Courtesy:Sikh Gurudwaras in Malaysia & Singapore
Saran Singh Sidhu AMN,PNM,FRNS
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Malaya was the first foreign country that the Sikhs from Punjab emigrated to. This was precipitated by the death of legendary ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839, who reigned over the last and only important kingdom not under British control. Aided by the treachery of some generals in the kingdom, the British annexed Punjab in 1848. Eyewitness accounts extolled the bravery and heroism of stalwart Sikhs who fought the British. Viscount Gough, the campaign commander, regarded the Battle of Sabraon (1845) as the Waterloo of India. Another general, Viscount Hardinge noted: “Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered. The Sikhs met their fate with the resignation which distinguished their race.” Malkiat Singh Lopo adds: “The loss of the Sikh kingdom is not forgotten till today.”
A key freedom icon of Punjab, Bhai Maharaj Singh, and his disciple Kharak Singh were exiled by the British to Singapore in 1850. He was kept in a windowless dungeon at the Outram Road Prison, where he died six years later. A samad, or memorial, was built at the place of his cremation — which became a holy place for his followers. He was believed to have saintly powers, and the Sikhs refer to him as a “keramatwala”. A year later, Kharak Singh was seized on the orders of Lord Elgin, taken aboard a gunboat and sent to Penang. The Samadhi of Bhai Maharaj is now in the Silat Road Gurdwara in Singapore.
In 1915, as a result of propaganda by the revolutionary Ghadr Party in California, the Indian troops stationed in Singapore mutinied against the British. Articles and poems on revolution were widely circulated in secret. The British managed to quell the mutiny, but there was mass desertion from the regiments. Soldiers fled by crossing to Johor. They received a lot of help from railway construction workers along the way, and others who provided food, clothing and cash for them to return home. Apparently, the escape was much easier for the Punjabi Muslims who easily blended with the local Malays. The Sikh troops had to disguise themselves by shaving off their long hair and beards to avoid being captured. Most escaped to Siam.
As the Sikh population on the peninsula rose, a unique service established itself in railway towns like Taiping, Kuala Kangsar and Tanjung Malim. It became a common sight to see Sikh men with milk churns standing on the railway platforms, giving away free heated fresh milk. It was normal for travellers from India to use the train to reach their destinations in Malaya. Giving food and drinks to any ‘musaffir’, or traveller, is highly regarded as a religious merit in Sikhism. So these men would spend their time voluntarily to give milk to any needy child or adult, whatever the race or religious affiliation. Their services were much appreciated because the use of tinned or powdered milk was alien to many children then. Wealthy Sikh cattle owners gladly donated their extra milk for this purpose. Some Sikh individuals even spent their time giving away cooked food to travellers.
Taiping was the headquarters of the Malay States Guides (MSG), a body of local Indian troops which formed Malaya’s own regiment. In 1873, the Orang Kaya Mantri of Larut, Dato’ Ngah Ibrahim, was worried about rivalry between Ghee Hin and Hai San Chinese clans in the tin-mining region, and wanted fighting men from Punjab to maintain law and order. He consulted Captain T. Speedy, who formed the 1st Battalion Perak Sikhs, which originally comprised 110 men of Sikh, Hindu and Pathan origins. This battalion became the MSG in 1896. During the First World War, the MSG regiment was mobilised to serve in Aden. It was disbanded when the war ended, and its men not brought back to Malaya.
The early Sikh community in Malaya produced a string of prolific writers. In one book ‘Maha Jang Europe (Great European War) 1914-1918AD’, the writer Havildar (Sgt.) Nand Singh vividly described the daring exploits of the Malay States Guides in Aden when they fought the Turkish forces. The book was written in poetry form called kissa that could be sung or lyrically recited. Another writer, Gurbaksh Singh Kesari, the police granthi, published about 70 booklets through the generosity of Subedar Bahal Singh JP of Kulim. Gurbaksh’s ‘Panth Jagawan (Path of Awakening)’ had a profound influence in awakening the masses in Punjab.
The largest Sikh community in Malaya by the time of the First World War was in the district of Larut and Matang in Perak. When the Malay States Guides were disbanded, the Singh Sabha, a registered local Sikh society, convinced the British Resident that the holy temple, the Gurdwara, within the Taiping army compound belonged to the Sikhs and not the military. Once the Resident was agreeable, the Sabha performed an incredible feat of dismantling the building and re-erecting it almost intact on the present site granted by the government near the railway station. The building is today called the Gurdwara Sahib Taiping.