President’s Speech for The Arab Network Prize Scholarship Award Function

Your Excellency Mdm Halimah Yaacob, President of the Republic of Singapore, Mr Muhammad Abdul AlHabshee, patron of the Arab network @ Singapore, Honorable Habib Hassan, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to be here this evening to share some of my thoughts with you on the Singapore Arab identity from the perspective of an outsider. In fact, I was quite surprised when my good friend, Khatijah Al-Attas, invited me to speak at this function. Hence, I asked her if it was appropriate that I, as a non-Singaporean Arab, address your event. She then replied that she felt I had a better understanding of the Middle East than many Arabs she knows. Though that was quite flattering and fully undeserved, she further stated that there would be a large number of young Singaporean Arabs in whom she is trying to inculcate an interest in their heritage. This particularly struck a strong resonance with me. I then reflected upon my own background and did actually realize that in an oblique way, whilst not being a member of the Arab community, I’ve quite a lot in common in terms of my own family background. Let me explain why I say this.

Firstly, the Singapore Arabs, essentially from Hadramawt in Yemen represent one of the oldest migrant communities in the country. Mr Syed Omar Bin Ali Aljunied from Palembang, Indonesia arrived around 1819-1820, as the first Arab who came to the newly-founded trading post of the British-India Company. He also built in 1820, Singapore’s first mosque, the Masjid Omar in Kampung Melaka which he funded. Other prominent Arab families such as the Al-Sagoffs, the Al-Kaffs, the Al-Attas, the AlTalibs are some of the well- known Hadrami families that followed suit and made Singapore their home, playing a prominent role in trading, properties and public charities. The numbers grew over the years and I believe now, there are between 9-10 thousand Arab Singaporeans. The Arab pioneers held vast tracks of land in many parts of the island and built iconic buildings such as Raffles Hotel, which was owned by the Al-Sagoffs at one time, and the original Arcade which was built in 1908 by the AlKaff family.

If I can draw a parallel on my own background, on my paternal side, we can trace our history to 1839 and arguably are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Singaporean Indian family. My great grandfather and grandfather were also pioneers in the fledging Singapore economy in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the dairy and property sectors. You will notice that I use the past tense as per the old adage regarding trans-generational wealth preservation, the wealth seldom lasts more than 4 generations and expectedly, my father’s generation more or less completely exhausted this inheritance. Regrettably, such a phenomenon also affected many Arab families and indeed, Chinese families as well. Interestingly, my maternal grandfather, was the only Hindu Indian businessman who set up a wholesale and retail textile company in 49 Arab Street. He was quite prominent in the location because he was the only English-educated Indian businessman who was a top student in ACS and decided to be an entrepreneur. I recollect vividly how invariably on Deepavali day, there would be a continuous flow of his Arab and Indian Muslim business neighbours come for lunch at his residence in 101 Dorset Road. Fast forward to about 12 years ago, I established Emirates NBD Branch and Regional Office in Asia Pacific in Singapore. I firmly felt that being the CEO of a Middle-Eastern bank required me to understand the full background, history, politics, society, economics, ethnic and the religious composition of the region in order for me to effectively represent the bank. So, I made it a point to do a deep dive in understanding the region from which my bank originates, which proved to be a most fascinating journey which I am still continuing.

The Singaporean Chinese have a great understanding of ancient Chinese history and the Singaporean Indians of the history of their ancestry and also the Malays could trace their linkages to the great empires of Indonesia, the Malacca Sultanate and the Muslim Kingdoms of Southern Thailand. However, I was struck by the lack of sufficient knowledge generally amongst Singaporeans on the history of the Middle East, its importance in World history and current economic relevance. Hence, I launched, with the Middle East Institute, the Emirates NBD Essay Competition, open to tertiary students of all the local universities to encourage Singaporean undergrads to learn more about the Middle East. This is currently in the fifth year and I’ve seen some amazing prize-winning essays written by local tertiary students. This is why Khatijah struck a positive note with me when she particularly highlighted the objective of the Arab network in encouraging greater appreciation of their Middle Eastern heritage among young Singaporean Arabs.

Having now very briefly explained the strong roots and pervasive role of the Singapore Arab community in the country, I want to briefly highlight, from an outsider’s perspective, how the community should also take tremendous pride in their ancestry from Middle East. As the region is huge, I’ll try and narrow my references to the history of the Southern Arabian Peninsula, Yemenis and the Arab Empires. The Southern Arabs or Yemenis, as they were called in the later years, played a major trading role since about 5000 years ago in the establishment of the Frankincense Trail. Frankincense, Myrrh, Indigo, were coveted initially by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians in the early ages and later, the Greeks, Persians, Romans and Byzantines.

Frankincense was grown in in the Dhofar region in current Southern Oman and was transported on camel caravans through a series of Kingdoms such as Ma’in, Hadramawt, Saba and Qataban, in ancient Yemen. The caravans then headed North along the Western Arabian Peninsula, passing through Mecca and Medina, before reaching its destination in Petra, in the Kingdom of Nabataea, currently in Jordan. From there, it moved on overland routes to Asia Minor, Palmyra, Damascus and the Parthian Empire centered in current day Iran or went West to Gaza and Alexandria before being transported to ports in the Roman Empire, through the Mediterranean Sea. This gave tremendous wealth to the Yemenis. For example, Shabwa, the capital of the Hadramawt valley, covered 500 acres and housed 5000 people. For about 1000 years, beginning around 800 B.C., they grew very rich by monopolizing and taxing the Frankincense caravan route. Recently, archaeologists have found remains in Ubah, 60 miles from Salalah, which they date back to 30004000 B.C.

Then, came the advent of Islam and the rise of the Arab Empire, mainly the caliphates of Rashidun (632-681AD), Umayyad (661-750 AD) and the Abbasid (750-1258 AD). The Arab Empire was one of the world’s largest empires at its height covering the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Iberian Peninsula and North-Western India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Comprising 11 million square miles, it contained 62 million people representing 29% of the world’s population. This period is also often called the Islamic Golden Age, during which science, the arts, medicine, mathematics, theology, jurisprudence, economic development, architecture and culture works were encouraged and in full bloom.

Great cities arose in the Middle East such as Damascus, the capital of Umayyad which is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. The grand mosque of Damascus also known as Umayyad Mosque, built in 706 A.D., is one of the most famous and ancient mosques in the Islamic world, unfortunately partly damaged by the current civil war in Syria. Baghdad, the capital city of the Abbasids and in current day Iraq, was the largest city of the Middle Ages, having a population of more than a million people. In Spain, if you visited Cordoba, Seville and Granada, you would still see the architectural master prices left behind by the Moorish Dynasty that ruled from 711-1031 A.D., as a branch of the Umayyads. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain or Al-Andalus (as it was called during the Arab period) represents the zenith of Arab architectural brilliance.

Both the Umayyads and particularly the Abbasids during the reign of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid emphasized studies in mathematics, natural sciences, medicine, law and general scholarships. The University of Al-Karaounine in the city of Fez, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Morocco established in 853 AD, is the oldest degree-granting university in the world. Al-Azhar University established in Cairo by the Fatimids, is the oldest university also offering secular subjects. Caliph Harun Al-Rashid established the legendary house of wisdom called Bayt Al-Hikmah which was a major intellectual centre in the Islamic Golden Age. Muslim scholars as well as Jewish, Christian and Indian scholars studied and did research there. They translated books written in Greek, Latin, Persian and Sanskrit to Arabic which served to preserve the knowledge of these ancient civilizations.

Brilliant scholars characterized this period of Arab Civilization such as Al-Khwarizmi, the great mathematician, Al-Razi, physician and Abdul Ali Sina also known as Avicenna, a great polymath and a pioneer in the study of mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The world ‘Algebra’ comes from the treatise written by Al-Khwarizmi. The Arab numerals were adopted by the mathematicians in Baghdad, which has close linkages with the Indian numerals, later spread to the Western world. The technology of creating paper was acquired from the Chinese and passed on through the Arabs to the Europeans. During the period of the Caliphates, the silk road both land and maritime, connected the Arab empire with China and India and with it, flowed the two-way exchange of goods, ideas, culture, science, religion etc.

Therefore, I hope in my brief address today, I have wetted the appetite of the younger members of the community to delve into their ancient and glorious heritage and do more research and reading. Thank you for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you all.


President’s Speech at UAE Singapore Business and Investment Forum

UAE Singapore Business Council

His Excellency Sultan Bin Said Al-Mansoor, Minister for Economy UAE, Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to first express my thanks to the Singapore Business Federation, the UAE Ministry of Economy and the UAE Embassy in Singapore for giving me the opportunity to share with you this important milestone in UAESingapore business relations with the setting up of the UAE-Singapore Business Council.

I think it is important for me to first provide a context in which the council is being formed.

Strong Trade and Investment Linkages

Singapore is the largest trading partner of the UAE in ASEAN. Conversely, UAE is the largest trading partner of Singapore in the GCC. Bilateral trade in 2016 amounted to US$ 11 billion. Investment flows between the two countries have also been significant.

In 2008, Singapore signed an FTA with the GCC, which was implemented in 2013. Singapore is the first country to conclude such an FTA with the GCC. The Singapore-UAE Joint Committee and the Abu Dhabi-Singapore Business Forum have respectively been established to catalyze trade and investment flows and strengthen bilateral connectivity between the two countries.

UAE Corporate Presence in Singapore

Some of the leading UAE companies are present in Singapore. They capitalize on the country’s role as a regional business hub for the SouthEast Asian and Asia Pacific Regions. Furthermore, Singapore’s status as a AAA rated country by Standard and Poor, Moody’s and Fitch give it an excellent reputation for strong governance, economic management, first class infrastructure, advance financial sector and globalized communication channels. The political stability and strong oversight by regulatory authorities, coupled with various incentives offered by the government for regional hub status are strong pull factors for UAE companies to establish a base in Singapore. Some of the major UAE companies present in the country include Global Foundries, ADNOC, ENOC, Borouge, Al-Futtaim, DNATA, Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways, Sharaf Group, CEPSA, GEMS, Horizon Terminals and RAK Ceramics.

Singapore’s reputation as a leading international financial center has also attracted UAE financial institutions to establish a regional branch in the country, covering the Asia Pacific region. First Abu Dhabi Bank and Emirates NBD have wholesale branch licenses actively involved in financing UAE and regional corporates and trade and investment flows between UAE and the region. Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank has also recently established a regional representative office in Singapore.

Singapore Corporate Presence in UAE

Some of Singapore’s major companies have also invested and established operations in the UAE. They leverage the UAE’s diversified economic composition, strong and business-friendly government and the country’s strategic positioning as the regional hub covering GCC, MENA, East Africa and Central Asia. Some of the Singapore companies in the UAE include Capitaland, Ascott, Sembawang Group, ST Group, Surbana Jurong, DP Architects, RSP Architects, Indoguna, Meinhart, Boustead Projects, and GIS Schools. A large number of trading companies from Singapore have established regional trading operations in Jebel-Ali Free Zone, DAFZA and other free zones in UAE. Financial institutions such as Bank of Singapore and DBS Bank are active in DIFC. Bank of Singapore has recently expanded their operations significantly, focusing on the lucrative market for wealth management.

UAE Singapore Business Council (USBC)

The establishment of UAE Singapore Business Council (USBC) was mooted in a presentation I had undertaken in June 2014 at a seminar to commemorate the launch and signing of the GCC-Singapore FTA. This idea was also mentioned last year in a joint communique issued by the Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Dr V Balakrishnan and the UAE Minister for Cabinet Affairs and the Future, Mr Muhammad AlGergawi.

The UAE-Singapore Business Council is being currently is registered with the registrar of societies. Before the registration process, several rounds of meetings were initiated with the UAE ambassador, His Excellency Dr Muhammed Omar Bin Balfaqueeth, Embassy officials and leading UAE companies in Singapore and Singapore companies active in the UAE. The Singapore Business Federation, IE Singapore, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and key individuals were also kept in the loop. A common consensus emerged that there was indeed a strong case for the establishment of such a council as there were sufficient UAE companies and Singapore companies to form a critical mass of membership, so as to make such a council successful and relevant.

