Arab trader's role in Singapore landmark

In the second instalment of a five-part series on Singapore's oldest communities, chartered educational psychologist Sharifah Mariam Aljunied tells of how her great-great-great-grandfather Syed Omar Ali Aljunied enabled an enduring landmark in the country to be built

Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied (front row, third from left) and her immediate family in the 1970s. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SHARIFAH MARIAM ALJUNIED, SHARIFAH ZAHRA ALJUNIED
Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied, 47, at home in Pasir Ris. She is a descendant of Singapore's first Arab resident Syed Omar Ali Aljunied, who built Singapore's first mosque in 1820 - the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in Keng Cheow Street. He also gave Raffl
Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied, 47, at home in Pasir Ris. She is a descendant of Singapore's first Arab resident Syed Omar Ali Aljunied, who built Singapore's first mosque in 1820 - the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in Keng Cheow Street. He also gave Raffles the land on which St Andrew's Cathedral now stands. PHOTO: DANIEL NEO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
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Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied cooks her family's version of shakshuka, a dish which embodies her forefather's journey from Yemen to Singapore.

The first song that Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied learnt was not Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but the chorus of the Arabic "sung poem" called the Qasidah Burdah, which is in praise of God.

Her late father, Mr Syed Hussain Aljunied, taught her to sing it during their evening walks in the garden at home in Lorong 37 Geylang. He also once recorded her rendition of it on a cassette tape.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, her mother and grandmother would be pounding sambal belacan and, she recalls, "at the drop of a hat, they would break into a qasidah (poem) too".

  • The Arab connection

  • The Arabs, who number about 10,000 here today, have contributed a great deal to Singapore's progress:


    Wealthy trader and land owner Syed Omar Ali Aljunied, Singapore's first Arab settler and a great friend of its founder Stamford Raffles, builds the first mosque here: Masjid Omar Kampung Melaka in Keng Cheow Street.


    At Raffles' behest, Syed Omar donates one of his many large tracts of land downtown for the colonial community here to build St Andrew's Cathedral. The George Coleman-designed church is completed in 1836.


    Syed Omar again donates a swathe of land, this time in Pearl's Hill, for Malacca-born philanthropist Tan Tock Seng to build a hospital for the poor. That hospital is the foundation for what is now known as Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

    Late 1800s

    Syed Omar's son Syed Ali and grandson Syed Alwi underwrite the building of public wells, public bridges and the first Japanese Gardens - where Sennett Estate is today - for the residents of Singapore. To recognise their generosity, Aljunied Road, Aljunied MRT station and Syed Alwi Road were named after them.

    1878 to 1898

    Syed Mohamed Ahmed Alsagoff is the first Arab Municipal Commissioner of Singapore. Syed Mohamed Syed Omar Alsagoff is another such commissioner between 1928 and 1933.

    1963 to 1965

    Brigadier-General Syed Mohamed Syed Ahmad Alsagoff is the Commander of the Singapore Armed Forces.

    1972 to 1996

    Dr Ahmad Mattar, who later helped to clean up the Singapore River, enters politics and rises to be, first, Minister for Social Affairs, and then Minister for the Environment.

    1972 to 2011

    Syed Isa Mohamed Semait holds the record as the longest-serving Mufti of Singapore.


    Mr Po'ad Shaik Abu Bakar Mattar, a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers, is appointed pro-chancellor for the National University of Singapore.

Dr Sharifah Mariam, who is now 47 and a chartered educational psychologist here, recalls: "I was introduced to God through such songs. I grew up realising that God is everywhere and you can find and create beauty in everything."

She adds: "That is what is called the Ba'alawi orientation, which is devoid of myths. If you are of this orientation, you feel that God is within you and so you are less fearful and your world view will not be like, 'oh, there's danger' or 'oh, there are demons out there.'"

The Ba'alawi orientation is what some know as the Sufi tradition.

