Sikhs in Singapore 1850
Early Sikh Pioneers of Singapore by S. Sewa Singh Gandharab
Early Sikh Immigrants
Who was Singapore’s first Sikh? The answer is not readily forthcoming. No records exist which clearly state who was the first Sikh to land here. But many of the older Sikhs still alive in Singapore recall tales of one Maharaj Singh, a political prisoner exiled to Singapore by the British after the Second Sikh War in 1849.
A Sikh of noble birth, he refused to concede defeat to the British and formed a guerilla band with his followers. Unfortunately for him, he was caught and imprisoned before he could really organise himself. But his popularity among the Sikhs, even after he was jailed, was such that the British decided it was in their own interests to exile him.
He was sent to Singapore with a manservant, arriving here sometime in the 1850’s. He was housed in the old Outram Road Jail and by all accounts was a religious person, spending long periods of time in prayer and meditation. Tales passed down by word of mouth speak of him possessing spiritual powers and of working miracles. There is no record of when he died, but it is known that after his death, he was cremated outside Outram Road Jail. Sikhs of that period, believing he was a saint, built a tomb on the spot where he was cremated.
When the authorities wanted to expand the prison, his tomb was broken up and rebuilt on a spot about a mile away. In later years, the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was built near the site of the tomb. It was not disturbed and remained in what became the hospital grounds. In 1965, the government asked the Sikhs to remove the tomb as they wished to expand the hospital. So once again, the tomb was broken up. This time after some prayers, five stones all that remained of the old tomb, were removed and placed in a new resting place in the forecourt of the Silat Road Temple nearby.
Some people call this temple as Gurdwara Baba Karam Singh. Why Baba Karam Singh and not Maharaj Singh? There is some controversy over who the tomb at Outram Road and subsequently SGH grounds really belonged to. The only point of consensus is that it belonged to a saintly person. There are those who believe it is Maharaj Singh’s. Then again there are those who say it was that of Baba Karam Singh, who was said to possess some spiritual powers too. What is certain is that those who maintained the tomb and later made it into a shrine of sorts, believed it was Baba Karam Singh and the name has come to stay. There may have been other political prisoners exiled to Singapore too, but nothing is known of them.
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 from the Patiala, Ludhiana and Ferozepur districts of Punjab for service in Perak (in Malaysia). This band was known as the Perak Armed Police. The success of these early recruits prompted the British to recruit more Sikhs and by 1888, under one Captain Walker, the group had grown and came to be known as the 1st Perak Sikhs. By 1896, the force numbered 900 and was renamed the Malay States Guides with Walker as their first Colonel.
Meanwhile, the success of the Sikhs as policemen or sepoys in Malaya led the British to bring some down to Singapore. The first batch also from Patiala, Ludhiana and Ferozepur was brought to Singapore in the late 1870s and formed the first Sikh Police Contingent stationed at Sepoy Lines later known as Pearl’s Hill overlooking Chinatown. Sikh policemen were also recruited by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company to form the Tanjong Pagar Dock Police Force.
While the first wave of Sikhs came mainly as policemen, by 1885 more Sikhs from other districts in Punjab namely, Grurdaspur, Amritsar, Jullundhar and Lahore were making their own way down to Singapore to seek their fortunes. Most of these Sikhs could not enter the Police Force as the earlier recruits restricted subsequent entry to their relatives or fellow district folks. As such, these later migrants became watchmen, additional police constables, small time businessmen or went into dairy farming. The story of one Hari Singh Choney from Gurdaspur district is typical of these early migrants. Hari Singh came to Singapore in 1885. He travelled like many others on deck, cooking his own meals. He landed in Singapore at Tanjong Pagar and was helped by some Sikh policemen on duty who gave him temporary accommodation. One Sunder Singh, a police constable, helped him find a job patrolling the grounds of the Botanic Gardens. Like many of the Sikhs in Singapore then, Hari Singh led a very frugal life, repatriating most of his savings and helping to bring out other relatives. A couple of years after his arrival, Hari Singh brought out his younger brother Jaimall Singh and found him a job as an Additional Police Constable. The job of these APCs in those days was to guard the Government run opium shops which were then legal in Singapore.
