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Living in Singapore

Singapore’s Native People

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 come 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 while 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, WWII hero Lt. 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 506,600 people.
As the Malays were the native people of Singapore, the national language of the country is Malay.
Malay Muslims in Singapore celebrate Hari Raya Puasa after a month of fasting during Ramadan.
The Malay greeting is called salam – a handshake where the right hand is extended to 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 where there are 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.

If you would like to find out more about Singapore’s history and culture, visit the newly revamped Malay Heritage Centre at 85 Sultan Gate. www.malayheritage.org.sg. For the month of September, MHC is hosting a Malay Culture Fest featuring many exhibits, programmes and activities.