The primary aim of the council is to provide a platform for member companies and individuals to connect amongst themselves, with the UAE embassy, relevant business bodies both in UAE and Singapore, that will also serve to catalyze greater trade and investment flows between the two countries. It is also the intention to capitalize on the important role that the UAE and Singapore can play as regional nodes in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with particular reference to the Maritime Road. Singapore is an established hub for ASEAN and Asia Pacific Region, with strong links to the Indian sub-continent. Whilst on the other hand, the UAE is the established hub for the Middle East, East Africa and Central Asia. Hence there are certainly opportunities for these two pivotal nodes to collaborate in the Belt and Road Initiative.

A strong pro-tem committee has been formed that include leading UAE and Singapore companies such as Global Foundries, First Abu Dhabi Bank, Dnata, Borouge, Al-Futtaime Group, ADNOC, ENOC, Emirates NBD and ST Group, Surbana Jurong, DP Architects, Meinhart and others. At least 10 members of the executive committee have spontaneously agreed to be sponsor members which would provide seed capital for the council. Wong Partnership, a leading Singapore legal firm and the only one with an office in the UAE, acted as Honorary Legal Advisor and helped draft the constitution. Ex officios will sit in the executive committee representing the UAE Embassy, the Singapore Business Federation and UAE Federated Chamber of Commerce. Indeed, it is intended that SBF and the UAE Federated Chamber of Commerce will be strategic partners with the Council to promote greater business connectivity between the two countries.

The Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce has kindly permitted the council to use their impressive offices at Suntec City as a location for the secretariat which is much appreciated. The council will organize various activities such as regular business talks, networking sessions with other chambers, and in conjunction with the SBF a flagship annual seminar and a yearly business delegation to the UAE

We would not have been able to achieve this stage without the active support and guidance of our patron, the UAE Ambassador, His Excellency, Dr Muhammed Omar, to whom I am personally very grateful. His strong encouragement, involvement and commitment has made this council a reality. Council is also fortunate to have as a joint patron, Mr Lee Yi Shyan, who was the former Senior Minister of State, having held several portfolios including Trade and Industry, National Development and Manpower. He established strong relationships with the Middle East while he was in Government, having co-chaired UAE-Singapore Joint Forum and played a pivotal role in the signing of the GCC Singapore FTA. He currently is a member of Parliament for Bedok GRC, Chairman of the SingaporeChina Business Council amongst his various portfolios and responsibilities.

For the above reason, I’m sure that you will agree that we will be launching UAE Singapore Business Council on a strong footing. Indeed, we hope that you will be able to work with us in some form or the other to achieve our primary goal of enhancing the existing business linkages between United Arab Emirates and the Republic of Singapore.


President’s Speech on the Global Islamic Economy

The global Islamic economy is certainly in a healthy state with strong growth prospects. As of 2015, the size of the Islamic economy is estimated to be $1.9 trillion and expected to grow to $3 trillion representing a compounded annual growth rate of 8%. The Islamic finance sector which is a major pillar of the Islamic economy, in 2015, had assets of $2 trillion. Food and Beverage, which tops Muslim expenditure by category, was $1.17 trillion in 2015 followed by Clothing and Apparel at $243 billion, Media and Recreation $189 billion, Travel at $151 billion and Pharmaceutical and Cosmetics at $133 billion. Revenues from Halal-certified Food and Beverage products was $415 billion.

The Global Islamic Economic Indicator [GIEI] was devised to show the health and development of the Islamic Economy ecosystem. The GIEI is a composite weighted index of 6 sector level indicators over 73 core countries. The 6 sectors being Halal Food, Islamic Finance, Halal Travel, Modest Fashion, Halal Media and Recreation and Halal Pharmaceutical and Cosmetics. The ranking is weighted towards Islamic Finance and Halal Food as their economic impact is comparatively larger than other sectors. The index shows that Malaysia once again leads the GIE indicator, 35 points ahead of the second ranked country, namely the UAE. This demonstrates the relative strength of the Islamic ecosystem in Malaysia and also its strong performance in the Islamic finance indicator, where Malaysia’s large financial asset base, advance governance and alignment of policies give it a significant advantage. Malaysia also ranks second in both Halal Travel and Halal Pharmaceutical and Cosmetics, reflecting a strong tourism sector and effective certification of halal products.

UAE maintains second place in the GIE rankings. It is taken second place in Islamic finance but first spot in all other indicators. UAE also stands out as having established a healthy ecosystem for Islamic Economy companies. The strong government-led Islamic economy development initiatives has given the country a strong platform for the development for all Islamic economy sectors.

