Hadramis in Singapore

by Ameen Ali Talib

Singapore is a cosmopolitan city state made up of various races. The 1990 census shows the Chinese as the majority with around 74% of the population, the indigenous Malays with 14%, the Indians at less than 10% and the balance "others". This "others" category includes Armenians, Eurasians, Arabs and all other "others". The census shows Arabs to be around 7,000, but unofficial estimates place the number of Arabs at 10,000. The difference is due to a large number of the Arab community being classified as Malays in official statistics. The Arab community is almost all of Hadrami origin.

The Arabs had played a dominant role in South East Asian trade since the fifteenth century and when Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, he hoped to attract the Arab traders to his new city. By 1824, there were 15 Arabs out of a population of 10,683 and Raffles anticipated a rapid growth in Arab immigration. His blueprint for Singapore included provisions for an Arab district. In giving instructions to a Singapore housing committee in 1822, he stated that "The Arab population would require every consideration No situation will be more appropriate for them than the vicinity of the Sultan’s residence."

The first Arabs to arrive in Singapore in 1819 were two wealthy merchants from Palembang in Sumatra, Syed Mohammed bin Harun al-Juneid and his nephew, Syed Omar bin Ali al-Juneid. Their numbers gradually increased and by 1846, there were five important Arab merchant houses. The al-Juneid family in Singapore grew to be a rich and influential family along with the al-Kaffs and the al-Saggoffs and there are numerous streets and a town council named after them. The al-Saggoffs appear to have arrived a little later, as spice traders, but acquired further influence by marrying into a Sultanic family from the Celebes and among the many properties they, like the other Arab families, acquired was the "Perseverance Estate" where they grew lemon grass. The estate is now considered the heart of the Muslim community in Singapore. Apart from being successful merchants and land owners, the family also became involved in civic affairs and various members held civic office on and off from the 1870s until independence. The al-Kaff family arrived in 1852. All these families lived in mansions of considerable opulence. The al-Kaff house is now a restaurant called the al-Kaff Mansion, as a gesture to preserve the name, but has no other Hadrami connection, either in architectural style or ownership.

One distinctive characteristic of Hadrami immigration into Singapore was that it was re-immigration from Indonesia, rather than direct from the Hadramawt. The early settlers came to Singapore with wealth made in Indonesia and being already familiar with local custom, were easily accepted by the Malays. The Arabs in South-East Asia, by the time they came to Singapore, already enjoyed respect as religious scholars who brought Islam to the Malays.

The Arabs and wakaf properties

The Singapore Hadramis were major landlords, the large families having substantial properties held in wakafs (trusts), which ranged from private family trusts to public charitable trusts. Most of the land in today’s central business district was once owned by Hadrami wakafs. These wakafs, bearing the family names, whether private or charitable, gave considerable prestige to the Arab community among the Muslims in Singapore.

In recent years, four factors have affected the wakafs and undermined the status of the community. The first three factors are the more substantial and have been a direct result of government policies. The first was the enactment of the Administration of Muslim Law Act 1968. The Singapore Islamic Council is the corporate body now empowered to oversee the administration of charitable wakafs in Singapore. The Arab trustees were in total control of their wakafs prior to the Act. With the transfer of the wakafs’ administration to the Council, the Arabs’ authority over them was considerably undermined. The association of wakafs with Arabs and the reputation of Arabs as benefactors diminished as their connection with the charitable functions of the wakafs was no longer directly visible to the public.

The second factor was the Rent Control Act 1947. The rents of pre-war properties were controlled and, in effect, frozen. As the Arab wakafs were mostly pre-war properties, the income of the Arab families correspondingly diminished. The decline of income from the wakafs resulted in Arab economic influence diminishing. The Arabs were also, unfortunately, not prepared for such a drastic drop in income; they had not given their children a Western education. Many Arabs went to madrasahs (Arab schools) and some families never sent their children for any formal education at all. The development in Singapore since the 1960s has made it difficult for the Arabs to compete.

