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Sikhs in Singapore: Turbanators with rich tradition of donning uniform

Monday March 07, 2011 02:12:43 PM, IANS

Singapore: The appointment of Brigadier-General Ravinder Singh, a Sikh, as the next chief of the Singapore Army is the culmination of a long tradition of the community serving in uniform, both as policemen and in the armed forces, in the city-state.

Their role in Singapore belies their small number: There are only an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Sikhs in Singapore, a nation of five million people.

Their number is small even when compared to 100,000 Sikhs living in Malaysia. Sikhs came to this part of Southeast Asia as soldiers and policemen during the British era.

Brig. Gen. Singh will replace Major-General Chan Chun Sing as army chief March 25.

Singh, 46, currently deputy secretary (technology) in the defence ministry, was previously commanding officer, 3rd Signal Battalion; commander, 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade and assistant chief of general staff (plans); head joint communications and information systems department.

He has also held the posts of head joint plans and transformation department; commander 6th Division and chief of staff - joint staff.

Singh holds a Master of Arts (Engineering Science) from the University of Oxford, Britain. He also holds a Master of Science (Management of Technology) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US.

He joined the Singapore Armed Forces in December 1982. Brig Gen Singh is also the first non-Chinese Chief of Army in nearly 30 years.

Colonel Mancharan Singh Gill was the first ever when he took up the post in 1982, the report said.

The first Sikh to go to the Malacca Straits region was a political prisoner from British India. Although no records exist, he was Maharaj Singh, exiled to Singapore by the British after the Second Sikh War in 1849, according to web site

The first wave of Sikhs to land in Singapore came in the form of sepoys (policemen) recruited in India to help keep the peace and put down the Chinese gang wars. In 1873, Captain Speedy recruited 110 Sikhs for service in Perak (in Malaysia). This band was known as the Perak Armed Police.

More arrived in 1881 as a group of 165 from Punjab, India who were employed as policemen in the Straits Settlements Police Force. Eventually, the numbers increased and became a 500-member Sikh Contingent of the Straits Settlements Police Force.

Most Sikhs started out as policemen, soldiers, and guards. By 1896, the force numbered 900 and was renamed the Malay States Guides with Walker as their first Colonel.

Religion is an integral part of the daily life of a Sikh. When the first batch of Sikhs was brought to Singapore by the East India Company as policemen, a temple was built for them at Pearl's Hill Barracks. The contingent was disbanded after World War II, according to, a Singapore web site.

When India and Pakistan attained independence, many Sikhs uprooted from their homes migrated to this region.

Bilvir Singh, a professor at National University of Singapore, writing in "Framing the Sikhs in Singapore's National Mainstream", notes "the positive impression the political elites, colonial and post-colonial, had of the Sikhs, their way of life, their attributes and, more importantly, of their anticipated role in Singapore".

"For the British colonialists, the near non-stop sacrifice by Sikh soldiers in British and non-British India, greatly endeared the 'turbanator' to the British.

"In Singapore, one only needs to visit the Kranji War Memorial to have a small glimpse of the legendary sacrifices and gallantry of the Sikhs. Similarly, Sikh policemen, especially in the cantonment, greatly assisted in maintaining law and order in the many difficult times."

In the present-day Malaysia, according to Sikhnet, it is widely accepted that Sikhs played a significant role in the British Indian Army. They impressed the British officers with their fearsome, martial persona and adept ability at mastering the drill.

The 'proud Sikh soldier' and his various attributes prompted British administrators of Malaya and the Straits Settlements to consider the Sikhs as an appropriate racial category to recruit from for the para-military policing needs of the Malayan Native States and the Straits Settlements. The Sikh presence was effective, in the opinion of the British, in intimidating the Chinese secret societies and deterring the activities of the other 'Eastern criminal classes'.

The Sikhs not only served in India but also served in the British army in China, Burma and the other British colonies. Their success in China can be seen from the fact that after an agreement was signed Tienstin, several Sikhs were given the term "honors of war".

According to Malaysian blogger Normizan Nordin, among the teams that got this award is The First Sikh Cavalry and two infantry regiments of Punjab. Hence, Sikhs have been monopolising the field of employment in the security forces since the 1870s until the Second World War in Malaya.

Their involvement in the security field in Malaya indirectly has received recognition from the government.

Contribution of Sikhs in the security forces in Malaya and now the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) is an important appraisal of the Malaysian society, says Nordin.







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