Many of these early Sikhs came as bachelors. They later returned to India with some money, married and brought their families back. Hari Singh was no different, except in his case he had to return rather suddenly as his elder brother Bhagat Singh died suddenly leaving behind a young son. Hari Singh got married in India and adopted Bhagat Singh’s son, Achar Singh.
Hari Singh returned to Singapore after 1900 and got a job as a watchman with Lim Hoe Chiang of Tanjong Pagar. He was given a place to stay at the factory, at the junction of Wallich Street and Peck Seah Street. Next to the factory was an open piece of ground where Hari Singh decided to build a wooden shed and keep some dairy cows. He started with three cows and began what was eventually to become a full-time business. His adopted son, Achar Singh, started schooling but it was some time before the family grew. In 1920, the first of Hari Singh’s four sons was born. Then came the twins Bassan Singh and Wassawa Singh followed by the youngest, Inder Singh. The boys had plenty of Sikh friends as by then a lot of other Sikhs had migrated to Singapore. One Sewa Singh Sedukay, whose village is close to Hari Singh’s in India settled in Wallich Street and built a wooden shed next to Hari Singh’s and started his own cattle business. Sewa Singh Sedukay’s eldest son, Dewan Singh Randhawa till the 1980s ran the only Punjabi Weekly newspaper in Singapore.
Like all other Sikh migrants, Hari Singh put a lot of emphasis on education. He made sure his children acquired both English and Punjabi education. Achar Singh joined the Government Printing Office in Johor Bahru as a proof reader. Sewa Singh joined the Medical Department as did Bassan Singh. Inder Singh later migrated to England and became a coal miner. Wasswa Singh died in his teens. After spending virtually his whole adult life in Singapore, Hari Singh like his contemporaries, did not wish to end his days in Singapore. He returned to India in 1952 and died there soon after. His descendants now fourth generation Sikhs in Singapore, are comfortably settled middle class Singaporeans, who while they still maintain links with their village in Punjab, have no intentions to return there.
The early Sikhs were either watchmen, policemen or dairy farmers. The traders or businessmen in the community came much later after the Second World War and established themselves in High Street, dealing in mainly textiles. As stated earlier, the early Sikhs placed much emphasis in education and not surprisingly, their children either became civil servants or professionals through hard work and study.
Sikh Temples in Singapore
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. Similarly, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company built a temple for the Police in Anson Road. In 1920, a Sindhi merchant donated his house in Queen Street for a temple and the Sikhs named it Wada Gurdwara, meaning The Big Temple. The management committee consisted of elected representatives of the Majha, Malwa and Doaba Sikhs. The three temples representing these areas – Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Khalsa Dharmak Sabha and Pardesi Khalsa Dharmak Dewa – sent three members each for the management committee and one member each for the Langar (Food) Committee.
In 1925, the Majha Sikhs opened a temple in a double storey house in Queen Street near the junction of Bras Basah Road. Two years later, there was a misunderstanding over the priest, Giani Partap Singh, because he paid a dowry to get married. Santa Singh Sedukay and Ganesa Singh Malli opened another temple in Cecil Street with Giani Partap Singh as priest. So during this short period, there were two Singh Sabhas in Singapore. Two years later, both factions settled their differences and all the Mahja Sikhs moved back to the Queen Street premises. In 1931, the Sabha moved to its new temple at 90 Wilkie Road. In 1980, the Sabha moved to a new building at 92 Wilkie Road adjacent to the one built in 1931. The old building was converted into a Janjh Ghar and for accomodation. There are plans for a museum as well.
The Malwa Sikhs started a temple in Chandy Road behind the present Cathay Building about the same time as the Majha Sikhs started the Sri Guru Singh Sabha. From Chandy Road, the Khalsa Dharmak Sabha moved to its present building at 18 Niven Road.
The Doaba Sikhs had their temple at Kirk Terrace. The government acquired their land for urban development and they have since moved to Lorong 19 Geyland.
There used to be another Sikh Temple in a double storey building in Kerbau Road. This had been in existence since before the Second World War.
There were also other Sikh Temples built for the convenience of Sikhs living in nearby. One such temple was the Jalan Kayu Gurdwara. There was also one in the Naval Base for Sikhs working in the base. Another was in Sembawang Road for those living and working outside the base area. Today, a new temple exists in Yishun called Yishun Gurdwara. This is the result of the merger of the Jalan Kayu and Sembawang Gurdwaras, following the residential developments in the north of Singapore. When the British Government decided to improve and extend the Harbour Board area, it was necessary to demolish the Dock Police Barracks where the temple was situated. It offered the Sikh Contingent land in Silat Road for the temple and also gave monetary aid. Two policemen from the Sikh Contingent were nominated to collect funds for the building of this temple. One of them was Wasawa Singh, father of Bakshis Singh, a retired school principal. Funds were collected from the Sikh communities in Singapore, Malaya and Christmas Island and the Silat Road Sikh Temple became a reality. The management of the temple was left to the Sikh policemen under the chairmanship of an officer of the Sikh Contingent. After the Second World War, the Sikh Contingent was disbanded and the Silat Road Temple was handed over to the Central Sikh Temple Committee. The temple is today a part of the Central Sikh Temple.
When India and Pakistan attained independence, many Sikh businessmen who were uprooted from their homes came to Singapore and gradually this number grew. In the beginning, these Sikhs used to pray at the Central Sikh Temple in Queen Street. Later, they started a mobile temple holding prayers in the homes of their members by rotation. They soon decided to have their own temple and in time bought a building in Wilkinson Road which they have turned into a beautiful temple. Membership is limited to these original founders. Associate membership is open to all but these members have no say in the running of the temple.
The new Central Sikh Temple building was completed in 1986 and was built at a cost of $6 million. It has an air-conditioned prayer hall and is sound proofed. There is an underground car park, modern kitchen facilities, accommodation for the priests, rooms for meetings, and a library.
The Early Sikh Priests and Ragis
The first priests were from among the Sikh policemen or sepoys. Two of these were Bhai Wasawa Singh and Bhai Amar Singh. Among the early priests in Singapore were Bhai Narain Singh Chambal, Bhai Gurdit Singh, nicknamed Bhai Pawa as he was very short, Bhai Partap Singh Nangal, Bhai Inder Singh and Bhai Ganda Singh.
In the 1940s we had Bhai Assa Singh Bandal, Bhai Arjan Singh, Giani Gurcharan Singh, Giani Mohinder Singh Chakarwarti, Giani Kartar Singh Khandawalla and Bhai Hazara Singh. These learned priests lived the life they preached and were held in high esteem by the community. During their free time, they gave free Gurmukhi lessons to the children. A few of them could also do Kirtan with tabla and harmonium accompaniment.
Another well-known name was Sant Sohan Singh of Malacca. He was born in India in 1902 and came to Malaya in 1926. He stayed in the Seremban Sikh Temple for a short time and in 1926 was appointed priest at the Malacca Sikh Temple. He was an excellent Akhand Pathi and soon everyone began calling him Giani Sohan Singh. His association with three very learned priests, Giani Gurbax Singh Pandit, Sand Gulab Singh and Giani Chanan Singh Gurne, made him realise that he lacked a great deal of knowledge as far as the scriptures were concerned. So in 1932, he went on leave to India and joined the Gurmat College at Damdama Sahib and there he studied under Kartar Singh Dakha, a very famous Sikh scholar. He obtained a degree in Giani and was also conferred the title of Kawi Kawya Maha Giani (learned poet great intellectual) for his poetry.
