After the British East India Company established Singapore as a trading post in 1819, various trading communities began to arrive and settle on the island, one of which was the Jewish community. Although there was only a handful of them in Singapore in the early 1830s, by 1858, the population grew to almost 20 Jewish families. Known as the Sephardi or Oriental Jews, most of them were born in India and had their ancestries traced back to Baghdad.
Another group of Jews – the Ashkenasi Jews – arrived much later and were from Germany and other parts of Europe. Largely engaged in trading and the merchandise businesses, they associated with the Europeans regularly and distanced themselves from the locals and even the Sephardi Jews in Singapore.
The early Jewish settlers lived at Boat Quay, moving later to North Bridge Road, Dhoby Ghaut, Mount Sophia and the Rochor vicinity. Their numbers gradually grew – by the Second World War, there were more than 800 Jews in Singapore. During the war, Nazi Germany requested Japan, under the Axis alliance, to kill all the Jews within its boundary. The Japanese did not carry out the genocide, but the Jews were nevertheless brutalised and suffered like other races in Singapore. Many of them were rounded up and imprisoned at the Changi Gaol and Sime Road Camp.
The early Jews had built their own cemetery in Singapore in the mid-19th century. It was located behind the Fort Canning, and was known as the Old Cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was later moved to the Moulmein area, near the junction of Thomson Road and Newton Road, and contained mostly the burials of the Jews that died between 1904 and 1973. Together with another Jewish cemetery at Orchard Road, it was exhumed and cleared by 1985 due to the construction of the new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations.
A Jewish house of worship is called a synagogue. There are two synagogues in Singapore – the Maghain Aboth Synagogue and Chesed-El Synagogue – both are of significant historical values.
Maghain Aboth Synagogue
The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – its name means “Shield of our Fathers” – is the oldest synagogue in Singapore as well as Southeast Asia. The building was built in 1878, but its history went back to almost 1841, when the British colonial government granted the Jewish community a plot of land to built a double-storey shophouse that functioned as their synagogue. The street where the synagogue stood was later named Synagogue Street.
By the 1870s, there was a need for a larger synagogue to accommodate the growing local Jewish community. Wealthy Jewish businessman and community leader Sir Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930) pushed for the acquisition of a piece of land at Waterloo Street to be used for the construction of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. The old synagogue was subsequently sold and demolished after the Second World War.
In 1978, during Maghain Aboth Synagogue’s 100th anniversary celebrations, David Saul Marshall (1908-1995), Singapore’s first Chief Minister, addressed the community at the synagogue as a Jewish elder and unveiled the seven-branched candle stand menorah, a symbol of Judaism. The synagogue was also visited by former Israeli President Chaim Herzog in late 1986 when he stopped over for a three-day trip at Singapore.
On 27 February 1998, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was gazetted as one of Singapore’s national monuments.
Meaning “bountiful mercy and goodness of God”, the Chesed-El Synagogue was built in 1905, initially as a private synagogue, by Sir Manasseh Meyer, who was increasingly bothered by the differences, especially in the ritual and service matters, between the local Jews of Asian and European backgrounds.
Designed in late-Renaissance style, the synagogue was situated near Meyer’s residence Belle Vue at Oxley Rise. During the Second World War, the building was taken over by the Japanese military to be used as a storage for ammunition and other goods. The synagogue was opened up after the war for the local Jewish community. Like the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, the Chesed-El Synagogue was also gazetted, on 18 December 1998, as a national monument.
Other than the two synagogues, there are also several buildings that represent the influences and legacies of the Jewish pioneers in early Singapore.
David Elias Building
One of the best known Jewish-influenced landmarks in Singapore is the David Elias Building, located at the junction shared between Middle Road, Selegie Road and Short Street. The three-storey building was built in 1928 and was named after its owner David Elias, who had set up a trading company in Singapore in the early 20th century.
Architectural firm Swan & Maclaren was the designer behind the building, which featured extensively the neo-classical style made popular in the 1920s. Its most eye-catching feature is the pitched roof with a concrete frontage inscribed with a six-pointed Star of David, the name “David Elias Building” and “1928”, the year of its completion.
The David Elias Building was given the conservation status on 28 October 1994.
The Ellison Building is another landmark in the Rochor vicinity that was built and owned by a Jewish. The construction of the double-storey building, with its prominent curved facade and two semi-circular domes, was completed in 1924 and belonged to Issac Ellison’s (1864-1928), a wealthy local Jewish businessman and community leader.
It was said that during the pre-independence days, the British governors would sit at the building’s upper balconies, during the Sundays, to watch races that were held at the opposite Race Course Road.
The Ellison family owned the building until 1989, when they sold it to a private developer. In 2003, the building was gazetted for conservation, as part of the Mount Sophia Conservation Area project. It, however, came into the spotlight in 2016 when the government announced that parts of the building will be demolished, to make way for the new underground North-South Corridor, and reconstructed.
Like the David Elias Building, the Ellison Building also has its name, year of construction and a Star of David embossed on its roof.
Other notable houses in Singapore that were built and owned by the early Jews are former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s residence at Oxley Road, built by a Jewish merchant in the late 19th century, and the Beaulieu House located at the end of Sembawang Road. The Beaulieu House was said to be built in the 1910s by a Jewish family who used it as a holiday bungalow. It was acquired by the British government in 1924 when the Sembawang Naval Base was constructed, and was subsequently occupied by a British superintending civil engineer and naval admirals.
Several roads in Singapore were also named after the early Jewish community leaders, prominent businessmen and philanthropists who had contributed much to the society.
Meyer Road was named after the above-mentioned Sir Manasseh Meyer. Others are Adis Road, Elias Road and Solomon Street, named after Nissim Adis (1857-1927), Joseph Aaron Elias (1881-1949) and Abraham Solomon (1798-1884) respectively. In addition, Amber Road was named after Joseph Elias’ family clan name.
Frankel Estate was named after the Frankel family, who owned large plots of coconut palm plantations at the vicinity in the early 20th century. Dealing in textile and furniture businesses as well, they also contributed to the development of the neighbouring Opera Estate.
In 1923, the Jewish community living at Frankel and Opera estates were visited by famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein, who was also a distinguished guest at Sir Menasseh Meyer’s grand Belle Vue a year earlier.
Other Jews pioneers who had stamped their legacies in Singapore include Abdullah Salleh Shooker (1849-1942), a Baghdadi Jewish businessman who started by working for Sir Manasseh Meyer. He later became successful himself but died in captivity during the Japanese Occupation. After his death, part of Abdullah Shooker’s estate were donated to take care of the poor and sick Jews in Singapore, Palestine and Baghdad, while his colonial bungalow at Wilkie Road became a welfare home.
Jacob Ballas (1921-2000), a successful stockbroker, philanthropist and Jewish leader, was another well-known Jew in Singapore. Born in Iraq, he and his family moved to Labuan, North Borneo, before settling in Singapore in the 1920s. Despite being a brilliant student, Jacob Ballas could not afford his further studies after secondary education. A young Jacob Ballas became a car salesman and insurance agent before finding success in the stock exchange after the war.
By the sixties, he became a millionaire and was appointed the chairman of the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange. Jacob Ballas had been an active philanthropist, donating generously to the community and synagogues. After his death, his estate and assets benefacted many charities in Singapore. The Jacob Ballas Centre and Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens are named after him.
Published: 26 March 2017
Updated: 03 April 2017