She says that her late father told her that this orientation is what led her great-great-great-grandfather, Syed Omar Ali Aljunied, to give Singapore founder Thomas Stamford Raffles the swathe of land on which St Andrew's Cathedral now stands.

After her forefather built Singapore's first mosque in 1820 - the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka in Keng Cheow Street - Raffles approached him for a piece of land to build another place of worship and Syed Omar said yes.

She adds: "It's very reflective of the Ba'alawi approach that if you're in a place, you find God in it and you be a source of goodness. So my great-great-great-grandfather understood that if God is important to you, then God is important to others as well."

It was Raffles, she notes, who had written to Palembang-based Syed Omar, who was his friend, to move to Singapore and help it prosper. "Syed Omar was already a big player then in the spice and textiles trade, as he had his own ship and many connections,"she says.

Syed Omar settled here in late 1819 as Singapore's first Arab resident, went into real estate and soon owned large tracts of land in downtown Singapore. All his children - five sons and two daughters - were born here. In 1834, he returned to his hometown of Tarim in southern Yemen with his five sons in tow as it was a tradition among their tribe, the Hadhramis, to have a religious education there before marriage.

He returned to Singapore shortly after that, died in 1852 and was buried in the grounds of Masjid Omar, the mosque he built.

His grandson, Syed Abdul Rahman - who is Dr Sharifah Mariam's great-grandfather - was as big-hearted as his grandfather. Among other things, he built the Madrasah Aljunied here in 1927 and gave land for, among other things, Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

His daughter, Madam Sharifah Khadijah, was Dr Sharifah Mariam's paternal grandmother.

There are about 10,000 Arabs in Singapore today, although it is hard to estimate their numbers accurately as most among them consider themselves part of the Malay-Muslim community too.

Madam Sharifah Khadijah's mother Sharifah Alwiyah was one such Arab. Born in Singapore, she was known by her Malay nickname Wan Kecut (Malay for "the petite one").

Dr Sharifah Mariam recalls: "She took on a Malay name and wore Malay clothes and learnt to cook Malay food like nobody's business."

She adds: "She wanted to integrate and be part of the community and so she became more adept at Malay traditions than most modern Malays."

The Hadhrami Arabs of Tarim had, through their trading, long acquired a taste for Malay food such as fish and prawn crackers or keropok, and shrimp paste or belacan.

Dr Sharifah Mariam's father ran his own arts and crafts business - the Malay Art Gallery in Bussorah Street - until his death in 2010. Her only brother Syed Abu Bakar Adny has carried on the business.

She has two sisters, Ms Sharifah Mahani, a software engineer, and Ms Sharifah Noor Huda, an assistant manager at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

Their mother, Madam Sharifah Rugayah, 78, lives with Dr Sharifah Mariam in a terrace house in Pasir Ris.

When Dr Sharifah Mariam married, she decided to "diversify the gene pool" to avoid the risk of marrying members of one's own family, as the Arabs are wont to do.

Her businessman husband Mohamed Najiib Sahib is Indian-Javanese and they have one child, Sara Nazirah, who is 19 and, yes, the first song that she learnt as a child was the Qasidah Burdah.

What does the teenager think of her Arab heritage then?

Dr Sharifah Mariam says: "She knows about it and identifies herself as half-Arab, half-Indian and one-quarter Malay. But she's also at an age where personal identity is very important, so it's about what Sara is and what Sara likes.

"But it's evolving. For example, every Hari Raya, she makes the Arab sweetmeat baklava because she likes it. So there are already elements about the culture that are important in her life."


Dr Sharifah Mariam Aljunied cooks her family's version of the egg-and-tomato dish shakshuka, whose added spices of nutmeg, cardamom and black pepper signifies her forefather Syed Omar Ali Aljunied's voyage from Tarim in Yemen to Singapore via Palembang in Sumatra:

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2015, with the headline Arab trader's role in Singapore landmark. Subscribe