Published: 02 December 2021
Mr Nash Benjamin,
President, Jewish Welfare Board
Rabbi Mordechai Abergel,
Chief Rabbi of Singapore,
Mr Alvin Tan,
MOS (MCCY & MTI),
Ms Chang Hwee Nee,
CEO, National Heritage Board,
Leaders of the Singapore Jewish Community,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Good evening to all of you.
2. I am extremely honoured to be here today for this official opening of the ‘Jews of Singapore’ Permanent Exhibition, and to join in the Hanukkah celebrations.
3. We had a tour of the exhibition, and as you have heard today, it has been some years in the making. We, the National Heritage Board, we want every community in Singapore to not just take pride in their heritage, but to also put it out for others. Because, this is part of Singapore, it’s a short history, but it's made rich by the experiences of all the different communities and it’s a wide variety because we were an Emporium of the East, as one of the most prominent British colonies in Asia.
4. And so, the Government is extremely happy that this exhibition has come about, and it will serve as a valuable place, a repository for the history of Jews in Singapore. It chronicles the journey and the contributions of the community, and it includes the pioneers. And it is as an important reminder of our common beginnings, and our collective Singapore heritage.
Jewish Community in Singapore
5. The community dates back to the “founding” of modern Singapore in 1819.
6. Jewish traders, a majority from Calcutta and of Baghdadi origin, followed the trade routes of the British Empire, and established a community here.
7. The first Singapore Census in 1830 recorded nine Jews amongst the residents of Singapore. Many others had soon followed them.
8. A second wave of Jewish migrants from Europe, Russia and Egypt arrived between 1870 and 1900. Like many of our forefathers, they sought new opportunities, in Singapore.
9. Throughout the years, this Synagogue, which means “Shield of our Fathers”, has served as a focal point for the Jewish community in Singapore.
10. Its origins from 1841, along Synagogue Street, and it’s the oldest surviving Synagogue in all of South East Asia.
11. I gave a speech to the American Jewish communities in New York during the UN session when I was foreign minister, and I showed them some pictures of the Jewish community here. They were particularly impressed with the richness and variety of the Torah scrolls and the cases where the scrolls were kept, and the way the Jewish community was organised. And I told them about the history of the community. Today, the Jewish community in Singapore number in the thousands, and that’s an extremely important part of our multi-racial, multi-religious society.
12. And as the exhibition shows, members of the Jewish community have been prominent in many fields – Politics, Business, Law, and of course other professions.
13. Our former Deputy Prime Minister and first Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam, visited this Synagogue in 1978, on its 100th anniversary. He made a speech, which remains very relevant today.
14. And about the Jewish Community in Singapore, he said: “Their contributions to the life and growth of Singapore far exceeds what mere numbers suggest (…) You only have to list out the street names of Singapore to realise the eminence to which members of the Jewish Community had risen with Singapore’s development.”
15. And he continued: “There are many parts of the world where to be a minority is to be resented and be oppressed. In the kind of Singapore we’re creating, [that’s 13 years after independence], there are no majorities and minorities, but simply good men and bad men, with the good men, whatever their race, language and religion, invariably triumphing over the bad men whatever race, language and religion.”
16. 43 years on, that project is a little more advanced.
17. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, equal opportunities for all, and importantly, the Jewish Community feels safe in Singapore.
18. As Minister for Home Affairs, I have said more than once to you, that the safety and security of all in Singapore, including the Jewish Community is a key priority.
19. You’re not just a part of Singapore, but you also thrive in Singapore, and we want you to thrive in Singapore. We want to make sure, and we will do our best to make sure, that you’re safe and that you will enjoy the freedoms in Singapore that are becoming rarer in many other parts of the world.
20. And the names of the prominent Jewish leaders’ rings in the ears. And in recent times, you have Marshall, Jacob Ballas, Joe Grimberg, Harry Elias, FJ Benjamin, many others.
21. Let me now speak a little on relations between Singapore and Israel.
22. Singapore and Israel marked 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2019.
23. We have a deep, longstanding friendship that goes back to 1965, when Singapore had to become independent.
24. As a newly independent nation, few gave us a chance then, of surviving on our own. We had no natural resources, a population of under two million, a land area of 580km2, and a GDP per capita of about US$500. And of course, we didn’t have an army to defend us.
25. One of the stories that I remember, is that on the day that we became independent, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who stayed at Oxley Road, had to go to the Istana. The commander of the Malay regiment in Singapore, came up to his house and said, “I will take you to your office.” Meaning that Mr Lee needed the protection of the Malaysian army to go to his own office. We didn’t have an army, but we decided that we will have an army.
26. Israel came to Singapore’s assistance, to help build up our army. Months after Singapore’s independence, a small group of seven Israeli advisors arrived in Singapore. Because of operational considerations, we had to call them ‘Mexicans’.
27. This group made decisive contributions, in training our officers and soldiers, and building up professionalism in our armed forces. Our concept of a conscript army and National Service was all modelled after the Israelis.
28. Today, the SAF is recognised as a modern and professional military force, more than capable of defending Singapore. We owe a deep gratitude to Israel, and we do not forget our friends who have helped us. Israel helped us to ensure that we can defend ourselves. The bilateral relationship today extends beyond security cooperation and defence. The trade between Singapore and Israel stood at S$1.7b in 2020.
29. Singapore companies look to partner Israeli venture capital funds and start-ups in technology-related sectors, and there are strong academic ties between our universities. And as Israel looks eastwards towards the growth in Asia and China, economic relations between Singapore and Israel will likely deepen further.
30. To conclude, let me return to 1978 and the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. David Marshall, our first Chief Minister, was the Guest of Honour. He said: “We are not celebrating a building of brick and mortar which has survived for a hundred years. We are celebrating the spirit it epitomises, the spirit of inter-religious and inter-racial respect.”
31. Archives and photos from that day showed Buddhist monks, Sikh priests, and members of Singapore’s Inter-Religious Council also attending the celebrations. It is in this spirit that I wish the Jewish Community in Singapore every success, and express appreciation for the community’s contributions in making Singapore a vibrant, multi-religious, multi-racial home for all of us.
32. I wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah. Thank you.