On his return in 1934, he took up his old job as priest of Malacca Sikh Temple. He helped all those who came to him and never turned anyone away. During the Japanese Occupation, he started dressing up with a chaddar (white piece of cloth) and soon everyone began addressing him as Sant Sohan Singh. He held Granthi Samelans (Conference of Priests) for all the Sikh priests in Malaya and Singapore at which topics of common interests were discussed. After his death, no more such conferences took place. In 1921, the Khalsa Dewan Malaya employed Bhai Pall Singh, Bhai Badan Singh and Bahadur Singh Ragi Jetha (Musicians) to do parchaar (preach religion) in Malaya. Singapore Sikhs were able to listen to them occasionally when they were invited to Singapore. Bhai Pall Singh and Bhai Badan Singh were both students of the famous Bhai Jowalla Singh of Baba Bakala. It was a pleasure to listen to their classical melodies. The accompaniment on the drums by Bahadur Singh was a joy to listen to. Bhai Pall’s Singh’s children grew up and joined their father’s group. Sohan Singh Josh, the eldest son was an accomplished Tabla (drums) player. Bhai Badan Singh lived to a ripe old age. He is remembered by many of his students throughout the country.
The late Mr. Bhag Singh, a school principal, took up music in the 1930s in Kuala Lumpur and later moved to Singapore. He studied under Ustad Jeevan Khan from 1937 to 1939. Ustad Ji belonged to the Patiala Gharana of music. Bhag Singh’s first student was Ram Singh Gulzar. The author, Seva Singh, joined Bhag Singh’s group during the Japanese Occupation and initially studied under him. Later Seva Singh increased his knowledge from various other sources in India and Pakistan. Mr Bhag Singh’s group was the first local born Sikh youth musical group in Singapore and was comparable to many established groups in India.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, there was a group of Shabad (hymns) singers from the village of Mallian. They were five in number, all brothers and cousins and all were more than six feet tall. They wore malmal (very thin type of cotton cloth) kameez or shirts like those worn by Pahelwans (wrestlers), and gold necklaces. They sand mostly Halle dey Shabads, (sung like Kawalis with a fast beat). The youngsters found the fast beat with Dholak (drums), Shaney (small cymbals), Chimta and Khartale (other Indian musical instruments) very captivating.
It was only in the 1930s that Sikhs in Singapore had the opportunity to listen to other types of professional singers from India when Janki Bai and Kalka Bai of Calcutta spent a month in Singapore and gave performances every evening in Serangoon Road. There were also concerts given by professionals. Among the well known and talented musicians and singers were Dr. Chotta Singh, Master Sawan, Ustad Noor Md. Khan, Veer Chand and Master Mohammed.
There were also many talented Tabla (drum) players including Sardar Khan, Ustad Mohammed and Krishan Deo Tiwari. A student of Gwalior, Krishan Deo was also a brilliant exponent of the Mirdhang. He gave a number of solo performances at the Victoria Theatre and among the North Indian Community he was usually called Mirdhangi. Very few people knew his actual name.
Today, much of the kirtan done in the temple is either by the priests or by professional Ragis (musicians) who come on tours. As a result, very few Singaporean Sikhs do Kirtan in the temples now. Seva Singh and his family used to be one of the exceptions. His eldest son, Terlochan Singh is a Sitarist of Willayat Khna Gharana and an accomplished classical singer. Satwant Singh and Surinderjeet Singh are accomplished Tabla (drum) players. With them as with most Singapore Sikhs, Kirtan is only a hobby.
Sports and Other Activities
In 1931, a group of young Sikhs got together and formed the Khalsa Association. This group included Tara Singh, Wazir Singh, Choor Singh, Bhag Singh, Sohan Singh (Kadoo) Randhawa, Hardit Singh Karmuwalla, Terlok Singh, Mahambir Singh, Durga Das Singh, Dewan Singh Randhawa and Teja Singh. The first clubhouse was in a padang (field) at the end of St.Georges Road. It was a wooden hut. In those days, the members found it difficult even to pay the salary of the caretaker.
