38 years on, Muslim surau in Singapore’s Ghim Moh finds online fame

While many Singaporeans who watched the video thought it was a novelty, the surau has been there for 38 years, thanks to the concerted efforts from residents in the estate. — Picture courtesy of Our Musollah/Facebook
While many Singaporeans who watched the video thought it was a novelty, the surau has been there for 38 years, thanks to the concerted efforts from residents in the estate. — Picture courtesy of Our Musollah/Facebook

SINGAPORE, July 30 — A surau, or Muslim prayer hall, at the void deck of Block 2, Ghim Moh Road, recently caught the Internet’s attention when a video of it went viral. 

But while many Singaporeans who watched the video thought it was a novelty, the surau has been there for 38 years, thanks to the concerted efforts from residents in the estate.

Through the decades, the surau, about the size of a three-room flat, has served as a prayer space for Muslims and a resting area for anyone at any time of the day.

Recently a video taken by a visitor and posted on Facebook garnered over 143,000 views and 4,100 shares.

“For years, many people have come to me and asked: ‘Surau at the void deck. Town council let, ah?’” said the surau’s caretaker, retiree Ahmad Basar, 78.

“I will tell them to go check the notice board at the surau where I hung memos from the Government, who gave us permission to occupy the space,” he added.

The surau had its beginnings in 1981 to cater to the 500 Muslim families who had been resettled into Housing and Development Board flats in the area when their villages were torn down for redevelopment.

Former Member of Parliament (MP) Abbas Abu Amin, who was the interim MP for the constituency at that time, told TODAY that there were overwhelming requests for such a prayer space from Muslims in the neighbourhood, as more than 100 of them are elderly and the nearest mosque was 45 minutes away by bus.

Abbas said he and former Cabinet minister Ahmad Mattar thus championed the idea of setting up a surau at the void deck of one of the blocks. 

They faced some pushback from authorities who were concerned that a space of worship would make the communal area less inclusive, but eventually won them over, he said.

“Surau Ghim Moh was a special case. It was the only one in Singapore that was allowed to be set up at a void deck because of the circumstances the residents in the area faced,” he said.

“This is a good representation of how strong ties forged in a community can bring about years of harmony.”

Ahmad Basar, who has dedicated half his life to taking care of the surau, and his wife Sofipiaton Hj Tayib, 73. — Picture by Nabilah Awang via TODAY
Ahmad Basar, who has dedicated half his life to taking care of the surau, and his wife Sofipiaton Hj Tayib, 73. — Picture by Nabilah Awang via TODAY

MP of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher De Souza agreed, saying that the residents who frequent the surau have played a central role in community events. 

Most recently during Ramadan a few months ago, the Singapore Buddhist Lodge donated rice, which was then made into porridge at Al Huda Mosque in Bukit Timah before being distributed to Ghim Moh residents by volunteers from the Church of St Ignatius.

“This shows how the surau community is part of community life in Ghim Moh and how such a continuing partnership is meaningful for residents. I would want the partnership to continue,” said De Souza.

Chia Ah Hua, 66, who lives in the block just opposite the surau, said that he has made many friends from the residents who frequent it.

“Most of the time, I don’t even realise that people are praying or resting there because they are very quiet. I can only hear them when it’s fasting month and they pray at about 8pm, just like I can hear the Chinese gong going ‘dung dung cheng’ during Chinese New Year,” added the retiree.

Another resident, who wants to be known only as Gunalan, said he would rather the void deck be put to good use than lie vacant.

“Rather than having young people ‘lepak’ (hang out) there in groups, might as well use the space (for people) to pray or rest,” the 71-year-old retiree said.

Basar said the key to maintaining harmony in the estate while running a prayer space is to be mindful of neighbours and keep communication lines open.

“We tell our neighbours in advance when we are going to have events. Sometimes it’s by word of mouth, other times we put up notices,” he said.

Over the years, the surau has been upgraded. 

“We started out using canvas and cardboard to pray on. Now we have walls, fans and lights. We are very fortunate,” said Basar.

With the town council’s approval, the surau has also installed rolling blinds and a space for ablutions.

But Basar, who has dedicated half his life to taking care of the surau, said that due to the gradual decline in the number of Muslim residents in the area, there are challenges in maintaining the space, such as a lack of funds.

He said that in the early 80s, the residents collectively paid S$50 (RM150) a month for rent and S$1 a month for utilities. Now they no longer pay for rent, only utilities that cost between S$45 and S$50 a month, Mr Basar noted. 

Aside from the necessities, money collected from residents and visitors at the surau is used to fund religious activities, gatherings and the maintenance of the space.

The surau’s role is just as important now as it was when it first began, Basar said, noting that since Kampong Holland mosque was shut down, the nearest mosques to Ghim Moh are about half an hour away by public transport.

“This place is not just for the residents of this area. It’s also for the taxi drivers, delivery riders and the passersby who want to pray or rest. It’s for everyone in our community, no matter what race or religion they are,” he added. — TODAY

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