In every darkness, we see the light

In every darkness, we see the light.This is why all holy days in Judaism start on Shabbath or Friday evening – explains Rabbi Fettmann of Chesed-El Synagogue in Singapore, with a deep sense of faith and respect towards his religion. To me however, it was a moment of epiphany that revealed how the Jewish community has remained resilient and been successful despite centuries of persecution. Indeed, in every darkness, they saw the light.

The Jewish community has been on the move well before the start of Christian Era. Their origins lie in ancient Babylonia, the cradle of civilisation which was at the cusp of Tigris and Euphrates in present-day Iraq. From here, many Jews migrated to Europe (the Ashkanazi) and to Asia (the Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, otherwise known as Baghdadi Jews).

Iraq was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire. By 1760s, the ancient Mesopotamia was an important through route to India – the jewel in Britain’s crown. It was for this reason that the English East India company set up Basra as its trading port to compete with Persia and linking it to Surat in western India. Ethnic Jews traded with the East India Company but soon found themselves out of favour with Suleiman Pasha, who wanted to control the key cities of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. Facing persecution, the Sephardic Jews migrated to Surat, and then to Calcutta, which was the seat of power in India prior to the capital moving to Delhi; then to Burma and finally to Singapore which was being established by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1822 as the free port to trade with China, Malaya, India, Arabia and Europe.

Abraham Solomon, a trader and a property owner, arrived in Singapore in 1836. Born in Baghdad, he lived in Calcutta for 5 years, before migrating to Singapore. Solomon did not speak English but conducted a thriving business using Malay. He sent his children to an English school. He died in 1884 at the age of 86 and was buried in Orchard Road Cemetery. (Photo courtesy: Chesed-El Synagogue; Its history & people)

According to 1830 census, there were 9 traders of Jewish faith in Singapore, and by 1841, it rose to 22: 18 male and 4 female. Many continued to shuttle between the countries the English traded with. Fluent in Arabic, and having lived in India, they were successful go-betweens. They even lived in the same neighbourhoods, mixing and mingling with the Arabs, the Sikhs, Indians and Malays, at the same time, continuing to carry forward their Baghdadi origins of wearing turbans and long flowing coats, and speaking in Arabic (most Sephardic Jews did not speak English at all but remained incredibly successful conducting business in Arabic, Malay and Hindustani). In comparison, the latter wave of migrants – the Ashkanazi Jews, who came to Singapore from Germany, Russia and other parts of Europe, wore Western dress and spoke English and other European languages.

Intermingling among the 2 Jewish communities was not common and most Sephardic Jews settled in a mahallah (Arabic word for neighbourhood) along Niven Road near Mount Sophia that was close to Little India, (which had the Racecourse and the buffalo trading), as well as to the synagogues. As per the Jewish custom, Shabbath was the day of rest and the people were not allowed to work, light a fire or use vehicular mode of transport. This meant that most people would walk to the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street from the mahallah in Niven Road.

The mahallah on Niven Road comprised a row of shop houses that also housed Arabs, Sikhs, Indians and Malays who lived in close proximity of one another. A Sikh temple at the end of this road is one of the 2 most important religious institutions in Singapore. The Mahallah was in walking distance to Little India and the synagogue on Waterloo Street
The 5-foot way, a traditional Malayan architecture, were laid out with colourful tiles by traders who travelled to Asia and Europe and brought back glazed and unglazed tiles. The tiles were also an easy way to identify the family who lived in these shop houses without having to check addresses
The Sikh temple at the end of Niven Road was built in 1920
Sophia Flats was where Frank Benjamin first opened his stationery shop before moving into fashion business (FJ Benjamin is the fashion house that imports brands such as GAP and Superdry)

The community also obtained a piece of land on Orchard Road for a cemetery; it was located opposite McDonald House where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT stands today. The land was repossessed by the government for development in 1983 and the cemetery was moved to Chao Chu Kang in the eastern part of Singapore.

The Jewish community remained faithful to its religion and as soon as there were a minimum of 10 to form a Minyan, they fulfilled their religious obligation by buying some land to build a synagogue. For the Jewish community, a synagogue is a representation of not just religious but also cultural, social, education and charitable institution.

Chesed-El Synagogue:

Manasseh Meyer (1861-1930) was born in Baghdad, studied in Calcutta and knighted in 1929.  He is said to have met Einstein when the latter visited Singapore in 1922. (Photo courtesy: Chesed-El Synagogue; Its history & people)

By 1902, the Jewish community had reached almost 500 and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was getting crowded. Manasseh Meyer, a noted businessman and philanthropist, decided to undertake the construction of a new synagogue near his Oxley Rise property. He commissioned Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swann & MacLaren, the largest architectural office in Singapore at that time, to design the place of worship. Chesed-El Synagogue opened for services in 1905. During Japanese occupation, the synagogue services were discontinued and many Jews were interned. Chesed-El fell into disrepair and following the end of the war, a number of Jews emigrated to Israel, Australia, England and the US.

