The First Stone

The First Stone

Just one wrench of the wrist, and the wretched man’s life would end.

The whole ordeal was supposed to be over before sunrise. The condemned was not to see the light of another day. But the sun was already up, and Sherry Liew still could not bring herself to pull the lever. She stood at the gallows with her eyes fixed on the hooded man with the noose around his sweaty neck. Her hands trembled with fear; her soul bowed beneath the weight of the power of life and death.

Sherry was wracked with grief for her precious son, who had been bludgeoned to death by the hooded man now standing before her. Sam had been hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into gang fights and working for ah longs, and would ignore her relentless pleas to come home. But she prayed unceasingly for the prodigal son to return.

On that fateful morning, she leapt for joy when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. But the last flicker of hope in her heart was snuffed out when she opened the door to a policeman bearing tragic news of his death.

Now, she had the power to avenge her son. For many months, she had longed to strangle the evil bastard with her bare hands. But what then of her many years preaching the forgiveness and love of Christ that covers a multitude of sins? The murderer’s mother had fallen on her knees, begging for mercy for her only son. Even that monster – she struggled to see him any other way – had written countless tear-stained letters to her, asking for forgiveness and promising that he had turned his life around in prison.

How then could she spit in God’s face?

Abruptly, she loosened her grip on the lever and walked away. No matter how much this man deserved to die, she couldn’t be the one to kill him. One mother had lost her son – there was no need for another to bear the same anguish.

She walked out of Changi Prison, weary and disoriented, but at peace.


How on earth did a sweet, unassuming school teacher become an executioner?

For years, the debate on Singapore’s death penalty was stale and predictable. The government continued to peddle the hackneyed narrative that death by hanging was an effective deterrent against egregious crimes like murder and drug trafficking. The abolitionists pointed to academic research questioning the effectiveness of the death penalty, and championed a more “merciful and humane” penal system over the country’s “ruthless and primitive” system of retribution. The vast majority of Singaporeans either accepted the government’s rhetoric, or were too busy growing their bank accounts to bother engaging in public debate.

It was clear that the abolitionists needed a new strategy. Whenever they criticised the death penalty as a “barbaric” penal system, they were accused of derisive name-calling. When they called for a more enlightened form of justice, they were ironically caricatured as naive latte liberals, completely out of touch with reality.

Tired of the impasse, one activist devised a new game plan. The government was adamant on keeping the death penalty, and there was no indication that the ruling party was going to lose power any time soon. Singaporeans had grown accustomed to the moniker “Disneyland with the death penalty”. So perhaps the way forward was not to target the substance of the policy, but its implementation instead.

This activist figured that the death penalty was carried out so effectively because the condemned was hanged by a professional executioner who was supposed to be a dispassionate agent of the state, with no emotional investment or psychological inhibitions to deal with. He was just like any other bureaucrat with a job scope and KPIs. Ultimately, this automaton was the linchpin of the entire process. Remove him, and the process would fall apart.

But how could the executioner be removed? To answer this, the activist decided to ask another question – why should the State carry out executions in the first place? Murder is certainly a crime against society in that it violates the moral sanctity of life on which society stands. And the State is supposed to carry out punishments so that there is fair and proportionate justice, not vigilantism. But it is also a crime against the ones who loved and cherished the victim. The State did not give life to the victim – a mother did. Before the victim was a citizen of the State, he was a son first and foremost.

The activist argued then that in the case of first-degree murder, the execution should be carried out by the family of the victim. As for drug trafficking, the trafficker should be hanged by family members of victims of drug abuse. The State would still play the role of a neutral third party, but instead of delegating an agent to carry out the execution, it would merely “set up the venue”.

The Government accepted this proposal because it kept the death penalty intact. And so did the abolitionists. After all, for many years, they had framed capital punishment as nothing more than a clinical, state-sanctioned form of retribution. In their eyes, this new system would clearly demonstrate their point by empowering the victims’ families to exact their revenge.

More importantly though, the new system left room for compassion and mercy to intervene. In the old system, mercy was virtually non-existent because the President (or rather, the Cabinet who advised him) almost never granted clemency. But now that the act of execution was no longer in the hands of a detached, professional hangman, would every hanging be followed through?

In first-century Judea, when an angry mob brought a woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, an act punishable by death, Jesus replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd dispersed because none of them believed they had the right to mete out the death sentence.

It was the same with Sherry Liew. She chose to show mercy because she believed mercy had been shown to her. But had she decided to pull the lever, she would have acted legitimately and lawfully as well.

Of course, this scenario is completely hypothetical. But it is worth wondering what the contours of public debate would look like if a proposed system like this really gained traction. I wonder what would change if Singaporeans were no longer detached from the gruesome act of hanging, which today is carried out secretly in the early hours of the morning behind the iron gates of Changi Prison.

Would we be willing to cast the first stone?

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A Nagging Question about Malaysia’s GE

There’s a question that’s been bugging me since the surprising victory of Pakatan Harapan over Barisan Nasional in Malaysia – how big a change is this?

It’s certainly monumental in that it’s the first change of government in 61 years. This means a change in policies, as well as new faces in parliament (not including the PM of course). From what I’ve seen on social media, there’s also a renewed faith in the democratic process after years of disillusionment.

But does it really signal the end of racial voting and the diminished relevance of identity politics in Malaysia? This is suggested in a commentary by Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow in the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Malaysia Programme.

The author claims that “voting has moved away from racial boundaries”, and that “daily difficulties may have pushed voters to override concerns over Malay rights”. The article also implies that rural Malay voters were not swayed this time by BN’s assertions that “a vote for Pakatan would mean the loss of Malay rights and Islam as the primary religion of the federation.”

But in this election, the opposition coalition included PPBM – a party with the word “Indigenous” in its name, regarded as a splinter group from UMNO, led by the longest-serving UMNO leader. According to its party constitution, only Bumiputeras are allowed to be full members with full voting rights. Its aims include maintaining the special position of Malays and upholding Islam as the religion of the Federation, and its manifesto reiterates its pledge to champion the special position of Malays and the Bumiputera in line with the controversial Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

Could it be that PPBM has become a substitute for UMNO in the minds of many Malay voters? Perhaps it’s not the case that the nation’s economic problems pushed these voters to “override concerns over Malay rights”, but instead, these concerns were negligible since both coalitions had parties championing Malay rights.

Of course, it’s not logical to expect decades of race-based politics to be reversed in one election. But significant progress has been made towards the ideal of a colour-blind democracy. After all, the inclusive DAP and PKR parties are part of the ruling coalition, while the clearly segmented UMNO-MCA-MIC coalition is now out of power.

Time will tell how much of a sea change this election has been for Malaysia.

CMIO+++

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Source: MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg)

I’ve become so accustomed to filling in my “Race” on application forms in Singapore. Usually, I just need to choose one of four options – Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

But when you register on the MySkillsFuture website (www.myskillsfuture.sg), you now have a long list of “races” to choose from!

Instead of being just “Malay”, you can choose “Acehnese”, “Boyanese” or even “Bugis”.

You can identify as “Indian”, or you can be more specific and select “Tamil”, “Punjabi”, “Sindhi”, “Goan”, or others.

Depending on how nationalistic you are, you can choose “French”, “Dane”, “German”, or just jettison all these archaic labels for the more progressive “European”. For the more pedantic, instead of “British”, go ahead and choose “English”, “Welsh” or “Scot” (apologies to the Northern Irish, there’s no option for you).

If you’re only partly English, don’t worry – there are several hybrid options for you, such as “Anglo Chinese”, “Anglo Indian”, “Anglo Filipino”, “Anglo Burmese”, and “Anglo Thai”. (What, no “Anglo Uzbek”??? Sheesh.)

