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.