Stories of Arab community woven into Singapore’s multicultural tapestry
Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at the Launch of the Arab Association Singapore’s Heritage Exhibition, at Wisma Geylang Serai
26 October 2019
Mr Khalid Basharahil, President of the Arab Association Singapore,
Mr Abu Bakar Alsree, Chairman of the Organising Committee,
Professor Fatimah Lateef, MP of Marine Parade GRC,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- Good evening. It is my pleasure to join you at the launch of Al-Qisah – Stories of Singapore’s Arabs.
- This exhibition, put together by the Arab Association Singapore, bears witness to the long history and significant contributions of the Arab community in Singapore over the years.
- The impact of these contributions continues to be felt today, and reminds us of the need to embrace the values of our forefathers.
Arab community plays a key role in Singapore’s Bicentennial Story
- The first known Arabs in Singapore were immigrants twice over. They were wealthy traders and merchants who came from Palembang, Indonesia, in 1819, when Singapore became a trading post.
- Many of us will be familiar with Syed Mohammed bin Harun Aljunied and his nephew Syed Omar Aljunied. They traversed oceans from where they were born – in the southern coast of Arabia, in present-day Yemen – before arriving on our shores exactly two centuries ago.
- With their trading networks, our Arab pioneers helped establish Singapore as a thriving entrepot. Many of them adopted elements of Malay-Indonesian culture because of intermarriage with Malays and a growing familiarity with local customs.
- As we commemorate Singapore’s Bicentennial, we mark the arrival of our Arab pioneers, whose contributions since the beginning have enriched our collective culture in many ways.
Contributions of the Arabs in Singapore
- The fortunes of the community grew with Singapore’s development. The Arabs were successful entrepreneurs involved in retail, wholesale, production, real estate and many more. They were also actively involved in civic, charitable, and social welfare causes.
- This culture of philanthropy and giving was not an afterthought, but took root quite early on in Singapore’s development. Their contributions served not just the Arab or Muslim community – but also the wider Singaporean community.
- Singapore’s first mosque, Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, located at its original site in Keng Cheow Street, was established with the generosity of Arab pioneer, Syed Omar Aljunied. It was built just a year after 1819, one of the earliest landmark of Singapore, and will reach its bicentennial next year. Today, this mosque continues to serve the Muslim community in Singapore.
- Syed Ali Aljunied followed his older relative’s example and donated additional funds towards the construction and maintenance of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital when it moved to its new site in the 1850s. TTSH was the first hospital in Singapore completely funded by the people, including our Arab pioneers.
- Pioneers such as Syed Omar Aljunied and Syed Ali Aljunied have shown us the generosity of ancestors - that regardless of where we come from, we can and should make a difference to society, beyond our immediate communities. Many Singaporean of Arab decent have made significant contributions to Singapore in more recent times. Allow me to mention a few.
- The first Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr Ahmad Mattar, who is here with us today, is one of them. He had steered the development of Singapore in his capacity also as Minister for the Environment from 1985 to 1995.
- Syed Isa Semait, who is the longest-serving Mufti of Singapore, is also another distinguished member of our Arab community. When he took on the post at the age of 33 in 1972, he was one of the youngest muftis in the world. He held the post as Singapore’s chief Islamic scholar, the foremost religious authority in the Muslim community here – for almost four decades .
- Mr Syed Yusof Alsagoff’s longstanding work on heritage orchids contributed to the successful inscription of the Singapore Botanic Gardens as our first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. He sat on the first NParks Board and was instrumental in developing the National Orchid Garden. He has been an active volunteer at the Gardens for more than 60 years, since the 1950s.
- Many members of our Arab community have made significant contributions to Singapore, in many areas of our society – trade, governance, religion, heritage just to name a few. This exhibition will give us the opportunity to learn more about them and help in the documentation and research for posterity.
- Today, the Arab Association Singapore is continuing this strong tradition of giving back to the community. These efforts include bursaries to tertiary students, as well as the provision of welfare services for the more vulnerable members in the Arab and Muslim community here.
- The Association is also offering a book prize for the best thesis written on any subject related to the Arab community in Singapore. This competition is open to all Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, and I hope that the entries will contribute new stories and knowledge about our shared heritage and home.
Fostering inter-cultural understanding and embracing the values of openness and inclusion
- As societies around the world grapple with deepening fault lines hastened by nativism and polarisation, it is now more important than ever, to promote inter-cultural understanding among our people.
- Our early immigrants braved the unknown to come to Singapore, and thrived against all odds to make a living here. They had brought with them the diverse cultural practices, values and religions of their homelands. In the earlier years, each community kept to themselves and looked after their own, living quite separately and at times having to fend for their own interests. Over time, and catalysed by major events such as World War II, de-colonisations of the nation, they have grown strong social bonds and national identity of multi-culturalism. Our Arab forebears played instrumental roles in civic society, and gave generously to help their fellow citizens regardless of race or religion. These values of openness and multiculturalism are now firmly rooted as part of our collective DNA. And the task of building trust and a shared identity between religiously and culturally diverse communities must continue and must be a collective effort by everyone.
- In June this year, Singapore hosted the first International Conference on Cohesive Societies. It served as a platform for participants to share their experiences, have meaningful dialogues and discussions, and develop collaborations for building social cohesion. The conference played a crucial part in rallying all communities to take action to foster social cohesion and interfaith harmony.
- I am happy to note that the Arab community had joined us in this serious undertaking. Habib Hassan al-Attas, Imam of Ba’alwie Mosque, is one such strong advocate of interfaith harmony, and serves as a Council member of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO).
- The Government will work side-by-side with all our communities towards building a harmonious and peaceful future for Singapore that we can all be very proud of.
- I hope you will enjoy the stories told through the exhibits, which have been curated by the Association. May it inspire all of us to reflect on our past, and how these stories have woven into the rich and vibrant tapestry of Singapore society.
- It is my privilege to launch this exhibition tonight. Thank you.