Arab Street lies between Victoria Street and Beach Road in the Kampong Glam area, and was part of the Rochor Planning Area of Singapore’s Central Region.1 Sir Stamford Raffles had designated the Kampong Glam area as the most appropriate area for Arabs to live in. Other streets nearby are also named after Arabian cities. These include Bussorah Street, Muscat Street and Baghdad Street. Arab Street is the centre of Muslim activities in that area, and is famed for its speciality shops, Muslim restaurants and more.2
Sir Stamford Raffles formed a Town Committee in 1822 and mapped out areas designated for individual communities to live in. These areas were the European Town, and the Chinese, Chuliah, Arab and Bugis Kampongs. Rapid urbanisation subsequently took place in the Kampong Glam district, and Arab Street became the area’s main shopping street.3 Arab, Indian, Bugis, Javanese and Chinese traders set up their businesses there, and the street became a mixed enclave.4 Several fires gutted Arab Street and Kampong Glam in the early years. In 1847, one such fire destroyed 273 homes made of brick, wood and attap.5 Author Munshi Abdullah was an eye-witness to this disaster and recorded it in Shaer Kampong Gelam Terbakar.6 In 1889, another fire broke out in Arab Street which resulted in damages estimated at $100,000.7
Arab Street today is still a key Muslim centre in Singapore, with Sultan Mosque as the heart of Kampong Glam.8 The area is home to many chic shops and eateries, besides the traditional textile and handicraft shops, and people from all walks of life gather here to savour its culture, colour and cuisine.9 Built between 1840 and 1900, Singapore’s “first-generation” shophouses of squat two-storey buildings, with one or two windows on the upper floor, can be found in the Kampong Glam district.10
On 7 July 1989, Kampong Glam was gazetted a conservation area by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Arab Street comes under this conservation area. Between 1993 and 1994, the Arab Street/Baghdad Street/Bussorah Street area came under the URA’s conservation pilot project, which stipulated that the first storey of the shophouses be used as retail spaces.11 It became the third such project, after Chinatown and Little India, when 10 parcels of restored shophouses were put up for sale by public tender.12
By 1997, 48 shophouses in Kampong Glam had been restored and sold to landlords and retailers, changing the retail mix of this historical district.13
Since 2013, the number of visitors to Arab Street had dwindled and retailers reported declining sales.14 In November 2017, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced that Kampong Glam, a Malay heritage site in Arab Street, would undergo a digital revitalisation.15 The plan is part of the Retail Industry Transformation Map that supports sector transformation through innovation and the adoption of new technologies to enhance retailers’ productivity and competitiveness.16 Some of the initiatives include providing Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the shopping belt and empowering retailers with e-commerce strategies and using data analytics to provide personalised promotions to consumers.17
Chinese name: Jiau-a koi, meaning “Javanese street”.
Tamil name: Pukadai sadkku, meaning “flower shop street”.
Vernon Cornelius-Takahama & Dahlia Shamsuddin
1. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Rochor Planning Area: Planning Report 1994 (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994), 1, 17. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 SIN)
2. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Kampong Glam: Historic District (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995), 17. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 KAM); “Old World Charm at the Doorstep,” Straits Times, 28 November 1988, 35; Vivi Zainol, “A Touch of Old Kampong Glamour,” Straits Times, 16 August 2004, 4; John R. Bradley, “The Ties That Bind Singapore and Yemen,” Straits Times, 13 June 2004, 27. (From NewspaperSG.)
3. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Kampong Glam, 17; Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2013), 22. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
4. Zubaidah Nazeer, “Which Is More Malay?,” New Paper, 9 April 2008, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Jane Perkins, Kampong Glam: A Spirit of Community (Singapore: Times Pub, 1984), 19. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PER-[HIS])
6. C. Skinner, “Shaer Kampong Gelam Terbakar Oleh Abdullah B. Abdul-Kadir,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 45, no. 1 (221) (January 1972): 27. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
7. “Fire Last Night,” Straits Times, 14 January 1889, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Perkins, Spirit of Community, 35; Ho Eng Seng, “A Long History of Shared Interests,” Straits Times, 23 May 2007, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Jessica Lim, “Arabian Sights,” Straits Times, 17 April 2007, 117. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Kampong Glam, 69.
11. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Kampong Glam, 19, 76–77; “Conservation: Kampong Glam,” Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, 2017; Zainol, “Touch of Old Kampong Glamour.”
12. “URA Launches Tender for Restored Shophouses,” Business Times, 23 March 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Lee Sze Yong, “Chill-Out Street,” Straits Times, 17 June 2007, 52. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Rachel Tan, “Call to Revive Arab Street’s Fortunes,” Straits Times, 4 August 2013, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Jacquelyn Cheok, J. (2017, November 3). “Singapore’s Retail Digital Plan to Help Kampong Glam Merchants Go Omni-Channel,” Business Times, 3 November 2017. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
16. Spring Singapore, “Retail Industry Transformation Map to Drive E-commerce & Omni-Channel Formats to Enhance Growth and Competitiveness,” press release, 15 September 2016. (From National Archives of Singapore website document no. 20160915001)
17. Irene Tham, “Kampong Glam to Undergo Digital Makeover under Plan to Boost Retail Sector,” Straits Times, 3 November 2017. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
18. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 21.
The information in this article is valid as at 24 January2018 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.