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September 16, 2012

The Sikh factor in Malaya

I REFER to the reports “Groomed for the police force” and “Sikhs spurred by spirit to serve” (The Star, Aug 31) by Simrit Kaur.

The articles were not only succinct and well-written, but also timely as not much has been written about the Malaysian Sikh community in the local press.

What struck me most were the inspiring words by Corporal Basant Singh to SAC Datuk Amar Singh: “Those salutes that your father and I have given (as rank-and-file policemen), collect them all back (once you are an officer).”

Malaysian Sikhs can take pride in their phenomenal progress as a result of the resilience, sacrifices, and determination of the early Sikh immigrants.

Within one generation, the Sikh community was transformed from predominantly being one of policemen, bullock carters, watchmen, dairymen and mining labourers into doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals.

I would like to share with your readers up-to-date research pertaining to the first Sikhs in British Malaya and their involvement in the police and paramilitary forces.

It is factually inaccurate to associate the early arrival of Sikhs in Malaya (Straits Settlements and the Malay States of the Peninsula) with the police force.

Based on existing documentary evidence, the first Sikhs who came to Malaya were Nihal Singh (popularly known as Bhai Maharaj Singh) and his attendant, Kharak Singh.

Both of them were political prisoners who were sentenced to exile for life due to their involvement in the anti-British movement in Punjab, India.

Both of them landed in Singapore on June 14, 1850. Bhai Maharaj Singh died in solitary confinement in Singapore on July 5, 1856. Kharak Singh was transferred from Singapore to Penang in 1857 because the British authorities feared that he might cause trouble with fellow prisoners.

Subsequently, hundreds of Sikh convicts were also sent to the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang) until 1860.

A little known fact is that Tengku Kudin, the Viceroy of Selangor who was involved in the Selangor Civil War against Raja Mahdi, had a garrison of 100 Sikh mercenary soldiers recruited from the Straits Settlements stationed at Kuala Selangor in 1871 under the command of Pennefather, a professional soldier of fortune (former British army sergeant). Many of the Sikhs were killed in this civil war which ended in 1873.

The Sikhs started migrating to Malaya in considerable numbers since the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the British started recruiting them in the paramilitary forces.

On July 27,1873, Capt Tristram Speedy (a former Superintendent of Police in Penang) left for India and managed to recruit 110 discharged sepoys (Sikhs, Pathans and Punjabi Muslims) to help Ngah Ibrahim restore law and order in Larut, Perak.

Trade and tin mining in Larut was disrupted by frequent fighting between two warring Chinese clans (Ghee Hin and Hai San). Capt Speedy reached Penang on Sept 29, 1873 and proceeded straight to Larut.

These sepoys were reenlisted as the Resident’s Guard after the signing of the Pangkor Engagement in January, 1874 and became the nucleus of the Perak Police (about 160 men) together with a few Malays and Chinese constables. This force was renamed the Perak Armed Police in 1877 under the command of Lt Paul Swinburne.

The Sikhs and Pathans formed the paramilitary guard and the Malays as criminal police. The Perak Armed Police was renamed on May 15, 1884 as the First Battalion Perak Sikhs to reflect its military character.

From 1880s onwards, Sikhs were recruited in considerable numbers in the police forces of Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. They also formed the backbone of the Malay States Guides (a military regiment) established in 1896 under the command of Colonel R.S.F. Walker.

It is interesting to note that the average height of the men in the Malay States Guides was 5 feet 9 inches. The Malay States Guides was disbanded in 1919.

Sikhs were also recruited in the police forces of the Unfederated Malay States. In 1909, the Perlis police force had 27 Sikhs whilst about 60 Sikhs formed the “Military Police” in Kelantan.

By 1909, Kedah had 134 Indians (mainly Sikhs) in the rank-and-file of the police force. In 1915, some Sikhs were recruited into the Johor police force after a British Adviser was appointed to the state in 1914.

In a nutshell, the Sikhs formed the backbone of the police and paramilitary forces of colonial Malaya at least until the First World War. They played a crucial role in maintaining law and order which greatly facilitated the economic development of British Malaya.

DR RANJIT SINGH MALHI
Kuala Lumpur

Source: The Star