The World’s Successful Diasporas


A former king of Thailand once famously referred to the overseas Chinese as the “Jews of Asia”. But the overseas Chinese have been far more successful in their domination of many of Asia’s economies than the Jews were in Europe. So perhaps the king had it wrong: he should have said that the Jews are the overseas Chinese of Europe.

Apart from Japan and Korea, business in Asia is ethnic Chinese business. In south-east Asia, they dominate business despite forming only a small minority of the population. Approximately 6% of the combined population of the five main south-east Asian economies (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) is ethnically Chinese, but that 6% controlled around 60% of the region’s private corporate wealth at least until Asia’s economic crisis of 1997-98. This tiny minority accounts for almost all of south-east Asia’s known billionaires.

The dominance is perhaps at its most extreme in Indonesia. Three quarters of the country’s top 300 big business groups are either wholly or partly owned by Indonesian Chinese businesspeople – not a bad result for an ethnic group that comprises just 3% of the population.

About 35 million ethnic Chinese live in south-east Asia today. They are most assimilated in Thailand, where, due to a high degree of intermarriage, the precise number of Chinese is impossible to estimate, but elsewhere the degree of intermarriage has occurred only at the edges. The majority of Asia’s overseas Chinese emigrated from China comparatively recently – mostly in the 19th century and early 20th century; often their departure from China was as a result of famines or other upheavals. China has 29 provinces, but the vast majority of the overseas Chinese come from just three: Guangdong and Fujian provinces on the South China Sea in the south-east corner of China, and Hainan province, an island off the southern tip of Guangdong. China might have over a billion people, but the overseas Chinese have cultural, family and language ties with relatively few of them.

The early migrants were usually dirt poor when they first left the mother country, and over time the cumulative effects of high rates of mortality and the self-selection that migration entails, whereby those most able to succeed are the ones to leave, meant that south-east Asia soon played host to a hardened ethnic minority, well equipped at survival and very successful in business – because the best way to survive was to make money.

One of the key factors in the Chinese success was how they settled across Asia. They did not pour into a particular location, but fanned out across the region, thus ensuring that they had a ready-made network of international connections within which they could trade and raise capital. The legacy today is a web of personal connections that allows commerce to proceed on the basis of trust – and if anyone betrays the trust of another, that person is soon frozen out of trade and other business opportunities. It is a powerful enforcer.

Commerce like this does not need sound laws to function. This is why the Chinese have been so astoundingly successful in south-east Asia. For much of the last century, practically all the region was relatively lawless and this has made the networks invaluable. The Singaporean who trades with a Bangkok relative or other contact knows he will be paid. Pre-existing networks of trust mean opportunities can be exploited quickly. while their Western competitors must arrange buyers and letters of credit, losing time and opportunities.

The ability to do business in those business environments that are so rough that they are no-go areas for anyone else means that the Chinese get in on the ground floor when an economy is about to take off. It is the early bird that catches the highest margin. The overseas Chinese have been instrumental in building up the economies of Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and even Laos. They were the first investors to go back into China, using their family and ancestral links to scout out opportunities, while multinationals were still trying to find consultants who could do the same.

Dialect is important to understanding the Chinese outside China because it is a key signifier for different cultural groups under the broader umbrella of Chineseness. Mandarin is the language of northern China and is the native tongue of almost three-quarters of all Chinese who live in China, but it is the ancestral tongue of only a tiny proportion of the Chinese who live in south-east Asia – perhaps less than 5%. Because most overseas Chinese have their origins in China’s south-east, their languages are the various dialects of that part of China. However, the written form of the language is the same. In the absence of a common third language or an interpreter, someone who speaks Cantonese will be able to communicate with a Mandarin speaker by exchanging written notes.

– Hokkien is the dialect for those with origins in southern Fujian province

– Fuzhou is spoken by those from around Fuzhou city in the north-east of Fujian, Hokchia is the closely related dialect of those from the area around nearby Fuqing and Henghua is the dialect of those from the Putian area, south of Fuzhou

– Hainanese (or Qiongwen) is the language of those from Hainan province

– Cantonese is the ancestral dialect of those with origins in much of Guangdong and Hong Kong

– Teochiu (or Chiu Chow, as it is spelt in Hong Kong) is spoken by those from the Shantou area of eastern Guangdong

– Hakka (or Keh) is the language of a group of Chinese sprinkled throughout northern Guangdong, southern Fujian and further inland

Particular dialect groups tend to occupy certain business sectors: the Hokchia-speaking people, for example, were rickshaw drivers and this explains why the largest manufacturer of tyres in Indonesia today is the Gajah Tunggal Group, owned by the Hokchia Chinese Nursalim family – they started by supplying and repairing rubber tyres for rickshaws. Similarly, the medicated ointment Tiger Balm was first manufactured in the 1920s by the Hakka Chinese Aw family, who lived in Burma at the time. Historically, Hakka families ran Chinese herbalist and pharmaceutical shops.

In alertness to information such as this can help outside investors to truly understand business in south-east Asia today and how it came to be the way that it is.


Dialect From where Settled Business names
group in China
Hokkien Fujian Malaysia, Kwek family (Hong Leong
province Philippines, Group); Lucio Tan
Singapore, Myanmar (Philippines Airlines,
Fortune Tobacco)
Fuzhou Fuzhou Indonesia, Malaysia, Lim Sioe Liong (Salim
district (especially Sarawak) Group); Robert Kuok (Kuok
of Fujian Singapore Group)
Henghua Putian area Indonesia, Singapore Riady family (Lippo
of Fujian Group)
Hainanese Hainan Malaysia, Indonesia, Lamsam (Thai Farmers
island/ Singapore, Thailand Bank)
Cantonese Guangdong Malaysia (especially Gordon Wu (Hopewell
Kuala Lumpur), Holdings)
Teochiu Northern Thailand, Singapore, Chearavanont family (CP
Guangdong Malaysia, Laos, Group); Li Ka Shing
Cambodia (Hutchison Group)
Hakka Guangdong Malaysia, Indonesia, Eka Tjandranegara (Mulia
and Fujian Myanmar, Singapore Group)



The Parsi people are dying out, and yet ironically their influence on world business has never been greater. The Parsis come from India but they are not ethnically Indian: they are the descendants of the followers of the Zoroastrian sect whose members fled Muslim persecution in Persia in the eighth century. Importantly, the Parsis have achieved their power and influence without attracting envy and prejudice, largely due to a low profile and charitable works. Their religion encourages kindness to others, hard work and charity, and their Zoroastrian beliefs and a prohibition on marrying outside the community have helped to keep them cohesive.

Parsis settled first on the western Indian coast and flourished during the colonial era, when they acted as a conduit between the British rulers and the Indian population. A strong work ethic and entrepreneurial flair led them to being dubbed the Jews of India, and they rose to the top of commercial and professional fields. They established charitable foundations and housing estates, legal institutions, courts and governance, and progressed from being weavers and petty merchants to owning banks, heavy industry and shipping companies.

There are probably fewer than 140,000 Parsis worldwide and about 80,000 live in Mumbai, a city of 14 million people. Like the Jews of Europe or the Chinese of south-east Asia, the Parsis of India and Pakistan are a distinct but exceptionally successful business minority. India’s Tata Group, Bombay Dyeing & Manufacturing, Godrej Group, Shapoorji Pallonji (one of India’s biggest construction groups) and in Pakistan the Avari Group, which owns property and hotels, are all owned by Parsis.

As much as half the commercial property in Mumbai has been in Parsi hands, and probably a similar proportion in Karachi. Wander around Mumbai’s financial district and it is possible to see that many of the large, older buildings have noticeable Persian-style design features that betray the heritage of their Parsi owners. By the 19th century, Mumbai’s Parsi families dominated the city’s commercial sector. Spinning and dyeing was a Parsi activity, and financing was another. Wealth from these activities was put into property, so that by 1855 it was estimated that Parsi families owned about half of the island of Mumbai.

