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.