A Profile of
the Late Mr Albert Abraham Lelah
grandfather - the late Mr Albert Abraham Lelah - was born
in Baghdad, Iraq in June 1913, to a businessman - father and
a housewife - mother. At the age of six, his family migrated
to Singapore, as his father planned to set-up an export business
in the region. While in Singapore, he attended St Anthony's
Boy's School in Victoria Street - where he learnt the English
language and excelled at the sports field. His family resided
in Bencoolen Street, (a predominantly Jewish area), where
his uncle owned a bungalow at the site of the present-day
1922, my grandfather returned to Iraq as his father had difficulty
in adapting to life in Singapore. He continued his education
at the prestigious Alliance School in Baghdad where he learnt
the English, Arabic, Hebrew and French languages; among other
subjects. At the age of sixteen, he borrowed start-up capital
from his father to set-up a shop selling sundry goods. In
a short period of time, he managed to rake in a profit and
expand his business - from one retailing lower-value products,
like thread and shoe polish; to one retailing jewellery and
1938, my grandfather decided to migrate to Singapore as the
ties between the Arabs and the Jews were worsening and rumours
were rife about the fate of the Jewish people. Singapore -
as he recalled, remained unchanged; there was the same mode
of transportation like trams and trishaws and the same hustle-and-bustle
of a vibrant city life.
grandfather established a business which concentrated on the
exporting of Japanese goods. Being the entrepreneur that he
was, my grandfather realised that he could obtain Japanese
goods at very low prices due to the on-going Japanese-Sino
war, which led to a boycott of the wholesale and retail of
Japanese goods by Chinese Singaporean businessmen. His sense
of timing coupled with his insight, enabled him to establish
a lucrative business exporting Japanese goods to Baghdad.
His sources of supply included European companies in Cecil
Street and Robinson Road namely Sime Darby and Jackson & Co:
and Chinese mercantiles, in High Street and South Bridge Road.
In addition, he attended various auctions where he partnered
with larger businessmen to auction for damaged goods retrieved
from the various ships calling at the Singapore harbour.
December 1940, he married a local girl - Miss Leah Elias,
whom he met at a Jewish function in Great World. By this time,
due to his proficiency in the Malay language, he opened a
showroom in Middle Road and concentrated on retailing his
goods to local and Straits Malays. He would repackage the
Japanese goods acquired and pass them off as European imports
to obtain larger profits.
the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in February 1942, my
grandfather sent my grandmother and my then three-month old
father - Mr Hertzel Lelah - to Bombay where he could be assured
of their safety. He only knew much later that their ship was
in fact bombed, but they survived and were rescued by another
shipping vessel headed to Bombay. My grandfather, planned
to leave on the next ship as he had to tie-up his business.
Unfortunately, he never made it as the British announced their
surrender to the Japanese two weeks later.
the first three months of the Japanese Occupation, Singapore
was virtually a ghost town as strict curfews were imposed.
Shop-owners, like my grandfather were ordered to provide Japanese
Army Officials any goods at no cost. In June 1942, the Japanese
gave an order for all Jews to assemble at Waterloo Street
for registration. My grandfather declared himself an Iraqi
subject as he was aware of the mass persecution of the Jewish
people in Europe and feared for his life. As such, he and
my uncle were sent to Changi Prison - where they were interned
for three and a half years.
grandfather, adapted to prison life and never complained about
the appalling living conditions and treatment by the Japanese
soldiers. As such, prison life sailed-by smoothly. At the
end of the Japanese Occupation, my grandfather decided to
visit his parents in Baghdad and was accompanied by Mr Jacob
Ballas (now President of the Jewish Welfare Board, Shalom
Singapore), and the late Mrs Grace Ballas. After his visit,
he went to Bombay and was reunited with my grandmother and
father. He then left for Singapore alone, and was joined by
his family later.
the money my grandfather claimed in damages from the British
government, he managed to open a business in Bencoolen Street
- wholesaling and retailing watches and jewellery. In 1948,
he rented a shop in Change Alley and named it Albert Store.
During the early years of business, he built up a strong loyalty
among customers due to his honest business practices. Among
his valued customers who became good friends over time - were
the late Tungku Abdul Rahman, (former Prime Minister of Malaysia);
and, Mr Khoo Teck Phuat, (Chairman of Goodwood Park Hotels
Store soon became the signature store in Change Alley and
was the only shop bestowed with the prestigious Certificate
of Co-operation from the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board.
In addition, my grandfather was Vice President of the Change
Alley Merchants Association where he held office for fifteen
1984, my grandfather sadly retired as Change Alley was demolished.
During his retirement years he dedicated his life to the Singapore
Jewish Community where he held office in the Jewish Welfare
Board, and was the Religious Advisor. His sense of humility
and piety made him a well-respected and much loved member
of our community. In addition, he touched many lives all over
the world and donated regularly to various charities like
The University Endowment Fund, The Community Chest, Rabbi
Meir Baal Ha Nes; and, Bayit Layeled - an orphanage in Jerusalem.
His death on 19th October, 1997 saddened many people who mourned
and prayed for his soul.
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