Jacob Ballas

Jacob Ballas (b. 21 January 1921, Iraq–d. 18 January 2000, Singapore) was a pillar of the Jewish community in Singapore, a successful stockbroker and well-known philanthropist. The Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens was named after him.1

Early life
Ballas was the only child of Shua and Grace Ballas, a poor Orthodox Baghdadi family in Amara, Iraq. When he was a few years old, the family moved to Labuan, a British outpost in Northern Borneo, where his father joined relatives who were in the textile business.2

Following the rubber market crash in the late 1920s, the business in Labuan failed and the family moved to Singapore.3 They rented a modest two-storey terrace house at 19 Wilkie Road and the home was kept strictly kosher. Ballas’s mother supported the family by baking roti – a round, flat Arabic bread loved by the Jewish community. Ballas helped his mother sell the bread in their neighbourhood. Together with other Jewish boys, Ballas spent his afternoons (except Fridays and Saturdays) at the Talmud Torah at Bencoolen Street, where a hot meal preceded several hours of lessons.4

Ballas enrolled at St Andrew’s School in 1931.5 He considered his student years there to be the foundation of his life and success. Going to school and interacting with children of other ethnic groups broadened Ballas’s perspective, which had up to then revolved around his home. So significant was his school-going years that Ballas adopted his first day of school, 21 January, as his date of birth, since he did not know his actual birthday.6

Despite being a brilliant student and having passed his Senior Cambridge Examination with a Grade 1, Ballas was not offered a scholarship because he was not a British subject. Although a friend’s father offered to support him through college, Ballas could not afford to further his studies as he needed to support his family.7

Upon leaving school, Ballas became a car salesman at a motor firm, Lyons Motors, for a monthly salary of $30. He rose up the ranks quickly and was paid $115 a month in 1939. In that particular year, the manager of Sun Life Insurance of Canada visited Lyons Motors as a customer and was so impressed with Ballas’s salesmanship that he offered Ballas a job. Ballas asked for a monthly salary of $250 and got it. At 20, Ballas joined Sun Life Insurance in 1940.8

Ballas’s career advancement was interrupted by World War II. He became superintendent-in-charge of transport at the St Andrew’s unit of the Medical Auxiliary Service, and managed the deployment of civilian vehicles to bomb sites to evacuate victims. During the Japanese Occupation, he worked as a second-hand car salesman and operated a watch shop with a friend. His friend was later interned and their shop seized by the Japanese. Ballas then took to buying and selling watches on the street for a livelihood. His father passed away in May 1944, and shortly thereafter, Ballas and his mother were interned.9

After the war, Ballas returned to working at Sun Life Insurance. Although he excelled in his job, career advancement was slow. He was then introduced by friends to stock trading and the stock exchange. In 1958, he bought a seat on the Stock Exchange for $25,000 and started J. Ballas & Co. By the early 1960s, Ballas had made his first million and his staff strength had grown from five to 25.10

In 1962, Ballas became the chairman of the Malayan Stock Exchange. From 1964 to 1967, he was chairman of the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange.11 Under his leadership, the trading rooms in both Singapore and Malaysia were set up and managed with strict professionalism. He also introduced stringent listing requirements and new rules to control trading. During his time in office, the paid-up capital of listed companies rose from about $870 million to almost $2 billion. The same period also saw a doubling in the number of companies whose shares were traded on the exchanges.12

J. Ballas & Co merged with Hong Kong-based Citicorp Vickers to become Vickers Ballas in the early 1990s, and the latter went public in 1993.13

Ballas regarded Singapore as his home despite his Baghdadi roots. Immediately after the war, he and his mother initially returned to Iraq as they had relatives in Baghdad. Upon arrival, however, they found Iraq hostile to Jews and quickly made the passage back to Singapore in 1947.14

