Feature Articles

More Than Four: Lesser-known Cultural Communities in Singapore

By: markhsx on 15 Jun 2012
Singapore's big four races are well-known and prominent aspects of the nation's multicultural heritage, introduced to locals from an early age as part of “national education”, and recounted to foreigners as such. The country's main ethnic cultures are centred in defined districts, each a vestige of colonial town-planning – the Chinese in Chinatown, Malays in Kampong Glam, and Indians in Little India, with significant Peranakan (Straits Chinese) and Eurasian presence in Katong. These areas are widely promoted as tourist attractions and epicentres of these distinct cultures.

However, as a nation of immigrants since its founding, Singapore is in fact home to a wide range of cultures from all around the world, especially Asians and Europeans. These groups have congregated in certain districts. This helps to strengthen ties among themselves, as a culture and community, and to establish and maintain links with their home countries and help them to feel more at home in Singapore. While the government does not officially recognise such areas as ethnic districts, these locales offer deeper insight into Singapore's lesser-known cultures, and a community for migrants and tourists seeking familiarity in this cosmopolitan city-state.


Perhaps overshadowed by their close relations, the Malays, the Arab community in Singapore has had great influence in Singapore's Muslim community since the settlement was established here. Arabs in Singapore largely descended from two social classes that formed the top of the social hierarchy in Hadhramaut, in southeast Yemen. These are the Syeds, descendants of the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad, and the Sheikhs. Both groups are influential in matters concerning Islam. They came as merchants  and traders prospered with clever investments in land-owning. By the 1930s, the Arabs were the wealthiest community in Singapore. Prominent Arab families have given their names to local landmarks, such as the Aljunied and Alsagoff families.

Certain laws and acts have undermined Arab control of land in Singapore, and assimilation into the local Malay community has diluted Arab identity in Singapore. However, the Arab community has preserved much of their rich cultural heritage in Kampong Glam, along streets such as Arab Street, Baghdad Street and Muscat Street. Bazaars and markets with an Arabic tinge, shisha waterpipes and Middle-Eastern eateries bring the exotic world of Arabia into the heart of this vibrant district. Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Arabic dishes such as shish kebab, falafel, mezze spreads and pita bread have found a following even beyond the Muslim community in Singapore.


The Burmese community in Singapore is comprised largely of two groups – political refugees who have fled the political turmoil in Myanmar, and economic migrants who have come to seek a better life here. However, the government has had to force Burmese pro-democracy activists to leave the country as a result of concerns with Burma’s overall political crisis and reconciliation with the Burmese government. Nonetheless, the Burmese community remains sizable in Singapore.

Burmese Buddhist Temple
Burmese Buddhist Temple

On Saturday evenings, many Burmese gather at the Burmese Buddhist Temple in Balestier. In fact, streets off Balestier Road have been named after Burmese locales, such as Mandalay Road, Irrawaddy Road and Moulmein Road. A sizable Burmese resident community has gathered in the vicinity as well. Burmese gem traders can be found in Peninsula Plaza, a building on North Bridge Road, and the community also gathers here over weekends.


Filipinos in Singapore, known more informally among themselves as Pinoys, are largely migrant workers. Most Filipinos work as domestic helpers, or in the information technology industry. In recent years, Filipinos have taken up service jobs in nursing, banking, sales and entertainment.

The Filipino community is most prominent at Lucky Plaza, a shopping mall along Orchard Road, where they gather on the weekends to mingle, especially Sundays. Lucky Plaza has a wide range of shops selling Filipino products, amongst other electronics, shoes and sports goods. Aside from Lucky Plaza, other Filipinos gather in Orchard Towers and Balmoral Plaza, where Filipino eateries can be found. Many local churches (both Catholic and Protestant) also hold services in Tagalog that cater to the largely Christian Filipino community.


Our southern neighbours arrive here from different backgrounds and for different reasons. While most come here to work as domestic workers, others are sailors, students who study in local schools, or professionals. Indigenous Indonesian ethnic groups, such as Javanese and Sudanese, and Chinese Indonesians are represented in the local Indonesian community. Singaporean Malay citizens of Indonesian descent are a majority group in the local Muslim community. Hence, Indonesian culture has found its way into much of Singapore, especially in terms of food, with local favourites that are in fact Indonesian dishes. These include nasi padang, gado gado and satay.

