Harry Elias on his early years in a prisoner-of-war camp and how his Malay maid may have saved his life

In the fourth of a five-part series on Singapore's oldest communities, top Singapore lawyer Harry Elias recalls his early years in a prisoner-of-war camp and how his Malay maid may have saved his life

When Singapore-born Jew Harry Elias was five years old, the only times he got glimpses of his elder brothers were when he hung around Rex Cinema in MacKenzie Road.

Mr Elias, who is now 78 and among Singapore's top lawyers, recalls: "The Japanese used to park their lorry, in which they kept their prisoners, at the cinema and go to the nearby Colonial Hotel where the Colonial Bar is today. Sometimes, if I milled about there and was lucky, I could see my brothers in the lorry."

He muses: "At five, it was all Adventureland to me. I didn't know what was going on."

Mr Elias is the youngest among the 12 children of merchant Elias Jonah and midwife Sophie Reuben, who married in Baghdad before resettling in Singapore.

After the Japanese occupied Singapore in February 1942, his father and four among Mr Elias' brothers were interned as prisoners of war (POWs) in Changi Prison.

The next year, they rounded up Mr Elias, his mother, sisters and other womenfolk who were his relatives and put them in Singapore's other POW camp in Sime Road.

"I remember being terrified of the Japanese whenever they were in uniform, and they were always in uniform. They strode with boots and long swords," he recalls. "We were told from the start to bow whenever we saw them."

The one relatively bright spot in his family's ordeal was that the Japanese allowed them to keep a kosher kitchen, that is, one which satisfies the requirements of Jewish law, within the camp. "It was mainly vegetables and rice... We were hungry all day long," recalls Mr Elias, the founder and now consultant of law firm Harry Elias Partnership.

His entire family - his parents and nine surviving siblings (two had died before the war) - emerged from the war psychologically unscathed, he says. He believes that it had to do with having their own kitchen and huddling with their own as "all those of Jewish stock were in the same hut".

Mr Elias' maternal grandfather Reuben Dloomy was a chicken slaughterer from Baghdad who came to Singapore some time after 1878. Mr Elias says his forefather likely chose Singapore because the Singapore-based Jewish industrial tycoon Manasseh Meyer had just built Singapore's second - and larger - synagogue Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street.

"Once you build a synagogue, it follows that there is work to be done," says Mr Elias. The synagogue would need many Jews to certify meat as kosher, conduct prayer services and ritual baths, and officiate at weddings and circumcisions.

There were only nine Jews here in 1880 but the community peaked at 1,500 around 1942.

Post-war, says Mr Elias, there was a "mini-exodus" of Jews in Singapore to the West and the remaining Jews here were dying out. By the 1960s, the community's numbers had plunged to about 180.

Then, from the late 1980s, he says, the community began to grow, thanks to job opportunities when Singapore began developing itself as an international financial hub and then considered building integrated resorts.

Today, the community is 2,500 strong. Of that, only about 180 are, like him, descendants of Singapore's early Jewish settlers.

Mr Elias says life got better for his family after the war. He and his brothers went to the Anglican St Andrew's School in Stamford Road then. Seven of his 30 classmates were Jews, too, as the school was near Singapore's Jewish quarter, bordered by Wilkie Road, Mount Sophia Road, Bras Basah Road and Middle Road.

Mr Elias and his fellow Jews got on famously with their principal R.K.S. Adams and their schoolmates, though the cheekier non-Jews would sometimes tease them with "Jaudi Jew, brush my shoe, bring it back at half-past two".

But, he stresses, they "never queried my Jewishness. It was as if being Jewish was part and parcel of their lives as well".

Some even invited him to their homes for meals, and their parents took care not to serve him anything which had touched pork, shellfish or crustaceans, as these foods are not kosher.

In 1960, Mr Elias was the first Singaporean to be issued a Singapore passport. Called to the English Bar in 1963, he says he did not experience anti-Semitism there. But when he and his first wife lived in Kuala Lumpur from 1964 to 1969, things were different. "You could feel singled out because it was a Muslim country and there was anti-Israeli feelings, and they associated Judaism with Israel... I felt insecure."

After Malaysia's worst racial riots broke out on May 13, 1969, Mr Elias and his first wife had to abandon their house in a Malay kampung after his Malay maid warned him that his neighbours were "beginning to note that I was Jewish".

They went to stay with friends elsewhere in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore that same year, and he was called to the Singapore Bar.

Four years ago, Mr Elias and his second wife decided to have the Rabbi of Singapore Mordechai Abergel make their kitchen kosher, so that Mrs Elias' strictly kosher son could dine with them at home.

Says Mr Elias: "Everything in my kitchen is 100 per cent kosher now, from the cheese to the chocolates."

Roots, welfare and culture

The history of the Jewish community in Singapore goes as far back as the late 1800s. Here are some interesting facts about the community's roots and culture.

1. Singapore's first Jewish settlers were of Baghdadi origin. They fled persecution by the Ottomans in the Iraqi city for Asia. They spoke Arabic and, once in Singapore, adopted the Malay language too. They were Sephardic Jews, hailing mainly from the Middle East. Their cuisine is spicier than that of their fellow Jews the Ashkenazis, whose roots are in France, Germany and Eastern Europe.

2. There are about 2,500 Jews here today, from about 25 nationalities, but only about 180 among them are descendants of Singapore's early settlers. The rest are expatriates. Most of Singapore's original Jewish community are Orthodox Jews. In fact, the Jews of Singapore are the only remaining indigenous Jews of Asia, says Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, who has been the Rabbi of Singapore for 21 years.

3. Rabbi Abergel is the spiritual leader of the Jewish community here, assisted by Rabbi Netanel Rivni and Rabbi Yosel Tiefenbrun, the last of whom Rabbi Abergel appointed as rabbi of the nascent community of Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Abergel says that, to Orthodox Jews, "prayer is an intensely personal experience", and when they keep the Jewish day of rest or Sabbath, which is from sundown on Friday till nightfall on Saturday, they do not use anything electrical or electronic.

4. The Jewish Welfare Board helps the community from cradle to grave, so no needy Jew has to worry about, say, his medical bills. The board's members are all volunteers and elected yearly by the community.

5. In November 2007, the Jewish community finally had a kosher restaurant, Awafi, and an air-conditioned kosher minimart, both within the seven-storey Jacob Ballas Centre in Waterloo Street.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline Harry Elias on his early years in a prisoner-of-war camp and how his Malay maid may have saved his life. Subscribe