Singapore Talking

Arabic, an ancient language that is still spoken here

Syed Abubakar "Adni" Hussain Aljunied, a fifth-generation Arab in Singapore, is among a few who can converse fluently in Arabic.
An Arabic class conducted with iPads at Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah on Tuesday. Most learners of modern standard Arabic are in religious schools. Mr Adni Aljunied, a fifth-generation Singaporean of Arab descent who owns the Malay Art Gallery, says
An Arabic class conducted with iPads at Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah on Tuesday. Most learners of modern standard Arabic are in religious schools. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
An Arabic class conducted with iPads at Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah on Tuesday. Most learners of modern standard Arabic are in religious schools. Mr Adni Aljunied, a fifth-generation Singaporean of Arab descent who owns the Malay Art Gallery, says
Mr Adni Aljunied, a fifth-generation Singaporean of Arab descent who owns the Malay Art Gallery, says conversational Arabic declined rapidly after World War II.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the fifth instalment of a weekly series,we look at Arabic.

The Arabic language arrived in Singapore about 500 years ago - and it has never left.

Today, it survives in three ways.

First, it lives on among members of the Arab community, whose forefathers travelled across the ocean to South-east Asia for trade, bringing to the region their language and religion of Islam.

Singapore Arabs - most of whom originated from the Hadhramaut region in Yemen - number about 10,000 today, though the number of those who speak Arabic is declining.

Second, it is taught in the six madrasahs, which have about 3,500 students in total.

Third, Arabic exists in English words that originate from it. "Sukkar" is what we know as "sugar"; "amir" is "admiral"; and "al-kuhul" is - if you have not yet guessed - "alcohol".

  • What is Arabic?


    The Arabic language comes from the Middle East and is more than 2,000 years old.

    With about 250 million native speakers, it is the fifth most-spoken language in the world.

    The Semitic language is in the same family as Hebrew and two languages from Ethiopia - Tigrinya and Amharic.

    Arabic has deeply influenced various non-related languages, and is the source for many English words.

    Some examples of words are "sharab" for "syrup", "al-jabr" for "algebra", and "zarafa" for "giraffe".


    There are two types of Arabic used in Singapore: modern standard Arabic as taught in madrasahs and language schools, and conversational Arabic as spoken in the 10,000-strong Singapore Arab community.

    The six madrasahs in Singapore, in catering to about 3,500 students islandwide, teach the bulk of learners of modern standard Arabic.

    Conversational Arabic is declining among the Arab community, which is deeply integrated with the Malay community, with the result that many claim Malay, instead of Arabic, as their primary language.

    This has also led to a third strand of "Arabic", where conversational Arabic incorporates words from Malay, and to a lesser extent, English, similar to the way that English incorporates local languages and dialects to form Singlish.


    Modern standard Arabic is taught by the country's six madrasahs and private language schools.

    However, those who want to enrol their children in madrasahs need to note that the language is taught in a religious setting.

    Private schools that teach it within a secular setting include As-Souq and the Arabic Council.

Arabic in modern Singapore is split between "fusha", the modern standard Arabic taught in madrasahs and private language schools, and the conversational Arabic that is still used, if less so now, in the native Singapore Arab community.

Adults who want to learn Arabic can enrol in one of a handful private language schools here, such as the Arabic Council. Founded by Mr Mohamed Abd El Aziz last March, it has a small group of about 15 adult students, who are mainly Malays.

Mr Aziz hails from Egypt and before starting the school, had worked in Singapore for about eight years in the hospitality sector. He said he began the Arabic Council because he saw a demand for it from friends and people around him.

But most learners of modern standard Arabic are at religious schools such as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah at 30, Victoria Lane, which has 650 students split equally between the genders from Secondary 1 to Pre-University 2.

Excluding mother tongue classes, which are taught in Malay, both Arabic and English are the languages of instruction at the school, split in a rough 60:40 ratio.

Principal Mahmoud Mathlub Sidek said students need to balance the national curriculum with the school's religious requirements, which are taught in Arabic. It strongly encourages the use of Arabic through holding debates as well as game competitions like the school's own version of The Amazing Race.

Student Abu Bakar Assiddiq Omar, a Pre-U 2 student at the madrasah, has learnt Arabic for 12 years. "I can say I'm bewitched by the language," said the 17-year-old. "Because of the Arabic language, I can understand my religion better.

"When you pray five times a day, you recite the verses in the Quran. And because I know the meaning and the beauty behind them, I feel much closer to God."

Muslims worldwide perform the five daily prayers in Arabic, though many may not understand the religious texts beyond the prayers, which are also in Arabic.

Nurul Izzah Mohamed Zakaria, 18, also in Pre-U 2, said Arabic plays an important role in her religious life.

Her favourite phrase, "Al-ilmu bila amalin kassyajari bila tsamarin", means "learning something without applying it is like a tree without fruit". In other words, learning something without applying it is like useless knowledge.

The vast majority of the school's students are Malay and this reflects how the Arab community in Singapore has integrated with Malay culture, said Mr Mahmoud.

Associate Professor Khairudin Aljunied, 40, an expert on Islam in South-east Asia at the National University of Singapore, noted one of the reasons conversational Arabic has declined among Singapore's Arab community is its deep assimilation into the Malay community.

He said that though language is important to the Arab community, intercultural integration and assimilation is the defining trait of the Arabs in South-east Asia.

Prof Aljunied, a fifth-generation Singaporean of Arab descent whose family name is synonymous with many local places, said the language he grew up with was, in fact, Malay.

His cousin, Mr Syed Abubakar "Adni" Hussain Aljunied, owns the Malay Art Gallery in Bussorah Street.

Mr Adni Aljunied, 51, said conversational Arabic declined rapidly after World War II, and that many in the community began incorporating Malay and English into the language.

He said this was due to Singapore Arabs sending their children to secular schools, rather than madrasahs.

Prof Aljunied added that this accompanied a general decline in the emphasis on the importance of Arabic within the community.

This has given rise to a "pidgin" Arabic, which is somewhat similar to Singlish and its blending of Malay and Chinese vocabulary and syntax with English.

For instance, someone might say: "Ada samrah tonight. Taal." In English it means: "There is a samrah tonight. Come." In Malay, "ada" means "to have", while in Arabic, "taal" means "to come". Samrah is a type of Arab dance.

Mr Aljunied's sister, psychologist Sharifah Mariam Aljunied, is testament to this cultural melding. Her genealogy is fully Arab but she identifies as both Malay and Arab.

Ms Aljunied, 50, who speaks basic Arabic, said she understands more Arabic than she speaks. However, the language plays a profound role in her life and her family's life.

Besides prayers, she uses Arabic in greetings, giving condolences in funerals and when singing birthday songs. At birthdays, "sanaa helwa ya gameel" is sung. It translates into "sweet year beautiful one".

She noted: "These are the contexts within which using any language other than Arabic would not suffice."

Said Ms Aljunied: "Even though it's not my most fluent language, it has a very deep personal place in my heart."

A fifth- generation Arab converses in Arabic

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'An ancient language that is still spoken here '. Print Edition | Subscribe