During the colony’s early history, under the Raffles Plan of 1822, the settlement was divided according to different ethnic groups which included European Town, Chinese, Chulia, Arab and Bugis Kampongs. In Malay, the word “kampong” means village or settlement, and “glam” is the name of a particular tree which grew in abundance in the area in early Singapore. In the beginning, Kampong Glam was a fishing village situated at the mouth of Rochor River. It became more populated and grew into prominence after the Sultan of Singapore, Hussein Mohammed Shah and the Temenggong signed a treaty with the East India Company in 1819.
Kampong Glam was designated for the Sultan and his household, as well as the Malay and Arab communities, many of whom were merchants. In the early twentieth century, commercial activities in Kampong Glam expanded as new shophouses and residential buildings were built. A multi-ethnic community soon developed there, comprising not only the Malays and Arabs but also the Chinese and Indians.
What we see today in Kampong Glam is a variety of rich heritage passed down from generation to generation. Some of these long enduring traditions are in the form of monuments, trades, cultures and practices. Conservation of places of worship, old school, old dwellings, some of which are still in their original form while others have been refurbished. These rich remains give a hint of the architecture and life style of the early days. Such diverse rich heritage can only come about through a sense of tolerance, sharing and bonding, all encapsulated in the Kampong Glam spirit. Due to its history, Kampong Glam has sometimes been termed the “Muslim Quarter” as it still retains strong ties to the ethnic-Malay and Muslim community. The Muslim population still remains a significant presence in Kampong Glam and the area remains a centre for Muslim activities, the Sultan Mosque a major landmark and congregation point for Singapore Muslims.
Learn about the practice of Islam in this part of the world at the Sultan Mosque. Standing on a site of 4,109m², the mosque is oriented in the direction of Mecca. The compound is endosed by a boundary wall of cast-iron railings. The architecture of the mosque is influenced by the Indo-Saracenic style. The most striking features of the mosque are its two gold onion domes above the east and west facades, each topped by pinnacles with crescent moons and stars. The base of each dome is ornamented with glass bottle ends that the Sultan had collected as donations from poor Muslims as he had wanted contributions from all Muslims, instead of only wealthy ones, to the building of the mosque. The roof parapet is edged with merlon cresting. On each corner of the mosque are minarets with staircases that lead up to the calling towers with balconies. Within the mosque, the rectangular prayer hall is defined by 12 octagonal columns. Two storeys high and large enough to hold 5,000 worshippers, the central atrium of the hall is enclosed by a second-storey gallery. The mihrab or pulpit is framed by a lancet arch with gold-plated floral motifs, topped with a panel of calligraphy.
Separated from the mosque by a courtyard and an old bunga tanjung tree is the comparatively modern Annex. While its façade was designed to be similar to that of the mosque, the interior contains more modern amenities. The building houses a 425-seat auditorium equipped with simultaneous translation facilities, a 200-seat conference room and two multi-purpose halls.
Arab Street, true to its name, epitomizes the Arabian way of life. Here, one can freely observe conservatively-dressed Muslims hurrying towards the Sultan Mosque once the call for prayer reverberates, robe-clad Arab men puffing away on their apple-flavoured sheeshas (tobacco pipes) and cigars, and black abaya (robes for Middle Eastern women)-clad women haggling over the prices of Oriental carpets. All these, coupled with the existence of various shophouses selling a variety of ethnic Arab goods like Qurans, prayer mats, Muslim apparel, carpets, sarongs, rattan baskets, brassware, perfumes, intrigue fabric materials and unique leather products used by the Malay community confirm the very essence of Arab Street.
Although observably a Muslim district, everyone from all walks of life gather here to indulge in Arab Street’s rich culture, if not to savour the ethnic cuisines, the souk-style retail experience or the rich history.
Arab Street today is still a key Muslim centre in Singapore. Many of Singapore’s “first generation” shophouses of squat two-storey buildings, with one or two windows on the upper floor façade, are found here on Arab Street. Each block of these shophouses are 135metres long and 8metres deep. Here, amidst the heady smells of Arab Street, were import-export businesses, wholesale and retail textile merchants, all catering to the needs of the various ethnic Muslim communities settled here although it became popular with other Singaporeans and even foreigners. Some of the stuff you can find selling in the shops are jewellery, perfumes, carpets, curio, rattan and other basketware, preserved food and other delicacies, spices, flowers, Muslim restaurants and money-changers too. Travel agents here specialise in the travel needs oof Muslim pilgrims heading for Mecca.
Check out the latest events at: www.kampongglam.org.sg