Labour of love for Singapore

Economic Development Board alumnus Moshe Elias missed Singapore so much, he based his first novel on it

Moshe Elias's debut novel The Messiahs Of Princep Street is centred on the trials and travails of a Jewish stationery shop owner.
Moshe Elias's debut novel The Messiahs Of Princep Street is centred on the trials and travails of a Jewish stationery shop owner.PHOTO: MOSHE ELIAS

Pioneering public servant Moshe Elias left Singapore for London in 1977, but he missed his birthplace so much that he has based his debut novel on it.

Mr Elias, 81, published The Messiahs Of Princep Street late last year, but save for a private launch in London, has yet to publicise it elsewhere, including in Singapore.

His novel's principal characters are Jews like him who grew up here. He says nothing about the book is autobiographical.

"Nobody in the book represents anybody I know," he says, on the line with The Sunday Times from his home in North London.

His book is about the trials and travails of Jewish stationery shop owner Judah Messiah and his family. They eke out an existence in what is now Prinsep Street, with Judah leaving everything in God's hands - that is, until World War II strikes. Judah's faith is shaken by its brutality. He later dies from cancer.

"I can't write non-fiction because I don't have the patience to investigate facts. If I cannot remember something, I make it up."

MOSHE ELIAS on why he does not want to write an autobiography

The real trouble starts when his son Adam falls in love with a non-Jew, Penelope Robinson, and tussles with his conscience as the ghost of his father haunts his every turn.

Incidentally, in 1858, the colonial government here had renamed a path off Selegie Road then known as Flint Street, Prinsep Street after Joseph Prinsep. But from the 1890s to the 1960s, its street sign was spelt as Princep Street.

Mr Elias was far more fortunate than Adam, his book's protagonist. The author's grandfather had been Singapore's king of copra in the 1900s, and despite financial setbacks in 1923 and 1929, his family remained well-to-do. Mr Elias grew up in Amber Mansions off Orchard Road, and his father, Mr Ezekiel Moshe Elias, imported gunny sacks from India and various foods under the name of Elias Brothers.

His father was three months old in his grandparents' arms when they arrived in Singapore in 1890. Like all of Singapore's other earliest Jewish settlers, they had fled Baghdad, which was then under the Ottoman rulers, who barred them from going to school or setting up businesses. He married a fellow Jew named Dinah and, besides the author, had three other children. True to their Baghdadi roots, their mother tongue was Arabic and they also spoke broken Malay. The author learnt English later at St Andrew's School.

When war broke out in 1942, Mr Elias' family fled Singapore for India by ship. Being Jews, they were allowed to sleep only on deck, never in cabins, he recalls. They were to eat only after all the Caucasian passengers had dined.

"The crew felt sorry for us and would bring us bread and butter one day and fish the next," he says. He and his family returned to Singapore after the Japanese surrendered, unlike thousands of their fellow Jews, who decided to go to Australia, Britain and the United States.

Bucking family tradition, in 1958, Mr Elias chose to study naval architecture at the University of Glasgow. When he returned in the early 1960s, he first worked for the Surveyor-General of Ships here for a year and then joined the Economic Development Board and helped in the building of Singapore's first shipyards.

In the course of his duties there, he met trade union activist S. R. Nathan, who would become Singapore's sixth president in 1999.

In August 1963, he and Mr Nathan were in Tokyo when news broke of a rally by 120,000 people in Singapore led by then premier Lee Kuan Yew, to demand compensation from the Japanese government for victims of the Sook Ching massacre here in World War II.

That was after the discovery of mass graves all over Singapore in March 1962.

Mr Elias recalls the Japanese press picking up stories of what was dubbed the Blood Debt Rally and the Japanese hosting Mr Nathan and him at a dinner party were saying things like the massacre could not have happened.

"Mr Nathan is a very diplomatic person and he told our hosts that whatever the news was, 'it's not relevant right now'. That was the end of the discussion and our hosts carried on the dinner party very well," he says. "That endeared me to him and we have been friends since."

In 1967, he left the Economic Development Board and set up his marine consultancy Elias Associates.

Since resettling in Britain, he has taken tea twice with Mr Nathan at the Istana, once in 2008 and again in 2010, which was also his most recent visit here.

By that time, the father of four had been a widower for some years. He had given up his Singapore passport for a British one in the late 1970s at the behest of his late wife Yemima Shababo, who could not get a job here.

Leaving Singapore, he says, "was the worst decision". "I was a citizen; she wasn't and so she couldn't get a job."

But back to his book. His initial draft of about 400 pages, he recalls, was ripped to bits by his mates at their book club of 15 years' standing. They told him that they neither sympathised with his characters then nor had any interest in what he was writing.

"It was very hurtful when they said that," he muses, "so I tried again."

His rewrite took him about 11/2 years. The finished book's high points are whenever he describes vividly the Singapore of days gone by, such as when a brutish roast meat vendor lies in wait for Judah, who must not eat pork, so that he can hack at a pig's head noisily just as Judah is walking by.

Asked why he did not consider writing an autobiography or memoir about his time in Singapore, Mr Elias says: "I can't write non-fiction because I don't have the patience to investigate facts. If I cannot remember something, I make it up."

That might explain why, say, he refers to stringhoppers or putu mayam as "kutu maniam" in the book.

He and his book club mates still meet every Tuesday in central London to discuss one another's works. Thankfully, they now like his novel.

He says: "What you have in your hands is a very different book from how it started."

  • The Messiahs Of Princep Street by Moshe Elias is available at at US$14.28 a copy
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Labour of love for Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe