Are there Jews in Singapore?

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Fleeing from an expected cold winter in Switzerland and choosing as the destination Singapore had many reasons. Curiosity, family ties and the attraction of a new experience.

Singapore polarizes. Some declare it as the „Garden City“, 147 km north of equator, a necessary stopover on the way to Australia or new Zealand. Others see it as the cold beauty, or praise the cleanliness of the city and are exited about the good shopping possibilities.

It was my first visit and I am thrilled, overwhelmed. Some blind spots in my view I will cover with sympathy. However, I still maintain my usual critical view.

Modern Singapore has been founded as a commercial settlement (Hong) 1819 of the British East India Company. Partners of the contract were the Sultan of Johor (Malaysia) and Sir Stamford Raffles. 1965, after a turbulent history, with a disreputable participation of Japan in the 2nd WW, Singapore ended the contract and attained full independence.

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Sir Stamford Raffles

Many buildings in the city remind of Raffles and the British period.

Since its independence the land area has been increased by about 25%, to about 719 km2 today.  Singapore consists of about 50 islands, the largest measures 42 km from east to west and 22 km from north to south. On the northern border a bridge connects with Malaysia. Crossing the border into Malaysia is without problems, unless with an Israeli passport. Malaysia  is open and liberal for Jewish visitors but has a strong aversion regarding Israel. For example, Israeli windsurfer were not permitted to enter the country for a world cup, because they refused to forgo to show the Israeli flag, our anthem and signs on the sails.

Singapore has about 5.4 million inhabitants, whereby about 3.4 million are citizens. Chinese with 74% are the majority, followed by Malaysians with 13% and Indians with 9%, other groups with 4%.

Many inhabitants without citizenship are working for foreign companies and live there as „permanent residents“.

English is the colloquial language. But sometimes its difficult to understand a taxi driver speaking it with a Chinese accent. But, no problem, a smile, some nodding and the communication goes on. Other languages are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and Yiddish.

In the city-state Singapore many religions live in peace together. Buddhists, Taoists 51%, about 2000 Jewish families, most of them not registered in Jewish communities.

The government is a parliamentary democracy with 90 parliamentarians, a State President and a Prime Minister.

Media, including TV, are under control of the government. Satellite receivers are not permitted, exceptions are some international hotels with a reduced program.

Costs of living are highest worldwide, followed by Paris, Oslo, Zürich and Sidney.

95% of homes are constructed by the state and allocated for 99 years. The costs of a 3-room flat is about 25.0000 S$ (about 170.000 CHF). Depending on quality and locations prices can be much higher. The allocation follows clear regulations. The question „Motek, should we apply for a flat?” may be interpreted  as a marriage proposal.

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Housing complex, built by the government

Remarkable, the traffic in the city is, contrary to Tel Aviv but also to Zürich, unhurried. Hectic and traffic jams occur outside of the city, where small streets flow into „Express Highways“ connecting the suburbs with the city, where a small accident may cause large traffic jams.

How Singapore protects  itself from a traffic collapse? First, with the efficient “Electronic Road Pricing” system, ERP. The car driver pays when using the infrastructure. At low frequencies costs are lower than in rush hours.

New cars are extremely expensive, about the double as in the country of origin. Mainly because of a high import taxes but also because of duties depending on the engine size. Used cars must be below three years when changing ownership.

Singapore does not recognize a foreign driving license. Within one year foreign drivers must pass a driving and theory test. Lucky me, in Israel I just had to pass the practical test.

The government of Singapore is tough and fast enforcing the laws. Chewing Gum is prohibited, unless a tourist has a medical prescription for Chewing Gum with nicotine for medical reasons. Cigarettes may be imported in minimal quantities and open packaging only. The cigarettes available in Singapore are stamped individually with a customs stamp. Violations are very expensive. Drastic fines are imposed when not using crosswalks. Many reminder signs warn the pedestrians. And its really bad, when you are lying.

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In „Little India“, together with „China Town“ the two “picturesque” quarters, public consumption of alcoholics is prohibited from Saturday 7 a.m. until Monday 7 a.m. and on holidays. The same applies for the nightclub and red-light district Geylang. The sale of alcohol as „take-away“ is also regulated. Offensives against this law are punished with S$ 1.000.- for private buyers and up to three month prison in case of recurrence and up to S$ 10.000 for shop owners. Singaporeans love to organize barbecues over weekends in one of the many public parks. For them the municipality is issuing special alcohol authorizations.

