Focus on early S'pore settlers

PHOTOS: BERITA HARIAN, DESMOND WEE, KUA CHEE SIONG AND DESMOND LIM

Most people would be hard-pressed to point out the Republic of Armenia on a map but, in September 2009, Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew found it significant enough to visit it for two days.

That had a lot to do with the fact that Armenians were one of Singapore's earliest settlers. There were nine of them living here when the first census of Singapore was taken in 1824.

More remarkably, the founders of two longstanding Singapore icons - The Straits Times and Raffles Hotel - were Armenian, namely Catchik Moses and the Sarkies brothers Tigran and Aviet.

The plucky and enterprising Armenians are the first among five of Singapore's oldest communities which we will feature every Thursday from today. The others are the Arabs, the Parsis, the Jews and the Dawoodi Bohras.

As different as each is, these communities actually have much in common.

Most among them found Singapore a safe haven after fleeing religious persecution in their motherlands. In fleeing the invaders, most of them travelled the same route to Singapore, that is, from Eastern Europe or the Middle East to coastal India, onwards to Yangon in Myanmar, Penang in Malaysia and then to Singapore.

Above all, they have come to love their adopted home with a passion, and so have given much to it.

It was the Arabs who gave the government of the day money to build the first public wells, bridges and various places of worship.

Parsis built South-east Asia's first soft drinks factories here, shielded and fed hundreds of homeless Singaporeans in their basements during World War II and also donated $1 million to set up Singapore's first children's ward.

Jews have long been the most trusted opticians, diamond merchants and lawyers here. One, the late David Marshall, even became Singapore's first chief minister, and another, lawyer Harry Elias, set up the first scheme to represent those who are charged with crimes and who cannot afford a lawyer.

Closely knit, the publicity-shy Dawoodi Bohras are in many ways a model community, as their faith exhorts them to be disciplined, abide by all laws and give back to society wherever they live.

In their own unique ways, these minorities have been putting the "maju" in Majulah Singapura for the past 196 years or so.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'Focus on early S'pore settlers'. Print Edition | Subscribe