'Miracle' baby was a joy and disappointment

In this last of our five-part series on Singapore's oldest communities, pioneering Dawoodi Bohra economist Rosy Nakhooda recalls going from working with Singapore's top thinkers to cooking for her Canadian in-laws

As a child, Mrs Rosy Nakhooda was told by her mother that she had "to stand on your own feet; you don't have a choice. You have to have an education". And she did - going on to become one of Singapore's pioneering economists, among other achievements
As a child, Mrs Rosy Nakhooda was told by her mother that she had "to stand on your own feet; you don't have a choice. You have to have an education". And she did - going on to become one of Singapore's pioneering economists, among other achievements. Now retired, she still follows global economic developments. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mrs Rosy Nakhooda’s father Khadubhai Mamajiwalla is seated at far left in this picture of Dawoodi Bohra merchants in Rangoon, Burma, in the 1920s. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ROSY NAKHOODA
India-based Dawoodi Bohras would take a train like this from Surat to Pondicherry or Madras, after which they would set sail for South-east Asia. At far left is Khaiyumbhai Motiwalla, a relative of Mrs Rosy Nakhooda. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ROSY NAKHOODA
Mrs Rosy Nakhooda

When Mrs Moti Mamajiwalla gave birth to her only child, Ruqaiyah, in Bombay in 1936, the event was something of a miracle for her and her 39-year-old trader husband, Khadubhai Mamajiwalla.

That was because the 29-year-old housewife had been told by her doctor not to have children as her heart had been weakened by rheumatic fever in childhood, says Ruqaiyah, who is now 79 and better known by her nickname Rosy.

So imagine the couple's joy when they became parents almost 10 years after their arranged marriage in 1927.

However, as Mr Mamajiwalla was from the highly enterprising Indian Muslim community known as the Dawoodi Bohras, he rued having a daughter who, according to the traditions of the community, could never run the family business.

Rosy grew up in their home on Emerald Hill and became one of Singapore's pioneering economists. Now known as Mrs Rosy Nakhooda, she says: "My father was disappointed I wasn't a boy because it's the boys who join the firm, and he didn't have anyone to take his place. And they didn't want a girl."

Her father, who was born in India's north-western city of Surat in 1899, had come to Singapore when he was about 11, likely with his father, Abdul Tyeb Mamajiwalla.

Mrs Nakhooda's father went to Anglo-Chinese School for some years, and then did his apprenticeship in the family's stationery business E J Motiwalla & Company.

She helped tweak S'pore's education system

This was started by his maternal grandfather, Esoofali Jafferbhai Motiwalla, in 1886 and there was also a branch in Penang. Her father was then made a legal partner of the company in the 1920s.

Mrs Nakhooda says: "It was part of the Bohra tradition that their businesspeople brought their sons here first from India, rather than their wives.

"The wives came later and, in the meantime, the menfolk took care of themselves. The business was then passed on from generation to generation of menfolk."

Given such a tradition, her Indian- born mother, who was one of seven children of a Bombay-based doctor, told her: "Rosy, you have to stand on your own feet; you don't have a choice. You have to have an education."

And although Mrs Nakhooda's father did not object to her being educated, he did not acknowledge her academic achievements.

  • Roots, culture and customs

  • Solidarity is prized among the tightly-knit Indian Muslim community known as the Dawoodi Bohras.

    In Singapore since the mid-1800s, they were a community of about 400 people for many years.

    An influx of professionals in recent years has swelled their ranks to about 1,000 today. Here are five facts about them:

    1 They are renowned as traders, with their roots in India's north-western state of Gujarat. The word Bohra is actually from the Gujarati words "vohorvu" or "vyavahar" which translates as "to trade".

    2 They congregate at the Burhani mosque in Hill Street. First built as a single-storey mosque in 1897 by merchant A.M. Essabhoy, it was rebuilt in 1956, then renovated and reopened as a 10-storey mosque complex in 2000. The community has borne all the costs of enlarging the mosque.