The poverty that Ballas experienced in his youth cultivated his generous nature. His philanthropy extended to all who were needy – Jews and non-Jews alike. In Singapore, Ballas served the Jewish community actively, being the president of the Jewish Welfare Board in 1961 and for 10 years from 1989. During the time that he was not in leadership, he served the community behind the scenes through generous financial support to the synagogue and to needy individuals.15 He also sat on the board of governors of St Andrew’s Junior College (SAJC) and on the board of advisors of the Universities Endowment Fund.16 Not forgetting his roots, Ballas and his mother visited their Baghdadi relations annually in Israel (after they were forced out of Iraq).17

Ballas is regarded as one of the pillars of the Jewish community in Singapore and his legacy lives on through his philanthropy. At his death, his estate was said to be worth more than S$100 million. Charities in Singapore and Israel each received half of his bequests. The Jacob Ballas Centre in Singapore, which opened in November 2007, is an example of Ballas’s legacy of giving. The centre is the hub of Jewish life in Singapore, and houses the rabbi and his family, a mikvah (ritual bath for women), and a rooftop sukkah (for use during the festival of Sukkot), among other things.18

Final years

Ballas did not marry and was a devoted son to his mother. He was devastated when his mother passed away on 18 February 1996. His deep love for her prompted him to dedicate many of his charitable works to her, such as scholarships at SAJC in Singapore, and a hospital building in Israel.19

In 2000, Ballas was warded in hospital for two weeks following a heart condition, and died in January while in the intensive care ward.20 He was buried next to his mother in Choa Chu Kang cemetery.21

Shua Ballas.

Mother: Grace Ballas.

Dinesh Sathisan & Sharen Chua

1. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2007),  70–72, 140 (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS]); Chin See Chung, “A Very Happy Place – Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden,” Gardenwise 30 (January 2008): 3. (From BookSG)
2. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 71; F J Benjamin Chairman Ballas Dies,” Straits Times, 19 January 2000, 65. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 71; Jacob Ballas, oral history interview by Daniel Chew, 6 December 1983, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:46, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000163 – 1), 1.
4. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 71, 136; David Kraal, Ballas: The Man, the Name,” Straits Times, 21 June 2000, 8 (From NewspaperSG)
5. Jacob Ballas, oral history interview, 6 December 1983, 1.
6. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 72, 137.
7. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 72, 137.
8. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 137.
9. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 93, 137–8.
10. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 138–9.
11. “Chairman Ballas Dies.”
12. Kraal, “The Man, the Name.”
13. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 138–9.
14. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 138.
15. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 140–1.
16. Jewish Welfare Board (Singapore), “Remembering Jacob Ballas,” Shalom Singapore no. 13 (April 2000): 8 (Call no. RSING q305.6296059597 SS); Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 142.
17. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 141.
18. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 142, 239.
19. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 140; Edmund Lim W. K, Did You Know? Jacob Ballas (Singapore: Pearson Education South Asia Pte Ltd, 2012), 83, 88. (Call no. JRSING 305.89240595 LIM)
20. “Chairman Ballas Dies.”
21. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 142.
22. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 71, 136; Lim, Did You Know?4.

Further resources
About the Alumni,” St Andrew’s Alumni, accessed 29 July 2016.

Elena Chong, “Stockbroker’s Will Valid; Rules Court,” Straits Times, 16 October 2002, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Eze Nathan, The History of the Jews in Singapore: 1830–1945 (Singapore: HERBILU Editorial and Marketing Services, 1986). (Call no. RSING 301.45192405957 NAT)

Kevin Y.L. Tan and Wan Meng Hao, Scouting in Singapore: 1910–2000 (Singapore: Singapore Scouts Association, National Archives of Singapore, 2002). (Call no. RSING q369.43095957 TAN)

Lee Su Shyan, “Ong Beng Seng Raises Vicker’s Stake Thanks to ‘Gift’,” Straits Times, 12 May 2001, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

St Andrew’s School, Up and On: St. Andrew’s School Magazine 5, no. 2 (1937): 27–28. (Call no. RCLOS 373.5957 UO)

The information in this article is valid as of 5 August 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Ballas, Jacob, 1921-2000
Community leaders