Parsis have also long dominated the Karachi business community, particularly in property, hotels, shipping, port development and beverages. The late Parsi businessman Eduljee Dinshaw owned so much land in Karachi that the local government is believed to have placed an informal ban on him acquiring any more. Today, the Parsi community in Pakistan numbers fewer than 6,000, but still wields enormous commercial clout. The Parsi Minwalla family established the Hotel Metropole in central Karachi in 1951 and it was opened by the Shah of Iran. The hotel remains in family hands and today the family is perhaps the most visible Parsi business family in Karachi.

The Parsis were especially prominent in business in Hong Kong. Twelve of the 62 founding members of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce were Parsis, with the remainder being British. A Parsi developed large parts of Kowloon and another Parsi founded the Star Ferry services. The privately held Ruttonjee Estates is a big commercial property company in Hong Kong, owned by the Parsi Shroff and Ruttonjee families; stalwart of the Ruttonjee family, Jehangir Ruttonjee, founded Hong Kong’s Ruttonjee Hospital. These families still maintain close links with the Parsi community in Mumbai. Today, though, there are thought to be just 200 Parsis left in Hong Kong.

Parsis have also turned up in prominent finance-related roles on the world stage – for example, Homi Kharas, the World Bank’s chief economist for the East Asia and Pacific region, and Jim Wadia, former worldwide managing partner of the now defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen.

Parsis have been influential in areas other than business: Indira Gandhi’s husband, Feroze Ghandi, was a Parsi, and they have held the positions of finance minister in Sri Lanka (Kersi Choksey) and attorney-general in India (Soli Sorabjee). Keki Dadiseth, worldwide president of Unilever’s home and personal care division and former chairman of Hindustan Lever in India, is a Parsi. Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, the best-known Indian beer produced in the UK, is another UK-based Parsi. Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock group Queen, was another famous Parsi. His real name was Farookh Bulsara and he was born in Zanzibar to a local Parsi family. World-renowned conductor Zubin Mehta is another Parsi, born in Mumbai.

Wealthy though they are as a community, Parsis are dying out. It has been estimated that 1,000 die each year in Mumbai, but only 300-400 are born. Today, one in five of Mumbai’s Parsis is aged 65 or more. In 1901, the figure was one in 50.


Tata Group is India’s best-known big business group. But the Tata family behind it are not ethnically Indian in the strictest sense: they are Parsis. The group comprises about 300 companies and 350,000 employees. It is involved in everything from automotive components to life insurance; its hotels division has 54 hotels in India and overseas. It bought Tetley Tea in 2000 for $421 million, the truck division of Daewoo for $102 million in 2004 and Europe’s Corus steel-making group for a massive $11.3 billion in 2007.

The group’s crown jewel, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), is not just India’s but Asia’s largest IT company. When TCS was floated on the Mumbai Stock Exchange in 2004, it was India’s biggest ever IPO, raising more than $1 billion for Tata Sons.

Today, Tata Sons functions as the group’s holding company. It has stakes of about 26% in most listed Tata companies, but in turn 11 Parsi charitable trusts established by the Tata family control about 63% of Tata Sons. The Tata family’s actual holding in Tata Sons is now 2%. The largest individual shareholder, with about 18%, is another Parsi billionaire businessman, Pallonji Shapoorji Mistry.


An exhibition of Indian Jain art was held at Antwerp’s Etnografisch Museum in 2000. What was curious about it was that almost every one of the 35 commercial sponsors was a diamond trading company. Why should diamond trading companies care about ancient Jain art? Because every one of those companies is owned by a Jain family.

The Jains of India have moved quickly to dominate the world diamond trade. In fact, it is estimated that eight out of every 10 diamonds sold in the world today have been handled by Indian Jains. Jain family members have fanned out across the world to corner diamond processing and handling in the traditional diamond capitals of Antwerp, London, New York, Tel Aviv and of course in India.

But who are the Jains? Jainism is a sub-sect of Hinduism that emerged in India in the sixth century, but it is more like Buddhism with its emphasis on not harming living creatures and non-violence. At least seven million Jains now live in India, largely in Mumbai, Bangalore, Gujarat, Punjab and Delhi. The accordance of equal status to all living things means that orthodox Jains can be seen in Indian streets gently sweeping the path before them lest they inadvertently tread on an insect as they proceed. It’s an outlook that many carry into business.

