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Baghdadi Trade Diaspora: Jews in Singapore

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  • Frederick Jacob Isaac (1917 - 2001)
    Yhartzeit is 14 Tishrie 5762
  • Joshua Raphael Joshua (deceased) Manasseh Meyer (Sir) (b. 1846, Baghdad, Iraq - d. 1 July 1930, Singapore) was a pioneer Jewish businessman who was responsible for the building of Maghain Aboth Synagogue at Waterloo St...
  • Jacob Manasseh Meyer, (twin of Isaac) (1890 - 1934) Manasseh Meyer (Sir) (b. 1846, Baghdad, Iraq - d. 1 July 1930, Singapore) was a pioneer Jewish businessman who was responsible for the building of Maghain Aboth Synagogue at Waterlo...
  • Reuben Manasseh Meyer (b. - 1951) Manasseh Meyer (Sir) (b. 1846, Baghdad, Iraq - d. 1 July 1930, Singapore) was a pioneer Jewish businessman who was responsible for the building of Maghain Aboth Synagogue at Waterloo St...
  • Rachel Meyer (deceased) Manasseh Meyer (Sir) (b. 1846, Baghdad, Iraq - d. 1 July 1930, Singapore) was a pioneer Jewish businessman who was responsible for the building of Maghain Aboth Synagogue at Waterloo St...

Jewish communities in India : the path to Singapore

The Jewish Traders created a very strong community in a place that had absolutely no Jewish life at all. They were Judeo/Arabic speaking immigrants dressed in long exotic robes who traced their roots back to Baghdad.

In 1608 Britain’s East India Company expanded into and founded its first successful trading company in Surat, north of Bombay on the coast of India. Jewish traders, still adhering to their religious rituals and rites of faith, arrived in Bombay by the end of 1600’s and migrated to Singapore soon after the Sultan of Johore permitted the English businessman Sir Stamford Raffles and the East Indian Company to establish a trading post on its shores.

  • At the time, Singapore was a small, swampy fishing village on the Malay Peninsula. Nevertheless, with grand prospects ahead, several Jewish traders from Baghdad migrated to Singapore and established the highly successful trade center Change Alley.

Fleeing persecution by the new Ottoman ruler, Daud Pasha, a second wave of merchants arrived in Bombay in between 1820’s and 1830’s. The earliest Jewish traders to live in Singapore came from the Baghdadi community in Calcutta which was administered by the British East India Company, in addition to Singapore as well as the Malay outposts of Malacca and Penang.

In 1826 the company designated Singapore the capital of the three settlements. This helped to stimulate a lively trade between Calcutta and Singapore, with Baghdadi traders moving to Singapore to take advantage of the opportunities. It was where they would eventually form a Jewish Community.

This migration of Jews from the Baghdadi community in the 18th and 19th century was known as the Baghdadi Trade Diaspora.

The birth of Jewish Singapore

The Singapore Jewish community dates back more than 100 years when the famous Sephardi Sassoon family – fabulously wealthy merchants of Iraqi origin who had amassed a fortune in the Indian subcontinent of the British Empire, opened offices in Singapore, which was a strategic linchpin of the empire’s Commercial network in Asia.

David Sassoon came from a long line of nasis, (leaders of the exiles). Sassoon, trading in spices, cotton and particularly in the opium trade had monopolised the trade from India to China and brought hundreds of Baghdadi Jews to Bombay as his company’s employees. His astonishing acts of philanthropy had a marked impact on Jewish families throughout the Diaspora, including Singapore. The Jewish population soon increased. Eze Nathan, another early arrival, was the country’s first historian.

While mostly Sephardim, the growing Jewish population, searching for religious freedom and business opportunity, now also included Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. Some went first to Malaysia and then to Singapore as Malaysia did not offer the freedom or economic opportunity they had sought.

  • Singapore is situated on a natural harbour at the tip of the Malay Peninsula and astride the busy Malaccan Straits. As the country grew so did its tight-knit Jewish community, which had established a small synagogue on the edge of today’s Chinatown. That building was long abandoned as a house of worship, and its presence is commemorated today by the name Synagogue Street.
  • The Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built on Waterloo Street in 1878. To this day it is the city’s central synagogue with adjoining mikve, located in the heart of downtown Singapore. With a Jewish population in excess of 1500, the city needed two Synagogues; and even though a smattering of Ashkenazi’s had joined the ranks of the community, both synagogues adhered strictly to their Baghdad religious rituals.

It 1905 it was joined by the slightly grander Chesed El Synagogue, built privately by Sir Manasseh Meyer.

Supposedly the richest Jew in Asia, Meyer contributed funds to build the synagogue. He had arrived in Singapore at the age of 15, poor but ambitious and owned nearly half of Singapore’s property. His wealth grew from real estate and from trading opium, which was legal under British rule.

  • He was knighted by the Queen for raising the cultural level of the city.
  • An argument with a fellow member of the synagogue led Manasseh Meyer to build his own private synagogue, Chesed El, in 1905 a magnificent structure that was erected on the grounds of his own private residence.
  • When the Chesed El Synagogue was built, there were roughly 500 Jews in Singapore. The community numbered close to 600 Jews in 1911, and 832 Jews in 1931.

The 1931 census also indicated that there was a significant Arab population as well, which together with the Jews, were the largest property owners in the city. The trickling of Jews from Singapore came to a head during the period of unrest in 1965, at the time of Singapore’s expulsion from the Malaysia Federation and subsequent independence.

