Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
When we think of Singapore, we think of the Southeast Asian city state with its gleaming high-rises and strict laws — “no chewing gum!” is what I hear most commonly from people who have never spent time there. Even those who know a few things about Singaporean history and politics usually begin with Lee Kuan Yew, the Chinese-descended, Cambridge-educated lawyer who became the country’s first prime minister in 1959 and led it to independence.
What few outsiders know is that the island just off the coast of Malaysia also has a fascinating Jewish heritage. And before there was Lee Kuan Yew, there was David Saul Marshall.
In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles reached agreement with a Malay sultan to allow the British East India Company to develop Singapore as a port. Five years later, after further negotiations, Singapore became a British possession. Sephardic Jews emigrating in the ensuing decades from the Middle East, especially Baghdad, found themselves first moving to British India and then, in some cases, onward to Singapore. By the early 20th century, the Jewish community was vibrant enough that no less than Albert Einstein paid them a visit in 1922-23, to raise funds for the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. According to a press report from the time, practically the entire Jewish population of Singapore met him and his wife Elsa at the docks.
One wonders whether David Marshall, born in 1908 to one of these Baghdadi Jewish families, was there to meet Einstein.
Young David went on to study in Britain before returning to Singapore to become a remarkably successful criminal lawyer. During World War II he joined the British reserve unit defending the Straits of Malacca and became a POW when Japan took Singapore in 1942.
After the war, Marshall entered politics. In 1955, with Britain now allowing local elections in the colony, Marshall led his party, the Labour Front, to victory. He became the first chief minister of Singapore, despite the fact that its population was overwhelmingly Chinese, Malay, and Indian.
Marshall would not stay in the top post for long. In 1956 he went to London to demand full autonomy for Singapore but could not convince the Crown. When he returned home he resigned, announcing that he had failed in the mission he set for himself.
It would be left to Lee Kuan Yew ultimately to obtain independence first from Britain in 1963 and then from Malaysia in 1965. And over the decades most of the Jewish community of Singapore would emigrate to Israel, the U.S., and other Western countries. When I visited the synagogue in central Singapore in early 2006, there were hardly any Jewish Singaporeans left. The rabbi had been imported from New Jersey, and many of the congregation were expatriates living in Singapore only temporarily.
Nevertheless, the Jewish legacy in this Asian hub is undeniable. It may be Lee who became the country’s founding father, but Marshall provided the template for Lee’s eventual success. And the Singapore that Lee left behind may be a somewhat authoritarian place where his ruling party controls the vast majority of parliamentary seats, but it also remains Marshall’s Singapore: It’s the sort of place where many cultures from both East and West meet and live peaceably as friends and neighbors. It’s the kind of country where mostly Chinese and Malay Muslim voters would elect a Sephardic Jew.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."