At the risk of sounding like a neo-Nazi, you can even choose “Aryan”. Oh man, I’d like to see who’s brave enough to do that…

If you think that “American” and “Canadian” are races rather than the more inclusive labels of civic identity that they are generally believed to be, those options are listed too. I have no idea why, but they’re there.

For our Middle Eastern friends, shalom/salam and welcome to the party. Along with “Jew” and “Arab”, “Israeli” and “Palestine” are somehow options too. Wow, this reminds me of Conflict Resolution classes back in Israel…

But if all this is too complicated, and you’d rather just put the generic and non-committal “Other”, you’re in luck. Though for some bizarre reason, that’s listed along with “Other Eurasian”, “Other Indonesian” and “Other Indian”.

So what should I choose? Normally, I would just choose “Indian”. But with such a smorgasbord of “races”, I feel like writing in and asking for “Indo-Greek” to be made available. After all, that sounds better than “Greco-Indian”.

Or I could just be a rebel, forget the whole “race” thing, and choose “Brahmin” (I kid you not, it’s actually there).

Look, I appreciate the effort to move away from the CMIO system and acknowledge the great diversity on our island, but in offering so many options, the labels have become meaningless. Or maybe that’s the whole point?

Spaghetti Girls

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Lenny’s frustration grew with every tick of the clock. He squirmed in his uncomfortable chair, equipped with a cushion for his back but plain plastic for his buttocks. Wasn’t Changi Airport supposed to be paradise on earth – a replica of Heaven’s own aviation terminal? Surely they could afford better seats? He must have really pissed off the customs officer earlier with his typical New York levity.

“Well, who cares about my ass, they’re gonna cane it anyway,” he muttered under his breath. His smirk seemed to irk the officer sitting across the room. Or rather, he thought he had annoyed her. She was completely expressionless, almost catatonic, but her death-stare seemed a bit more intense, so she must have been ticked off by his insouciance.

But hey, what could he do? He was a hound dog, sniffing out amusement in every situation.

“Hey, ‘smirk’ and ‘irk’ rhyme!” he smiled clownishly. Why was he so easily entertained by the slightest thing? He couldn’t help himself! That’s why he was brought into this sterile waiting room, fully furnished with awkward chairs, an abnormally loud clock, and a dour, bespectacled bureaucrat whose stony demeanour gave him the heebie-jeebies. He was left there to stew in the eerie silence, all because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

No, hang on a minute. Lenny refused to shoulder the blame for his predicament. It wasn’t his fault that this country had no sense of humour. All he wanted to do was inject a bit of mirth into the humdrum of lining up (oh wait, they say ‘queuing’ over here) at the airport border control. Was his joke really that offensive?

He cast his mind back to his freshman year in Columbia, where he spent countless hours with his Singaporean buddy, Jackie Chan. (Actually, he had an unpronounceable Mandarin name – something like Chan Zi Hong or Chan Zhi Huang or whatever – so Lenny just gave him the natural nickname.) Jackie spoke incessantly about his country, and curious Lenny lapped it all up – the Singlish, the acronyms, the National Service stories, even the odd custom of ‘choping‘ tables with tissue packets.

But what really piqued his interest were the SPGs.

“You know, Lenny, if you come to Singapore, you’ll have a lot of SPGs chasing you,” Jackie cheekily remarked one day. Lenny gave his characteristic quizzical look, waiting expectantly for his next nugget on this quirky country.

Jackie continued, “We call them Sarong Party Girls. They like to go for ang mohs.” Now he really had Lenny’s rapt attention. As he explained what a sarong was and the peculiar origin of the term ang moh, a mischievous grin stretched across Lenny’s face.

“Looks like I’ve gotta find myself some SPGs!” Lenny chuckled. “So when I visit you in Singapore, and the customs officer asks what the purpose of my visit is, I’ll exclaim, ‘Spaghetti Girls!'”

And that’s precisely what landed him in hot soup. Damn jialat, as Jackie would say.

Welcome to Singapore, where banter is banned, and fun is done, Lenny quietly quipped. Of course, he didn’t do himself any favours by guffawing at his own joke at the customs desk. But besides the bans on smoking and some queer spiky fruit – not to mention the ridiculously menacing warning about the death penalty for drug trafficking on the customs form – he was quite certain that there was no restriction on laughter at this world-class airport.

Or was there?

As he nervously wrung his clammy hands in the waiting room, he thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t shoot his mouth off about his brilliant solution to Singapore’s falling population. Back in college, when Jackie told him that only the men had to spend (or did he say ‘waste’?) two years in the military, he railed indignantly against the gender inequality of the system. Then in his classic witty style, he proposed an ingenious way that women could serve the nation too.

“You guys should start a Reproductive Regiment!” he blurted out. “The more babies, the higher the rank!” The bewilderment on Jackie’s face back then was priceless.

Lenny glanced at his watch, crossed his legs, uncrossed his legs, glanced at the blasted ticking clock, sighed in exasperation and scratched his blond locks. The robotic immigration officer glared mercilessly at him. Lenny thought about starting a staring contest, but he changed his mind, lest he be accused of leering inappropriately at a woman. Or of trying to pick up an SPG.

The officer’s scowl was getting too much to bear. What was his crime? Had he really been so insensitive that he had to be detained? Had he violated some sacrosanct Singaporean custom? Why was everyone so touchy here? This country has redefined absurdity!

Lenny was resigned to his fate. Since his sorry ass was most definitely going to be hauled off to jail – after it was caned of course – perhaps he should just throw all caution to the wind and have himself a bit of fun. He stood up slowly, shuffled across the room to the soulless uniform, looked her straight in the eye, and smiled the gentlest smile that he could muster.

“Excuse me, Miss, do you have any chewing gum on you?”

The ticking clock was drowned out by Lenny’s racing heartbeat. The lady was stunned. Her deadpan face betrayed a slight quiver of the lip as she tried in vain to suppress a grin. Lenny held his breath, surprised that he had actually found the chink in her armour. She got up quickly, turned around and scurried off to the next room, fighting back the giggles.

Moments later, a senior ranking officer entered the room with a beam plastered across his face. Lenny clenched his fist, ready to sock the man in the jaw with full immunity – for right there before his eyes stood his college buddy.

“Jackie Chan, you son of a gun, you’re a customs officer?!” Lenny threw his arms around his friend.

“The joke’s on you, buddy,” Jackie declared triumphantly. “Welcome to Singapore. Let’s grab something to eat.”

“How about spaghetti?”

Don’t Miss the Grass for the Trees

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Our eyes first catch sight of the towering, majestic tree, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s the grass that fills the landscape with vibrant colour.

A few articles have been published in the wake of Dr Nadia Wright’s recent book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow, which supposedly offers an iconoclastic revisionist account of Sir Stamford Raffles’ legacy (I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to soon). This article in The Spectator, for example, highlights the superb administrative competence of Raffles’ right-hand man, William Farquhar, who is  commonly thought to have played second fiddle to the trailblazing Raffles.

On the flip side, this article in Rice paints a shocking picture of Raffles as a deceitful, hypocritical, narcissistic “monster”.

I must say at the outset that I find the writer’s tone quite vulgar and discomfiting, but I suppose such sensationalist language serves the purpose of capturing a wider audience. (It also got me wondering if being called an Old Rafflesian is such a good thing after all…)

Nonetheless, after excoriating Raffles for his scandalous behaviour and sullying the halo above his head, the writer draws a very important lesson that resonates strongly with me. In criticising the “Great Man Syndrome” – a tendency to attribute monumental social and political change to several notable individuals, such as Raffles or LKY – he writes:

“Everything good that happened to Singapore is credited to the heroes, and we choose to ignore our own part in nation-building. As a consequence, we overestimate their ability to shape the course of fate and underestimate our own agency.”

This observation is not only true of our treatment of history. I think the Great Man Syndrome still colours our vision today. We marvel at the brilliance of politicians and scholars, the business acumen of successful CEOs, the military decorations of high-ranking officers – and then we sometimes get overwhelmed by such excellence and retreat into our caves, fearful to venture out in case we stumble and fall.

