Speech By Dr N Varaprasad, Chief Executive, National Library Board, At The Launch Of “Rihlah: Arabs In Southeast Asia” Exhibition & Conference On 10 April 2010, 10:00am At The Plaza, Level 1, National Library Building

Release Date : 10 Apr 2010

Mr George Yeo, Minister for Foreign Affairs,

Mr Zainal Abidin Rasheed, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs,

Ms Yeoh Chee Yan, Chairman of the National Library Board,


My co-chair for the Exhibition and Conference, Assoc Professor Syed Farid Alatas,

Distinguished guests,


Ladies and gentlemen,

1. Good morning and a warm welcome to the launch of “Rihlah: Arabs in Southeast Asia” Exhibition and its related Conference. I would especially like to thank Minister George Yeo who is here with us, after returning from the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi over the past 2 days. I am not an expert on Arab culture or literature, so I stand corrected, but I do suspect that a bit of rain at the beginning of “Rihlah”, must be a good omen.

2. “Rihlah” means “journey” in Arabic, and hence this exhibition traces the travels of the Arabs from the Middle East, particularly the Hadhramaut region of Yemen, to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. From these journeys spanning several generations, the exchanges and influences have not just been in trade but also in the cultural and religious practices of the two regions.

3. This exhibition is the fifth in a series of major cultural exhibitions organised by the National Library. We organised 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. Such is the diverse and rich heritage of Singapore's early history.

4. With such diversity, we need to learn and understand each other's cultures that form part of Singapore's unique identity. It is for this reason that the National Library organises such exhibitions – to inform Singaporeans that various communities both local and from overseas, had a part to play in Singapore's history and heritage, and this still holds true today. Such exhibitions deepen and broaden the knowledge base of our professional librarians, extend NLB's knowledge network, enliven the library-going experience of our patrons, and finally strengthens the understanding of Singaporeans of their roots and heritage.

5. In looking at the historical linkages between the Arab community and Singapore, you will find that these go back to the ancient land and maritime silk routes. For example, an Arab dhow carrying artefacts of Chinese Tang Dynasty ceramics, and a small collection of gold and silver ornaments dating back to the ninth century, were found sunken in Indonesian waters off Belitung Island. This is testament to the historic maritime trade route and close links between Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

6. This brings me to the “Rihlah” exhibition, which features artefacts, letters, manuscripts, business and legal documents, maps and photographs from both local and overseas partners, Hadhrami descendants and private collectors.

7. Presented in a thematic storyline, the exhibition starts with the journeys and voyages of the Arabs and introduces Hadhramaut in terms of its geography, history and culture. Next, it covers the cross-cultural exchanges between Hadhramaut and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Lastly, the exhibition brings you back to more recent times between Singapore and the Middle East to reflect on the past and present contributions of the Arabic community.

8. As you view the exhibition later, do look out for the rare exhibits such as an early twentieth century dining set bearing the insignias of the Alkaff and Alsagoff families. The Alsagoff and Alkaff families often held grand parties where their guests were served with specially commissioned dining ware. There are also the mud bricks which were brought back from Yemen. These mud bricks give Hadhramaut its distinctive character and its architecture in Shibam is now recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

9. This afternoon, we are holding a Conference on “Islam, Trade and Culture: The Roles of the Arabs in Southeast Asia”. We have invited experts to speak and share their knowledge on the roles of the Arabs in Southeast Asia, particularly, in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is an opportune time to learn more about the influence of the Arab community in this region both in historical and in contemporary times.

10. To mark the launch of this exhibition, the National Library has published a commemorative book titled “Hadhrami Arabs Across the Indian Ocean: Contributions to Southeast Asian Economy and Society” and a bibliography titled “The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia with Special Reference to Singapore: An Annotated Bibliography”. These two publications are the outcome of the research capability of the National Library in collaboration with experts in the field.

11. There will also be programmes for the public to learn more about the Hadhrami community, ranging from heritage talks and trails to cultural performances, and a Middle Eastern Bazaar. A business seminar has already been held with our partner IE Singapore.

12. Through these activities, we hope that Singaporeans will re-discover the culture and contributions of the Arabs in Singapore's history. This would give us a better understanding of the close relations being nurtured today between Singapore and the Middle East in many fields.

13. In closing, I am grateful to various local and overseas institutions and numerous individuals for their support and generosity in making this event possible. The organising partners we would like to thank are: the Arab Association of Singapore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Museum of Singapore and the National University of Singapore. I would also like to thank our contributors: the Ba'alwi Mosque, the Alatas Foundation in Malaysia and dedicated individuals like Ms Leila Ingrams from the United Kingdom. Last but not least, a big thank you to Etihad Airways for their sponsorship of air tickets for some of our speakers.

14. Let me take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation to Minister George Yeo for his steadfast support and for taking time out of his busy schedule to be our Guest-of-Honour today. Your presence here this morning will motivate us further to promote greater exchanges of ideas, knowledge and cross-cultural understanding.

15. The National Library aims to be the gateway for the world's knowledge on Singapore and Southeast Asia. The National Library is your first stop to research on our roots and history, and where knowledge is brought to life. Indeed, there are now six exhibitions running concurrently in the library, including one on William Farquhar as well as one on S Rajaratnam and their respective influences on colonial and post-independence Singapore.

16. Thank you for your attendance today and I wish you all an exciting time of discovery at the exhibition and conference! Your journey of discovery, or Rihlah, starts now!