In Singapore’s northernmost district, Sembawang, just across from the Peninsular Malaysia, stands the gleaming Sir Manasseh Meyer International School. Tucked behind two luxury condominium complexes just off of Sembawang Road, the campus, featuring a rooftop pool and skylit courtyard, boasts a quiet, tree-lined residential setting unusual for schools in the Southeast Asian city.[i] The school’s namesake, Sir Manasseh Meyer, was a prominent Jewish leader in the latter-half of the 19th century, known for his massive wealth and philanthropic works benefitting the region’s Jewish community.
Sir Manasseh Meyer International School History:
Cognizant of the lack of Jewish education available in Singapore, Simcha Abergel, along with her husband Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, spiritual leader of the Singapore Jewish community, embarked on a mission to meet this need. In 1996, Simcha Abergel founded the Ganenu Learning Centre as a Jewish nursery for young children.[ii] For almost a decade from the Centre’s founding to 2005, Mrs. Abergel served as head of the school. In 2008, the institution officially changed its name to the Sir Manasseh Meyer International School in honor of the country’s prominent 19th-century Jewish leader.[iii]
Expanding from its modest beginnings, the school currently serves students from nursery age to 9th grade.[iv] Outgrowing its central setting on Tanglin Road near Singapore’s downtown district, in 2016, the school relocated to a brand-new campus in the city’s northernmost area of Sembawang.[v] With the move the school nearly tripled its capacity- from 170 at the former site to 500 students.[vi] It is currently the only Jewish day school in the country.[vii] Currently headed by American-born Daniel Kahn, the school’s curriculum is designed to enable “ students to gain a heightened consciousness of their Jewish heritage, culture, values, ethics and traditions making them relevant to their everyday lives.”[viii] Through study of the Bible, as well as Jewish holidays, Jewish and Israeli history, the school aims to teach its students the significance of their Jewish heritage from a global perspective.[ix] However, the school is open to young people of all backgrounds, and as of 2015, the Manasseh Meyer school served students of 19 different nationalities.[x]
History of the Jewish community of Singapore:
The first Jews to settle in Singapore were of Baghdadi descent, most emigrating from India after Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post in 1819.[xi][xii] Singapore’s 1830 census recorded 9 Sephardic Baghdadi Jews.[xiii] A couple of decades later, the community’s first synagogue, able to seat 40 people, was built in 1841 on the edge of Chinatown on Boat Quay along South Bridge Road.[xiv] The house of worship lent its name to the road it occupied, which came to be known as Synagogue Street. Encompassing the site was the city’s Jewish quarter which included Middle Road, Wilkie Road, Sophia Road, Selegie Road, Princep Street and Short Street.[xv] Today traces of the community site can be seen in the Stars of David displayed on the David Elias Building and Ellison Building.[xvi] In its heyday, the area was called “mahallah,” or “place” in Arabic, and was the hub of Jewish life.[xvii]
Less than thirty years after the first synagogue’s construction, the growing population required a larger building, choosing to construct the Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street, which is currently recognized as East Asia’s oldest Synagogue.[xviii][xix] This second synagogue was located on Church Street which took its name from the nearby Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.[xx]
By the turn of the century the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish population increased multifold- from only 300 in 1871 to 1,200 by 1900.[xxi] Sensing the need for a larger house of worship, the International School’s namesake, Sir Manasseh Meyer, took up the project to build a synagogue on private property neighboring his home at Oxley Rise.[xxii] In 1905, the three-story, Renaissance-style Chesed-El Synagogue was constructed from a design by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Swan & MacLaren.[xxiii]
Known for his monumental wealth, Meyer was born in Calcutta in 1843 before making his fortune through his Singapore-based opium trade.[xxiv] His properties included hotels and multiple residential developments; he was estimated at one point to own up to three-fourths of land on the island.[xxv] Meyer was recognized as the community’s most prominent benefactor and was responsible for the construction of two of the country’s three synagogues. In addition, he made sizable donations to Raffles College (now the National University of Singapore), whose original science building was named in his honor.[xxvi] Albert Einstein, in 1922, visited Singapore in order to secure funding for the construction of Hebrew University in Jerusalem from the country’s prominent Jewish leaders, and specifically Meyer himself.[xxvii] Meyer hosted Einstein and his wife at his Belle Vue estate and pledged a lofty donation.[xxviii] In 1929, Meyer was recognized for his philanthropic works and was knighted by King George V after making a sizable contribution to the British cause in the First World War.[xxix] After dominating the Jewish community for almost four decades, Meyer passed away in July of 1930.[xxx]
During Japan’s occupation of Singapore beginning in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War, some of the country’s 1500 Jewish residents were interned at prison camps at Changi Prison and Sime Road in Singapore and later on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.[xxxi] In the years following the war, the community’s population diminished to only 450 individuals by 1968.[xxxii] Many Jews left Singapore for Australia, England, the United States, and Israel.[xxxiii]
However, as Singapore’s economic fortunes improved, Jewish immigration rebounded. The most current estimates place the current population at around 2500 individuals.[xxxiv] Over the years, several members of the Jewish community have held prominent roles in Singaporean life, including in 1955 the first chief minister of the Republic, David S. Marshall of Iraqi heritage, as well as Surgeon General Dr. Yayah Cohen.[xxxv]
Today Singapore enjoys a flourishing relationship with Israel. To this day, many trusts created by the prominent Jewish families of Singapore, such as the Meyers, Ballases, Benjamins, and Sassoons, fund a number of Israel’s major charities.[xxxvi] This enduring connection typifies the strong bonds of the Baghdadi diaspora and the significant role the Singaporean Jews play in the global community.
Note: Satellite image may not be updated to display the Sembawang Road campus constructed in 2016.