12 Iconic Muslims Who Contributed To Singapore's History


Shasha Dania •  Aug 10, 2020

[Updated 9 August 2021]

It's been 56 years since Singapore attained Independence, and while the journey has had its ups and downs one thing is for sure - what the country is today is the product of years of love, dedication, and effort. In order to celebrate, we're honouring 12 historic Singaporean Muslims who have contributed to the rich history and growth of Singapore!

18th Century

1. Hajjah Fatimah binte Sulaiman (b. 1754 d. 1852)

If this name is familiar to you, you might be thinking of Masjid Hajjah Fatimah located along Beach Road. Yup, this is the iconic lady that the mosque was commissioned by and is named after! Hajjah Fatimah binte Sulaiman was born in what is now Malacca in the mid-1700s, but she later moved to Singapore with her merchant husband. After his death, Hajjah Fatimah took over his business and grew it into an impressive trading operation. ?

She was famous as both a merchant and philanthropist and even earned herself the nickname 'Sultana of Gowa' (Gowa was the area in South Sulawesi that her late husband came from). She later donated money and land to commission the construction of Masjid Hajjah Fatimah. Fun fact: the mosque sits where her house used to be, and she and some of her descendants are buried on the mosque grounds!

19th Century

2. Alsagoff Family

The Alsagoff family (sometimes spelled as Alsaqqaf) originated in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen but settled down roots in Singapore after Syed Abdur-Rahman Alsagoff migrated to Singapore with his son in 1824. The Alsagoffs grew wealthy through spice trading, and frequently gave back to the community by donating to madrasahs (which taught a mix of religious and secular education) and orphanages.

They're recognised as one of Singapore's pioneers, and the Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Arabiah (which they contributed to) is the oldest madrasah in Singapore! Many members of the family have served in diplomatic roles, or have continued to contribute to charities today.

3. Aljunied Family

Similar to the Alsagoffs, the Aljunieds got their start in Singapore when Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Al Junied - a Hadhrami from Palembang - settled in the country. He owned huge amounts of land in what is now the Aljunied neighbourhood in Singapore, and was a notable and well-respected merchant and philanthropist.

He contributed money or land to buildings including Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Jalan Kubor Cemetery, St Andrew's Cathedral, and Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka (the first mosque built in Singapore). His contribution of land to the Anglican community for the cathedral reflects a beautiful and steadfast belief in finding common ground and compassion despite being of different faiths - a lesson that is true even today. ?

20th Century

4. His Excellency Tuan Haji Zubir Said (b. 1907 d. 1987)

Zubir Said is probably one name almost every Singaporean knows! ? Originally born in the Minangkabau regions of Indonesia, he moved to Singapore when he was 21 to pursue work as a musician despite his father's objections. His first jobs included joining a bangsawan (Malay opera troupe), recording company and even being a part-time photographer with a local Malay newspaper. In the 1940s and 1950s his career would soar in positions like orchestra conductor with the Shaw Brothers, and songwriter for Cathay-Keris Film Productions (now known today as the Cathay cinema group).

In 1958, Zubir was approached to compose his most famous song - "Majulah Singapura". It was written when Singapore was still a British city colony, but was eventually adopted as the National Anthemn after obtaining self-governance and then independence. He also composed "Semoga Bahagia" which is the official Children's Day song in Singapore! In his later years, Zubir was a music teacher and was also deeply respected for his acts of giving and generosity to family and friends - despite his own family not being well off at the time. Today, more than 30 years after his passing, his legacy remains whenever we hear the lyrics of that familiar anthem. ?

5. Che Zahara binte Noor Mohamed (b. 1907 d. 1962)

Born in Singapore, Che Zahara Bte Noor Mohamed was one of the first Malay Muslim women activists who championed the rights of women and children in Singapore. Born into an educated and illustrious family and later married to a Sri Lankan family, Che Zahara was encouraged to look out for the poor and vulnerable throughout her life.

She initially housed homeless women and orphans in her home during World War II, providing them with education and practical skills. In the 1950s, her passion for this cause would lead her to campaign for the Marriage Bill to raise the legal marriage age for girls (at the time it was just 13!), encourage blood donation drives, and to establish the Malay Women's Welfare Association (MWWA) which was the first welfare organisation dedicated to helping Muslim women. Though the MWWA was eventually dissolved, Che Zahara continued her work with the Singapore Council of Women.

6. Haji Mohamed Sanusi bin Mahmood (b. 1909 d. 1995)

Credit: Singapore's Past Ulama

Sanusi Mahmood may not be a name you've heard before, but he's a name worth knowing! He served as Singapore's first Mufti between 1967-1972 and was an exceptional scholar of his time. His grades were stunning since young and as a teenager in 1929 he even managed to skip 2 grades after getting amazing results in the Senior Cambridge exams! ? He later studied Islam and Arabic Language under his grandfather who was the then-Mufti of Indera Giri, before travelling to Mecca to study at Masjidil Haram, finally finding a place at Cairo's famous Al-Azhar University. He was the first Singaporean to obtain Al-Azhar's prestigious Master's certificate.

He returned to Singapore in 1946, but returned to Mecca in 1949 to work and pursue more studies. In the 1950s he worked in Cairo as a diplomat and translator before finally returning to Singapore in 1960s. He held various positions in multiple organisations in Singapore serving as Qadi of the Syariah Court (1959-1960), President of the Syariah Court and Registry of Marriages, Divorces and Reconciliation (1960-1969), Mufti (1969-1972), and finally Religious Advisor and a translator for the charity organisation Jamiyah (1972-1990). His lifelong dedication to knowledge, charity, and Muslim issues make him a name to look up to.