“It is a sin to close a synagogue,” says Rabbi Fettmann (though I found another greater sin etched on the synagogue’s wall). After years of restoration, the synagogue finally reopened in 2002, and supports a small yet successful diaspora of about 2000 people from the Jewish community in Singapore. (**see note at the bottom to visit this synagogue and learn more about the Jewish history in Singapore)

Born in Baghdad and raised in Calcutta, Sir Manasseh Meyer came to Singapore to further his education at St Josephs Institution. He commissioned R.A.J. Bidwell, the architect of the famed Raffles Hotel to build Chesed-El Synagogue
Palladian style building with ancient Roman and Greek architecture comprising arched windows and Corinthium columns. The main arch faces the holy city of Jerusalem.
Manasseh Meyer’s rattan chair where he sat for Shabbath service – very tropical
The synagogue was built for tropical weather with high ceilings and grey marble floor that keep it cool all year long
Chesed-El Synagogue does have a sense of humour – I was told that a Shabbath service is a very noisy affair as families meet and socialise at the synagogue so it is virtually impossible to have silence in a synagogue
Chesed-El Synagogue is situated at Oxley Rise on top of a hill with vistas of the city and the sea. The name in Hebrew means “bountiful mercy and goodness of G-d”
The holy Torah scrolls and Rabbi Jean Pierre Fettmann – a man of such immense faith and humility, I have never known any one like him before.
A book commissioned by the trustees of Chesed-El Synagogue that contains the history of the Jewish community in Singapore, painstakingly curated from the archives, interviews, personal anecdotes and recollections

Ellison Building

On the corner of Selegie Road, at the intersection of Little India, lies the semi-circular Ellison Building. It was built by Issac Ellison (1864-1928), a Romanian Jew, in 1924 for his wife Flora Ellison, a Baghdadi Jew from Rangoon.

Ellison Building had balconies with views over the Racecourse in Little India
Star of David – the hallmark of Jewish building architecture
Ellison Building is semi circular in shape but personally, I associate this building with delicious aromas of curries wafting from its myriad restaurants
Kitchen would have likely been at the back of the building with steps leading up to the balconies. Access is now closed.

David Elias Building

David Elias Building was built in 1928 by Jewish merchant David Elias to house his trading company. The architect firm Swan & Maclaren was commissioned to design the building. Its key architectural feat was to build cantilevered balconies which also served as a roof above doorways. Various Stars of David can be found on the building’s facade as bas-relief decorations. It has shops, rooms, eateries and business offices for commercial use. (Source ref: NLB)

David Elias Building is located along Short Street and Middle Road
Completed in 1928, David Elias building features Star of David in bas-relief on its facade
Selegie Arts Centre was one of the main buildings in the Jewish quarter

Eden Hall

The prized building of them all, was the Eden Hall. Currently the British High Commission’s residence in Singapore, the Wedgewood-style building was also designed by R.A.J. Bidwell – the very same architect who built Raffles and Goodwood Park Hotel among others. It was built in 1904 for Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh, a Baghdadi merchant. During the Second World War, most Jews were interned by the Japanese and Ezekiel Manasseh died in Changi Prison in May, 1944. His stepson, Vivian Bath sold the building to the British Government on one condition: that the Union Jack flies here forever. 

Wedgewood style building with verandahs and driveway fit enough for a horse-driven carriage
Two happy dogs signifying the Year of the Dog just after CNY
Dieu et mon droit – the divine right of the Monarch to govern
Old world charm
We were treated to a tall glass of lemonade – how tropical!
The inimitable verandah – a characteristic feature of the tropical architecture in Singapore and British Malaya
Guest room in Eden Hall – this room’s claim to fame was that the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, rested here for 15 minutes
By the bedside
Ezekiel Saleh Manasseh – the original owner of Eden Hall who also co-founded Singapore’s Goodwood Park Hotel. Born in Calcutta, he was a rice and opium merchant. He died in Japanese labour camp at Singapore Changi Prison in 1944.
Oh! where have all the moustaches gone? Built in 1900, Goodwood Park Hotel began as the Teutonia Club – an elite enclave for the expatriate German community in Singapore. In 1918, three Jewish brothers by the family name of Manasseh bought over the hotel property and renamed it as Goodwood Hall after the famous Goodwood Racecourse in England. In 1929, the Manassehs turned Goodwood Hall into the Goodwood Park Hotel, catering to travelling businessmen from Malaya. The hotel became one of the best-known hotels at the end of the 1930s and among the noted guests from that period was the Duke of Windsor, then the Prince of Wales of England. (source text: Goodwood Park Hotel)

** To learn about the Jewish history, contact Jane at Jane’s Tours ( who has obtained special permission to visit the synagogue, meet with Rabbi Fettman and also visit the British High Commissioner’s residence. Other guided tours do not have such exclusive arrangements. Our guide Catalina was very knowledgeable and shared so many wonderful insights which even I, who has lived in Singapore for a decade, didn’t know. 

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