The Unexpected Joys Of Singapore’s Arab Street

So, when your passport runs out of visa pages during a work trip to Malaysia, you get a special treat in the Lion City of Singapore

The Unexpected Joys Of Singapore’s Arab Street

I had no intention of visiting the Arab Street. I did not know it even existed, even though I had previously visited Singapore and enjoyed the tour. What brought me to the Arab Street was the type of quirk that often afflicts travel, often international travel.

After spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, where I learned a lot about what the Vietnamese call the American War, we headed for an overnight stop in Singapore en route to Kuala Lumpur for a conference. My wife and I had been in Malaysia before. But this time, our younger daughter was also travelling with us.

At the Changi airport, the two ladies cleared immigration without any conversation. When my turn came, after reviewing my passport, the agent smiled and asked: “Ahmad, do you speak Malay?” I let her down by saying no. Perhaps she wanted to welcome me in Malay.

She was not the only one who thought I was a local. On my previous visit to Singapore, a taxi driver had mistaken me for a local. That’s happened to me several times

The next day, when we arrived at the check-in counter for Singapore Airlines, my wife and daughter were cleared by the check-in agent, but he just repeatedly flipped the pages of my passport.

“You do not have any blank pages in your passport.” I showed him several blank pages in the back. “Those pages cannot be used for stamping visas.” 

“What are they for?” I asked. 

“That I don’t know,” he replied.

I said the Malaysian stamp is a small triangle and there are plenty of visa pages which are half blank. Why can’t one of those pages be used to stamp my visitor visa?

“Malaysia just passed a law saying they need a full blank page,” he said as I asked him to let me board the flight and I will talk with Malaysian immigration. 

His response was, “No.”

As we walked around the Arab Street, it evoked memories of several places we had visited... The wonderful smell of fermented fish paste, gingers, and curry hung in the air. It was a gastronomic paradise, and now I understand why my client had recommended it

Frustrated beyond words, I called my client. Amazingly, she picked up the phone, despite the lateness of the hour. I told her what had happened. She said, “I understand. One of your colleagues is here. He will deliver your talk. As for you, enjoy Singapore.” 

Oh, I have been here before and seen everything it has to offer.

“Have you visited the Arab Street? Check it out. You won’t be disappointed,” she said.

We cancelled the hotel in Kuala Lumpur and booked the St Regis in Singapore, where we had stayed before. It was at the other end of the town.

The next day, after a sumptuous breakfast in the beautifully laid-out patio of the hotel, we took a cab and headed to Arab Street. We discovered that it was not just a single street but a neighbourhood that includes Bussorah Street, Haji and Bali Lanes and Muscat Street. It is Singapore’s Muslim quarter, part of the culturally rich Kampong Glam heritage trail.

As we walked around the Arab Street, it evoked memories of several places we had visited: China, Cambodia, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Thailand. The wonderful smell of fermented fish paste, ginger, and curry hung in the air. It was a gastronomic paradise, and now I understand why my client had recommended it.

After savouring a wonderful lunch, we headed to that iconic symbol of Singapore, Marina Bay Sands. It featured several types of restaurants and shops. Outside were the Gardens by the Bay, overflowing with lotus plants in full bloom and a bench shaped like a crocodile. Even a Ferris wheel! The famed harbour was visible from the observatory at the top. Container ships were queued up for miles.

In the evening, we boarded a taxi at our hotel to have dinner at a Thai restaurant. By the time we arrived, a heavy downpour was falling. We rushed into the restaurant since we did not have an umbrella. The food and the ambience were wonderful, as was the service. We were transported to Bangkok.

On the next day, we walked over to the Botanic Gardens. The sun was intense, a reminder that we were straddling the equator. The tropical foliage was in full bloom, supplemented with waterfalls, a greenhouse, a swan lake, sculptures and even old clocks. The walkways were lined with tall palm trees. Orchids were ubiquitous as hanging plants. The gardens were a horticultural paradise.

In the evening, we went to the Night Safari. The tram took us all around the ‘secret garden’ and gave us a glimpse of a variety of creatures, large and small, in their carefully reconstructed natural habitat. The flying insects were the only distraction.

The next day, we visited the Raffles Hotel, the famed white elephant. Somerset Maugham, the British writer, had said it “stands for all the fables of the exotic East”. The reference was to the rustling palms and frangipani trees that landscaped the hotel, and the Asian period pieces and oriental carpets which strewed the public rooms. Some of Singapore’s best restaurants were in the hotel, notably the Empress Room, which served incredible Chinese cuisine and dim sum.

We decided simply to have a casual lunch on the patio. The food’s arrival was heralded by a lightning strike, followed by a torrential shower and climaxed with a loud bang in the sky. Thankfully, nature’s show of force was simply a welcome gift. It ended just as quickly as it had arrived.

Afterwards, we checked out the cricket field and the colonial architecture nearby. That night, we cruised the bay in a quaint boat. We went past the eponymous lion, which was spouting water. That was followed by a lavish show of lasers and light projections set to music against the city skyline.

When the morning arrived, we were on a plane headed to Hong Kong. My mind was packed with some new memories of Singapore, the Lion State, that we would not have gained had my passport not run out of visa pages. A saying came to mind as the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway: “Things happen for a reason.”

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui