Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Singaporean mother’s letter to her daughter on her 21st birthday

Mariam Aljunied

October 3, 2017

This is a letter from chartered psychologist Mariam Aljunied to her daughter Sara when she turned 21 this year, in which Dr Mariam Aljunied spoke about their family history dating back to the year Singapore was founded in 1819 and what it means to be a Singaporean growing up today.

Dr Mariam Aljunied’s great-great-great-grandfather, Syed Omar Ali Aljunied, built Singapore’s first mosque - Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka - in 1820 and also donated the land on which St Andrew’s Cathedral now stands to Sir Stamford Raffles.

Dear Sara,

You’ve been a blessing and a gift to both me and your dad. Your late Habib (granddad) once reminded me that the two things we must bequeath to our children are “roots to stay anchored, and wings to fly”. I’ve never forgotten this message. So in this significant year, your 21st, I want to share with you some things that I hope you too will never forget. These are messages that I’ve learnt in my lifetime: messages from the past, present and future; and messages that are forever.


Sara, you’re a sixth generation of Aljunied in Singapore. In 1819, the same year that Raffles arrived in Singapore, your ancestor Sheikh Omar Aljunied came to Singapore from Tarim in Yemen, via Palembang.

He was a merchant, a trader and a philanthropist. His contribution as one of the founders of modern Singapore and his legacies to the nation are well documented in the National Archives and Museum. There are two things in particular about Habib Omar’s legacies that we should never forget:

Habib Omar came to Singapore with his wife, Sharifah Alwiyah Alkaff.

They had five sons and two daughters. All of his children were born in Singapore. Clearly, Habib Omar was not looking for ‘hotel Singapore’; he was finding a place to make a home for his children and his children’s children.

He was neither a refugee nor a runaway; he did not come to Singapore because of despair or desperation. He chose to come here to pursue a shared dream: the collective belief that this place was special, and could become even more special in the future.

For the next 200 years, when things were good, this dream was the driving force that spurred Habib Omar and other pioneers like him to reach for new successes. When things were bad, it was this belief that propelled them to persevere and fight-on.

Never forget that you and I are inheritors of this inspiration that they shared.

Habib Omar’s journey to Singapore was also an act of faith. He was deeply religious and believed that Allah’s Rahmah (love) and compassion was for all humanity.

Today, one of his legacies, the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, stands as the oldest and first mosque in Singapore.

Soon after Masjid Omar was built in 1824, Habib donated a plot of his land to the Anglican community, so that they too could built their place of worship there.

Today, St Andrews Cathedral stands as a beautiful testimony to the fundamental belief that “if God is important to you, God is important to everyone else, too”. Never forget this simple truth.


While we recognise and acknowledge where we came from, we must never forget where our roots are currently planted.

You and I have a historical link to Tarim and the Middle East, but emotionally, our connections are here. It is the people that we interact with daily - our families, friends, neighbours and community - that become ‘our people’; they are our Tribe.

It is with this Tribe that we share our everyday concerns and hopes for the future. An invisible thread joins our collective consciousness.

Our Tribal Tapestry is special; its colours expand as we embrace anyone and everyone who shares the same collective dream. This is how it has been for the past 200 years.

Never forget that we need to always strengthen this invisible thread. The stronger it is, the thicker and richer the Tapestry we can create for our Tribe.

I remember well the first time I brought you to the National Day Parade. You were 5 years old, and we got tickets for our neighbour Eline and her mum, too. You and Eline had been best friends since you first met each other during the playgroup session at the Sims Drive void-deck centre.

You became inseparable, and we enrolled you in the same preschool. You and Eline thoroughly enjoyed Singapore’s birthday celebration, and were dancing and singing loudly throughout the parade. That day, you asked me a curious question: “Mama, Singapore was born today, right? Who is Singapore’s mum and dad?”

Let me attempt to answer that question again.

Singapore does not have a mum or dad.

Singapore is unique, because we are simply born out of an idea. When we became independent in 1965, there was no invasion, mutiny or civil war.

Our birth was driven by the ferocity of an idea. The idea that different people can live side-by-side and pursue their dreams together, without any one group being given special privileges over another, and at the same time, with everyone being given equal opportunity.

52 years ago, enough people believed in this collective dream to make it come alive. 52 years on, we are still pursuing this idea. Never forget that it is our shared responsibility and collective actions that can make this ideal become a reality for all of us. It is always work in progress.


At 21 years old, you are on the cusp of many exciting adventures in your life. Many of the pathways the future holds are ones which you have yet to even dream about. In navigating your future, I want to share one tip that I learned from someone much older than me.

A few months ago, while I was taking a group of students with physical impairment to learn dragon-boat racing at Bedok Reservoir, I met Mrs Lim, an 85 year old lady.

She was one of a group of seniors in wheelchairs at the same session. As we were taught to paddle, Mrs Lim began singing. Her enthusiasm and exuberance were so infectious that soon we all joined her and became a ‘singing dragon-boat’.

Later, I quietly asked Mrs Lim, what was her secret? How did she maintain such vibrant vigour and positive energy?

Mrs Lim smiled and whispered, “The secret is… to always do the things that makes you feel most alive”. Over the years, Mrs Lim had taken on the jobs of a baker, a kitchen hand and a sales assistant. Regardless of the role she held, she took any opportunity to sing, because for her, singing was what made her feel most alive.

Happy 21st birthday Sara. Never forget to do the things that make you feel most alive.


Dr Mariam Aljunied is a chartered psychologist with more than 20 years experience working with schools, children with special needs and their families. She has a daughter, Sara, who turned 21 this year, for whom this letter is dedicated to. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book 2017, a collection of 52 essays that examines challenges and opportunities for Singapore with the theme “What Should We Never Forget?”

No comments: