Larger than life: Businessman and community leader Ameer Jumabhoy

"Ameer" Jumabhoy, as he was known to all, died on Nov 24 morning at the National University Hospital.
"Ameer" Jumabhoy, as he was known to all, died on Nov 24 morning at the National University Hospital.
Mr Ameerali R. Jumabhoy was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award last year by SICCI. PHOTO: SINGAPORE INDIANS HALL OF FAME
Mr Ameerali R. Jumabhoy was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award last year by SICCI.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INDIANS HALL OF FAME
Mr Ameerali R. Jumabhoy (centre) receiving the SICCI Lifetime Achievement Award from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in the presence of SICCI chairman T. Chandroo last year.
Mr Ameerali R. Jumabhoy (centre) receiving the SICCI Lifetime Achievement Award from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in the presence of SICCI chairman T. Chandroo last year.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Shoppers at Paragon mall along Orchard Road would sometimes spot an elderly gentleman with the air of a Malay prince seated alone at PS Cafe, spooning up mouthfuls of dessert from a large bowl.

To those who stopped to say hello, Mr Ameerali Jumabhoy, already in his 90s, would spot the amusement in their eyes and, waving a fork, would explain with a straight face: "They won't let me have it in my house, you see."

Perhaps childhood memories stirred in him even more fondly when he was around that part of Orchard Road. Around the corner, on Scotts Road, once stood the 80,000 sq ft property with its twin bungalows where he was raised as the son of Rajabali Jumabhoy, the leader of Singapore's Indian community in the first half of the 20th century and the first assemblyman for Telok Ayer constituency.

The Jumabhoys held the agency for Indian shipping companies sailing to Singapore and Malaysia, so had offices not just in Singapore but also across the Causeway, in Penang and in Port Swettenham, now called Port Klang.

It also handled the ticketing operation for the MV Chidambaram, the passenger ship operated by Shipping Corp of India that plied between Madras, now called Chennai, and Singapore - the route taken by thousands of Indian immigrants looking for work before regular, affordable air services began from the Indian mainland.

It was Ameerali's idea to redevelop the massive property as the Scotts Shopping Centre, and Ascott as Singapore's first purpose-built professionally run serviced apartments, that would help him emerge from his father's long shadow and make his mark as a businessman in his own right. For the same reason, losing the business, Scotts Holdings, after a bitter family quarrel that ended up in court would crush him subsequently.

"Ameer" Jumabhoy, as he was known to all, died on Tuesday (Nov 24) morning at the National University Hospital, a month short of his 95th birthday. He had been ailing for a few weeks, first with a kidney infection and then pneumonia.

Till the end of his days, he displayed an energy that would have been surprising in one even 30 years younger. At my book launch in May 2016, Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was the guest of honour, stopped to have a word with the dapper Jumabhoy patriarch and asked his age. Ninety, replied Mr Jumabhoy.

"You must have very good genes," Mr Goh responded, clearly impressed.

The genes were strong, certainly. His father, Rajabali, founder of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce, lived past 100. Several other relatives also proved fairly durable. Mr Ameer himself didn't look as though it was time for him to go.

Born in Singapore and educated initially at Anglo-Chinese School, Mr Ameer's love for sport and sense of humour left a mark on all he came in touch with. He took his O Level examinations while the Japanese were literally bombing the island. Praised for his bravery, he would respond with a wink that the truth was that he stayed only because he feared his examination results would be invalidated if he did not complete the paper.

Born into the privileged life of upper class Muslim Anglophiles, Mr Ameer would say that he got his first taste of what it was to be a British subject when he and his mother, pregnant with child, were sent to India on a ship arranged by Indian independence hero Jawaharlal Nehru to evacuate Indians seeking to escape the Japanese Occupation.

The Caucasians got the cabins and state rooms while the Indians were put below deck, allowed on top only twice a day for exercise. This shaped his perspective, he used to say, and, upon arrival in Bombay, now Mumbai, led him to participate in Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India Movement against British Rule, earning him spells in prison.

