Conversation with: Zaki Ma’arof – Chairman of One Kampong Gelam
By Vaishnavi Pumynathan
An ethnic enclave for the Muslim community since the 1800s, Kampong Gelam has transformed into one of Singapore’s oldest and hippest spots in town. A melting pot of global cultures, chic boutiques, trendy cafes and bars, and colourful street art, One Kampong Gelam chairman Zaki Ma’arof shares his memories and hopes for our favourite neighbourhood.
Q: Hello Mr Zaki, what are your earliest memories of Kampong Gelam?
Zaki: “When I was a small boy, I stayed at Geylang Serai. I remember coming here to send off my grandparents who were making a trip to Hajj. Apart from that, like most families, we came here to shop and spend time together. I followed my parents and sat at one of the corners. I still remember how people gathered and enjoyed themselves. That’s my happiest moment here.”
Q: Can you tell us more about your experiences before your appointment as chairperson of One Kampong Gelam?
Zaki: “Before holding the post as Chairperson of One Kampong Gelam, I was the Vice Chairman for Chairperson Mr Saeid Labbafi at that time. My motivation has always been social responsibility. If you have a sense of political awareness and belonging, your interests are towards ensuring things are good and become better. If you only envision thoughts or ideas but don’t do anything for the community, it won’t be fruitful. I have friends in this community and decided to volunteer myself.”
Q: One Kampong Gelam aims to nurture not only traditional culture, but also contemporary culture at large. Can you share how you see the balance in the cultural juxtaposition, between traditional and contemporary?
Zaki: “When older Singaporeans refer to this place, they call it its true name – some say Kampong Gelam, Kampong Java or Kampong Bugis. At that time, people came here to buy textiles and ready-made wear. The trend was to buy the material and design the outfit yourself, that’s how we saw fashion evolve. It was also a central area for perfumes and top-notch restaurants, not in terms of fine-dining but quality of food. People returned again and again organically.
Young or budding entrepreneurs see the opportunity here and want to have some entitlement in this place. They offer new products and services that people want to try, and realise business in Kampong Gelam is promising. The old and new businesses need to continue finding opportunities to collaborate or combine for customers who come here seeking a better option. We’re proud to say whatever visitors and tourists want to find, see or try, we have it here.”
Q: What makes Kampong Gelam uniquely Singapore and enjoyed by all ages and races?
Zaki: “I always believe in diversity in everything, and Kampong Gelam is rich in diversity. The people who are inspired to come here are not a single type of person or community. We’re already in the third generation of Kampong Gelam people. Businesses who started way back are in their third generation, supported and managed by the grandchildren today. And it’s the same for visitors. Parents come here to do whatever they want to do, and their children and grandchildren continue to come here as well.
The beauty and presence of Sultan Mosque is the main draw, and also not forgetting the Malay heritage. People of all races and communities like to come here because they feel safe and happy. I won’t say it’s unique because everything is unique, but I feel people think Kampong Gelam is different. This is something that resonates with them.”
Q: Synonymous with good food and music, how has Kampong Gelam evolved through the years with its culinary and cultural experiences?
Zaki: “We undeniably can claim victory compared to all the other places in Singapore in terms of food and beverage. From pop-up, takeaway to restaurants offering fast food, fine dining and casual fare. The kind of variety and diversity of delivery this place has to offer stands out.
This place will continuously be in demand by businesses and patrons who want to have a share, belong and play a part in shaping Kampong Gelam. We used to have traditional and cultural musical events that showcase middle eastern, mediterranean and Asian cultures. This is something we are exploring more of.”
Q: From Haji Lane Block Party, Heritage Day Out to projeKGlamway, One Kampong Gelam has always brought diverse audiences and interests together. What makes these events meaningful for participants, merchants and visitors?
Zaki: “We thank our Government agencies for giving us the trust and opportunity to create these lively and meaningful experiences. Because of that, I can say we have done several past events successfully and gracefully, and why we are continuing to do so.
In our yearly calendar of events, we ensure we plan for the big celebrations, including our national events. Right now, we are looking forward to Ramadan and f1. For example, projeKGlamway is in conjunction with the Great Singapore Sale, and we use this opportunity to engage all our business owners to offer something exciting to visitors. More recently, we had a MOU signing with Lazada who showed great interest in supporting and benefiting one another from a business perspective.”
Q: Kampong Gelam holds a special place for us during Ramadan and Iftar. What can visitors look forward to this year?
Zaki: “Of course, visitors have been enquiring about Ramadan and the first thing they enquire about is if there’s a bazaar. Yes, we’re going to have a bazaar this Ramadan! It’s more than a colourful light-up ambience. It’s part of our collective cultural experience and identity.
Bazaars in Singapore are commemorative during national holidays. During the pandemic, we had nothing. Chinese New Year is held in Chinatown, and likewise for Deepavali in Little India. My hope is to have something which is going to bring the eyes and ears to Kampong Gelam.
If you’re someone who has grown up with bazaars year by year at Geylang, this year at Kampong Gelam is something to look forward to. I’m very happy we’re the icebreaker to bring it back. We thank everyone for planning it well in accordance with safety measures, and the government agencies for being extremely supportive.”
Q: Rich in history, heritage and culture, yet Kampong Gelam still serves as a blank canvas for many to paint their dreams. What is your hope for young and veteran entrepreneurs to continue the legacy?
Zaki: “Firstly, I would like to see the vanishing trades come back and have positive business prospects. Secondly, I invite more young people to come forward with new product lines in fashion, food and beverage, crafting and so forth. Come to Kampong Gelam and share your offerings.
Lastly, I would also like regular pop-up shops and performances to showcase the entrepreneurs and their businesses. Of course, it will need to have permanent road closure, all the way from Bali and Haji Lanes to Bussorah and Arab Streets. This is our collective dream to build a different and atmospheric Kampong Gelam.”
One Kampong Gelam
69 Aliwal Street