Exhibition traces Arabs' vital role in early Singapore history

President Halimah Yacob and her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee - who is of Arab descent - being briefed on the exhibits at the Here And Now: Arabs In Singapore exhibition at The Arts House yesterday.
President Halimah Yacob and her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee - who is of Arab descent - being briefed on the exhibits at the Here And Now: Arabs In Singapore exhibition at The Arts House yesterday.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

When Singapore was established as a trading port in 1819, the British were keen to attract Arab traders to these shores.

But small as their numbers were - an 1824 census showed that only 15 of the more than 9,600 residents in Kampong Glam were Arab - they played a key role in Singapore's development, using their wealth to build mosques, organise funds, develop lands, and even contribute to the local music culture.

The Arab Network @ Singapore (AN@S) yesterday launched an exhibition to showcase the stories of these Arabs, known as the Hadramis, who came from Hadaramawt, Yemen, to Singapore more than 200 years ago.

Called Here And Now: Arabs In Singapore, the exhibition being held at The Arts House showcases pictures and documents gathered from private collections.

A team of nine young Singaporeans, led by 34-year-old graduate student Syed Muhammad Hafiz, took over a year to put together the exhibition.

Rather than the tales of religious figures or prominent businessmen, the exhibition is more about personal stories, he said.

The team, whose other members are students and full-time national servicemen (NSFs) aged between 20 and 26, gathered much of the information from their uncles, aunts and grandparents.

"They not only found out more about themselves, but also the larger Hadrami community," he said.

President Halimah Yacob and her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, who is of Arab descent and is patron of AN@S, attended the launch.

The event was preceded by the presentation of awards to nine students of Arab descent who have excelled in their studies.

NSF Muhammad Bahajjaj, 22, one of the team members, said putting together the exhibition was a chance to learn about his heritage.

"To really see how my family and other Arabs have contributed to Singapore. It opened my eyes. The word 'Arab' is no longer just a word to me but a story written by my forefathers, and now for me to continue."

The exhibition is located at Gallery II of The Arts House and will run till April 20. It is open from 10am to 10pm daily. Admission is free.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline 'Exhibition traces Arabs' vital role in early S'pore history'. Print Edition | Subscribe