The official residence of the Sultan of Johor - Istana Bukit Serene - is a majestic palace built in 1939, facing the Straits of Johor.
Some 76 years have passed, yet Istana Bukit Serene still stands tall and is the symbol of the modern Johor Sultanate.
Istana Bukit Serene belongs to the state government although it was a gift from the Johor government to the late Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Abu Bakar (June 4, 1895 - May 8, 1959) in conjunction with the ruler’s 40th anniversary as the sultan of Johor.
Construction works on Bukit Serene started in 1933 and were completed in 1939.
The palace is located on a hill, thus its name, and sits on a beautiful landscape of 121.4 hectares.
The palace has an interesting history. It was once used as the Japanese Army’s headquarters during its Malaya occupation between 1942 and 1945.
Istana Bukit Serene has a tower measuring 35m in height which provides a bird’s eye view of Singapore, a former possession of the sultanate. It gave the Japanese an advantage as the tower allowed them to lookout for approaching threats during their occupation.
Besides its role as the sultan of Johor sultanate’s official residence, the palace’s huge sprawling garden is often used for royal gatherings and celebrations.
The sultan’s independent military, the Johor Military Force, founded by the late Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Daing Ibrahim (February 3, 1833 - June 4, 1895) in 1886, is the sultan’s private army and is tasked with the security aspects of Istana Bukit Serene.
Recently, Istana Bukit Serene was used as the venue for the Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar’s investiture ceremony in conjunction with his birthday last year, and for the akad nikah ceremony of the Tunku Mahkota Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim and his consort Che Puan Khaleeda Bustamam.
Istana Bukit Serene, over the years, has undergone renovation works where its interiors and exteriors were upgraded.
However, Sultan Ibrahim, who is known as “Johor’s Father of the Millennium”, who takes traditional aspects to its precise detail to heart, decreed for the palace to undergo major refurbishment works to return it to its original state in conjunction with his coronation ceremony today.
Unique carvings on the palace’s granite and limestone walls were cemented, but today have been restored to the palace’s heydays.
The Johor Royal Household’s Grand Chamberlain Datuk Mohamed Perang Musa said Sultan Ibrahim was hands-on during the refurbishment works on Istana Bukit Serene.
“His Majesty was very involved in the refurbishment works. He was an active participant and gave many ideas to the amazement of the contractors,” Mohamed Perang who goes with the moniker Mat Perang said.
“Some may think Sultan Ibrahim may not be aware of construction materials, but they fail to remember that the late sultan of Johor Almahrum Sultan Iskandar Sultan Ismail had decreed for Sultan Ibrahim during his days as the crown prince to undergo attachment with all the state departments and also the Public Works Department to understand and learn first-hand how things work and were administered.
“He knows exactly the best proportions of sand, water and cement needed for different type of surfaces. For limestone, he told the contractors to wet the walls first, dry them using paper sponges, before plastering work was done.”
Sultan Ibrahim’s instructions were precise. He wanted the palace to be returned to its original state, and for all existing materials to be refurbished, restored and reused.
Perang said the main problem faced by the contractors was the fact that nobody remembered how the palace looked previously as not many pictures had been taken when the late Sultan Iskandar resided in the palace.
However, Sultan Ibrahim came to the rescue as he took on the role as the main architect in the restoration works.
Sultan Ibrahim is said to have a photographic memory and remembered the slightest details. He was the main source of reference throughout the refurbishment works.
He remembered every corner, colour and even how the rooms were located and their functions.
Sultan Ibrahim had constantly reminded the contractors to ensure that precautions were taken while detailing works of the granite exterior were done. He had personally supervised some of the works to ensure the palace originality was not compromised.
“There are five rooms in Istana Bukit Serene. Although there are no specific names for the rooms and other areas in the palace, we have given them unofficial names based on their purpose and design in order to smoothen our work flow process,” Perang said, adding that the Sultan Ibrahim’s bedroom is referred to as the sultan’s wing, while another wing for his consort Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah is referred as Tuanku Raja Zarith’s wing.
There are three other rooms in the double-storey palace for the Royal couple’s children, and a living room where the royal family spends time together.
Besides the five rooms upstairs, there is a library, the sultan’s office and a conference room, among others downstairs.
A Johor-based company Active Builder Group was awarded the refurbishment project.
Its managing director Teo Chee Yow, who is from Benut, Pontian, said it was an honour to be entrusted with the responsibility of restoring Istana Bukit Serene, which to Johoreans is the symbol of the Johor sultanate.
Active Builder Group took more than a year to complete the refurbishment works.
Teo said the first day he stepped into the palace he was surprised to see how simple it was.
“I was under the impression that the pillars in the place are gold-plated like we normally see on television. No, it is simple.
“Sultan Ibrahim is very particular, detailed and precise about the building’s layout, prospective view of design and detailing of construction drawing. Tuanku is a man of perfection.”
Teo said all the materials used to preserve the building, including the natural stones, wood carvings, copper material, switches, sanitary fittings, loose furniture, carpet and curtains had to be approved by the sultan before work could begin.
“Sultan Ibrahim often reminded me that the palace belongs to his subjects. Thus, I was not to take this trust and responsibility lightly,” he said.
Materials which were no longer in production were personally imported by the sultan himself.
For instance, the company which manufactured the roof shingles ceased operations years ago. Sultan Ibrahim imported them after finding a manufacturer who produced similar roof shingles.
“I have been in the construction industry for the past 28 years, and I must admit this was the most testing task I have done, but I was lucky and honoured that Sultan Ibrahim was often on hand to give his advice and suggestions. He was definitely my referral-point,” he said.
Teo said as a Johorean, he is humbled with the experience as the task was an honour.
“Sultan Ibrahim is strict but a very nice and jovial man. He often shared the good experiences he had with his father here in Bukit Serene.
“Although Bukit Serene belongs to the state government, the Sultan settled all restoration and renovation works. I feel compelled to share this, because I would like to clear any doubt the masses may have,” he said.