There was a time of uncertainty about the nation’s dubious future. However, as Asia’s economic prowess began to manifest itself, the dwindling numbers of the Jewish population stabilisted.

After World War II

In 1939, on the eve of World War II there were 1,000 Jews living in Singapore most of whom were interned by the Japanese during the war. They were forced to wear armbands with Jew inscribed on them. The Nazi-allied Japanese conquerors rounded up and imprisoned Jews in horrifying conditions, many dying of illness brought about by the circumstances of incarcerations and food deprivations.

The trauma of World War II was not confined to the Jews of Europe, and the conflict resulted in the destruction of the greater part of Singapore’s Jewish community. The war’s end saw a mass exodus of most of the surviving families, primarily to Australia, Canada and the United States. Everyone lost everything during the war and it was the ordinary people who reorganised the community since most of the wealthy had fled Singapore forever. However, after the war the Baghdadi community and its Zionist movement rebounded.

The former president of the Jewish community, stayed in Singapore. He was born in 1908 to a Baghdad-Persian Jewish family and studied law in England before he joined the British Army as a volunteer and traveled to Singapore.

When the British granted Singapore partial independence in 1955, Marshall was appointed as the first Chief Minister. But when Great Britain denied Singapore full sovereignty, David Marshall, Singapore's "Father of Independence," resigned from his post in protest.

Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963, but withdrew two years later and became independent. After full sovereignty was finally attained, he was elected to the legislature and later served as Singapore's ambassador to several European countries.

A small community, a large impact

It is indeed remarkable that members of such a small community had made so large an impact on Singapore. They contributed to the country in the area of business, finance, medicine and law and have flourished from a society of equal opportunity, religious freedom and respect. While less than 200 Jews of Baghdadi origin remain in Singapore the community has grown, due mainly by ex-patriot and Israeli families who live in the country for a few years at a time.

The institutions built by the Baghdadi Jews will continue to be the foundation of the community. Today Singapore is 80% ethnic Chinese, 15% Malay and 5% ethnic Indian.

The Jewish population is around 300, and there is absolutely no anti-semitism. It does not exist.

The strength: Israel and Singapore

A trade agreement was signed between Israel and Singapore, with the agreement being signed in 1970. It was revealed some 34 years later, in 2004, that the Singaporean army was initially set up by Israel, and is today considered one of the strongest armies in South East Asia.

Immediately after Singapore received independence from Malaysia in August 1965, Israel was asked to help establish Singapore’s army. Both India and Egypt had turned down the request from the founding father and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Lew.

  • In the same year, under a veil of secrecy, an Israeli military delegation under the command of Major General Ya’akov Elazari arrived in Singapore, and started to build various branches of the armed forces. The Israeli delegation followed the model of the IDF (Israel Defence Force) with a standing army and reserves.
  • Since then, security ties between the two countries have strengthened and Singapore is considered one of the biggest customers for Israeli arms and weapons systems. The strengthening of the ties occurred simultaneously with the complete disintegration of Jewish Communal life in Iraq. In 2007, the core of Jewish residents of Singapore remained overwhelmingly Baghdadi.

The foundations of the community

The Maghain Aboth and Chesed El synagogues, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Jewish cemetery, the Abdulla and Flora Shooker Home for the Aged, the Talmud Torah and the Jacob Ballas Centre were all founded and/or endowed by Baghdadi Jews.

The Maghain Aboth Synagogue is open throughout the year, with thrice daily services, while Chesed El conducts Monday morning services and opens throughout the High Holidays. The synagogue is the nucleus of the community. It embodies a sense of unity and perseverance.

The Jewish Welfare Board, a committee of volunteers elected yearly by the Community oversees and manages the community's affairs. The Rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai and his wife Simcha Abergel have been serving the community tirelessly and assiduously for over 15 years providing many new facilities and services never experienced before in Singapore, and continue to do so together with the most recent addition, Rabbi Netanel Rivni and his wife, who arrived in 2007.

In 2007, a new Jewish community centre opened next door to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, the Jacob Ballas Centre, named for a local Jewish stock broker, once was chairman of the Singapore Stock Exchange. In this remarkable testament to a great man, all of the Jewish communities’ immediate needs are provided for. It contains offices and apartments for the Rabbis and the Yeshivah Boys, it also has a women’s Mikvah, a slaughtering room for fresh kosher organic chickens, a full service restaurant, a kosher shop and a social hall for Shabbat kiddushes and other functions.

The legacy of a number of Jewish people lives on as seen on the names of various buildings, roads and institutions. Some buildings bear the Star of David, concrete proof of a once wealthy Jewish family. Apart from their contribution to commerce, Jews have taken a considerable part in political life and in 1955 David S. Marshall became the first chief minister of the Republic.

Jewish achievers and leaders :

  • They saw the disintegration of the world on which their parent s had relied, appearing safe and secure.
  • They survived the upheaval of the war years and made the most of the opportunities that emerged.
  • They contributed to Singapore's success.
  • Along the way they helped define what it means to be Singaporean.

The Jews of Singapore

to be completed in alphabetical order.

Ref: The Jews of Singapore – Joan Bieder The National Archives of Singapore Encyclopaedia of Jewish Diaspora, Volume 3, p 1249 History of the Jews in Singapore - Nathan Eze