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Singapore Tours: Discovering Singapore’s Hidden Jewish History

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Jacob Ballas. Meyer Road. Nassim Road. One mama discovers the stories behind these staple Singapore names on an enlightening tour of Singapore’s surprisingly rich Jewish history.

Melting pot is often used to describe Singapore’s rich history and culture and many are familiar with the main cultural “ingredients” that make up the diversity of its population: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other. Specifically, it is this “Other” category that intrigues me, knowing only that in Colonial Singapore it referred to minorities other than Europeans. In search of answers, I recently discovered that Jane’s Singapore Tours offers a journey through Singapore’s Jewish Heritage. Although the Jewish community is but one of many “others,” I jumped at the opportunity to learn about a small but vibrant group that has contributed so much to the Little Red Dot.

The tour begins at the Isaac Ellison Building, a Star of David prominently displayed on its pediment. Ellison was part of a second wave of Jewish immigrants to Singapore who were primarily Ashkenazi (of European descent), as opposed to their Sephardi (Iraqi) counterparts who arrived much earlier in the 1830s and ’40s.We hear about his progressive marriage, the building’s history, and how, like many of his contemporaries, Mr. Ellison’s Singapore success story is truly “rags-to-riches.”

Along another busy intersection, we discuss famous Jews who resided at this very spot: Jacob Ballas (yes, like the Childrens’ Garden) and Harry Elias, a notable attorney who began Singapore’s pro bono legal assistance program. On the right are the 1930s art-deco offices of FJ Benjamin, who brought famous fashion houses to the island. To our left is the birthplace of David Marshall, Singapore’s first Chief Minister from 1955-56. Just across the street sits the David Elias building, proudly peppered with large Stars of David throughout the second story.

Our group walks towards Waterloo Street to visit the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. Built in 1878, it is the oldest functioning synagogue in Southeast Asia. The modest building has counted among its congregants and board members a “who’s who” of notable Singaporeans, including David Marshall, Jacob Ballas, and Manasseh Meyer. We learn that Meyer, a prominent merchant, had a disagreement with the Maghain Aboth board and decided to use his own funds to build a new synagogue. A short ride takes the group to Meyer’s masterpiece: the Chesed-El Synagogue. Built in 1905, it was first used only by his family but later opened to the public. We “oooh” and “aaah” at its ornate and airy interior, far grander than its predecessor!

Our last stop is a rare treat: Eden Hall, the official residence of the British High Commissioner. Built by Ezekiel Manasseh and later donated to the British High Commission, the residence looks like a miniature Goodwood Park Hotel for good reason: Mr. Manasseh was one of its original three owners and the architects of the Goodwood also built this house. It is fitting that Eden Hall sits on Nassim Road, which is named for (you guessed it!) another prominent Jewish Singaporean.

The tour has made an indelible impression on our group and we are all ready to come back for more. Perhaps an Armenian or Sikh community tour is next?

Jane’s Tours last from 9am to 12:30pm and are priced at $60-$70. Click here for a schedule of upcoming cultural and community tours, or contact Jane’s Tours if you’d like to customize a private tour.

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