Four key Islamic market-based growth drivers have been identified as catalysts for strong prospects in the global Islamic Economy.

  1. The large young and fast growing global Muslim demographic. The global Muslim population is expected to rise from 1.7 billion 2014 to 2.2 billion by 2030. It is expected to grow at twice the rate of the non-Muslim population. Despite significant economic challenges such as job creation, training, social services etc., this demographic trend presents its economies a substantial young consumer market and a strong entrepreneurship base.
  2. Large and fast growing Islamic economies. The 57 mostly Muslim majority member countries of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries), had a GDP (based on PPP) in 2015 of $17 trillion which represented 15% of the total global GDP of $113 trillion in 2015. According to IMF growth projections, the average projected growth of the OIC between 2015-2021 is expected to be 4.1% compared to the rest of the world’s GDP growth averaging 3.6%.
  3. Islamic ethos/values are increasingly driving lifestyle and business practices. This represents the adoption of Islam as a way of life for many Muslim countries to guide all aspects of their lives including their consumption behavior.
  4. OIC economies growing emphasis on Islamic/Halal market development activities. Many OIC governments have launched several initiatives promoting the Islamic economy, leading to increased intra OIC trade of 191% in 2015.

There are other market based growth drivers that auger well for the growth of the Islamic economy and these include:

(a). Participation of global multinationals. Top global brands from food, finance, travel, fashion, pharmaceutical and cosmetics sectors are increasing their engagement in the Halal/Islamic sector. They are assisting in innovating Halal products and services leveraging their global R&D and marketing capabilities. Examples of such major food supplies include BRF from Brazil, Nestle etc.

(b). Developed economies seeking growth markets opportunities within their domestic economies have identified their domestic Islamic sub-sector as a growth area. We see this in Spain, US, France etc.
(c). Growing emphasis on ethical business is another areas of support for the Islamic economy.

(d). Lastly, Islamic economies startup entrepreneurs are benefitting tremendously from increased technological developments and connectedness. This has facilitated development of global distribution networks and overcome fragmented markets particularly for halal food, modest fashion and Islamic finance. In the realm of technology, cellular subscription rate amongst Muslims globally is $1.3 billion which is 21% of the global figure with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, representing the largest number of social media users globally. Millennials, as a whole, comprise a significant proportion of the Muslim economy. By 2030, 29% of the global young population (15-29) are projected to be Muslims.

Focusing on two key sectors of the Islamic economy, Halal food is the 2nd largest economic pillar of the Muslim economy. In 2015, global Muslim market for Halal food of $1.17 trillion represented 16.6% of global expenditure, compared to China’s expenditure in the Food and Beverage sector of $854 billion and the US of $771 billion. This is a fast-growing sector with interesting opportunities in a number of areas such as a rise in Halal online platforms (e.g. Halal Eat in UK), increase in private equity investments (e.g. Abraaj and Taxes Specific Group investing $400 million in KSA Fast Food Chain, Kudu), increase consumption from non-Muslim consumers, increase in development of Halal organic food and others.

However, there are still some challenges that need to be addressed such as lack of a common and unified standards regime globally which causes confusion for MNCs seeking to enter the Halal food market. Though accreditation bodies with halal programmes have emerged, the full responsibility of overseeing certification bodies globally is still evolving.

The other key sector of the Global Islamic Economy is the finance industry. This continues to play a pivotal role in the wider global economy. In 2015, Islamic assets were about $2 trillion and projections are that Islamic finance assets are expected to grow to $3.4 trillion in 2021. Islamic banking assets which were about $1.4 trillion in 2015 is expected to grow to $2.7 trillion in 2021. The value of Sukuks outstanding in 2015 was $342 billion. The sukuk market has considerable potential for growth and this sector of Islamic finance has been a real success story. Malaysia has an entrenched position in Islamic finance with a strong regulatory framework and high awareness. UAE has overtaken Bahrain to be number 2 in the overall ranking. Takaful assets which were $37.7 billion and Islamic funds which were $66.4 billion also offer significant growth prospects.

Based on these encouraging achievements and positive trends, the state of the Islamic Economy is indeed healthy with strong growth prospects. This should encourage more new entrants and investments in this fast growing sector.