Many Indonesians gather at City Plaza, a shopping mall near Paya Lebar MRT, in the east. City Plaza is said to be a “wholesale” market in a mall, with an eclectic range of goods and services that might raise eyebrows. Affluent Indonesians also shop at Paragon Shopping Centre, an up-scale mall on Orchard Road. With a majority Muslims among Indonesians, mosques are also where Indonesian Muslims gather for religious purposes.


The mention of the Japanese in Singapore is most associated with the dark memories of the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War. However, few Singaporeans today have any recollection of those tumultuous years, and it can be said that much of the resentment and contempt once felt towards the Japanese community has abated. Local youth have taken very enthusiastically to Japanese popular culture. Karaoke, kawaii (cuteness), photo-sticker booths (or neoprint machines), anime and manga are aspects of Japanese popular culture that have taken Singapore's youth by storm. Japanese cuisine has certainly made its mark throughout the island. Casual “Japanese Food” stalls can be found in almost every food court, while sushi bars, both home-grown names and Japanese imports, are popular dining destinations. Fine-dining Japanese restaurants that specialise in traditional styles such as kaiseki are also excellent here, with celebrity chefs hailing from Japan. Sushi, sashimi, tempura, ramen, teriyaki are words that have entered local culinary vocabulary.

While Japanese eateries and shops can be found around the island, most Japanese expatriates choose to shop at two shopping malls along the Singapore River - Liang Court and The Central. These two malls have the ambience of a calm zen that is associated with the Japanese. Ngee Ann City along Orchard Road, with Takashimaya Shopping Centre an anchor tenant, is perhaps the shopping centre most Singaporean associate with the Japanese. Nearby Cuppage Plaza is also a popular Japanese hang out. All of these malls have more than a worthy range of Japanese restaurants and shops, even more so than other shopping centres around Singapore. The Singapore Soka Assocation is prominent in local grassroots and community service.


A Korean community has existed in Singapore since the 1930s, when their homeland was under Japanese rule. Koreans migrants in modern Singapore are mostly expatriates or students who seek better education and lower taxes, which is facilitated the ease of obtaining permanent residency status. The increase in the local Korean population has led to a rise in the number of eateries and retailers catering to the Korean community. In fact, South Korea's Andong General Hospital and Singapore's Gleneagles Hospital has established a clinic aimed at Koreans living in the region, staffed by an Andong doctor who is assisted by Korean-speaking attendants. The Korean wave, known as Hallyu, has also hit Singapore, with K-pop and Korean dramas are wildly popular here.

Many authentic Korean eateries can be found along Tanjong Pagar Road, where the local Korean community gathers. Korean food stalls also popular at food courts, serving a variety of dishes such as kimchi, bibimbap and bulgogi.


Most Thais in Singapore come to work in the service industries or as professionals in a variety of fields. The most prominent aspect of Thai culture in Singapore is food, with both local and Thai restaurants serving a large variety of Thai dishes such as Pad Thai, tom yam and green curries throughout the country. Thai music has gained some popularity in Singapore, as well as raucous Thai discos. Thai Buddhists form a sizable minority in Singapore.

Golden Mile Complex
Golden Mile Complex

Golden Mile Complex, on Beach Road, is famously known as a Thai hangout. These cater to the local Thai community with Thai eateries and shops. Thai Buddhist temples, such as Wat Ananda Metyarama Temple and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple are where Thai Buddhists congregate.


Singapore has had strong ties with the Western world throughout its history, from its founding as a British settlement to economic ties with Western economies today. While Singapore's colonial masters have long left the island, there continues to be a significant Western population in the city. These include communities of British, Australians, Americans, Dutch, German, Swiss, French, Canadians and Spanish. Westerners in Singapore are mostly expatriates who work as professionals or in management at multinational corporations or banks. Westerners, specifically Caucasians, are colloquially referred to by some Singaporeans as ang moh (red-haired).

Swiss Club
Swiss Club

Most Western associations and clubs are located west of the city, towards Bukit Timah. This also hints at the relative affluence of the Western community in Singapore. A significant number of Westerners in Singapore are Christian, both Protestant and Catholic, and gather in local churches for services and Mass on weekends. Western food is hugely popular in Singapore. Beyond fast food places and fine-dining Western dining establishments, food courts and hawker centres also feature “Western Food” stalls. It is interesting to note that Western cuisine has taken a quaint touch in Singapore at the hands of Hainanese cooks who once worked for the colonial British.

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