Beside some mostly small churches, from the British colonial times, are many temples and Mosques, some of them very colorful and fighting for a place in the otherwise hypermodern city.

One of the oldest temples is in Little India the „Sri Veeramakaliamman“ Hindu temple, the oldest in the city. Built 1881 by laborers immigrating from Bengal to Singapore.  Dedicated to the goddess Kali, the laborers expecting protection and support from her.

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The colorful pagoda of the „Sri Veeramakaliamman“ temple
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A glimpse into the entrance hall

In China Town the „Buddha Tooth Relic Temple“ with fife floors dominates the area. It was founded in 2002 and consecrated in 2008.  In a massive golden „Stuppah“ on the fourth floor of the building rests a tooth, attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, the tooth carries spiritual power, passed on to the  owner.

 

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The entrance to the „Buddha Tooth Relic“ temple
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The main hall for prayers

On the ground floor every one finds his „personal Buddha“ from one of the hundred exhibited miniature Buddha’s, of which according to the year of birth the one responsible Buddha is chosen.

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Detail from the wall of the 100 Buddahs

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From secured information we know that the history of the Jews in Singapore begins 1830, when nine Jewish traders, together with their families lived in Singapore and were registered. 1840 three Jewish businessmen, including one from the famous Sassoon family, rented a plot of land at todays Synagogue Street, to build a Synagogue for forty persons. Around this street Jewish citizens of Singapore settled, to be near the Synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, in order to reach it by walking. A few years later the building was in bad condition.

Manasseh Meyer, a British philanthropist, asked the government for the rental of an other plot of land, to build a new Synagogue.

Die Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built between 1873 and 1878 on Waterloo Street is the oldest active Synagogue in south-east Asia. To the one floor building two other stories have been added, one of them for women. In the cellar of the building is a Mikwe, which is still in use. The building style is neo-classical. The front of the building has pillar framed vehicle access, now glassed. As a tradition the access was used on Shabbat for Jews using a Rickshaw, which was permitted in Singapore in the past. From the access some steps led into the Synagogue.

The Jewish community in Singapore grew rapidly and during the high holidays  space was constricted. As a reaction Manasseh Meyer built for himself and for friends his own, the Chesed El Synagogue, in walking distance to the main Synagogue, inaugurated 1902. The building was the first one in Singapore with gas lights. Very nice are the painted glass windows, reminding of the Chagall windows at the Frauenkirche in Zürich and at the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

There is a story, that Meyer engaged elderly Jewish men to act as Minjan-Men, to make sure that always ten men were present. This might be true, because there are other stories about a strike 1920 of the Minjan-Men for higher payments for their services.

In a census 1931 931 Jews were living in Singapore. Together with Arabs they were then the  biggest owners of land property.

It was not only the tight space in the Synagogues which made them separate into two communities. The mainly European Jews have been joined by Jews from Arab countries. Both groups had a problem to co-ordinate their traditions. Today the Maghain Aboth Synagogue has Chassidic-Ashkenasi rites, the Chesed El Synagogue  Sephardic. Both are active, whereby the Chesed El Synagogue has services on Monday mornings and high holidays and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Friday evening, Shabbat and holidays.

In the second part I will tell about the life in the community Maghain Aboth Synagogue, of which we attended on two Shabbatot and about interesting persons we had the honor and pleasure to meet there.

Some more pictures from Singapore

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Taken from the 56. floor of the „Marina Sand Hotel“. From left to right: harbor, financial district, parts of the british style city with Fullerton Hotel, House of parliament and High Court, the newest part of the city with the Esplanade Opera House, the floating stage and some hotels
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The „Helix Bridge“ but up like a human DNA chain and the „Marina Sand Hotel“
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In the left the „Gardens at the bay“ in the center the entrance to the Marina Sand Mall
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If you need a drink: „Pure natural“ Krombacher Beer from Germany
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View from inside the mall to the Financial District
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Sunset
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50.000 white balls ins honor of 50 years Singapore floating in the Marina
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Vertical gardening
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