Arab community


The Arabs are a small but significant community in Singapore. During colonial times, the Arabs played prominent economic roles in the retail, wholesale and production trades, the Muslim pilgrimage industry and real estate development. They were also involved in philanthropic works such as establishing religious schools and donating land for community projects. The majority of Arabs in Singapore are descendents of Hadhrami Arabs who originally came from the Hadhramaut region in Yemen.[1] [2]

Historical background
The Hadhrami Arabs began migrating to Southeast Asia in substantial numbers from the mid-18th century onwards.[3] They soon became a dominant economic force in the region and competed with the Chinese traders for influence in local affairs in cities like Palembang and Pekalongan in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The British authorities later encouraged Arab migration to Singapore to enhance the trading life of the colony.[4]


The first Arabs were believed to have arrived in Singapore in 1819. They were Syed Mohammed bin Harun Aljunied and his nephew Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied, Arab merchants from Palembang.[5] Most of the Arabs who subsequently came to Singapore were from the Dutch East Indies, where they first made their wealth and became familiar with local customs.[6] In 1824, the census recorded 15 Arabs residing in Singapore.[7] By 1901, the number of Arabs in Singapore had increased to 919.[8]

The Arabs were prominent figures in 19th-century Singapore society. They were successful entrepreneurs involved in the retail, wholesale, and production trades as well as real estate.[9] The Arabs, especially those with the honorific title of Sayyid, were believed to be direct descendents of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, many Arabs served as religious leaders in the Muslim community.[10] Given their wealth and influence, the Arabs were also actively involved in charitable and social welfare work among the Muslims. For example, the establishment of Singapore’s first mosque, the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, in 1820 was funded by Syed Omar bin Ali Aljunied.

By the 20th century, the Arabs began to lose their prominent economic position in Singapore due to various factors, including government policies such as rent control and compulsory land acquisition.[11]

The early Arab immigrants maintained close ties with their homeland. It was a common practice for Hadhrami Arabs to send their sons to Hadhramaut for a period of time to familiarise themselves with the Hadhrami culture and language.[12] However, over time, many of the Arabs assimilated elements of Malay-Indonesian culture as a result of intermarriage with local Malays and growing familiarity with local customs. The assimilation has been so pervasive that many of the younger generations of Arabs today are no longer fluent in Arabic or the traditions of their community.[13]

To arrest this trend, the Arab Association Singapore, or Alwendah, has made efforts to build a stronger sense of identity within the community.[14]

The 2010 census records 8,419 Arabs in Singapore.[15]

Trades
In the 19th century, the Arabs were an economically powerful community involved in various trades and businesses. They were particularly prominent in the retail, wholesale and production trades. Merchant houses such as Alsagoff and Co. imported consumer goods and supplied them to various retailers.[16]


At the time, the Arabs were also largely in control of the Muslim pilgrimage industry in Singapore. Arab brokers known as Shaylehs would recruit potential pilgrims from the region, help arrange for their passage through shipping agents, and escort them to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Once there, the pilgrims would be handed over to local brokers for the rest of the journey.[17] Singapore was not only a regional base for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, but also a centre for the publication and distribution of Islamic texts. This earned Singapore the reputation as a centre of Islamic life and learning in the late 19th century.[18]

The Arabs were successful in real estate as they could afford to buy prime land and property at good prices. The Alsagoffs, for example, owned the Raffles Hotel in the 1900s while the Alkaffs built Singapore’s first indoor shopping centre, the Arcade, in 1909. In 1931, the Arabs, together with the Jewish community, were the largest owners of property in Singapore.[19]

Cultural practices
Hadhrami society traditionally placed great importance on religious education as well as the maintenance of and visits to the tombs of holy men. The society is also highly stratified with the Sayyid (who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) class at the top followed by the Shaykh (religious scholars) class. Below these two groups are the Qabila (armed tribesmen) and the Masakin (poor citizens) classes.[20]


Associations
The Arab Association Singapore, or Alwehdah, was registered as a voluntary organisation in 1946. Initially, the association focused on promoting Islam and the use of the Arabic language to all interested parties by conducting classes. The scope of the association has since expanded. It now provides welfare services and organises social activities to promote community bonding.[21]


Places
During colonial times, the Arabs were allocated a plot of land near the Istana Kampong Glam, or Sultan’s Palace, in the Kampong Glam area.[22] The road names in the area, such as Arab Street, Baghdad Street, Bussorah Street and Muscat Street, point to the Arabic connection.[23] Various streets in Singapore are named after prominent Arabs. Examples include Aljunied Road, Alkaff Avenue and Syed Alwi Road.[24]


Personalities
In the 19th century, the most prominent Arab families included the Aljunieds, Alkaffs and Alsagoffs. They were active in charity work, establishing hospitals, schools and mosques as well as funding religious festivals.[25] Notable individuals from these families included:


Syed Sharif Omar al-Junied (b. 1792, Hadhramaut, Yemen–d. 6 November 1852, Singapore): Spice trader, businessman, philanthropist and Arab community leader; former patriarch of the Aljunied family in Singapore.

