Singapore rabbi lauds crackdown on radical Islam
Albert Einstein raised funds for Jerusalem here. This island’s first chief minister ahead of its 1965 Independence was Jewish. Like many of the first Jews who settled in this tiny but strategically well-placed island in the 19th century from various impoverished countries across the globe, when Rabbi Mordechai Abergel made the move to Singapore 12 years ago to become the rabbi of the country’s miniscule Jewish community, the contrast could not have been greater.
The French-born, Belgian-raised and US-educated 38-year-old father of four, who studied at the Chabad School in Morristown, New Jersey, left the cornfields of Iowa, where he helped found a school, for the lavish, pristine streets of what is dubbed Southeast Asia’s financial capital.
“It has been home ever since,” he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his home.
Abergel, who also serves as Chabad’s representative to Indonesia and Malaysia and is Singapore’s official kosher butcher, notes with unmistakable pleasure that in his 12 years of work here he has not once been accosted, let alone assaulted, despite the presence of a small Muslim population.
Like Israel, Singapore is sandwiched between Muslim countries, with Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south, but the country’s Muslim minority is strikingly moderate.
“I am not a big believer in utopian peace,” he said frankly, “but the government is there to exert control with a big stick, and much to their credit they have succeeded.”
Abergel noted that the government, which dismisses civil liberties as a threat to national security, was quick to crack down on suspected al-Qaida offshoots in Singapore that surfaced after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, jailing them indefinitely.
“This sends a very strong message that the government will not entertain any nonsense,” he said, praising the government’s crackdown on Muslim extremism.
Moreover, the government has been very determined to arrange interfaith meetings between the Muslim and Jewish community leaders, exchanges which continued – at the government’s insistence – even during the height of the Lebanon War, Abergel said.
The history of the Jews in Singapore dates back to the country’s founding nearly 200 years ago by a British civil servant, Sir Stamford Raffles.
The newly-established trading post, at the juncture of East and West, quickly became a melting pot for Jews from a motley of backgrounds looking for refuge from persecution and a good place to earn a decent living.
The first Jews to settle in the former British colony immediately after it was founded in 1819 were of Iraqi origin, mainly from India.
By the following century, the Jews of Singapore, who had thrived in the free-trade zone, were among the largest property owners in the city.
Before the outbreak of World War Two, there were 1,500 Jews living in Singapore. During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, many of the island’s Jewish residents were interned by the Japanese.
After the war, many of Singapore’s Jews emigrated to Australia, England, the United States and Israel, with their population falling to 450 by 1968, three years after the country gained its independence.
Today, the Jewish community in Singapore numbers about 200, a figure that is buttressed by several hundred Jewish businessmen from around the world who work in Singapore, as well as by Israeli Embassy officials.
The island – which is about one-thirtieth the size of Israel – boasts two synagogues, one of which operates year-round, a Jewish community center, a home for the elderly, a Jewish preschool and a Sunday school.
The community imports its kosher meats from Australia, while Abergel is tasked with slaughtering chickens imported from neighboring Malaysia.
A new $4.5 million community center, which is under construction adjacent to the city’s central synagogue, will include the city’s first kosher restaurants, Abergel said.
The synagogue, which hosted a delegation of Christian visitors participating in a pro-Israel conference, the “Jerusalem Summit Asia,” for Shabbat lunch, offers free Shabbat meals for visitors after services.
Abergel’s only concern is for his family that still lives in France.
“I can’t understand why they are still there,” he said. “I ask them all the time.”