As more and more Sikhs joined the association, things livened up. After the Second World War, the association moved to Jalan Bahagia where a proper clubhouse was built. There was a good field for games and for the yearly fun fair, the Punjabi Mela. Some years later, the government offered a site in Tessensohn Road with compensation for the old building. A building committee was formed with Justice Choor Singh as chairman. The new clubhouse could never have been built without the untiring efforts of the committee which comprised of Jaswant Singh Gill, Sadhu Singh Khaira, Khushal Singh, Sardara Singh, Dewan Singh Randhawa, Mukhtiar Singh Matta and Tharam Singh.
Our boys have always done well in sports, winning the league championship and knockout competition in hockey many times. In cricket, we used to less well. Besides the then Punjabi School housed in the clubhouse, Tae Kwon Do and Karate lessons were also conducted there. The club is still used for weddings and dinner parties.
The Sikh Community has always taken an active part in all the National Day Celebrations by sending a contingent of marchers to the Parade under the banner of the Singapore Khalsa Association. In one of the National Day Float Competitions, we won the Best Cultural Float Prize and we were awarded the Silver Cup. For this winning effort, we have to thank Satwant Singh Bath, Pritam Singh Malli, Dharam Singh Dler, Terlochan Singh and Harbans Singh for their hard work. The Bhangra Dancers in the march past used to be a great hit with the spectators. On one wet day the caption in The Straits Times with a picture of the dancers read : The dance of joy in the streets of Singapore.
The Sikh Missionary Society
In 1940, a group of Sikhs formed an association to propagate the Sikh faith and called it the Sikh Missionary Society of Malaya. The man behind the move was Bhag Singh, a school teacher. The others in the group were Sadhu Singh Khaira, Sohan Singh Panj Garain, Ujagar Singh, Teja Singh Hitashi and Gulzar Singh. The registered office of the Society was at 175 Queen Street. The committee of the Society later managed to get Giani Phuman Singh, a very learned Sikh from India to join it. During the following years, this young group of workers did much to propagate the Sikh religion. Tracts in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English were distributed free so that the other communities would come to know the Sikhs and their faith better. Giani Phuman Singh travelled all over Malaya and gave lectures in temples.
The Sikh Missionary Society also launched a Scholarship Fund for needy Sikh students to pursue their university education. Monetary help was also given to children for their secondary school studies. The first recipients were Gorboux Singh, who became a school principal, Harbans Singh, who became a lawyer and Nachatar Singh.
The driving force behind the society was Bhag Singh. His untimely death in 1960 was a big loss to the Sikhs in Singapore and Malaya. The committees that tool over the running of the Society could not carry on as before and now the society is just a name in the books of the Registrar of Societies.
The Sikh Partinidh Sabha
In early 1950, at a meeting held at the Queen Street Sikh Temple, the Sikh Partinidh Sabha was formed. Its function was to run the Khalsa English School in Niven Road and the Khalsa Punjab School in Wilkie Road.
The Khalsa English School was very necessary at this time because there was a shortage of schools in Singapore and many of our Sikh children could not find places in government and government aided schools. Classes were from primary to secondary levels. When there were sufficient schools in Singapore to absorb all the children, the Khalsa English School was closed. The Khalsa Punjabi School at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Wilkie Road was transferred to the Singapore Khalsa Association and the Sikh Partinidh Sabha was dissolved.
The Sikh Newspapers and the Press
The first Sikh newspaper was started in Malaya in 1936 and was called the Pardesi Khalsa Sewak. In 1965, there was a change of ownership and the name was changes to Malayan Samachar. Dewan Singh Randhawa, who resigned from the Singapore Police Force in 1946, started the first Punjabi paper in Singapore in 1951. He called it the Navjiwan (New Life). It was printed in Gurmukhi script and the paper had to struggle even though it was the only Punjabi paper in Southeast Asia. Advertisments, printing of wedding cards and commercial printing kept the paper going. In the late seventies and early eighties, things brightened up. The paper brought in the latest in off-set printing. It by now had subscribers not only in Singapore, but in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia.
Two other Sikhs have gone into the printing business and do only commercial printing. They are Kartar Singh, a retired police officer who owns Ford Printers and Gurpal Singh who owns Magh Printers. Incidentally, Gurpal Singh learned the printing business as a teenager at Navjiwan