Mistake in photo caption inspired book on history of S'pore's Malabar Muslims

The Blue Mosque Of Singapore And A Peek Into The Migrant Muslim Community From Kerala was launched on July 24, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
The Malabar Mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque because of its distinctive blue-and-white tiles. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A mistake made in the photo caption of a 1956 newspaper article began a 17-year journey for vice-principal Mohamed Nasim that would end with him writing the first history book on the Malabar Muslims in Singapore.

The photo in The Straits Times, capturing the laying of the foundation stone of Malabar Mosque at the junction of Victoria Street and Jalan Sultan in 1956, named H.A. Jivabhai as chairman of the Malabar Muslim Jamaath, an association formed in 1927 to look into the affairs of the small Malabar Muslim community.

But the caption set off alarm bells in Mr Mohamed Nasim's head when he came across the article in 2005 during the course of his work.

"I knew he was not a Malayalee. How did a non-Malayalee become the president of a communal organisation? It was only much later that I found out that it was a mistake. I must thank the journalist for taking me on this journey. This goes to show that not all mistakes are bad," said Mr Mohamed Nasim, an MOE senior education officer.

Malabar Muslims are typically Malayalees, an enthnolinguistic group with origins in Kerala, India. The actual president of the Jamaath in 1956 was C H Abu.

The niggling question drove Mr Mohamed Nasim - a Malabar Muslim himself - to the archives. The 56-year-old spent hours outside of his work scrolling though newsreels in the National Library, going through old meeting minutes and finding descendants of early settlers to record their memories.

The result is a 204-page book, The Blue Mosque Of Singapore And A Peek Into The Migrant Muslim Community From Kerala, which was launched on Sunday (July 24) at Onepeople.sg in Toa Payoh.

Through the story of the Malabar Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, the book loosely traces the personalities and history of the Malabar community which comprises at least 500 families today.

The Blue Mosque is named after the distinctive blue-and-white tiles on the building's facade.

Opened by Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak in 1963, it is the only mosque in Singapore today that is managed by the Malabar Muslim community.

Mr Mohamed Nasim said research for the book has taken him to Kerala, where he spoke to the descendants of the early settlers.

One memorable man he came across in his research was the late Mr P.M.S. Thangal, a former president of the Malabar Muslim Jamaath who offered his services to exorcise ghosts after a spate of suicides in Singapore in 1955.

"He was Singapore's ghostbuster, and I found out he was very famous in Singapore, Malaysia and Borneo among both royalties and (commoners). His method of exorcism is widely used in his village," he said.

(From left) Former minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth and Social and Family Development Eric Chua, and author Mohamed Nasim at the book launch. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Mr Mohamed Nasim added that writing the book was a slow process as it was his first attempt. Research began in 2005, with some "real head-scratching days", he said. When the pandemic struck, he decided to force himself to finish the book.

He added: "As a minority of minorities, the story of Malabar Muslims is an important one because we all contributed to Singapore's development. It's a similar arc to those of other immigrants, where early settlers toughed it out and became Singaporeans."

The Blue Mosque Of Singapore And A Peek Into The Migrant Muslim Community From Kerala is available at $37 at Books Kinokuniya. E-mail thebluemosqueofsingapore@gmail.com or text 8135-3894 for more information.

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