Of course we should celebrate those who have achieved excellence in their fields and have made exceptional contributions to society. But they should serve as examples to inspire us, not to deflate our own ambitions (“I’ll never be as good as her”), absolve us of our personal responsibility to society (“That guy is already doing so much, I don’t need to contribute”), or minimise our own agency (“I don’t have as much influence as her, so I might as well do nothing”).

We are the nation, everyone of us. Even our most mundane decisions shape our culture everyday – when we greet or ignore each other in the morning, when we use our free time to play mobile phone games or read a book, when we say thanks for our food or complain about how tasteless it is, when we congratulate our kids for scoring a 90 or demand an explanation for the missing 10 marks, when we crib incessantly about work or appreciate our gainful employment.

But beyond moulding an amorphous national culture, we have a very distinctive and tangible effect on the people around us, whether we realise it or not. Our words and actions can demoralise or edify, infuriate or elate, attract or repel, deaden or inspire. We are all influencers, not just the social media gurus.

This vitriolic critic of Sir Stamford Raffles makes an excellent point – let us not underestimate our individual and collective agency. Don’t miss the grass for the trees.

 

The Slow Smothering of Curiosity

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Bryan lumbered past his desk and flopped onto his bed, teary-eyed and frustrated. He glared angrily at the stack of books that he had thrown on the floor in a tantrum.

“Bryan! Pick up those assessment books right now!” His mother’s bellow sent tremors through his limp body. He scurried to gather the accursed books – the bane of his short existence, the inescapable chore of the Singaporean student. Why was his slave-driving mother so obsessed with these anthologies of tedium?

Bryan was familiar with the routine by now. His mother, Mrs Ong, would invest in new assessment books three times a year – at the start of the academic year, at the midpoint, and once again before the final exams, just to be sure. Of course, they had to be the thickest ones with the latest MOE syllabus, recommended by the snooty parents of the brainiest kid in class. The moment the plastic wrapping was off the books, the answer keys would be ripped out and locked in Mrs Ong’s drawer – the same one in which the cane was kept.

The books would greet him upon his return from school and fill the rest of his afternoon till 5 pm, when he was allowed to play till dinner at six. Even that sacred hour of recreation was curtailed if he was caught dozing off or playing on his phone instead of focusing on his English comprehension passages or Math problem-solving questions. Oftentimes, his curmudgeonly grandmother would drift into his room and complain about the slothfulness and ingratitude of millennials.

“Young people nowadays…” Ah Ma would rant incessantly. “Your Ah Gong and I worked so hard to give you a better life. Study hard and score well in your tests.”

“Don’t be lazy like your useless father.”

Eyes shut, fists clenched, muscles tense – that was Bryan’s typical reaction to the frequent soul-crushing barbs that Ah Ma spat out of her vile, toothless mouth. What else could he do? If he responded with a smart-ass answer, his ass would smart from the sting of his mother’s cane. So he just stared intently at his assessment book till his vision blurred.

Blur like sotong. Bryan never fully understood this playful pejorative (what’s so “blur” about a squid?) but it was one of the milder ones thrown at his father. True, Mr Ong was often dull and absent-minded, but even the most cerebral of men would be the same after clocking twelve-hour shifts in a cab, day in, day out. Deep down, Bryan knew that he was lucky to have such an industrious father. But try as he might, he could not shake off the shame that clouded his head every time he saw his father in his taxi.

But more than shame, resentment filled the young boy’s heart as he saw his father leave the house every weekend and public holiday to ferry passengers across the island. Other kids’ fathers would take them to the soccer field or swimming pool. But not Bryan’s father. He had to work every bloody day. Why couldn’t he get a better job and earn more money? Why didn’t he study harder in school?

