left the palace in 1999 he took a job as a cleaner in a condominium and would get teased for being the prince who handles garbage. He now drives a taxi but says he is struggling to make ends meet and has been given financial assistance to cover his daughter's childcare fees. To help out, his wife has taken a part-time job in a McDonald's outlet. "We are not smart, we are not rich," Faizal said, speaking in English. "We got title only." REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, works at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore August 31, 2020. To help out, Faizal's wife has taken a part-time job in a McDonald's outlet. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, works at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore August 31, 2020. To help out, Faizal's wife has taken a part-time job in a...more

Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, works at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore August 31, 2020. To help out, Faizal's wife has taken a part-time job in a McDonald's outlet. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, talks as his daughter Tengku Puteri (L) and his sister Tengku Intan (C) reminisce over old family photos at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020. Of seven Singapore claimants Reuters interviewed, Shawal was the most eager about celebrating his heritage.

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. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, talks as his daughter Tengku Puteri (L) and his sister Tengku Intan (C) reminisce over old family photos at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020. Of seven Singapore claimants Reuters interviewed, Shawal was the...more

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, talks as his daughter Tengku Puteri (L) and his sister Tengku Intan (C) reminisce over old family photos at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020. Of seven Singapore claimants Reuters interviewed, Shawal was the most eager about celebrating his heritage. 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. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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The official seal of Sultan Hussein Shah dating from 1809 is enclosed in a display box at Tengku Indra's home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

The official seal of Sultan Hussein Shah dating from 1809 is enclosed in a display box at Tengku Indra's home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

The official seal of Sultan Hussein Shah dating from 1809 is enclosed in a display box at Tengku Indra's home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, speaks with her colleagues at her office in Singapore October 13, 2020. Now 27 and working for a biotech firm, Princess Puteri has reclaimed her Tengku name but says she also finds explaining her credentials an uphill task in a country that has largely forgotten this piece of history.

"Some part of me feels sad because I need to explain who I am. But the moment when they look at Prince Harry they know he is the prince," she said, referring to the globally popular grandson of Queen Elizabeth II. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, speaks with her colleagues at her office in Singapore October 13, 2020. Now 27 and working for a biotech firm, Princess Puteri has reclaimed her Tengku name but says she also finds explaining her credentials an...more

Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, speaks with her colleagues at her office in Singapore October 13, 2020. Now 27 and working for a biotech firm, Princess Puteri has reclaimed her Tengku name but says she also finds explaining her credentials an uphill task in a country that has largely forgotten this piece of history. "Some part of me feels sad because I need to explain who I am. But the moment when they look at Prince Harry they know he is the prince," she said, referring to the globally popular grandson of Queen Elizabeth II. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, picks up passengers in his private hire taxi in Singapore October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, picks up passengers in his private hire taxi in Singapore October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, picks up passengers in his private hire taxi in Singapore October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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A view of a public housing estate where Tengku Faizal resides (foreground), on the outskirts of Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of a public housing estate where Tengku Faizal resides (foreground), on the outskirts of Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of a public housing estate where Tengku Faizal resides (foreground), on the outskirts of Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, puts a mask on his daughter Tengku Sahfira before leaving for the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, puts a mask on his daughter Tengku Sahfira before leaving for the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, puts a mask on his daughter Tengku Sahfira before leaving for the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, writes notes against a list of names of royal descendants given to him, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, writes notes against a list of names of royal descendants given to him, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, writes notes against a list of names of royal descendants given to him, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses for photos with his mother (R-L) Tengku Fatimah, wife Sa'adah Binti Othman, sister Tengku Intan, daughter Tengku Puteri and her husband Mohamad Fairoze at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses for photos with his mother (R-L) Tengku Fatimah, wife Sa'adah Binti Othman, sister Tengku Intan, daughter Tengku Puteri and her husband Mohamad Fairoze at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020....more

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses for photos with his mother (R-L) Tengku Fatimah, wife Sa'adah Binti Othman, sister Tengku Intan, daughter Tengku Puteri and her husband Mohamad Fairoze at Intan's home in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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An old 1999 family photo shows royal descendant Tengku Shawal (L) having a meal together with relatives in their last days at their home, Istana Kampong Glam, in Singapore August 21, 2020. The last residents of Istana Kampong Glam moved out in late 1999, and the Malay palace compound was restored and refurbished into the Malay Heritage Centre museum in 2004. REUTERS/Edgar Su

