Book Review: Piecing Together the History, Heritage, and Contributions of Indian Muslims in Singapore

Indian Muslims in Singapore: History, Heritage and Contribution, a newly released publication by Ab Razak Chanbasha, is an ambitious attempt to document the history and contributions of Indian Muslims in Singapore from the period of the arrival of the British to present day. This is no doubt a formidable task to achieve in eight chapters considering the depth and extent of contribution and influence that Indian Muslims have left and continue to create in Singapore. Whether traces of their history are signposted at roads like Buffalo Road in Little India and Angullia Park in Orchard Road, or historic mosques like Masjid Chulia and Masjid Malabar, the presence of legendary eateries Zam Zam and Victory, or present-day institutions like Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), it is an impossible task to imagine a Singapore bereft of Indian Muslims.

The book does not take on an academic approach, nor does it claim to provide any historical analysis, but documents the history, heritage, and contributions of Indian Muslims in a direct and readable manner. But first, what is the operating definition of ‘Indian Muslim’ used in the book that we will be referring to? The CMIO model of racial categorisation undeniably flattens the diversity within each of the four categories, including the ‘I’ which holds much diversity owing to the long and even turbulent way in which borders were drawn and re-drawn in the Indian subcontinent from the period of British colonisation to the present, making the category of ‘Indian’ political in itself. Noting that Singapore maintains the pre-partition definition of ‘Indian’, the book, therefore, recognises Indian Muslims as individuals who are directly from or are diaspora whose ancestry is from the countries of the Indian subcontinent.

The presence and contributions of Indian Muslims in Singapore have been shaped according to historical events that have in turn influenced the flows and patterns of migration of Indian Muslims to our island. Southeast Asia itself bears a strong historical relationship and history with the Indian subcontinent due to the geographical connection provided by the Bay of Bengal and the Straits of Malacca. As early as the 1400s, Tamil Muslims had occupied prominent positions in the Malayan Sultanate and had been given important titles in other Malay ports and courts where they frequently sojourned. The familiarity of Tamil Muslim merchants in the region, especially in Penang where the British had earlier established a trading post, meant that Singapore would be a comfortable port for merchants to make their fortune and living when the opportunity arose. This moment did arrive in 1819 when a trading port was established in Singapore. Chanbasha writes:

“Tamil Muslims formed a sizeable part among early settlers at the beginning of the founding of the British trading port in Singapore in 1819 […] for the first three decades since 1819, the Muslims outnumbers Hindus among the Indian population… an overwhelming majority of 78.5% were Muslims.” (p. 13)

While today Tamil Muslims constitute a numerical minority even within the demographic of Indians in Singapore, this was clearly not always the case, and perhaps a testament to the way evolving patterns can shift till today.

The book details the demographics of migration. Through this, readers learn that amongst the earliest to engage in commercial activities after the British established Singapore as a settlement were Tamil Muslims from Coromandel Coast, Malayalee Muslims from Malabar Coast, and the Hindu Chettiars. These early immigrants, the majority of them male, only came for temporary sojourns and would return home after making their fortune. This would be the case until the early 1900s when the immigration pattern changed as more Tamil Muslims from Kadayanallur and Tenkasi in Tinnevelly district started arriving with their families.

Each shift is consequential in how Indian Muslims would in turn make their mark on the island. With the British establishing a post in Singapore, this meant greater administrative needs and resources, on top of a greater inflow of people. Chanbasha writes:

“The lure of commerce and business opportunities in the British trading post attracted chiefly those in the coastal region of western India such as Gujarat and Bombay, the men from further north in Punjab and NWFP, now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, fulfilled the demand for manpower in the services sector to support the colonial administration.” (p. 96)

Particularly interesting was reading about how specific communities tended to dominate certain industries and institutions, in large part due to how the British would require increased labour after Singapore’s establishment as a trading port. For example, the police and security forces in Singapore were dominated by Punjabis and Pathans, many Sylhet Muslims were skilled tradesmen who worked as technicians, while Bengali Muslims were depended on to function as colonial administrators and manage private enterprises. Outside the colonial administration, Bengali Muslims were also known to be washermen, or dhobies, as well as dairymen. Gujarati traders were mainly spice merchants, and the Malayalees are known to be in the food business and are behind the legendary eateries Zam Zam, Victory, and Islamic Restaurant, amongst others. This is of course not an exhaustive list.

The book parses through the historical records left behind and pieces together the timeline of businesses of Indian Muslims at the time. Amusingly, close to two pages were dedicated to documenting the ‘brand wars’ for lungi or kain pelikat that raged in the 1900s, listing the trademarks registered by cloth merchants competing to carve their own share of the market. The listing records of successions, profits, bankruptcies, diversifications, and even court cases and other recorded business matters may make for a dry read for the common reader, though they do provide an undeniably unique peek into the era that is hard to find. Considering that many of these businesses were family businesses, the section also doubles into the history of various family trees.

As the pattern of migration shifted and Indian Muslims began to arrive on the island with the intention of staying, their contributions begin to deepen. Social and religious organisations were set up by earlier immigrants to help new immigrants settle in Singapore. These organisations were a vital part of the support network and structure that made moving to a new country and assimilating into the local community less daunting. Chanbasha writes of how “[m]any successful merchants and business-owners spared no effort to help early Indian Muslim arrivals settle in their new surroundings” (p.106), and this would mean helping them secure employment, provide lodging, and being a source of support that was undeniably valuable.

