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HIS Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar of Johor made a striking appearance at the Proclamation Ceremony of the 14th Yang DiPertuan Agong on Dec 13.
He was resplendent in an attire which many assumed to be newly designed for the occasion. The attire reflected history.
Sultan Ibrahim has a penchant for reviving royal court traditions inherited from the temenggong, from governance to diplomacy and from the art of dressing to protocol.
He has confirmed royal blue as the sovereign's colour. In his wisdom, Maharaja Abu Bakar in 1871 chose the colour to denote the universe, reflecting his faith in Islam and his subservience to Allah.
Maharaja Abu Bakar embarked on a visit to England in 1866 and thereafter, at different times, to Europe, Turkey, Egypt, Japan and China with an eye for the needs of his country. He adapted the ceremonial attire, decorations and conduct of European and Middle Eastern courts.
At a ball in honour of the Prince of Wales in 1882, he was dressed in blue velvet with diamonds. It was his style of living modelled on the contemporary practice of European courts.
Yet, he preserved a shrewd mixture of Malay tradition and Western innovation. He was insistent on the observance of Malay decorum where he deemed it appropriate. This trait has permeated Johor's modern sultanate.
Abu Bakar introduced and popularised the Baju Melayu Telok Belanga. But he did not decree it as ceremonial attire for royalty.
Instead he preferred the European tunic, adapted to Eastern design, with braided epaulette, gorgets, chevrons and shiny baubles. The tunic was made of dark blue velvet. The epaulette, gorgets and buttons were encrusted with diamonds. The chevron was braided with gold thread intricately designed with gambier and pepper motif. The head gear is a black velvet songkok adorned with an aigrette of diamond pendants.
The songkok was introduced during the time of Temenggong Ibrahim. The Malays, who had been using the tanjak, had the brim of the Western hat removed and wrapped it with a piece of cloth into the shape of a turban. For ease of the wearer the cloth was later removed and the turban evolved into a songkok. Abu Bakar decreed the black velvet songkok as the official ceremonial headgear for Malays.
Abu Bakar had members of his cabinet wear a dark blue ceremonial uniform, complete with dress sword and black songkok with a silver aigrette. To this day, counsellors of the royal court wear a similar uniform.
The chief ministers, too, were similarly attired as they were made presidents of the royal court until 1966, after which no politician was appointed counsellor or president. The menteri besar now wears the ceremonial uniform of the Johor civil service.
Abu Bakar's son Tunku Ibrahim was dressed in the white ceremonial uniform of an officer of the Johor Military Forces (JMF) when he was appointed the Tunku Mahkota in 1891. But he perpetuated the ceremonial attire designed by Abu Bakar for his coronation and birthday celebrations. Sultan Ismail wore similar attire at his coronation on 10 Feb, 1960.
Sultan Ibrahim as commandant of the JMF was always photographed in uniform similar to the British army field service uniform. But, he and the rulers after him, Sultan Ismail and Sultan Iskandar, as commandant adopted the white ceremonial uniform of the JMF as official uniform at royal ceremonies.
Last year, Sultan Ibrahim departed from the white uniform and revived the dark blue uniform introduced by Abu Bakar. However the design was based on the JMF ceremonial uniform complete with the JMF upturned bill cap. This is the uniform that he wears for his official portrait.
He sought the opinion of the Council of the Royal Court on the reintroduction of the ceremonial attire of Abu Bakar to showcase Johor's past glory. The uniform was stitched based on the original design. The songkok was made by an artisan in Muar. The original epaulette, gorgets and buttons set in diamonds designed by Abu Bakar had been secured in a bank vault as part of the crown jewels.
The diamonds form an heirloom collection of Abu Bakar who was described by The Washington Post of 25 Jan, 1893, as "a ruler who in full regalia strings US$10,000,000 worth of diamonds from his shoulders". The newspaper recognised that Abu Bakar's wealth was due to his success in the economic development of Johor and in his visits to foreign lands to promote trade of the state's products, including spices, gambier, rattan, tin and tea.
The stars adorning his left breast are insignias of the two oldest orders of chivalry in the country. The Order of the Royal Family and the Order of the Crown of Johor were introduced by Abu Bakar on 31 July, 1886, 30 years earlier than other Malayan states. Sultan Ibrahim decreed the heirloom, regalia and crown jewels be made state property to be enjoyed by the ruling sovereign.
Some quarters have voiced their criticism that the Johor sultanate has no traditional Malay attire as a ceremonial uniform. This is a non-issue as apparel is only a physical appearance. The sultanate wears its heart on its sleeves in ensuring the welfare, prosperity and happiness of its people.
Datuk Abdul Rahim Ramli is the secretary of the Johor Council of the Royal Court