Yemeni-Singaporeans organised the first Arab Festival in the tinySoutheast Asian city state [Archives:2004/750/Culture]

June 28 2004

By John R. Bradley*
For the Yemen Times

Arab Singaporeans still maintain very close contacts with their relatives back in Yemen, where most of them originally come from, and last week the first Arab Festival in Singapore celebrated these common historical roots.
The festival was organised by Mr Ameen Talib, the Yemeni-Singaporean proprietor of Cafe Le Caire on Arab Street, and The Arab Association Singapore.
The week-long event, which attracted more than 20,000 visitors, included performances by local Arab pop band Al-Wahada, belly dancers, a shopping bazaar, heritage tours and a series of lectures.
'We wanted to create greater awareness of the Arab community and culture in Singapore,' said Mr Talib.
'And we wanted to undermine stereotypes about Arabs that sometimes get portrayed in the media. Arabs are fun-loving. We like to have a good time. We're just like everyone else,' he told Yemen Times.
When Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, he hoped to attract Arab traders, long the most vigorous, most travelled businessmen – from the East Indies to Africa. Raffles anticipated a rapid growth in Arab immigration, and his blueprint for Singapore included provisions for an Arab district.
In giving instructions to a Singapore housing committee in 1822, he stated: 'The Arab population would require every consideration. No situation will be more appropriate for them than the vicinity of the Sultan's residence.'
The old part of Singapore centred on Arab Street, Baghdad Street and Muscat Street, where the festival took place, still offers an intriguing glimpse into the Muslim way of life.
The area is dominated by the gold dome of the Sultan Mosque – and Arab Street itself is a riot of colourful textiles from all over Asia and the Middle East, and home to a growing number of Arab-themed restaurants and coffee shops.
The Arab Association Singapore believes that the local Arab population numbers about 10,000. The association became an officially registered voluntary organisation in 1946. The objectives then were to promote and enhance Islam as well as the use of Arabic language.
Also, the association has taken the responsibility for promoting better understanding among Arabs and other races in Singapore through educational, cultural, social, arts and sports activities, as well as through cooperation and affiliation with other bodies with similar objectives and interests.
By the time the association was founded, the Arab traders were the wealthiest community in Singapore – and you do not have to look far to find evidence of how their civilising influence contributed to the city's development.
Syed Ali Mohammed Al-Juneid, for instance, donated a large plot of land near Victoria and Arab Streets to Tan Tock Seng's hospital.
He also built public wells across town to provide free water, at a time when none was being supplied by the municipality.
The Al-Juneid family – after whom Aljunied Road is named – made large donations to the construction of the Town Hall (now the Victoria Memorial and Concert Hall), while paying for the building of public bridges.
The Al-Kaff footbridge on the Singapore River takes its name from another prominent Arab family, which built the first Japanese Gardens opened to the public before the World War II (where the Sennett private housing estate is today).
The Alkaff mosque still stands nearby.
That not all of the festival's participants were Arabs is a clear sign that, even for many among the latest generation of non-Arab Singaporeans, the Arab legacy in the city is still important.
Local architect Kelvin Ang set up a display of photographs he took while on a recent trip to Yemen. 'I wanted to reveal to Singaporeans the beauty of the place and of the people I met in Yemen, to give people an image and also to dispel stereotypes,' he told Yemen Times.
'I think of all the places in Singapore that bear the mark of the works of the pioneering Arab families, and how this contribution should be acknowledged. Especially now, we need to dispel the stereotypes that we have of each other. My fellow citizens who are Arab should feel proud of who they are and what they have contributed to our country.'
It is no small irony, in the light of the growing influence of radical Arab ideology in the region, that the moderate Yemeni-Singaporean community here says it is now facing an identity crisis. This is partly because Yemeni-Singaporeans have stopped sending their children back there, but also because the newest generation does not speak Arabic.
At least during the Arab Festival they got a taste of where their forefathers grew up, when a little bit of Yemen was recreated on their doorstep.

* John R. Bradley, formerly managing editor of Arab News, Jeddah, is author of the forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers & Politics in the Wahhabi Kingdom. rnHis website is rn