First Jewish museum in Singapore opens in Waterloo street

The Jews of Singapore Museum is located on the first floor of Jacob Ballas Centre, which is next to Maghain Aboth Synagogue. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Few know that the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street, meaning "Shield of Our Fathers", is Asia's second-largest and South-east Asia's oldest synagogue.

Built in 1878, the initially one-storey building has over the years been made bigger and become the unofficial centre of Jewish activity here.

On Thursday (Dec 2), it hosted a ceremony that launched the country's first Jewish museum - the Jews of Singapore Museum, which traces the 200-year history of the Jews here.

Located on the first floor of the synagogue's neighbour, the Jacob Ballas Centre, it covers the community's arrival in Singapore soon after it became a British colony in the early 1800s to March this year, when a 20-year-old man was detained for planning a knife attack at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.

The narrative it tells pauses at several key Jewish figures in Singapore's history. A panel is dedicated to Mr David Marshall, who was chief minister of pre-independent Singapore from 1955 to 1956, and a room to Mr Jacob Ballas, benefactor of the Jacob Ballas centre and chairman of the Malaysia and Singapore Stock Exchange from 1964 to 1967.

Other notable names include former Supreme Court judge Joseph Grimberg, pioneering surgeon Yahya Cohen and Sir Manasseh Meyer, a prominent businessman whose name adorns one of the buildings at the National University of Singapore's Bukit Timah campus.

"They are a reminder that greatness sometimes comes in small numbers," said Mr Nash Benjamin, president of the Jewish Welfare Board, referring to the modest population of Jews here, which number between 2,000 and 3,000 today.

"Singapore's Jewish community is the oldest continuing Jewish community in South-east Asia, which has unfortunately witnessed the disappearance of various Jewish communities, leaving behind memories of what was," he added.

"In all this Singapore is a singular exception. We can never take this for granted."

The museum was first conceptualised about three years ago and was planned to be launched with the Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, but has been delayed until now.

Mr Benjamin said the community had felt that a museum for the community that is open to all Singaporeans has been long overdue. There are write-ups about Jewish rites and festivals in the museum so those interested can be given a crash course in Jewish culture, which Mr Benjamin said is still little understood by those who are non-Jewish.

One interesting tradition cited is the pouring of water on the back of a person's car as he departs for the airport for good luck. After a boy is circumcised, the mother and child must also be on the same floor of the house for 40 days, and the child taken out to cross seven bridges.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who months before had stood in front of the synagogue in solidarity with the Jewish community after a planned attack on those leaving the synagogue was foiled, was guest of honour at the launch.

"If you look at the roads - Frankel Estate, Meyer Road... Jews have made a tremendous contribution. They've added to the richness of our history and our society today, and I'm very glad that this museum showcases the history for future generations," he told reporters.

He said in his speech to a congregation gathered for the event: "As Minister for Home Affairs, I have said more than once to you: The safety and security of all in Singapore, including the Jewish community, is a key priority. The Jewish community is not just a part of Singapore but it also thrives in Singapore."

He also paid tribute to the seven Israeli advisers who came to train Singapore's first soldiers, narrating a story in which Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister of a newly independent Singapore, had to be ushered to his office by a Malaysian soldier because the new nation did not have an army then.

"Because of our regional situation, we had to call (the Israeli advisers) Mexicans, we could not call them Israelis. This group was decisive in making contributions, training officers and soldiers, and building up professionalism in our armed forces."

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam (left) touring the Jew of Singapore Museum. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Members of the Jewish community said the community is more integrated with Singapore now than ever before. At a lunch it hosted for reporters, mutton briyani and spaghetti mee goreng were served, with ingredients sourced from a kosher supermarket in the Jacob Ballas centre that is also frequented by Singaporeans and Koreans.

Mr Benjamin said: "We are very grateful that we live in a pluralistic society like Singapore where there is no anti-Semitism. We welcome anyone to come visit."

The museum is open free of charge to the public but people must make an appointment to visit. More information can be found at this website.

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