Jain ethical codes mean that the close dealings with government officials and the corruption and questionable practices that go with it tend to be avoided. As such dealings are unavoidable if one wants to be an industrialist in India, it means that though Jains are famous in India as canny businessmen, typically they are traders rather than industrialists.

The desire to avoid killing means that strict Jains, along with orthodox Jews, are among the world’s fussiest eaters. But if anything, the Jains are even more restricted in what they can eat. Devout Jains are extreme vegetarians: meat and fish are avoided but so too are many other foods. Such rules are exclusive and help to keep small communities intact. And that is useful if business is to proceed along ethnic lines and remain contained within dispersed ethnic networks.

The world diamond distribution and processing trade has been until recently the preserve of a small, powerful group of Hasidic Jews. It’s a trade that’s based on trust as any trade in small, high-value consignments must be, particularly if it’s across international borders. Hence, it’s a business for which families and small, cohesive ethnic groups are well suited. But gradually the Hasidic Jews are being squeezed out by Jain families. This has gone hand-in-hand with India’s rise as the world’s most important diamond processing country.

How have the Jains managed to push out the Hasidic Jews from this lucrative sector? Access to cheap diamond cutting and polishing facilities in India has been essential. But so too has been their insularity – they are possibly even more tight-knit than the Hasidim, a perfect requirement for trading in such a secretive and high-value industry.

The success of the Jains in out-competing the Hasidim has been such that they now dominate the trade even in Tel Aviv. Rough gems are imported by Jain-owned firms in Mumbai from Jain dealers in Antwerp, London, New York and Tel Aviv, from where they are taken to Jain-owned cutting and polishing factories in the northern Indian state of Gujarat. Then they are sent back to Mumbai and re-exported to gem centres around the world.

About 80% of India’s diamond-processing work is done in Gujarat and more than half of it in and around the port city of Surat, where there are an estimated 10,000 diamond-processing businesses. The processing is contracted out to thousands of small family-owned Jain workshops. Labour costs are low and many gem-quality diamonds are cut and polished for as little as a dollar a piece.

Many of the overseas Jains involved in the diamond trade are from Palanpur, a town on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. With such a specific ancestry, many share the same surname, and so it is common to find diamond traders from London to Israel with the surname of Mehta. Among the biggest Jain-owned diamond companies today is Arjav Diamonds, a De Beers’ ‘sightholder’ (one of approximately 120 exclusive De Beers’ contractors that purchase rough diamonds). It’s owned by the Mehta family and has offices in Mumbai, Antwerp and Tel Aviv.

The Gembel Group is one of Belgium’s more prominent diamond cutters and exporters. Based in Antwerp, it was founded in 1956 by Kirtilal Manilal Mehta, an Indian-born Jain. B Vijaykumar is India’s largest importer of rough diamonds and was founded by Jain businessman Vijay Shah. The company has cutting and polishing factories in Bangkok, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Surat and Palanpur.


The UK’s Indians make an enormous contribution to the country’s economy. The London-based Institute of Asian Professionals claimed in 2006 that Britons with south Asian roots generate £103 billion annually for the UK economy. They make up 2.5% of the population, says the institute, but account for at least 10% of national output. Many, and probably most, convenience stores across the UK are owned and run by Indian families. But what’s less recognised is that many of the successful Indian businesspeople in the UK are not from India but from Africa, particularly Uganda and Kenya.

Dictator Idi Amin expelled most of Uganda’s Indians in 1972. They had just 90 days to leave, and many were forced on to planes, often with nothing but the clothes they wore. Many had British passports and in any event India had refused to accept them. At the time Uganda had about 80,000 Indians; today there are about 15,000. The instability of Kenya in the 1960s and early 1970s meant many Indians were unable to acquire work permits, leading to another exodus.

What was the reason for these expulsions and restrictions? Because the Indians in East Africa had come to dominate the economies in which they lived in the same way that the ethnic Chinese do in south-east Asia today. Manubhai Madhvani and his family arrived in Britain from Uganda in 1972. The family controlled about 12% of Uganda’s national economy, including most of the sugar sector. Madhvani has remained in London, but other family members have returned to Uganda where they once more control a huge swathe of the economy. The family’s wealth is now thought to be about $600 million.

Madhvani and other African-born Indians like him form a diaspora within a diaspora, a curious subset with double minority status that probably accounts for their success. Migrant minority status often leads to disproportionate commercial success, but to be a minority within a minority heightens the need to succeed. In addition, most were forced from East Africa with nothing other than what they could carry. This sort of catastrophic loss of physical assets teaches people to store their wealth in forms not easily taken from them, is readily portable and not easily destroyed in conflict. Education or human capital is the most accessible type of wealth that fits this bill. So East African Indians studied hard in the UK, building up a form of wealth that will always be with them.

Furthermore, with family connections that stretch to Africa and India, they have ample cross-border networks through which international trade and information on business opportunities can flow. These connections have become more valuable in recent years as more business-friendly regimes have been installed in East Africa.

The Jatania family emigrated to London from Uganda in 1969 and made a fortune by acquiring poorly performing consumer brands and turning them around. The Sunday Times in its annual rich list put the family’s wealth at $1.6 billion in 2006. The Tejani family came from Uganda in 1972 with almost nothing. Today, it owns the LPC Group, the UK’s leading independent toilet tissue producer; based in Leicester, it employs almost 1,000 people. The family is now worth about $195 million. Hitesh Bodani, another Indian born in Uganda, founded MB International Holdings, a medical supplies company. The family is now worth some $377 million.

Bhikhu and Vijay Patel from Kenya founded Waymade Healthcare, an Essex-based drug manufacturer, and have made a $867 million fortune. Bharat Shah, another Kenyan-born Indian, built Sigma Pharmaceuticals from a single neighbourhood pharmacy in Watford. Today it holds licences to produce more than 100 generic drugs, which has helped to net him a personal worth of $156 million. Jasminder Singh made his $684 million fortune from hotels: his family owns the Radisson Edwardian hotel chain, which includes 12 hotels in London.


Some of the world’s richest men have Lebanese backgrounds and, surprisingly, many of the big business families of Latin America and West Africa are Lebanese. As a group, it has parallels with the overseas Chinese and other entrepreneurial migrant minorities that have been aided in their success by cross-border family networks. Their success in business, politics and entertainment, particularly in south and central America and Africa, is all the more surprising given Lebanon’s tiny population of just 3.8 million.

Frequent civil war and military confrontation faced by Lebanon have both contributed to the dispersal of Lebanese around the world and presented the Lebanese diaspora with commercial opportunities. Aid money and loans are used to rebuild Lebanon, but the diaspora is also an important source of funds. Indeed, after the recent conflict between Israel and the Islamic Hezbollah organisation, which operates from inside Lebanon, the Lebanese government appealed to overseas Lebanese to resume their investment in Lebanon and provided new tax incentives to encourage such investment.

Many if not most overseas Lebanese are Christians and most of their investment focus is on Beirut. But for the minority of overseas Muslim Lebanese, much of their investment goes to southern areas, some of which remain under Hezbollah control. Indeed, overseas Muslim Lebanese in West Africa and the US have been an important funding source for Hezbollah. Some of the funds have come from illegitimate means such as diamond smuggling and the counterfeit goods trade. The US authorities have broken up smuggling networks comprising US nationals with Lebanese-Muslim ancestry and trading in pirated goods to raise funds for Hezbollah.

One of the reasons for the cohesiveness of the Lebanese diaspora, particularly in the Americas, arises from the fact that most are Christian. As such, they formed a minority in Lebanon and the pressure they faced because of their minority status helped to facilitate their commercial success. In this regard, most Christian Lebanese arrived in other countries already possessing the political and commercial skills of a minority. This is one reason why so many ethnic Lebanese have been so successful in politics outside Lebanon.

