The island nation’s Islamic past is celebrated in Kampong Glam - we take a tour of the historic cultural hub
Inside Singapore’s Muslim quarter
Long viewed as an ideal transit stop to break up long haul journeys to South East Asia or Australia and New Zealand, the compactness of Singapore allows visitors to get the most of their short stays.
The varied geography and cosmopolitanism allows for various touring experiences catered to eclectic tastes ranging from the culinary to the historic. Both of which dovetails rather nicely when attempting to learn more about Singapore’s Muslim community.
If you are on the clock, the most effective is the three hour Makan Makan Walking Tour which focuses on Kampong Glam, an area long viewed as the island nation’s Muslim Quarter.
A 15-minute drive away (Dh78 with Uber) from the stylish boutique hotel M Social Singapore, in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Robertson Quay and 40 minutes away from the airport, the tour’s meeting point is the Malay Heritage Centre just on the perimeter of the pedestrian district.
It is 10am and I arrive just after the latest downpour; hence the stately venue’s spice garden - located just inside its arched gates and beside the wooden pagodas - pack an extra punch.
One particular familiar scent catches my attention. Amongst the ebullient greenery - home to a wide assortment of aromatic plant life ranging from blue ginger and bale leaves to turmeric and black pepper - lies a shrubbery of wild red flowers.
I grab a leaf and take a deep whiff; the clove spice immediately evokes memories of my favourite tea café back in Abu Dhabi. “Today, we call this a spice garden,” my chirpy guide Abdul Rahim notes. “But 700 years ago, this was considered gold by our Arab friends.”
In addition to forming the base of Singaporean cuisine, spices play a similar role in understanding the country’s Islamic heritage. Like its South East Asian neighbours, Singapore came to Islam through trade.
Acknowledging its strategic location as a handy transit point between East and West – an element that continues to drive the Island nation’s economy – Arab traders from regions now considered the Gulf and Yemen used Singapore as a hub for the shipping of regional spices to Europe.
As Abdul Rahim states, it was a business as lucrative as it was heady. “Let me explain it to you this way,” he says. “The Arab merchants would send three ships at a time packed with spices to Europe. Now they knew that perhaps one or two could not make it due to pirates or bad weather, but if one of them made it to the other side then the Arab traders responsible were essentially set for life.”
As part of the tour, Abdul Rahim takes us through the district where the region’s cashed up-ancestors decided to intermarry with members of the Malay community and set up shop, literally.
But you need to use your imagination to recall a radically different time. Located north of the Singapore River, the Kampong Glam of old is far removed from its present standing as a funky hipster hub full or colourful art deco buildings, fashion houses, free-trade coffee shops and SG Lab, a halal burger joint inspired by the television drama Breaking Bad – where your non-alcoholic fizzy drink can be sweetened with syringe full of Blue Curacao syrup.
Powered by its illustrious Arab landowners and shopkeepers, Kampong Glam was initially a plethora of shabby yet bustling stalls and businesses selling all sorts of services from non-alcoholic ‘halal cosmetics’ to abayas, oud and honey.
One of the area’s major sources of revenue in relatively recent times, however, was its pilgrimage services. Once again, Singapore’s strategic location made it an ideal point of departure for regional worshippers heading for the hajj in Mecca in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kampong Glam was a one stop shop for all your needs: white robes, Qurans, worship beads and a travel guide were all available for a price.
Such was the number of hajj travellers descending on the area that a strip of road – where most pilgrim services were based - became known as Haji Lane.
“My father used to tell me about this street being a sea of white,” says 36-year-old Kareem as he locked up his small fabric store to attend the noon prayers.
“It is now nowhere as crowded but there is still a sense of ‘ruh’ (Islamic spirit) that is here, which I think is strange. I find it kind of peaceful, maybe this is a reminder of the ancestors that used to work here.”
Other streets were also named for practical purposes: there is Arab Street, named after its range of Middle Eastern and Yemeni shop keepers and now home to bohemian retailers including a gallery and Mediterranean-style bakery. Then there are streets called after famed Muslim cities – due to a mix of historical population and international alliances – including Kandahar, Busra and Baghdad streets.
The highest profile of which is Muscat St. Officially named after the capital of the Sultanate of Oman five years ago and located off the main thoroughfare of North Bridge Road, both ends of the narrow laneway are flanked by eight-meter-high granite arches etched with ornate Omani carvings.
The street is also festooned with imported art works and granite murals showcasing Omani culture, with images of the traditional dagger and pot called the khanjer and dallah respectively.
Since I am here in the Monday afternoon, Muscat Street – which includes a few Arabic fabric retailers - is relatively sedate. However, come noon on Friday and it heaves with activity as it forms one of the main entry ways to the iconic Sultan Mosque.
With its towering gilded dome, the mosque commands a majestic location with all various streets and alley ways seemingly acting like offshoots.
While first built in 1824 under the rule of the Malay Sultan Hussein Shah, the building standing now is the 1932 design by Irish architect Dennis Santry and has the hallmarks of South East Asian mosques: the prayer hall is spacious and drenched with natural sun light and is shared by men and women.
Walking around its outdoor perimeter, which is lined with lush plants, I take a closer look at the onion coloured dome. From a distance, what’s wrapped around its base appears to be faded gem stones.
“Not quite,” Abdul Rahim states.
“They are actually glass bottles, most of which contained sauces which was used for food. They were donated by the people for the reconstruction at the time. The message is the government sits on top but with the support of the people.”
Like all business districts, Kampong Glam has gone through its peaks and troughs over the decade. The general consensus amongst shop keepers is the recent down turn, caused by the global financial crises eight years ago, is well and truly behind them.
What is different this though, says oud retailer Sheikh Abdulla, is the area is increasingly being viewed as a legitimate tourism destination. A resident of Kampong Glam for nearly three decades, Abdullah says tourists on the cultural trail represent new opportunities for the business owners.
“There was a time in the nineties where all the shops were doing so well it felt like we were minting money,” he says.
“Now it has all changed of course, but the tourists that are coming now are making us think differently.
“It is a chance for us as Muslims in Singapore to not only just sell things but to also tell our story. This is exciting for me at least.”