“Maybe Ah Ma is right,” Bryan thought as he hung his head over his crisp, new assessment books. He immediately recoiled at the notion that he was actually in agreement with the crabby old hag. But how could he deny his grandmother’s interminable accusations – that his father didn’t study hard enough, that the whole family was suffering because of his father’s laziness in school, that he himself was en route to economic redundancy?

What if he turned out to be a failure? Nobody cared about failures. Was he destined to be one?

Enough. These ominous thoughts weighed him down like a millstone. He stormed across his room, locked the door, grabbed his phone, and dove into bed again. He knew his mother would come knocking soon, but damn the consequences! There were 158 unread messages in his class Whatsapp group that needed to be read.

“gongcha is opening at singpost next week!!! 😀 😀 😀 “

“class outing leh”

“i wan i wan i wan”

“hey my fren say that he gg to queue up the night before…”

“wa lao eh your fren damn bo liao lor”

“who else wants to go?”

“hey you all retarded or what?”

There he was, right on cue. The genius-in-residence, Aloysius Tan, had a Pavlovian need to deride anything that he found trivial and absurd. The egotistical son of a bookish university professor, Aloy soared well above his classmates in both intelligence and arrogance. He was a voracious reader, devouring every book the school library had to offer. On the one occasion that he was invited to a class outing to watch The Hunger Games, he emerged from the cinema with his characteristic smirk, claiming triumphantly that the book was still better than the movie.

“You mean the movie is based on a book?” The words tumbled out of Bryan’s mouth before he realised the folly of revealing his ignorance to the smart alec.

Aloy rolled his eyes in pitiful contempt. “Please lah, I read the book two years ago. Suzanne Collins is one of my favourite authors. I guess you could say she has a very novel way of writing!” Bryan couldn’t understand why Aloy was sniggering to himself, which made him laugh even harder.

Bryan went home that day and asked his mother if he could buy the entire Hunger Games trilogy. “Read story book for what?” his mother retorted. “Don’t waste your time; your exams are coming soon. No need for childish story books, just do your assessment books!”

As Bryan lay on his mattress recounting the condescending insults of his classmate, his train of thought was derailed by the violent knocking on his bedroom door. “Open the door now!” His mother’s hysterical screech could only mean one thing – his buttocks had an appointment with the rotan. Bryan ran to open the door, but not before putting on an extra set of underwear.

They say that if you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child. But Mrs Ong believed that if she spoiled the rod on her son’s bottom, she’d spare her child a future of aimlessness and regret. Sloth was anathema to her; disobedience was even worse. Bryan had defiantly demonstrated both. So down came the cane, sharp and swift. Each whimper from her son was a chisel to her heart, but she had to mask it.

“Finish your work, or no dinner for you!” she sternly instructed her sobbing son. Bryan got to work without hesitation.

He soon heard his father shuffle through the front door. In America, when the man of the house returns from work, his dog greets him exuberantly and his wife smothers him with a wet kiss – or at least that’s what happens on TV. But not in the Ong household. Mr Ong took his seat in the dining room while his wife laid the table, dutifully but joylessly.

Bryan soldiered on through his assessment book. The silence outside was deafening, broken only by the occasional clicking of chopsticks. But his father was about to open the floodgates.

“I earned even less this week,” Mr Ong lamented. His soft, piercing words hung in the air like a noose. Bryan could only imagine the scowl on his mother’s face now as she loaded her sharp tongue with a barrage of questions.

“Are you driving in the city centre? Is your taxi meter working properly? Has the taxi rent increased? How long is your lunch break? Did you buy 4D? How can we afford Chinese tuition for Bryan like this?” Her agitation rose steadily with each question. Before long, Ah Ma interjected.

“Drive taxi also cannot make it. Useless bugger.” There was truly no limit to Ah Ma’s vitriol.

“You think it’s so damn easy ah? Everyone wants to use Uber, use Grab… WHAT THE HELL CAN I DO?” Bryan hadn’t heard his father growl like that in months.

Mrs Ong hit the roof. “Stop making excuses! If you cannot make money, find another job!”

