The identity crisis of Singaporean Arabs

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Map of Yemen

A piece of Yemen in Singapore

Map of Yemen
Map of Yemen

After Iraq and Af-Pak, the focus of international terrorism has shifted to Yemen and Somalia. More so, for Yemen, where the country’s interior ministry has acknowledged a resurgence of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has seized areas along the southern-coast of the country. Recent reports indicate a plot by an al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia to declare the Ghayl Ba Wazir district of Hadhramaut province an Islamic emirate. These turn of events are of utmost concern to Singaporean Arabs, as most Arabs who settled in South-east Asia, including Singapore, were from Hadhramaut and thus came to be known as Hadhramis. Most of them have close family ties with Yemen even now.

The Hadhramis arrived in Singapore as early as 1819 and became an integral part of the society engaging in trade, shipping, plantation estates and taking pilgrims for Haj. The community also contributed generously in establishing mosques, schools and other charitable organisations in Singapore. With the spread of Islam in South-east Asia, Hadhramis came to be known as the local custodians of the religion by the local Muslim communities.

The National Library Board (NLB) of Singapore had organised a six-month long exhibition in 2010 titled ‘Rihlah – Arabs in South-east Asia’ [Rihlah means journey in Arabic], which detailed the contribution of Hadhramis in post-war Singapore. So much so that Arabic-names such as Aljunied, Alkaff and Alsagoff have become important landmarks in Singapore’s landscape, according to the NLB’s exhibition displays.

But, as noted by Ben Simpfendorfer in his article, Singapore’s Hadhrami Community in Today’s Economy, published in Singapore’s Middle East Institute‘s publication Insights in 2010 “the Hadhrami community’s importance has faded in the last fifty years. There are only an estimated 10,000 Arabs living in Singapore today, the majority of whom are Hadhrami origin, ranking among the country’s smallest communities”.

Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, associate professor at department of Malay studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in his 2007 paper The role of Hadhramis in post-second World War Singapore – a reinterpretation, noted, ”Past scholarship has tended to portray the history of Hadhramis in Singapore with that of the political, economic, social and religious prominence of the diasporic community in the pre-Second World War period, followed by declining significance and disenfranchisement.”

This issue of identity crisis of Singaporean Arabs is not new.

It came out in the open in 1992 when the Malay programme “Potret Keluarga” produced by then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) depicted Arabs as being part of the Malay community. Al-Mahjar, a publication of the Arab Association of Singapore (Alwehdah), in November 1996, published an article The Arab Identity: Dilemma or Non-issue, which noted the resistance of Singaporean Arab community at being labelled as Malays.

Even earlier, in 1995, at a seminar organised by Alwehdah on Singapore Arabs in the 21st Century, Syed Farid Alatas, who is now an associate professor of Sociology at the NUS, had argued that “the relatively less developed status of

the Arab community in South-east Asia, and particularly in Singapore, has something to do with the problem of identity. While it is correct that Arabs in Singapore are part of the Malay community to the extent that they have assimilated aspects of the Malay culture, they still identify themselves as Arabs.”

Dwelling on the reasons for dilution of the extent of differentiation between Hadhramis and Malays, Aljunied in his 2007 Paper gave three main reasons. These were adherence to the shared faith of Islam, adoption of Malay language and ways of everyday living by Hadhramis that eased their assimilation into the Malay community, and a shared predicament of being minority-Muslims within a secular state numerically dominated by the Chinese. “As a result, a majority of Hadhramis in Singapore then classified themselves under the category ‘Malay’ instead of ‘Arab’ or ‘Others’ when the identity card system was introduced in the early 1960s,” he writes.

Going further, historians and scholars have proposed solutions to uplift the Singaporean Arab community and revive a sense of asabiyya [social cohesion] in it. These include teaching Arabic in schools, encouraging Singaporean Arab women to participate in public affairs and building social networks in the Arab world for the benefit of Singapore.

“Singapore might attempt publicizing its historical links to the Middle East more widely. This would largely focus on the Hadhrami community’s legacy, whether it is mosques, restaurants, or historical places. Singapore could also broaden its appeal by talking in more general terms of the city-state’s ‘Arab legacy’. The aim would be to make Middle Eastern visitors feel welcome at a time when they might feel uncomfortable in other parts of the world, especially Europe and US,” writes Simpfendorfer.

This is especially important as the tourism sector in Singapore is set to witness a slowdown in coming years and investment from US and Europe is expected to be low due to the ongoing economic crisis in the West.

 

 Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah - the oldest surving madrasah in Singapore

Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah – the oldest surving madrasah in Singapore
Resized - The NHB placard
The National Heritage Board’s (NHB) placard at Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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