Syed Omar bin Mohamed Alsagoff (b. 1854, Singapored. 18 May 1927, Soekabumi, Java): Businessman, philanthropist and Muslim community leader; former head of Alsagoff and Co.

Syed Abdulrahman Taha Alsagoff (b. 1880, Singapore–d. 1955): Also known as Engku Aman; landowner and philanthropist who helped administer various Muslim charitable institutions associated with the Alsagoff family.

Dato Syed Ibrahim bin Omar Alsagoff (b. 28 April 1899, Meccad. 21 July 1975): Businessman, landowner, philanthropist, Muslim community leader and diplomat; former head of family businesses such as Alsagoff and Co. and S. O. Alsagoff.



Author
Stephanie Ho



References
1. Harasha bte Khalid Bafana. (1996, November). The Arab identity: Dilemma or non-issue? Al-Mahjar, 1(1), p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 305.89275957 AMP)
2. Omar Farouk Bajunid. (2010). The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia: An introduction. In Noryati Abdul Samad (Ed.), The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia with special reference to Singapore. Singapore: National Library Board, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 016.30589275335 HAD -[LIB])
3. Mobini-Kesheh, N. (1999). The Hadrami awakening: Community and identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900–1942. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 959.8022 MOB)
4. Riddell, P. G. (2001). Arab migrants and islamization in the Malay world during the colonial period. Indonesia and the Malay World, 29(84), p. 117. (Call no.: RSEA 959.8 IMW)
5. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)
6. Ameen Ali Talib. (1997, November 1). Hadramis in Singapore. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 17(1), p. 90. (Not available in NLB holdings)
7. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 27. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)
8. Marriott, H. (1991). The peoples of Singapore. In W. Makepeace, G. E. Brooke and R. St. J. Braddell (Eds.), One hundred years of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 359. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE -[HIS])
9. Yasser Mattar. (2000). Ethnic entrepreneurship: Towards an ecological perspective. Singapore: Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, pp. 6–11. (Call no.: RSING q338.04095957 MAT)
10. Roff, W. R. (2009). Studies on Islam and society in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 297.0959 ROF)
11. Yasser Mattar. (2000). Ethnic entrepreneurship: Towards an ecological perspective. Singapore: Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, pp. 12–13. (Call no.: RSING q338.04095957 MAT)
12.
Ameen Ali Talib. (1997, November 1). Hadramis in Singapore. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 17(1), p. 93. (Not available in NLB holdings)
13. Farid Alatas, et al. (1996, November). Hadhrami identity and the future of Arabs in Singapore. Al-Mahjar, 1(1), p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 305.89275957 AMP)
14.
Farid Alatas, et al. (1996, November). Hadhrami identity and the future of Arabs in Singapore. Al-Mahjar, 1(1), p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 305.89275957 AMP)
15.
Census of population 2010. Statistical release 1: Demographic characteristics, education, language and religion. (2011). Singapore: Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 304.6021095957 CEN)
16.
Yasser Mattar. (2000). Ethnic entrepreneurship: Towards an ecological perspective. Singapore: Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING q338.04095957 MAT)
17. Roff, W. R. (2009). Studies on Islam and society in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 80. (Call no.: RSING 297.0959 ROF)
18. Roff, W. R. (2009). Studies on Islam and society in Southeast Asia. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING 297.0959 ROF)
19. Clarence-Smith, W. G. (1997). Hadrami entrepreneurs in the Malay world, c. 1750 to c. 1940. In U. Freitag & W. G. Clarence-Smith (Eds.), Hadhrami traders, scholars, and statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s–1960s. Leiden: Brill, p. 303. (Call no.: RSEA 304.809533 HAD)
20. Riddell, P. G. (2001). Arab migrants and islamization in the Malay world during the colonial period. Indonesia and the Malay World, 29(84), pp. 114–115. (Call no.: RSEA 959.8 IMW)
21. Alwehdah. (2011). About us. Retrieved from http://alwehdah.org/about-us
22. Marriott, H. (1991). The peoples of Singapore. In W. Makepeace, G. E. Brooke and R. St. J. Braddell (Eds.), One hundred years of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 345. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE -[HIS])
23. Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013). Singapore Street Names: A study of toponymics. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 21–22, 27, 58, 263. (Call no.: 915.9570014 SAV -[TRA])
24. Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013). Singapore Street Names: A study of toponymics. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 14–15, 15–16, 364. (Call no.: 915.9570014 SAV -[TRA])
25. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 99. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR)



The information in this article is valid as at 19 August 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Clans--Singapore
Ethnic groups
Social groups
Arabs

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2013.