The Sikhs in Singapore

| Singapore |  20 Sept 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Singapore's Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road
Singapore’s Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road

By Prof Tan Tai Yong

In 1881, following a recommendation by a Commission of Enquiry of the Straits Settlement Police Force in Singapore, 165 Sikhs arrived on the island from the British Indian province of the Punjab to form the backbone of a new police contingent.(2) This was the first recorded case of an influx of Sikhs, in any significant number, into Singapore. Prior to this date, there was little evidence to indicate the presence of a sizeable local Sikh community in the island, although it was likely that soon after the establishment of a British settlement in Singapore in the early nineteenth century, some Sikhs had come as sepoys (`native’ soldiers of the British Indian Army), domestic servants and convicts.(3)

Sikh emigration out of their traditional homeland in the Punjab gathered momentum not long after the region was annexed to the British Indian empire in 1849. This outward move was motivated primarily by economic conditions following the imposition of British rule in the Punjab. British annexation had brought order and stability to the Punjab, which hitherto had been plagued by internecine conflicts. Political annexation was followed quickly by economic reforms – mainly the systemisation of land ownership and taxation – which in turn ushered in a period of prosperity to the new British province.(4) The economic fortunes of the Punjabis were further enhanced when many of them, particularly the Jat Sikhs, were recruited into the British Indian Army in the wake of the Mutiny and Revolt of 1857.

In the 1870s, the effects of economic changes brought about by British rule began to be felt, and ironically, one of the results of political stability and a settled economy was peasant indebtedness. With the increased profitability of agricultural output, cultivable land, especially in the densely populated Manjha area of central Punjab, became a valued commodity, and peasants began using land as collateral to borrow cash from moneylenders. The money obtained was then used to purchase more land, pay off land revenue due to the state or to support ostentatious lifestyles. Thus indebted, with the risk of eventually losing their land if loans were not repaid, Sikh agriculturists had to turn to non-agricultural activities for supplementary income. Military service became a very popular vocation among the Sikhs, as military pay and pension provided a steady source of additional income. However, not all who were interested could get into the Indian Army, as the military authorities in India were very selective in their recruitment and showing a marked, and almost exclusive, preference for Jat Sikhs from certain districts in the Manjha region. Those who could not find places in the regiments but were determined to earn added income resorted to migration. Some started by moving into the newly opened canal-colony lands in western Punjab. Others, as opportunities presented themselves, went further afield. By the later half of the nineteenth century, there was a steady flow of Sikhs migrating out of the Punjab in search of employment in different parts of the world. Many went as far away as Canada and America while others travelled eastwards to Thailand, Malaya and the Straits Settlements.

Most of the Sikhs who came to Singapore in the later half of the nineteenth century served in the local police and security forces. These pioneers paved the way for the subsequent influx of more Sikhs to Singapore. Several of the early émigrés who returned to their native Punjab while on vacation spoke enthusiastically about the opportunities available in Singapore. They were thus able to attract several of their fellow villagers who subsequently followed them back to Singapore.

Not all who came to Singapore managed to get enlisted into the police force. Many aspirants were rejected due to filled quotas or the failure to meet stringent physical requirements laid down by the police force. The police force stipulated, for example, that recruits should be below 25 years old with a minimum height of five feet six inches and a measurement of at least 33 inches for the chest. They were also expected to pass a rigorous medical examination.5 Those who made the trip to Singapore but failed to find employment with the government security service, nevertheless, found it relatively easy to secure jobs with private employers. The `tall and sturdy’ Sikhs, with their martial reputation, were eagerly sought after by private employers as security guards and watchmen.6

By the turn of the century, there was a more or less settled, albeit very small Sikh community in Singapore. The majority of them were employed as policemen, security guards or caretakers. There were also some Sikh dairy farmers and bullock drivers who kept a few heads of cattle on the outskirts of town.7

Driven by the need to send regular remittances home, as well as the dream of eventually returning rich and successful to their homeland in the Punjab, the lives of these early Sikh migrants were characterised by hard work and thriftiness. It was not uncommon for these migrants to take on two or three jobs simultaneously. Watchmen, who found their duties fairly sedentary, were often able to carry out secondary activities. This often took the form of moneylending which subsequently became such a popular and lucrative activity that many policemen took early retirement to become watchmen-cum-moneylenders to supplement their pensions and savings.8

This employment pattern meant that the early Sikh community was concentrated in the town areas. Those employed by the Straits Settlements Police Force were housed in barracks at Pearl’s Hill. The watchmen or security guards had to live near their places of employment – go-downs, banks, offices – which were all within the municipal area. The 1931 Census of Singapore indicated that, of the 2,988 Sikhs living in Singapore, 2,666 were living within the municipal area, while only 322 were living outside the town areas.9

At the turn of the century, the Sikh community in Singapore was predominantly male; its female population was very small and comprised mainly wives of Sikh policemen. The kinds of work available in Singapore, living conditions and the uncertainty of life in an alien environment restricted the migration of females in any significant numbers. Most importantly, however, the early Sikh migrants were of the transitory type who had no intention of settling permanently in Singapore. It was a common practice for those who came in search of work to leave their wives behind, and for the single ones, once they had earned enough money, to return to India to get married.

