20 September, 2007

The Hadhramis of Singapore

Many Arabs have traveled far and wide, but none have left their marks as much in other parts of the World, as those from Hadhramout have done. Be it in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries; be it in Eastern Africa; or, be it in the Far East of Asia. Hadhramis, through their peacefully spreading Islam, knowledge or doing business, have played major, and some times - influential roles, in these parts of the World.

Take Singapore for instance: today, there are about 10,000 or so Singaporean Arabs on the Island nation of about 4.5 million people. Almost all of whom originate from Hadhramaut. 10,000 might seem a very small number, but - Hadrami Arabs have always formed, although much diminished through the years, some of the wealthiest and most influential community in Singapore. When the British took control of Singapore in 1819 and founded the modern city, among the first people to settle there were Hadhrami Arabs; mostly - sayyids: the Al Juneids, the Alkaffs and the Al Saqqafs. And when, in 1822, a committee was formed to plan the development of Singapore, one of its members was a Hadrami, as it was anticipated that a large number of Arabs would come to settle in Singapore. Various areas were designated to be developed for specific communities, including one for Arabs, but although settlers did come, it was not in the numbers anticipated. Nevertheless, they made their mark on Singapore. From then on Hadhrami Arabs have played a major role in Southeast Asian trade and have been very prominent in Muslim community affairs of Singapore.

The Hadramis who had built their fortunes on trade often diversified into property, and some made highly astute investments in land at a time when it still could be acquired for very low prices. By the 1930s, the Arabs were the wealthiest community in Singapore, mainly as a result of a sharp rise in land values following the First World War. Over the years, rich individual Hadhramis converted sizable pieces of the lands they owned into wakfs (trusts), which not only supported local Muslim projects but, in some instances, institutions in the Hadhramout. They supported the building of mosques and the establishment of madrasas, or schools such as the Aljuneid and Alsaggaf madrasas. Some were also known as generous benefactors outside the Muslim population. But since Singapore's independence the government there, has made compulsory purchases of large areas of privately owned land in order to use them for public purposes - and due to this, the Hadhramis had to sell many priced pieces of land they owned.

It should be noted that: the Hadhramis who migrated to Singapore were mostly, if not all, from Indonesia where they had migrated earlier. They moved from Indonesia with wealth and were already very much respected as religious scholars who had brought Islam to the Far South East, and were very familiar with Malay customs, which made it easy for them to easily integrate with the people there. It should be noted too, that - through the years the Hadrami Arabs have gradually been losing much of their influence, which is mainly due to the Singapore government's policies on religious affairs, land and rent enactments passed by the government; and a lack of preparedness, initially, on the part of the Hadhrami Arabs in Westernizing and accepting Western education.

Before, the Hadhramis in Singapore, for many years, sent their children back to Hadhramaut (mainly to Tarim) for a while - so as to enhance their Hadhrami identity, which in turn enabled the Hadhramis in Singapore to maintain their language and Hadrami culture. This gradually too, has changed. Singaporean Hadhramis are now keener and more interested in Western education and most of the new generation has grown up without Arabic and has lost both its identity and its affiliation with the Hadramout. Most too, do not speak proper Arabic. Still, many of them continue to maintain links with Hadhramout and of late - many too, send their children, as before - to Hadhramaut to learn our culture and customs.

More reading:

+ Hadramis in Singapore
+ Uniquely Singapore 
+ Virtual Tourist 
+ Weekend Standard 
+ Google Books 
+ Google Scholar