Wall Street has some big hitters with Lebanese backgrounds, including John Mack, CEO and chairman of Morgan Stanley; Paul Orfalea, founder of US copying and printing chain Kinko; Roger Farah, former CEO of Footlocker and now president of Polo Ralph Lauren; and Ray Irani, CEO of Occidental Petroleum. In Latin America, Carlos Menem, former president of Argentina, is ethnically Lebanese, as are Jamil Mahuad and Abdala Bucaram Ortiz, two recent presidents of Ecuador, and Tarek Halabi, leader of the political party founded by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Forbes puts Lebanese-Mexican Carlos Slim’s wealth at $24 billion, making him the richest man in Latin America and the fourth richest in the world. He acquired Telmex, Mexico’s main telecoms company when it was privatised in the 1990s, and now controls other telecoms companies in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Alfredo Helu is another billionaire Lebanese Mexican. He was a co-owner of Banamex, the biggest bank in Latin America, before it was acquired by Citigroup; he also owns Avantel, Mexico’s second largest telecoms company.

In Brazil, the nut industry is almost entirely in the hands of various offshoots of the Syrian-Lebanese Mutran family. Like many other overseas Lebanese, Carlos Ghosn grew up in Brazil. Today, Ghosn is CEO of Renault and Nissan Motors and on the boards of Alcoa, IBM and Sony.

Some expatriate Lebanese have Jewish ancestry. The banker Edmond Safra, who by the 1990s had amassed a $2.5 billion fortune, fled anti-Jewish riots in Beirut in 1949 with his parents. They moved to Italy and then to Brazil in 1952, where they took up Brazilian citizenship. Safra controlled his banking empire from Monaco, where he died in 1999.

In West Africa, the local Lebanese dominate the commercial sectors of Sierra Leone, Senegal, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. In 2005, four diamond companies accounted for 90% of the $142 million trade in diamonds legally exported from Sierra Leone. All four are owned by local Lebanese families.


Arab traders have long operated in south-east Asia, trading in spices, timber and textiles. But an important trading minority in the region that goes largely unrecognised comprises the local descendants of Arabs. This minority is more specific than simply coming under the rubric of ‘Arab’; most of the prominent Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans of Arab descent have their origins in southern Yemen in the Hadramawt coastal region. They are the Hadramis.

As many as 4 million Indonesians are of Hadrami descent and today there are almost 10,000 Hadramis in Singapore. The Alkaff, Alsagoff and Aljunied families settled in Singapore in the 19th century and acquired most of the land in what is now Singapore’s central business district. Several prominent south-east Asian politicians are Hadramis, including Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s foreign minister under President Soeharto, Alwi Shihab, foreign minister under President Abdurrahman Wahid, and Syed Hamid Albar, appointed Malaysia’s foreign minister in 1999 and whose father was a founding member of Malaysia’s ruling party, UMNO. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, who was appointed the governor of Malaysia’s central bank, Bank Negara in 2000, is half Hadrami; her mother was an Alsagoff.

Another prominent Hadrami family has attained worldwide fame due to the activities of one of its members: the bin Laden family. Terrorist Osama bin Laden’s father was a Hadrami who emigrated to Saudi Arabia from Yemen in the 1920s. Indeed, the original core of the Al Qaeda terrorist network had Hadrami origins. International terrorism, like international trade, works best if the participants are cohesive, numerically not too large and are dispersed across borders.

Yemen unwittingly has played a significant role in international terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US are believed to have come from Saudi Arabia and six were from Saudi Arabia’s Asir Province, which borders Yemen. Asir was under the control of Yemen until its incorporation into Saudi Arabia in 1934; several tribes in the region still refuse to accept this. Islamic extremists in Indonesia, such as Abu Bakar Bashir, head of Jemaah Islamiyah, Jafar Umar Thalib, head of Laskar Jihad, and Habib Hussein Habsy of the Indonesian Muslim Brotherhood, are all Hadramis, descended from southern Yemen.

