Heritage Spotlight

Alsagoff Arab School has strong Dutch influence but local roots

The cast-iron balustrades along the main hall's verandah and new building wing have floral patterns which hark back to Greek antiquity, while the ground floor of the main building is laid with original tiles that were in fashion during the early 1900
The architecture of the Alsagoff Arab School exudes a strong Dutch East Indies influence, with its baroque gable and a building that reflects the international outlook of the Yemeni-Arab trading community. The school's name is depicted in Roman and Arabic script.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The cast-iron balustrades along the main hall's verandah and new building wing have floral patterns which hark back to Greek antiquity, while the ground floor of the main building is laid with original tiles that were in fashion during the early 1900
The cast-iron balustrades along the main hall's verandah and new building wing have floral patterns which hark back to Greek antiquity, while the ground floor of the main building is laid with original tiles that were in fashion during the early 1900s.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The Alsagoff Arab School melds baroque style with elements that reflect local culture and South-east Asian climate

A strong Dutch East Indies influence permeates the architecture of the 105-year-old Alsagoff Arab School along Jalan Sultan, as seen from the baroque style of its gable and symmetrical facade.

But the building was also designed to reflect the local culture and South-east Asian climate.

Take, for example, the cast-iron fan-like motifs above the doors. While they are European in flavour, they were given a local twist with a crescent moon and five-point star design that symbolises brotherhood and the five pillars of Islam (faith, prayer, charity, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca). The design is also reflected in the school's crest.

The open verandahs around the main building are a traditional feature in South-east Asian homes, which keeps the house cool and well-ventilated.

The madrasah (Arabic for school), founded in 1912 by the late wealthy Arab businessman Syed Mohamed Ahmed Alsagoff, initially had male students only. It began accepting female students during the 1940s and became an all-girls school in 1966, which it remains today.

Sitting on a land area of 2,785 sq m, the school was gazetted for conservation in 1989 together with the Kampong Glam area.

The main building, a brick structure with timber beams and floors, is original and, like the rest of the school, has gone through numerous updates - both minor and major.

Windows were installed at the main building's open verandah on the second floor in the early 1950s to protect against rain; a three- storey L-shaped extension was added in 1992 to accommodate the growing school cohort; and the school got a fresh coat of paint just a few months ago.

Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says the new wing was harmoniously added. "It has adopted some of the essence of the old building in terms of how they assign the space," he says.

Other improvements include the upgrading of facilities such as the toilets, library, computer room and science laboratory.

School principal Syed Mustafa S. Ja'afar Alsagoff, 42, wants the school to keep up with the times as he feels that many people are "still under the impression that Singapore madrasahs are archaic or very conservative in their approach to teaching and learning".

"They think that our curriculum focuses only on religious subjects and that madrasah students are incompetent in English, mathematics and science," he adds.

"Of course, our primary goal is to produce Islamic scholars who can guide the community, but our students learn the same things asthose in mainstream schools."

He also highlights the importance of the madrasah within the community, adding that it plays a vital role in producing scholars who understand the traditional texts such as the Quran and Hadith.

"When they are equipped with this knowledge, they can relate it to the Singapore context and subsequently guide the community in countering extremist ideologies."

Design highlights

GABLE AND SCHOOL INSCRIPTION

The gable has a strong baroque profile and is a clear indicator of the Dutch East Indies influence, says Mr Kelvin Ang, director of conservation management at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, adding that the building reflects the international outlook of the Yemeni-Arab trading community.

"They had a great history of trading all the way from southern Yemen's Hadramaut region across East Africa... and down to Sumatra, Java, all these big trading ports. So in terms of architecture, they'd seen the best of the world and picked and chose what to use for their buildings."

He adds: "Not all schools (in Singapore) have this feature these days, only the older ones. What is unique also is the school's name in Roman and Arabic script."

CAST-IRON BALUSTRADES AND FAN-LIKE MOTIFS ABOVE DOORS

The cast-iron balustrades along the main hall's verandah and new building wing have floral patterns that hark back to Greek antiquity, with the palmette motif. This is supposed to symbolise eternity.

It is also apt as it was the Arab scholars who kept classical Greek knowledge alive before it was rediscovered by Europe.

Mr Ang says: "It's really many influences coming together in one building."

Above the doors in the main building are cast-iron motifs that fan out in a semi-circle shape and are definitely very European, Mr Ang notes, but were localised with a crescent moon and star design to reflect community needs.

ORIGINAL FLOOR TILES IN THE MAIN BUILDING

The ground floor of the main building is laid with original tiles that were in fashion during the early 1900s.

Mr Ang says: "We don't know if they were locally made, you would have to turn over the tiles to find out. But these tiles were popular in important buildings during the early 1900s because they are hard-wearing and pretty to look at. It's like a carpet in a hall."

The second storey of the main building has timber flooring, while the extension has earthen floor tiles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'East meets West at heritage school'. Print Edition | Subscribe