An old 1999 family photo shows royal descendant Tengku Shawal (L) having a meal together with relatives in their last days at their home, Istana Kampong Glam, in Singapore August 21, 2020. The last residents of Istana Kampong Glam moved out in late...more

An old 1999 family photo shows royal descendant Tengku Shawal (L) having a meal together with relatives in their last days at their home, Istana Kampong Glam, in Singapore August 21, 2020. The last residents of Istana Kampong Glam moved out in late 1999, and the Malay palace compound was restored and refurbished into the Malay Heritage Centre museum in 2004. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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A view of Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Azan and his mother, Jamilah Omar, look through old family photos of their time living in Kampong Glam, at their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Azan and his mother, Jamilah Omar, look through old family photos of their time living in Kampong Glam, at their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Azan and his mother, Jamilah Omar, look through old family photos of their time living in Kampong Glam, at their home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, brings his daughter Tengku Sahfira to the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, brings his daughter Tengku Sahfira to the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, brings his daughter Tengku Sahfira to the childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, leaves the house for her shift at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, leaves the house for her shift at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal's wife, Rahayu, leaves the house for her shift at McDonald's as she helps to provide for the family after Faizal's earnings took a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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A McDonald's cap is hung on the wall in Tengku Faizal's rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A McDonald's cap is hung on the wall in Tengku Faizal's rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A McDonald's cap is hung on the wall in Tengku Faizal's rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, prepares to take his daughter to a childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, prepares to take his daughter to a childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Faizal, who says he is a royal descendant, prepares to take his daughter to a childcare centre at his rental public housing flat in Singapore August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Puteri's family photos of her husband, children and her father, Tengku Shawal, are seen at her office cubicle in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Puteri's family photos of her husband, children and her father, Tengku Shawal, are seen at her office cubicle in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Puteri's family photos of her husband, children and her father, Tengku Shawal, are seen at her office cubicle in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, and her husband Mohamad Fairoze leave their house to send their children Ashley and Andriy to school, in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, and her husband Mohamad Fairoze leave their house to send their children Ashley and Andriy to school, in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Puteri, a royal descendant, and her husband Mohamad Fairoze leave their house to send their children Ashley and Andriy to school, in Singapore October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, shows a replica of a royal crest that he had made for himself to wear, in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, shows a replica of a royal crest that he had made for himself to wear, in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, shows a replica of a royal crest that he had made for himself to wear, in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses with his family by the window of their public housing apartment in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses with his family by the window of their public housing apartment in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, poses with his family by the window of their public housing apartment in Singapore August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Street art adorns old conserved shophouses next to the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Street art adorns old conserved shophouses next to the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Street art adorns old conserved shophouses next to the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam, Singapore, October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, gives a tour of his former home the Istana Kampung Glam, which is now the Malay Heritage Centre museum, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, gives a tour of his former home the Istana Kampung Glam, which is now the Malay Heritage Centre museum, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, gives a tour of his former home the Istana Kampung Glam, which is now the Malay Heritage Centre museum, in Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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A view of the city skyline overlooking Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of the city skyline overlooking Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

A view of the city skyline overlooking Kampong Glam, the Muslim quarter, in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, adjusts his kain samping over his Baju Kurung traditional costume at the Malay Heritage Center museum, which was formerly his home, in Kampong Glam, Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, adjusts his kain samping over his Baju Kurung traditional costume at the Malay Heritage Center museum, which was formerly his home, in Kampong Glam, Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a royal descendant, adjusts his kain samping over his Baju Kurung traditional costume at the Malay Heritage Center museum, which was formerly his home, in Kampong Glam, Singapore August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Indra speaks about his experiences living in Kampong Glam, at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Indra speaks about his experiences living in Kampong Glam, at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Indra speaks about his experiences living in Kampong Glam, at his home in Singapore September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tengku Shawal, a seventh-generation royal descendant of Sultan Hussein, visits an ancestral burial ground outside Kampong Glam in Singapore October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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