7. Yang Amat Berbahagia Tun Haji Yusof bin Ishak (b. 1910 d. 1970)

Yusof Ishak is another name (and face!) all Singaporeans should be familiar with - he was the first President of Singapore! He was born in Taiping, Perak but moved to Singapore in 1923 when his civil servant father was posted here. He started his career as a journalist and joined a well-known Malay newspaper that inspired him to start the well known Utasan Melayu newspaper. He moved back to Taiping during the Japanese Occupation to continue work with Utasan Melayu but later sold its shares and resigned in 1959.

After resigning from Utasan Melayu he was made Chairman of the Public Service Commission of Singapore by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. After Singapore attained self-governance in 1959 he was appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara, or the head of state. After Singapore gained independence, he formally became the first President of Singapore. Yusof served 3 terms in office, during which he promoted the ideas of multiculturalism and cooperation across racial and religious lines, working towards a common national identity. He passed away in 1970 but is still commemorated today. There are many buildings and institutions named after him, and as Singaporeans and even visitors will know, is featured on the current Portrait Series of banknotes!

P.S. Yup, that's a photo of him and his wife Puan Noor Aishah (keep reading to find out more about her own achievements!) during a pilgrimage in 1963.

8. Lieutenant Adnan bin Saidi (b. 1915 d. 1942)

Credit: Kevin Lim (The Straits Times) on Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to stories of loyalty, bravery, and sacrifice in Singapore, one figure that stands out is definitely that of Lieutenant Adnan. He was born near Kajang in what was then Malaya, and was of Minangkabau descent. In 1942 he was sent to lead a platoon from the Malay Regiment to defend Singapore against the invading Japanese army. The fight took place at Bukit Chandu, and Adnan and his men held off the Japanese for 2 days. He was even shot but continued to fight even when weapons ran out and they were forced into hand-to-hand combat.

Tragically, Adnan would not survive the battle. He was captured and executed by the Japanese for refusing to surrender. He was only 27 at the time. He's now considered a national hero in both Singapore and Malaysia for his courage, and there are various memorials to him around Singapore. For a unique take, if you're ever passing by Pasir Panjang MRT Station you can see a mock movie poster based on his life. He was also commemorated during Singapore's Bicentennial celebration, appearing in a special $20 commemorative note.

9. Zahrah Za'ba (b. 1920 d. 1988)

Credit: Malay Heritage Centre on Facebook

The 1950s and 1960s are known as the heyday of Malay broadcasting, music, and film in Singapore. Zahrah Za'ba was one woman who at the time was famous for her work in radio and broadcasting. She initially worked as a teacher, but found her true calling behind the radio mic.

She did everything including news reports, live commentary, scriptwriting, radio plays, and even production! Her most well-known radio play was 'Esah dan Keluarga-nya' (Esah and her family) that intrigued both and Malays and non-Malays. Her trailblazing ways led her to become the first woman head of the Malay broadcasting department from 1958-1974, and she mentored future notable radio personalities too. In 1955, she also helped found the Malay Journalist Association and in her later years she moved to Kuala Lumpur and then Ulu Klang in her retirement.

10. Tuan Haji Othman Wok (b. 1924 d. 2017)

Othman Wok is one of Singapore's pioneers, and one of the main contributors to its early nation-building post-Independence. Having served as a Cabinet Minister and later as Ambassador to Indonesia, he left an indelible mark on the nation. Othman was born to an Orang Laut family, and had an English-language education that would help him bridge the gap between the local Malay-Muslim community and the People's Action Party (PAP) in the formative years of the PAP.

He started his career as a clerk, editor, and then deputy editor with Utusan Melayu. He joined the PAP days after its formation, and after its win in the General Elections of 1963 became Singapore's first Minister for Social Affairs. At the time, he was the only Malay Cabinet member! Othman served as Director of the Malay Affairs Bureau at the same time, putting into place policies that have had a lasting impact on Singapore's Malay community today, such as the Pilgrimage Office which created a formal system for hajj registration. Fun fact: the Pilgrimage Office would eventually evolve into today's MUIS!

11. Khatijun Nissa Siraj (b. 1925)

Credit: PPIS Singapore Muslim Women's Assn on Facebook

Born into a wealthy Indian family, Khatijun Nissa Siraj put her education and resources to good use by campaigning for the rights of Muslim women in Singapore throughout her life. She first served on the boards of welfare organisations, before recognising a gap in them- there was a lack of Muslim women represented in these groups. In 1952, she helped to found the Young Women's Muslim Association (now known as PPIS).

At the time, Muslim laws left women vulnerable and with no recourse when faced with a sudden or unexpected divorce. Through her work with the Association and legislative campaigning, Khatijun helped to create the Syariah Court in 1958, and became its first woman counsellor in 1960. After her experiences with clients, Khatijun went on to help found the Muslim Women's Welfare Council in 1964 which provides all kinds of aid to Muslim women.

12. Puan Noor Aishah (b. 1933)

Better known as the wife of Yusof Ishak and Singapore's first First Lady, Puan Noor Aishah has had her own achievements in life apart from her husband's illustrious profile. She was born in Selangor and adopted by bangwasan performers. While she only had 2 years of formal education, she picked up skills by observing other women in her village and later as the First Lady learnt English in order to speak at events, and organised receptions for diplomats and other notable visitors.

She was only 16 when she married Yusof Ishak and 26 when he was made President, but she stepped into the role with grace. She transformed the Istana's colonial decor into something uniquely Singaporean to celebrate the country's new independence - from the utensils to menu. She was deeply involved in social welfare events and activities, serving as patron for organisations including the Red Cross Society, PPID, and the Girl Guides Association.

We hope that the stories of these inspirational Singaporeans, and the values they upheld, inspire you to do something to change and improve your community today too! ?