The Arab and Mulit-Ethnic Influences in Singapore
By Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
“Singapore works because we have learned how to live together. It’s how the nations of the world should get along.” My Chinese taxi driver had nothing but praise for his tiny city-state. He continued, “We have given every race and religion equality. Our schools are mixed, but all students, besides their mother-tongue, must learn English.” Persisting, he went on, “I can truly say we have a functional multi-cultural society. This and good government have made us a wealthy nation.”
I was surprised that the driver was so supportive of his government. Most taxi drivers throughout the world, who I have encountered, usually have nothing good to say about their rulers. However, the evolution of Singapore in some four decades from a third world country to one of the most advanced nations on the globe has satisfied the vast majority of its citizens.
This all goes back to Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore. A Cambridge- educated third generation Straits-born Chinese, he led Singapore from before independence in 1965 until 1990. With a firm hand, he transformed his state from a poverty-stricken urban center to a booming nation.
As a whole, Singapore is a Chinese town with a strong Western face, mellowed by other influences. Its architecture is an eclectic mix of colonial Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab.
In communication and speech, it is the same potpourri. The state has four official languages: Bahasa Malaysia, the national tongue, Mandarin, Tamil and English which is the language of business and administration. Even though 77% of the 3 million population are Chinese, 14% Malay, 7% Indian, 2% Eurasians and others, English unites them all.
The country is a mixture of the great Asian cultures but there is little friction between the races and religions. Buddhist and Hindu temples, Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and relics from the British colonial past, all are respected in a live and let live atmosphere.
With Ling, a Chinese acquaintance, I decided to visit some of the sites which the cultural groups and religions of Singapore call their own. Our first stop was the Malay Village – a reflection of the people who first settled in Singapore. Here, we experienced a slice of life in a once typical Malay community. The rich cultural heritage of the Malays is exhibited in the Village’s museums and shops, and their cuisine is available in of the eating-places in the area. Nightly, there are cultural shows in the Village featuring Malay dancing, music, and singing.
What caught our attention was an open food court, full of diners. It was the month of Ramadan when Muslims must fast all day, and almost all Malays are Muslims. It speaks well of Singaporean tolerance: that no one was bothering the non-Muslims who were not fasting – they were even being served by the Malays.
Our next stop, Arab Street, was the area allotted to the Arabs by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore. The Arabs were among the first foreigners to arrive in the Malay Peninsula, many years before the Europeans. They, along with the Indian Muslims, brought along the Islamic faith and converted the Malays to their belief.
Today, Arab Street is a colorful marketplace, offering in its shops’ multi-colored textiles, handmade baskets, and saris, coming in many hues. The irony is that there are no Arabs to be found on this commercial street named for them. Chinese and Indians own the shops. The impressive Sultan Mosque, frequented by Muslims from the Indian sub-continent, is the number one site on the Street. As minorities, the Arabs, more than any other people, quickly assimilate. When I asked a merchant “Are there any Arabs on Arab Street?”, he smiled, replying, “If we’re lucky we might see one or two during the year.”
From Arab Street, it was only a short walk to Little India – a stop on every city tour. Unlike Arab Street, it is vibrant and alive with Indians. Women in attractive saris and turbaned Sikhs implant the color of India on Singapore. Spicy foods, glittering silks, temple garlands and Hindu temples make these few blocks of the city a replica of the Indian sub-continent.
From that colonial era, begun by this British colonial governor, there remains the impressive Parliament House, Supreme Court, City Hall, Victoria Theatre, Cricket Club, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and many other totally renovated structures. However, more than in their structures, the British left their laws, educational system, organization and, above all, their language. It is a legacy of which Singaporeans are proud.
On the other hand, overshadowing all of the ethnic groups and their vestiges in today’s Singapore are the Chinese and Chinatown – the original home of their ancestors. During our walk through this part of town, Ling was enthusiastic as he spoke about his people, “Our forefathers were brought here as coolies and they built the bases on which modern Singapore stands. You should see our history exhibited in the Images of Singapore Museum on Sentosa Island! From sweat and tears to our thriving state, it is due to the Chinese that this country is now called `the Switzerland of the East’.”
Ling’s words had a historic ring. When Raffles established Singapore, in addition to others, he brought laborers from China and Chinese merchants from Malacca, in today’s Malaysia, to work as traders. The vast majority of Singaporeans can trace their lineage to either one of these two groups.
As we strolled amidst the picturesque shops and restaurants brimming with life, Ling gestured, “See all these beautifully renovated buildings with new terracotta roofs! The old slums have been reincarnated into works of art. You know! Chinatown is today a famous tourist site.”
Yet, even though much of Chinatown has been restored, its former inhabitants live somewhere else. Like most of the working class in the city, they have been relocated to new apartment complexes where all the amenities of life are found – from the workplace to hospitals, schools, shops and sports facilities.
However, the tastes and traditions of the old town remain. The odor of incense streaming from old temples, calligraphers, herbalists, and local craftsmen fashioning clogs, kites, and traditional seals for stamping documents are all still there – the area now a mecca for tourists.
The most important of the ethnic districts, Chinatown today is the historic heart of Singapore – a city which also, Malays, Arabs, Indians, and British helped to build. In Ling’s words, “I think we have a working model of how the world should be in the future.”