Segara Ninda, the centuries-old Anglo-Malay mansion at the corner of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Farquhar, is a poignant reminder that a Malay king once ruled southern Siam. It belonged to Tengku Baharuddin bin Ku Meh, or Ku Din Ku Meh – the last king of Setul.
Setul, at one time known as the Kingdom of Setul Mambang Segara, was a Malay kingdom established by the cadet branch of the Kedah royal house in the wake of a partition that took place in 1808. The kingdom retained its independence until 1892, when it was returned to Kedah to be ruled by a high commissioner chosen directly by the Sultan of Kedah. Ku Din Ku Meh, then only in his 30s, was selected for this role.1
While Ku Din Ku Meh was not a direct descendant of the Setul royal house, he was born of nobility, and he was elected as high commissioner because of his outstanding capabilities and the fact that the throne of Setul had been vacant for some time – Tunku Abdul Rahman (not to be confused with the first prime minister of Malaysia), Setul’s previous king, had reportedly become insane towards the end of his 10-year reign.
His appointment led to the outright dissatisfaction of Tunku Muhammad, who was the crown prince of Setul and Tunku Abdul Rahman’s son. Lacking political influence in Kedah’s royal circles, Tunku Muhammad sought assistance from the Siamese royal house in Bangkok to intervene on his behalf, but in vain – Ku Din Ku Meh possessed far more political clout than he.2 However, as a man of generosity, Ku Din Ku Meh absorbed Tunku Muhammad into his Setul administration several months after his appointment.
From the beginning of his governorship, Ku Din Ku Meh sought to forge closer ties with the Siamese royal court, having witnessed the growing influence of the Siamese kingdom over the political affairs of the northern Malay states in the late nineteenth century. He began sending gifts in the form of bunga emas – flower ornaments crafted entirely in pure gold – to the Siamese royal court as a sign of loyalty, separately from Kedah.
Tengku Baharuddin bin Ku Meh.
This led to the severe straining of relations between Kedah and Setul – bunga emas had always been customarily sent through Kedah, which viewed Setul as its principality. The uneasy relationship was healed only after reconciliation efforts were made by Che Ampuam Manyalara, the sultanah of Kedah.3
While Ku Din Ku Meh reinstated Setul’s sovereignty as a separate kingdom, many features from the Kedahan administrative system could be identified in his policies, such as the introducing of heads for the Education Department, Judicial Court and Medical Department; Kadi, or magistrate of the syariah court; a kapitan cina system; and a uniformed police force. He recruited Punjabi officers into the Setul Police Force, and introduced uniforms for government servants.
In 1902 his career as a statesman reached its peak when he was proclaimed King of Setul, bearing the regnal name Tengku Baharuddin bin Ku Meh. The proclamation was affirmed by King Chulalongkorn of Siam and by the governors of the southern provinces of Siam in an attempt to incorporate Setul under Siamese sovereignty.
What remained of Kedah’s titular jurisdiction over Setul disappeared when the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 – also known as the Bangkok Treaty – was signed between the British and the King of Siam. It saw Siam handing over control of the northern Malay states to the British colonial administration while Patani, Narathiwat, Setul, Yala and southernmost Songkhla were recognised by the British as sovereign territories of Siam in return. Before the treaty was ratified, the British had planned to include Setul under Perlis and Kedah due to their close cultural and political ties; this attempt never succeeded due to strong resistance from King Chulalongkorn.4
Towards the end of Ku Din Ku Meh’s rule, he implemented pro-Siamese policies such as replacing the Malay language with Thai as the official language of the courts and administration. This led to the resignation of many government officials, and to a Malay nationalist uprising, which was immediately quelled heavy-handedly by the Siamese.
Ku Din Ku Meh abdicated due to old age in 1916, seven years after Setul came under the Kingdom of Siam. He was given the Siamese honorary title of Phraya Purminard Pakdi, or “The Most Devoted One to the King”, by King Vajiravudh, Chulalongkorn’s successor, in recognition of his contributions to the development of Setul.
That same year, the Malay kingship system in Setul was dissolved by the Kingdom of Siam,5 and the territory was renamed Satun.
The interior of Segara Ninda.
Several rooms in Segara Ninda have been converted into guest rooms.
Tengku Yahaya and his sister, Tengku Sepora.
In 1901 Ku Din Ku Meh had acquired the plot of land upon which he built Segara Ninda. After his abdication, he involved himself in the trading of bird’s nests, timber, rubber and coconut. Penang was an ideal location for a permanent trading office, and so Segara Ninda became his office and holiday home. Ku Din Ku Meh passed away in Setul in 1932.
After his death, Segara Ninda was rented out to tenants who, in turn, would sublet it to other occupants. The house was left vacant for a period of time after the Rent Control Act was repealed, and was later reacquired by Tengku Yahaya, the fourth generation descendant of Ku Din Ku Meh, from the Estate of Tengku Baharuddin, which was set up by Ku Din Ku Meh to manage his estates and properties after he passed away.
Tengku Yahaya and his siblings have since restored the house to its former glory, with its grand pillars with British quoin designs; windows with traditional wooden shutters; and marble flooring. He has also taken great pains to preserve the furniture, including the chandeliers carved with Malay-European motifs. Tengku Yahaya currently resides in the house, while the rooms on the first and second floors serve as a boutique hotel.
Old photos and artefacts on display at Segara Ninda.
According to Tengku Yahaya and his sister, Tengku Sepora, “Segara Ninda” means “Sea of the Ancestors”. Their efforts, together with those from two other sisters, to preserve the historical legacy of their great-grandfather have preserved the house well. “It was a rather challenging task for us initially,” says Tengku Sepora. “It took a lot of effort to refurbish the old house into what you see today – it had been left in quite a shabby condition when we repurposed it after the Rent Control Act was repealed towards the end of the 1990s.”
The procurement of the appropriate materials proved to be a daunting task since features such as the marble flooring and wooden window shutters needed to be of the highest quality and to reflect the era as well.
The transformation of the house into a boutique hotel has not only given it new life, but also generates a fair amount of income. Tengku Sepora hopes that Segara Ninda will continue to thrive not only as a space that allows guests to have a taste of traditional Malay lifestyle, but more importantly as a site that reminds future generations of the historical links Penang once had with the Kingdom of Siam.
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of South-east Asia. His passion has brought him to different South-east Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.
1Mahani Musa, “The Memory of The World Register: The Sultan Abdul Hamid Correspondence and Kedah History (PDF)”, School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
2Mata Hati (2017), ”Sambungan Kisah Pengkhianatan Tunku Yaakub Terhadap Negeri Kedah”, Orang Kedah.
3Isma (2016), “Perjuangan Kedah Mempertahankan Tanah Air”, Portal Islam & Melayu.
4Ooi Keat Gin (2015), “Warisan Wilayah Utara Semenanjung Malaysia”, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
5Ahmad Jelani Halimi & Mohd Yusoff Mydin Pitchai (1985), “Setoi (Setul) Mambang Segara Dalam Lintasan Sejarah Negeri-Negeri Melayu Utara”, Universiti Utara Malaysia.