After World War II ended he returned to Singapore with a Bombay university degree and a wife, Amina, who he had met through relatives in the bustling Indian metropolis.

The involvement in the Indian independence movement fired his political instincts in Singapore. Mr Ameer was drawn to Mr David Marshall of the Workers' Party, and oldtimers from those days recall sometimes seeing him moving about with a hammer tucked into his waist band.

Mr Marshall remained a lifelong family friend.

Mr Ameer frequently talked of Gandhian ideals. By that he meant the ideals of non-violence and looking at people without communal lenses, values that sat easily on him. As for the spartan lifestyle affected by the Apostle of Non-violence, that was not his. Indeed, horses and polo, the sport of princes, was a lifelong passion.

He was the first Singaporean to be elected president of the Polo Club, serving for more than a decade and using his friendships with influential people, such as the late Mr Eddie Barker, to secure the club, which sits on prime land at Thomson Road, an extended lease that still has years to run.

Ascott Residences got its name partly because of it Scotts Road location and also as a nod to the famed British races at Ascot, with the extra "t" added to avoid copyright issues that may arise.

With the late Mr Tan Choo Keng, he was a co-founder of the Equestrian Federation of Singapore. Today, hundreds of Singaporeans are into riding as a consequence of his efforts and participate in equestrian events at the Asian Games and the SEA Games.

While he lived and loved the good life, the community instinct was never absent.

Noted mediator and arbitrator K. Jaya Prakash says that early in his career as a lawyer and solicitor, Mr Ameer threw him a lifeline by bringing him in as a legal adviser to the Singapore Shipping Association, of which Mr Ameer was a founding member.

"Ameer Jumabhoy was part of a very rich tapestry in Singapore, and he and his father contributed to the colour, showing themselves to be different," Mr Prakash told me. "He had no prejudices of any kind and he had a presence. There was about him what the French call joie de vivre."

Business figure Haider Sithawalla, who worked with Sinda for nearly a decade since its inception and later served as a Sinda trustee, says he often went to Mr Ameer for counsel and help and always got a willing ear.

At the height of Mr Ameer's career as a business personality and community figure, an invitation to dine with the Jumabhoys was considered a huge event with upwardly mobile Indians in Singapore. That dimmed with fate and circumstance. In 1992, Mr Ameer's wife Amina, who had survived cancer, died in the lift of a city hotel while she was going up for a cocktail party dressed in her favourite sari. She was 68 at the time.

It was a crushing blow for Mr Ameer, who then took to a period of ceaseless travelling to get over the loss. His children encouraged him to look for another partner but he demurred, drawing closer to his children instead, often offering to pick up the grandchildren from school and dropping by for lunch.

Then the family lost control of Scotts Holdings.

People close to the Jumabhoys say the feud - which pitted oldest son Rafiq against his father and his two brothers - would have been managed if the strong-willed Amina had lived. She would have simply knocked heads until the matter was settled amicably.

It surely was some comfort that in his last weeks the family was in daily touch with the Kuala Lumpur-based Rafiq.

Aside from Rafiq and Iqbal, Mr Ameer had a daughter, Mimi, who has a furniture business, and a son Asad, who made his career in the duty-free refund business.

In his last decade, Mr Ameer moved into an extension of his son Iqbal's house off Holland Road, the place designed to give him privacy of access and room for his study and books.

He loved to be at seminars and public forums. Ambassador at Large Gopinath Pillai, who chairs the Institute of South Asian Studies, says Mr Ameer was always a front-row presence at ISAS seminars. At almost every seminar, says Mr Pillai, he would have a question and it would be an intelligent and probing one.

The late Mr Marshall used to say that it is important to "leave a good perfume behind when you leave the scene".

Mr Ameer Jumabhoy, his acolyte and lifelong friend, lived up to that ideal.