Discover The Arab Roots Of Singapore Through The National Library's “Rihlah – Arabs In Southeast Asia” Exhibition

Release Date : 10 Apr 2010

View rare exhibits such as ninth century Chinese Tang Dynasty cargo retrieved from a ninth century Arab dhow, shipwrecked off the Indonesian island of Belitung

SINGAPORE, 10 April 2010 – The National Library today launched the "Rihlah – Arabs in Southeast Asia" exhibition ("Rihlah" meaning "journey" in Arabic), which highlights the travels of the Arabs from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, and vice versa, from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century. Mr George Yeo, Minister for Foreign Affairs, officiated the launch of the exhibition as Guest-of-Honour.

This six-month long exhibition offers a historical glimpse into the social, economic and cultural links between Hadhramaut (where most of the early Hadhrami Arabs in Singapore originated from) and Southeast Asia. The "Rihlah" exhibition will feature artefacts that shed light on the exchanges of trade, cultural and religious practices between the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Showcasing artefacts, letters, manuscripts, business and legal documents, maps and photographs from local and international partners, Hadhrami descendants and private collectors, visitors will also have the opportunity to view rare exhibits such as ninth century Chinese Tang Dynasty cargo consisting of Changsha ware with Arabic inscription and an Ovoid jar with Islamic inscription, that was retrieved from a ninth century Arab dhow, shipwrecked off the Indonesian island of Belitung.

Presented in a thematic storyline, the exhibition begins with the Arabs' journeys and voyages and introduces the geography, history and culture of Hadhramaut. Cross-cultural exchanges between Hadhramaut and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will be one of the exhibition highlights. Lastly, the exhibition showcases the current relations between Singapore and the Middle East, to reflect on the past and present contributions of the Hadhrami community.

"Through this exhibition, we are able to trace the journey that the early Arab traders took from Hadhramaut in Yemen to Southeast Asia and learn about their contributions in shaping the history of Singapore. With our interactive exhibits and exciting string of related programmes, visitors will be able to learn more about the Arab roots of Singapore and discover how Singapore has close historical linkages with the Middle East" said Dr. N Varaprasad, Chief Executive of National Library Board.

Given that the Hadhramis' presence is reflected in the names of well-known streets and buildings in Singapore, such as Aljunied Road and Alkaff Mansion, the exhibition will appeal to Singaporeans and visitors who are interested in discovering how the Hadhramis played a pivotal role in the making of modern Singapore from the nineteenth century onwards. Ms. Zahra Aljunied, a Singaporean of Hadhrami descent who is also a Senior Librarian with the National Library Board said, “I had an eye opening experience at the exhibition from learning the history behind my heritage. It makes me proud of my ancestors and I am very happy that a key piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes Singapore unique is now highlighted through this exhibition."

In organising this exhibition, the National Library had the valuable support of partners such as the Arab Association of Singapore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Museum of Singapore and the National University of Singapore. In conjunction with the exhibition, a conference on 'Islam, Trade and Culture: The Roles of the Arabs in Southeast Asia will be held on 10th and 11th April where local and overseas experts will share their knowledge on the roles of the Arabs in Southeast Asia, particularly, in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both in historical and in contemporary times.

A commemorative book on the "Hadhrami Arabs Across the Indian Ocean: Contributions to Southeast Asian Economy and Society” and a bibliography entitled "The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia with Special Reference to Singapore: An Annotated Bibliography" were also published to commemorate the opening of the exhibition and conference. These two publications are the results of the research capabilities of the National Library in collaboration with experts in the field.

The National Library has also organised a series of supporting activities such as guided tours, a Middle Eastern Bazaar, heritage trails, talks and performances. More information on the "Rihlah" exhibition and its events can be found at

In featuring the diverse communities' contributions to Singapore's history, the "Rihlah – Arabs in Southeast Asia" exhibition is the fifth in a series of major cultural exhibitions organised by the National Library after the “Zheng He & Maritime Asia" exhibition in 2005, "Aksara: The Passage of Malay Scripts" in 2006, "KaalaChakra: Early Indian Influences in Southeast Asia" in 2007 and "The Legacy of Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian" exhibition in 2008.

Admission to the "Rihlah – Arabs in Southeast Asia” exhibition is free and it is located at the Exhibition Area, level 10 of the National Library Building. The exhibition will run for six months from 10 April 2010 to 10 October 2010 (10am to 9pm daily except on public holidays).