Some of the earliest organisations are the Moslem Association, which was founded in 1898 by Arabs and Indian Muslim merchants, as well as Anjumani- Islam (Islamic Association) established in 1921. The book categorises the long list of organisations into the following categories: (1) Ethnic, including kin centre, (2) Religious (3) Socio-political (4) Trade (5) Pan-Indian Muslim and pan-Tamil Muslim.

While the book was prefaced as one being without historical analysis, Chanbasha offers one of his own:

“While the intention of forming such groups was to unite people, ironically it fragmentised the community further due to the independent nature of management that works against the notion of a united and coordinated Indian Muslim identity.” (p. 300)

This opinion was offered to promote the Federation of Indian Muslims (FIM) which consolidates Indian Muslim organisations that choose to join as members and streamlines communication with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) who can communicate with FIM instead of individually with a slew of organisations. The representation of these heterogeneous Indian Muslim groups in FIM, says Chanbasha, is the “only hope for Indian Muslim associations to be taken seriously” (p. 303).

Throughout the pages, one realises that the book offers a positive outlook on the relationship the minority community has with governmental organisations and institutions in meeting their needs. The book details, for example, MUIS’s efforts in establishing weekend madrasahs in South Asian languages at 22 mosques and how Indian Muslim families receive assistance from annual zakat contributions. Through such an approach, one may be able to appreciate the way Indian Muslims in Singapore and their needs have been under the careful consideration and attention of institutions which is an important aspect of acknowledging their belonging in the country and community. At the same time, however, it may gloss over the more granular and personal difficulties that are undeniably present for a diverse minority community that are urgent when listening to personal stories such as the discrimination they may face in Malay-majority Muslim communities, lack of access to classes in their own mother tongue in schools, and more.

Mosques, too, proved to be valuable centres of community, serving not only the religious needs of Indian Muslim sojourners but their lodging needs too. In this way, the mosques built and frequented by Indian Muslims hold immense historical value. For example, Masjid Jamae’, also known as Masjid Chulia, an iconic feature of Chinatown and designated as a national monument in 1974, was completed between 1830-1835 and serves as “a reminder of the considerably large population of Chulia immigrants who had settled in the Chinatown district and their crucial role in the early development of colonial Singapore’s economy” (p. 172). Another mosque, Masjid Abdul Gafoor was the first mosque to receive the Architectural Heritage Award in 2003 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority in recognition of its innovative restoration and conservation works. The full list of mosques established and frequented by Indian Muslims is recorded in the book.

Indian Muslims in Singapore and the contributions they have made are unique in large part due to the nature of how they arrived in Singapore and the ways in which religious and cultural integration have evolved in the community. Chanbasha notes how their prominent status and position elevated their position in the Muslim community:

“It was the Indian Muslims and Arabs who were active spokesmen for the Muslim community, even though they made up the minority of Muslims in Singapore. This was due to their wealth and influence, which afforded them greater mobility and access to official channels and political institutions.” (p. 14)

The influence of Indian Muslims is extensive and not siloed only within their respective communities. The descendants of Dawood bin Haji Hassan, for example, are among pioneers of the Malay publications. The Patail family, descendants of Hassan Haji Dowdjee Patail, were engaged in the Malay community through translation work and serving in Malay sports and volunteer clubs. On the level of the everyday, their mark is seen even in the dishes that we eat. The teh sarbat which originated in India, the bright red mee goreng, roti prata, sup tulang, and murtabak are dishes that were uniquely created and adapted by South Asians in Malaya and enjoyed thoroughly till today.

Contributions from prominent individuals to the country’s social, cultural, political and religious life are, of course, given especial mention and is in fact how the book concludes. The list includes Munshi Abdullah who has been dubbed as the ‘father of modern Malay literature’, Rajabali Jumabhoy, an illustrious businessman and patriarch of the Jumabhoy family, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique who founded the All Malaya Muslim Missionary Society now known as Jamiyah Singapore, Professor Ahmad Bin Mohamed Ibrahim who drafted the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), and more. Chanbasha acknowledges that the list is not exhaustive and even the term ‘prominent’ is subjective. Perhaps this is inevitable when the focus taken is on exceptional individuals who have been written into the records of history. It is perhaps for this reason that Chanbasha acknowledges the limitations of the book early in the preface: heavy reliance on newspaper archives, oral history and recent interviews meant that the details and lives of average persons and families are not captured. Another gap that is hard to overlook is the lack of mention of South Asian Muslim migrant workers, whose class status may not enshrine them in history the way prominent wealthy individuals are, but whose contributions to the development of Singapore’s landscape is undeniable over the past few decades.

Of course, this book cannot enfold every experience, and this gap can be seen as a need for Singaporeans to understand any community experience through a multitude of lenses. For a start, I can offer the recommendation of reading the series on South Asian Muslims published by Beyond the Hijab and the anthology Growing Up Indian, though not exclusively about the Indian Muslim community, does share stories by some Indian Muslim writers. Through reading the in-depth, substantial text that is Indian Muslims in Singapore alongside more personal narratives, perhaps we can do better to understand, appreciate, and strengthen the structures of support and care for the Indian Muslim community in Singapore. ⬛

Diana Rahim is a writer, editor and visual artist currently working in a social services agency. Her writings have been anthologised most recently in Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore, Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction in Singapore, and Best New Singapore Short Stories: Volume 5.

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