“What other job? Like he said, WHAT THE HELL CAN HE DO?” Ah Ma’s mocking mimicry could get under anyone’s skin.

“I’ve had enough of your shit!” Bryan gasped as he heard a glass shatter, followed by heavy footsteps and the slam of the front door. He clasped his ears as he read his Math question aloud.

“Ali has 140 marbles. He gives some marbles to Bala, leaving him with twice as many marbles as Charlie…”

Cosmopolitan from Day One

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The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia

I recently popped into the public library for a quick browse, and a title in the Singapore Collection piqued my interest. The Jews of Singapore, written by Joan Bieder, explores the history of the Jewish community in Singapore and traces the development of its unique identity from the 1840s till today. It begins with an explanation of how Jews from Baghdad ended up in our neck of the woods, helpfully situated within the wider narrative and migratory patterns of the Jewish Diaspora.

As Baghdadi Jews fled from persecution under Ottoman rule, they found refuge and bountiful economic opportunities in the British trading posts of Calcutta and Singapore, where business interests obscured racial and cultural differences. These Jewish traders brought their families over to Singapore, petitioned the British colonial government for land to build a synagogue, and kept their traditions alive through the celebration of festivals and adherence to kosher laws.

As I was casually flipping through the pages, I chanced upon a fascinating account of an Englishman’s encounter with the patriarch of the Jewish community in Singapore in the 1840s. This Englishman was John Turnbull Thomson, a surveyor for the East India Company in Singapore from 1841 to 1853. Many Singaporeans are probably unfamiliar with this man, but they definitely know the roads, condominiums and shopping centre named after him.

Thomson was once invited to share a meal with Abraham Solomon, who was regarded as the leader of the Jewish community in Singapore in his time. Apparently Thomson was so impacted by this episode that he included a rich and vivid description of his experience in his memoirs, written years after his time in Singapore. Bieder notes, “In the 1840s, it would be unimaginable in either England or Baghdad that a young English surveyor and an Orthodox Baghdadi Jewish trader would sit down to a meal together. However, in Singapore, where trade trumped prejudice and habit, traditional barriers dissolved.”

Thomson was accompanied by one of Solomon’s friends, as well as Solomon’s brother. According to Bieder, since the Baghdadi Jews did not speak English, the four men actually conversed in Malay throughout their meal! Of course, this phenomenon must have been very common back then, but I imagine it would intrigue many Singaporeans today.

What did they speak about? Thomson wrote that his host spoke nostalgically about the dates, grapes and figs back home that he could not find in Singapore. As I learned later on in the book, another enterprising Baghdadi Jewish man made a living in Singapore by filling this gap in the market. Saul Nassim Mashal realised that the Muslims in Singapore did not have dates with which they could break their fast during Ramadan, so he imported them from the Middle East. His son, David Saul Mashal (or David Marshall), would later become the first Chief Minister of Singapore.

As Thomson’s host, Abraham Solomon, continued his walk down memory lane, he also described the oppression that he experienced under the Ottomans. According to Thomson, Solomon recounted, “The soles of my feet were beaten until they were raw; for they wished to torture me into disclosing treasures that I had not.” Bieder writes, “As a result of this mistreatment, Solomon left his father’s house and fled, first to Calcutta and then to Singapore in search of religious tolerance and economic freedom.”

Encounters like this inspired Thomson to write an evocative (and slightly pompous) description of the cosmopolitan reality of life in Singapore, which was merely in its second decade as a colonial trading post. He wrote, “Subject of nations at war are friendly here, they are bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce. The pork-hating Jew of Persia embraces the pork-loving Chinese of Chinchew. The cow-adoring Hindu of Benares hugs the cow-slaying Arab of Juddah. Even the Englishman, proud yet jolly, finds it to his interest to unbend and associate with the sons of Shem, whether it be in commerce, in sports or at the banquet.”

Singapore has been a global nexus since Day One. It still is. But whether it will remain so depends on the human initiative and creativity of successive generations of Singaporeans.