Singapore is a melting pot of cultures including Chinese, Malay and Indian. This city-state is brimming with people from all walks of life and one of the delights of living here is seeing different faces and hearing numerous languages on a daily basis. In case you’re wondering about Singapore’s origins, here are some things you may not know about the Little Red Dot and its native people.
Representing the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Malays were the original settlers of Singapore. They made up 60.9 per cent of the total population of 10,683 in 1824.
Who are the Malays?
Some may have the impression that they came from Malaysia but that’s not necessarily so. In fact, most of the settlers came from the Malay Archipelago also known as Nusantara, which comprises approximately 25,000 islands spanning today’s Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Southern Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia.
According to the Malay Heritage Centre: “The earliest reference to Melayu is a kingdom in Jambi, Sumatra, that sent delegates to China in the 7th century. Chinese documents recorded the visit as a visit from the Mo-lo-yu kingdom. Before the colonial era, Europeans regarded the Malay language as the region’s lingua franca, which led to a generalised identification of anyone from Nusantara as Malay.”
Apparently, the British colonial administration classified this group of communities as Malay for easy reference and to simplify records. Prior to Singapore’s independence in 1964 when Britain declared Singapore an independent state, settlers came from countries like Sulawesi (Bugis people), Borneo and Bawean Island (Boyanese). Significant numbers of the Malay community here are Bawaenese (Boyanese) and Javanese; others belong to the Minangkabau ethnic group from the highlands of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Some notable Minang people in Singapore are Zubir Said – composer of Singapore’s national anthem Majulah Singapura, World War II hero Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, and Yusof Ishak, the first president of Singapore.
Nowadays, it is quite hard to distinguish between the ethnic groups as marriages and other unions have brought multiple ethnicities together.
Did you know?
- Currently, the Malay community comprises 13.4 percent of the population; that’s over 500,000 people.
- As the Malays were the native people of Singapore, the national language of the country is Malay. (The four official languages are Malay, Mandarin Chinese, English and Tamil.)
- Malay Muslims in Singapore celebrate Hari Raya Puasa after a month of fasting during Ramadan.
- The Malay greeting is called salam. It’s a handshake where the right hand is extended to the other person’s hand before bringing it to the chest. It is common to kiss elders’ hands as a form of respect.
- Geylang Serai and the Kampong Glam are popular places among the community, with many restaurants and markets frequented by Malays.
- A typical everyday meal for most Malays is nasi padang – steamed rice with various meat and vegetable dishes.
- Keen to find out more about Singapore’s history and culture? Visit the Malay Heritage Centre at 85 Sultan Gate. malayheritage.org.sg
For more stories, head to our living in Singapore section:
History: The story behind Dempsey Hill
Churches and other places of worship in Singapore
Our go-to tailors