Arabia and south-east Asia have connections that go back hundreds of years; Arab traders had settled in the Indonesian archipelago by the seventh century. When Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, he earmarked a considerable part of the new settlement as an Arab district. They came not directly from the Middle East, but from the Indonesian archipelago where they had settled first to trade in spices. Singapore’s three big Hadrami-Arab families – the Aljunieds, the Alsagoffs and the Alkaffs – all arrived in this manner. Between them, they controlled the Mecca pilgrimage traffic and much of the inter-archipelago ship trade by the turn of the 20th century.

Much of the Arabs’ land holdings were transferred into wakafs, charitable trusts, and ultimately, via these wakafs, Arab families owned almost all the land that is Singapore’s central business district today. However, their hold over such valuable land ended in the 1970s when much of it was compulsorily acquired by the government with little compensation. Most of the property owned by the wakafs today comprises three or four level shops and houses. Many are dilapidated or ready for development, their upkeep hampered by decades of rent controls that were lifted only in 2001.

The Alkaff, Alsagoff and Aljunied are common family names among Singapore’s Islamic community today. Faisal Alsagoff is the president of Horizon Education and Technologies, a company listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, for example. But the most important businessman in south-east Asia today with Hadrami ancestry is Malaysia’s Syed Mokhtar Albukhary. He is one of that country’s leading businessmen and controls many companies on the local stock exchange, the most important of which is the Malaysian Mining Corporation (MMC).

Albukhary actively courts international business links with other Islamic entrepreneurs, the most notable example being a 50:50 joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s Binladen Group to build a $30 billion Jizan Economic City in Saudi Arabia, thus bringing together two groups that not only have Islamic ancestry but Hadrami too.


What makes Singapore different? The majority of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese, but Singapore is largely free of corruption, has sound institutions and the rule of law dominates. It’s nothing like China. The answer lies in a historical division in Singapore’s Chinese community between the babas and the sinkeh. The sinkeh, comprising the majority of the city-state’s population, were the recent immigrants from China, or whose parents were born in China. They spoke Chinese, lived like Chinese and considered themselves overseas Chinese. In Indonesia, such Chinese were called the totok.

The babas, on the other hand, also known as Straits Chinese, were Chinese more in name than practice. They were the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants (Hokkiens from the Fujian province) to the straits settlements of Malaya (Penang, Singapore and Malacca). They assimilated with both the local Malays and the colonising British, whom they especially admired. The babas developed their own culture, cuisine and language – Malay liberally sprinkled with Hokkien.

The sinkeh were the traders, the coolies and the shophouse owners. The babas became the lawyers, the civil servants and the politicians; they attended the local English-language schools run in the tradition of the UK’s public schools, and Oxford and Cambridge. If the sinkeh received an overseas education at all, it was in Nanking or another university in China. Although the sinkeh dominated Singapore’s population, it was the babas who dominated public decision-making. In effect, a baba minority captured sinkeh Singapore, and that minority’s attitudes were more those of Victorian England than China.

It was the babas who were the framers of Singapore’s rules and institutions. Many of Singapore’s most prominent Chinese have had baba backgrounds. Lee Kuan Yew, who became prime minister of Singapore aged just 35, is the most obvious example. He claims a Hakka heritage, although his upbringing was that of a baba: at home, he spoke English with his parents and baba Malay to his grandparents. “Mandarin was totally alien to me and unconnected with my life,” Lee said of his childhood.

For Lee, Chineseness was an acquired skill and later a political necessity. He was not brought up as a Chinese with a focus on China, but as a baba who looked to England. He followed the conventional career path of a baba and went to London to study law. And so Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore became Harry Lee of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. His father had given him and two of his brothers English, as well as Chinese, names. Did Lee run Singapore as a piece of Asia mired in Chinese ways? No. He ran it in a manner to which a British colonial administrator would have aspired.

That other great framer of Singapore’s institutions, Goh Keng Swee, who rose to become finance minister and deputy prime minister, is the epitome of the baba elite. Goh was born in 1918 in Malacca, the epicentre of baba culture, into a baba family. His parents were English-oriented Chinese Methodists.

The baba influence is now more subtle, but still there. Singapore’s current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has the strongest baba pedigree of any of the country’s leaders.