The third factor was the Land Acquisition Act. Land is scarce in Singapore and it is government policy to have complete control over land usage. The Land Acquisition Act empowered the government to acquire land required for urban renewal and compensation is paid on a predetermined formula. The compensation amounts were significantly lower than the prevailing market value. The government embarked on a major acquisition campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. Pre-war properties were the major target for acquisition as Singapore underwent a modernisation programme. These pre-war properties were subject to rent control and had tenants that could not be removed.

The wakafs were hence not in a position to develop these properties. Significant properties owned by Arab wakafs were acquired and minimal compensation paid. This eroded Arab wealth and influence. It also diminished the Arab identity as substantial landlords. The Sheikh Salem Talib Family settlement, for example, used to have more than three pages in its audited accounts listing the properties held, but the current accounts have less than one page. More than half of the properties were acquired by the government. The al-Saggoff Perseverence Estate was acquired in 1962 for urban renewal. Another 10-acre plot of land in a prime area was donated by the al-Juneid family to the Muslim Trust Fund (a wakaf created by the al-Saggoffs) to be developed so that the income could be used for welfare projects. The Trust wanted to build a mosque and a madrasah, but building permission was not granted by the government. That piece of land was acquired in 1985. In present-day Singapore, the Arabs are no longer considered as the main landowners. Many Singapore Arabs regard the land acquisition policy as the main reason for both their loss of status and identity.

The fourth factor is having professional trustees manage the wakafs instead of family members. Most of the large private family trusts had problems of mismanagement or breaches of trust and legal disputes. In many cases a professional trustee was then appointed, which had a similar effect to the Administration of Muslim Law Act: the management of the wakafs became impersonal and the Arab families lost the social status arising therefrom.

Culture, identity and affiliation with the homeland

In the heyday of the Arab prosperity, the Arabs of Singapore maintained close links with the Hadramawt and a lot of money was remitted to the homeland. The rich built themselves splendid houses there, the most magnificent being the al-Kaff palaces. They also used to send their sons back to the Hadramawt for a spell to enhance their identity as Hadramis. This custom enabled them to maintain their language and Hadrami culture and even resulted in some Malay being incorporated in the spoken Arabic of the Hadramawt. The Hadramawt was regarded as a cultural training ground and the spell there the final preparation for manhood. Upon their return these youths would take their place in the family businesses.

During the second world war, it was impossible to go back home, but the practice was resumed thereafter. However, the Rent Control Act came into effect soon after, freezing the Hadrami incomes and signalling to them that the wakaf incomes would not be sufficient for the next generation. So families began to take a keener interest in the education of their children; the richer families sent their children to London to study and others spent time working in Aden rather than just going to the Hadramawt. The cultural and linguistic links were more or less maintained. But the family incomes continued to decline.

In the 1960s came a major change. The independence of South Yemen with a communist government in power put an end to the Singapore Hadramis returning home. At the same time, the economic developments in Singapore made the importance of the English language and of education even more essential. The new Arab generation has grown up without Arabic and has lost both its identity and its affiliation with the Hadramawt. Some families, in the oil boom of the 1970s, tried sending their sons to the Gulf or Saudi Arabia, where there were first generation Hadrami immigrants already and the young men returned with their Hadrami ties and their Arabic enhanced, but it was not a success. The young men did not like living in Saudi Arabia and their prospects in Singapore were better than in the Arabian peninsula.

The Hadrami community in Singapore is now facing an identity crisis. The younger generation does not speak Arabic and has lost its affiliation with the Hadramawt, partly because Hadramis have stopped sending their children back there. The Arab community recognises the lack of knowledge of Arabic is a major factor and an Arabic language centre has been set up. It is hoped that the younger generation will learn both the language and about their culture and heritage. The challenge facing the community is to ensure that the new generation maintains its identity. The link with the Hadramawt needs to be re-established and travel to the Hadramawt needs to be encouraged.

November 1995