    3 They take guidance on all matters from the Da'i Mutlaq, whom the Burhani mosque's management board defines as their "absolute or unrestricted missionary". At present, the Da'i Mutlaq is His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin Saheb, who is based in India.

    4 They have a strict dress code, particularly in the mosque. The men don a Libas-ul-Anwar or all-white robe from top to toe, and a white skullcap with embellishment in gold thread. The women wear a two-piece outfit called the rida, which leaves only their faces uncovered.

    5 Their sumptuous cuisine has Gujarati and Middle Eastern influences. They tend to eat their meals together, off a thal or metal platter, starting and ending each meal with a grain of salt. They move on to a sweet, then a savoury, alternating the courses like so until the end. No one should get up from the thal until everyone else has finished eating, as eating together symbolises togetherness and egalitarianism.

    Cheong Suk-Wai

She says with a chuckle: "He was very much a traditionalist. He would see all these tai tais in our neighbourhood and say to me, 'Why can't you be like them?' "

However, she secured an honours degree in economics from the University of Malaya here, under the mentorship of economist Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid, now Malaysia's Royal Professor.

He urged her to follow that up with a master's degree, which she duly did, at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

She then worked at Malaysia's central bank from 1960 to 1965 and, in that time, got a fellowship at the United Nations Asian Institute of Economic Development and Planning in Bangkok.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, she returned, and joined the Ministry of Finance's Economic Planning Unit.

Her boss was Mr J.Y. Pillay and she shared an office with future prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

Among other things, she worked on educational policies. "At that time, Singapore was a trading port, and (Deputy Prime Minister) Goh Keng Swee decided we should go into manufacturing," she says.

"So we had to tweak our education system to cut back on hygiene, geography and history and improve on science, technology and mathematics."

There was soon to be a sea change in her life. In 1968, she married metallurgical engineer Mansoor Nakhooda, a fellow Bohra and family friend based in Toronto, Canada, with his three brothers.

She settled down in Canada where, upon meeting her, one of her brothers-in-law asked: "What are you cooking tomorrow?"

"It was a shock," she says. "I realised then that it was going to be a huge adjustment for me from a working life in Singapore to a domestic one in Canada."

Her husband worked for aircraft maker McDonnell-Douglas and she edited part-time for publisher McGraw-Hill and later tutored at the University of Toronto.

Then, in 1972, while her parents were visiting them in Canada, her mother had a stroke. She survived, but had to be cared for day and night by her husband and nurses in Singapore.

It all got too much for Mrs Nakhooda's elderly father and so, in 1978, with her husband's blessings, she returned to Singapore to help care for her parents, with her two young children in tow.

Her husband joined her a year later. "I was with them till the end, which makes me feel good about it," she says. "If I had stayed on in Canada, they wouldn't have had anybody as I was their only child; and we Bohras don't put old folks in nursing homes. It's not our way."

Her mother died in 1980, her father in 1987, and the Nakhoodas continued living at the family home, 28 Saunders Road.

Their daughter Farhana is 43, and is responsible for IBM Global's healthcare and social services solutions business for Asia Pacific and the Middle East. She and her Australian husband have two children, and they live with her parents.

Their other child, Aarif, 46, is married to a Canadian and also has two children. He returned to work in Singapore about three months ago, after being director of finance at Amazon Prime in Seattle.

After coming back from Canada in 1978, Mrs Nakhooda went back to working full-time in the early 1980s - as an editor with the Regional Institute for Higher Education and Development, and then as a stringer with Reader's Digest.

She made time to give back to society, including serving as a council member of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations. In particular, she championed financial literacy and work-life balance for women.

Now retired, she keeps busy with painting, pottery and aqua aerobics while still following global economic trends.

She also enjoys walks around Emerald Hill with her 81-year-old husband, and delights in the company of their grandchildren. She is still active in the China Society, of which she is one of its vice-presidents, helping it publish its journals.

She says much of her zeal to give back to society comes from being a Bohra: "What I cherish most are the intangible values I was taught as a child such as goodness, bonding and looking out for others. These values anchor the Bohras."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Miracle' baby was a joy and disappointment. Subscribe