x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Singapore: lines of influence

Feature Boasting a mix of cultures and communities, the country's Arab district feels like being in several places at once, says Neil Farley.

Built in 1826, the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam can accommodate more than 5,000 people. It is the largest in Singapore.
Built in 1826, the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam can accommodate more than 5,000 people. It is the largest in Singapore.

Seventy floors up, looking northwards out of a window of the Equinox Lounge in the Stamford hotel, a friend points out the orange tiled roofs of Kampong Glam, Singapore's Arab quarter. It is about two kilometres away, an oasis of old buildings, with the odd speck of greenery, surrounded by the modern towers and public housing apartment blocks of the ever-busy south-east Asian city state. On the ground, the walk to Arab Street, the heart of Kampong Glam, begins on North Bridge Road alongside the Raffles Hotel Arcade, where A-list shops battle for attention. The hotel is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who set in train the development of the modern Singapore when he established a British port on the island in 1819. Its pristine, whitewashed walls are a throwback to Singapore's days as a British colony.

After a flurry of roadside stalls selling Chinese food comes Parkview Square, an imposing office building in Art Deco style, which is home to the UAE Embassy. Locals have mixed feelings towards the chunky, 144-metre-high, light brown structure. One says he calls it "the Batman building", because of its gothic look, both outside and inside. Another describes it as resembling a chocolate brownie. It is said that the building, which comes complete with protective gargoyles, absorbs negative feng shui from the razor-sharp angles of the twin Gateway towers, designed by IM Pei, across the nearby Beach Road.

To add to Parkview Square's Batman theme, four men abseil slowly down the granite, bronze, lacquer and glass façade, armed with water sprays and mops, taking their time to make the shine even shinier. Statues of famous figures flank the building's plaza. Sir Winston Churchill, Sun Yat-sen, Abraham Lincoln and Plato stand opposite Sir Isaac Newton, Frederic Chopin, Salvador Dali and a rather grim-looking Dante.

The park itself is nothing more than a patch of grass that bounds on to Ophir Road, over which stands an older Singapore, and the beginning of the Arab district. It starts with a terrace of houses that is home to ground-floor shops selling items such as fishing tackle, jeans and internet access. Behind them, trendy-looking boutiques and cafes abound on long and narrow Haji Lane. Garment and fabric outlets dominate many streets, with some outdoor displays causing passers-by to spill off the pavements. The locations offer instant passage to faraway places. There is Baghdad Street, Bussorah Street, Kandahar Street and Sultan Gate. Customers arriving at Amirah's Grill have a table full of shisha pipes from which to choose. Traffic moves slowly through Arab Street, stopping to allow people to cross the road. There is no rush, even the drivers appear to be browsing. Off Arab Street is Muscat Street, pedestrianised and revamped, where leisurely trade takes place at art and craft stalls, and customers pore over newspapers as they sit outside restaurants that serve up Far and Middle Eastern dishes.

At the head of Muscat Street is the Sultan Mosque, the biggest in Singapore, with room for 5,000 people. A poster on the fence in front of the mosque advertises a panel discussion on "Islam: the most misunderstood religion". Next to it, another offers help on giving up smoking. School parties regroup after touring the mosque, the excited children sounding like squadrons of vuvuzelas. Yahya Hanafiah, elderly and sage-like, is one of 14 people who guide visitors around the mosque, which was founded in 1824 and rebuilt in Saracenic style 100 years later. Pointing towards the children, he says he finds it a pleasure to show them around. "There are so many people misusing Islam around the world. This is the only way of helping the future generations understand each other," says Mr Yahya.

In Raffles' plan for Singapore, drawn up along ethnic lines, Kampong Glam was designated a district for Malays and Arabs, many of the latter trading families originally from Hadhramaut in Yemen. In Malay, "Kampong" means settlement or village, and "Glam" refers to a type of eucalyptus that was used in boat-making at the time. Next door to the mosque, Istana Kampong Glam was built as a palace for Malay royalty. Today, it houses the Malay Heritage Centre.

The area offers a snapshot of Singapore as a melting pot. Indeed, the board of trustees of the Sultan Mosque is drawn up to reflect the local mix. There are two of each: north Indians, south Indians, Malays, Javanese, Bugis and Arabs. The country's 4.9 million population is nearly 77-per-cent Chinese, with the rest mainly Malay or Indian. Fifteen per cent are Muslim. Public housing projects are filled with quotas from each race to guard against the formation of ghettos. Religion is treated much the same - there is room for all. On the other side of the Singapore River from Kampong Glam, there is a 100-metre stretch that hosts four places of worship - one Islamic, one Buddhist, one Methodist and one Hindu. In Kampong Glam, the locals are predominantly Muslim, but they are of different races, and mixes, and appearances can be deceptive.

Dr Amad Md Magad is one of Singapore's 84 MPs. He is Arab, of a Yemeni father, but he looks Chinese, after his mother. "I do not speak Arabic but I am a Muslim, so I read the Quran in English," he says. Dr Amad is not a full-time MP. He works as group managing director for a company that specialises in infra-red technology. "I became an MP through a sense of wanting to make a contribution to society and, in doing so, helping the Muslim community."

The community is also helped by the Arab Association, a voluntary organisation formed in 1946. It promotes the Arabic language, and is heavily involved in social and educational activities, and providing welfare. Osman Bagarib, a member of the association's management committee, says that although official statistics put the number of Arabs in Singapore at around 6,000, many Arabs believe the figure to be closer to 10,000. "What accounts for this difference is the assertion that a large number of third and fourth generation Singaporean Arabs regard themselves as Malays," he says. "We are a minority within a minority."

In Kampong Glam, Arab, Malay, Indonesian and Indian businesses and culture appear to mingle together happily. Throw in the ubiquitous Chinese influence, and it can feel like being in several places at once. Although to visitors it may not be as well known as areas such as Chinatown and Little India, plenty still find their way to Kampong Glam. "We must be the only Arabs in the world who provide shisha purely for non-Arabs," says Ameen Talib, the owner of Cafe le Claire in Arab Street. "But it's popular, they like it."

At the other end of Arab Street, towards the Rochor Canal, is a cemetery, nearly 200 years old, for Malabar Muslims who arrived from Kerala, in India. Unfortunately, the grave markings are in danger of being overrun by rampant vegetation. Singapore is a city carved out of the jungle. Anyone who ignores the gardening for a few weeks finds that the jungle quickly reclaims its territory. Nearby is the better-kept Malabar Mosque, painted blue with golden domes.

On Victoria Lane is the Aljuneid Islamic School. In 1819, Syed Mohammed bin Harun Aljuneid and his nephew, Syed Omar Ali Aljuneid, were Hadhrami merchants based in Palembang, Sumatra. Their family was the first to be invited by Raffles to set up business in the new Singapore. Five generations on, Zahra Aljuneid works as a researcher at the National Library. She is one of the people who have recorded the history of Arab migration to south-east Asia for the library's Rihlah exhibition, which runs until October 10. It features everything from personal documents to musical instruments, and has been accompanied by heritage trails, Arabic language and calligraphy courses, and, for children, story-telling classes.

Rihlah is Arabic for "journey", and this one begins long before Raffles arrived on the scene, going back to ancient times, when Yemen controlled the supply of frankincense and myrrh. Later, spices, food and crops would figure heavily in trading. "Raffles looked to Indonesia and the Hadhramis were there," says Ms Aljuneid. "They were already successful businessmen in Indonesia. They knew the area and the customs so it enabled them to be successful in Singapore."

This month, the Jewel of Muscat, a replica of a ninth-century dhow, arrived in Singapore from Oman, completing a five-month voyage that retraced one of the ancient trade routes. The boat will be exhibited in Singapore's new museum of maritime history when it opens next year. In Kampong Glam, the Arabs are reminded of their past in tales that are passed down through their families. It makes for such an intriguing story that Singapore now wants to tell it to the world.