Jewish Community

The Jewish community has been in Singapore since the early years of British colonisation, and has contributed significantly to Singapore’s development as a nation.1

The history of the Jewish community in Singapore goes as far back as the early 1800s.2 The community in Singapore is primarily from Mesopotamia,3 and the first Jewish settlers were descendants of religious Jews who lived in Baghdad, Iraq after their exile from ancient Israel.4 A census of traders dated 1830 records the presence of nine traders of the Jewish faith (Judaism) in early Singapore.5

However, it is uncertain if any of these traders actually settled in Singapore because a census of settlers in 1833 recorded a total of only three Jews as actual settlers. However, eight years later, another census of settlers recorded 22 Jews: 18 males and four females. By 1846, six of the 43 merchant houses recorded were Jewish. In 1858, there were 20 Jewish families in Singapore. By 1870, the figures stood at 172: 116 males and 56 females.6 A second wave of migration took place between 1870 and 1900, with numbers surging from 172 to 462. This new wave of Jewish immigrants came from other parts of the world, including Germany, Russia and Egypt.7

The Jews that came to Singapore were mainly Sephardi Jews, or Oriental Jews, rather than Ashkenasi (or Ashkenazi) Jews who were from Europe. The Sephardi Jews came mainly from India and originated from Baghdad or Arabia, while the Ashkenasi were mostly from Germany.8 The first Jews of Baghdadi origin migrated to Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles established the island as a British trading post in 1819.9

The Ashkenasi Jewish influx came with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which shortened the journey between Europe and the East by almost 14 days. However, the Chamber of Commerce recorded a small number who were members of the chamber as early as 1857 – an indication that the Ashkenasi Jews must have quickly established a reputation in business. Persecution in Poland and Russia was another reason for the large number of Ashkenasi coming to eastern shores.10

The Ashkenasis maintained strong links with their homeland in Europe — their families usually remained there — using Singapore only as a base for trade. Thus, they were less engaged in society and were seen as separate from the rest of the Jewish community. The Ashkenasis also preferred to join European clubs instead of mixing with the Sephardis.11

The first Jewish quarters was established in Boat Quay, off South Canal Road where the first synagogue was located in a shophouse. The Jewish settlers later moved to North Bridge Road, Sophia Road, Wilkie Road, Dhoby Ghaut, Waterloo Street, Prinsep Street and Selegie Road. By 1910, about 500 Jews had settled in Singapore, and by 1941, the Jewish population in Singapore had grown to 844.12 During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), the Jews were interned at various stages and under a host of conditions:13 from May 1944 they were at Sime Road Camp14 (the old Royal Air Force base) at Hut 10615 and Changi Gaol16 in a rice shed nicknamed Aldgate.17

Commercial and social contributions
The Jewish community, though small in number, was formidable in the business arena. By 1846, there were six Jewish merchant houses in Singapore.18 Well-known Jews include Manasseh Meyer, who established the firm Meyer Brothers. Nissim Adis owned the land now occupied by the Supreme Court, and also built the Grand Hotel de l’Europe.19

In 1873, the Jewish community bought a piece of land from the government on Church Street, now known as Waterloo Street, and built their main synagogue — the Maghain Aboth (Shield of Our Fathers). The only other synagogue, the Chesed-El Synagogue, was built for the religious needs of Manasseh Meyer’s family. By 1841, a Jewish cemetery had been established in the outskirts of town, behind Fort Canning, known as the Orchard Road Cemetery, or the Old Cemetery. As commercial interests encroached upon their land, the cemetery was moved to Moulmein, then renamed the Thomson Road Cemetery. But this land was eventually reacquired by the government and the cemetery was relocated to Choa Chu Kang, near the air base.20 

The Jewish community set up its own Jewish Welfare Board in the 1940s21 to support its people from cradle to grave.22 Its initial years from 1946 to 1952 were helmed by David Marshall (1908–1995).23 The Sir Manasseh Meyer International School (SMMIS) is Singapore’s only Jewish international school. The school was founded in 1996 as a nursery for young children, then called the Ganenu Learning Centre. It was renamed SMMIS in 2009 after the Singapore-based tycoon and philanthropist. This “crown jewel” of the Jewish community in Singapore is a $40 million campus in Jalan Ulu Sembawang. The school was originally located at Belvedere Close, off Tanglin Road.24

The Jacob Ballas Centre, opened in November 2007, is considered to be the hub of the community, and together with the adjacent Maghain Aboth Synagogue, forms an all-encompassing spiritual core for Jews in Singapore.25 The centre is named after the late Jacob Ballas O.B.M., a pillar of the Jewish community in Singapore.26

The Jews numbered about 2,500 in 2015, from about 25 nationalities, but only about 180 among them are from the first generation forefathers. The rest are expatriates. Most of Singapore’s original Jewish community are Orthodox Jews. The Jews of Singapore are the only remaining indigenous Jews of Asia.27 The legacy of the Jewish community in Singapore can be seen in the names of various buildings, roads and institutions, some bearing the Jewish symbol of the Star of David,28 concrete proof of a strong historic presence in Singapore.29

Bonny Tan

1. Edmund Lim W.K. and Kho Ee Moi, The Chesed-El Synagogue: Its History & People (Singapore: Trustees of Chesed-El Synagogue, 2005), 117. (Call no. RSING 296.095957 LIM)
2. “History,” Jewish Welfare Board, accessed 28 March 2018.
3. Eze Nathan, The History of Jews in Singapore, 1830–1945 (Singapore: Herbilu Editorial & Marketing Services, 1986), v. (Call no. RSING 301.45192405957 NAT)
4. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2007), 12. (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
5. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002), 100–01. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
6. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 1, 10.
7. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 29.
8. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 58.
9. Jewish Welfare Board, “History.”
10. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 57.
11. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 57–58.
12. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 2, 10, 33, 188.
13. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 33, 154–70.
14. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 156.
15. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 133–34.
16. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 156.
17. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 117, 119, 189.
18. Lim Kho, Chesed-El Synagogue, 9.
19. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 9, 22.
20. Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 2, 11, 12, 33–34, 36, 185.
21. Christopher Khoo, “Enlightening Spirit,” Straits Times, 3 October 1991, 4. (From NewpaperSG)
22. Cheong Suk-Wai, “‘Crown Jewel’ of Jewish Community to Open Early Next Year,” Straits Times, 8 October 2015, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 125.
24. Cheong, “‘Crown Jewel’ of Jewish Community to Open Early Next Year.”
25. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 239.
26. Jewish Welfare Board, “History.”
27. Cheong, “‘Crown Jewel’ of Jewish Community to Open Early Next Year.”
28. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 103, 104.
29. Jewish Welfare Board, “History.”

Further resources
Annabeth Leow, “Jewish Languages Forgotten in Exile,” Straits Times, 25 May 2017, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Oral History Department, Singapore, Communities of Singapore: A Catalogue of Oral History Interviews, part 1 (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1989), 43–50. (Call no. RSING 959.57 COM-[HIS]) 

Oral History Department, Singapore, Jews in Singapore, Oral History Department, 1986, sound recording. (Call no. RAV 305.892405957 JEW)

Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 274–75. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at April 2018 and correct as far as we are able to 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.