The Tenuous Presence of Religious Diasporas in Singapore

Article excerpt

The oldest surviving church in Singapore, and the second to be built there, is the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. It marks its 175th anniversary this November. The church sits at the foot of Fort Canning Hill, first seat of administration of the British founders of the modern city, with Armenian Street to its rear. It is generally open to the public to visit, but Armenian services are rarely held there these days, as the resident community is now very small.

Not that it ever was large: 12 families collected half the money for its construction, and the rest was donated by Armenians in India and Java, with smaller contributions from local European and Chinese businessmen in Singapore. The first Armenians came to Singapore in 1820, a year after the modern city was founded. They were descendants of Armenians deported to Iran from their original homeland when Shah Abbas I warred with the Ottoman Empire. Although the community did not grow beyond a hundred people, and numbers around 40 people now, it has made its mark in this island country. The founder of the main national daily newspaper, The Straits Times, was Catchick Moses, an Armenian, who sold it after one year because it was unprofitable.

The Raffles Hotel, Singapore's most prestigious, is often said to have been built by brothers from an Armenian family called Sarkies, but their role has been disputed by members of one of Singapore's most prominent Arab families, theAlsagoffs. They say that their great grandfather, Syed Mohamed Alsagoff, bought a beach house in 1870 and later expanded it into a modern hotel. The Sarkies brothers leased the property and developed the hotel's business and reputation after having run two successful hotels in Penang, now in Malaysia. Their role in the hotel ended when they went bankrupt during the Depression in the 1930s and none of their descendants now live in Singapore.

Though Armenian services at the old church are rare, two other communities, both with old Middle Eastern connections, have monthly services there. They are the Jacobite Syrian Church (predominantly Indian, despite its name, but acknowledging the authority of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, now resident in Damascus) and the Coptic Orthodox Community of Saint Mark.

Singapore's present-day Jewish community numbers 300, but that includes a large number of expatriates. Its one and only rabbi, Mordechai Abergel, grew up in the U.S. and serves in both of Singapore's synagogues. Neither of them is on Synagogue Street, now a small road overshadowed by tall office buildings, whose name preserves the memory of the first Jewish place of worship on the island. In 1878 the growing community built the Maghain Aboth synagogue, which is still in regular use-as is the Chesed El synagogue, founded in 1905 by multi-millionaire Menasseh Meyer, originally as a private place of worship after he quarrelled with a member of Maghain Aboth. …