Although many of the Sikh migrants who came to Singapore were Jat Sikhs from the peasant classes, Sikhs from the business community also made their way here in the 1920s and 1930s as petty traders, pedlars, shopkeepers and merchants. Sikh commercial migrants successfully established themselves as wholesalers and retailers in the textile trade by catering mainly to the Indian and European communities in Singapore.10 The post-war period also saw a significant increase in the number of Sikh commercial migrants coming to Singapore and Malaya. This was due to several factors: the partition of the Punjab in 1947, which led to the displacement of many Sikhs from their homes and businesses in the urban centres of west Punjab; and the trade boom generated by the Korean War in the early 1950s.11 Many Sikh families affected by the partition chose to migrate overseas to Singapore, Malaya and Thailand where they had family and friends already settled there.12

As the community settled in Singapore, gurdwaras (Sikh temples) began appearing. The early gurdwaras were set up in areas where the community was concentrated. These temples performed a very important social and religious function for the early community. In addition to serving as places of religious worship, these  gurdwaras functioned as community centres where social, educational and other charitable activities were carried out. Neighbourhood gurdwaras were popular rendezvous points, where Sikhs would converge to discuss events in the Punjab or the affairs of their community. There, they would also gather to meet new arrivals and assist them with settling into their new environment.13 This latter function was easily provided for as the gurdwara has, as part of its set-up, a langar (communal meal) hall, which provided free food and shelter to travellers.

The earliest known gurdwara in Singapore was established by the Sikh Police contingent at Pearl’s Hill. Religious services were initially held at the barracks as the gurdwara’s congregation was originally limited to the Sikh policemen and their families.15 However, as the community grew, the temple facilities in the police barracks became increasingly inadequate. The civilian section of the community wanted their own gurdwara and a decision was subsequently taken to establish another temple outside the police premises. In 1912, a committee of Sikhs, led by a Mr Wassiamull, a Sindhi merchant, bought a small bungalow with a large compound on Queen Street.2 Within a few months, the bungalow was converted into a gurdwara and named the Central Sikh Temple. By the middle of the decade, nearly all Sikhs in Singapore had begun congregating at this temple.

Meanwhile, Sikhs from the Tanjong Pagar Dock Police Contingent decided to establish another gurdwara, partly with the intention of using its premises to provide assistance to newly arrived Sikhs or those in transit through Singapore. In the past, it was customary for Sikh migrants already here – these were mainly Sikh policemen – to house their relatives or friends who had newly arrived from India until they could find alternative accommodation or a permanent job. As the volume of migrants increased, Sikh policemen, themselves housed in government barracks, found this arrangement increasingly inconvenient, as there were several restraints with regard to having visitors in the barracks.16 The need was thus expressed for a new `half-way house’. The Sikh contingent finally decided to establish this half-way house at Silat Road, a site chosen in view of its proximity to the harbour and railway station. The project was financed by donations from the Sikh policemen – many of whom pledged a month’s pay to the establishment of this institution – as well as from Sikh communities from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Thailand and Malaya. A temple was later incorporated into the premises for worship. Initially called the Police Gurdwara, the Silat Road temple was subsequently renamed Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road.17

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the gurdwaras at Queen Street and Silat Road featured prominently in the lives of the local Sikh community. They fulfilled most of the social and religious roles discussed earlier: free food and shelter for travellers and the unemployed were always provided at the Central Sikh Temple; even non-Sikhs benefitted from such services. As an elderly member of the community recalls, “In the early years, anybody who came from India would visit the temple at Queen Street first. There, he would get assistance in terms of food, shelter until he was self- sufficient.”18

Besides serving as places of worship and fraternity for the local Sikh community, these gurdwaras also doubled as centres of learning for the young and old. The Punjabi language, particularly its written form, Gurumukhi, was taught at these gurdwaras. Knowledge of Gurumukhi was considered imperative for all Sikhs as it enabled them to read and understand the contents of the holy scriptures of Sikhism – the Granth Sahib. It was little wonder that priests or scriptures readers at the gurdwaras often doubled as teachers to provide Punjabi lessons for the community.

The primacy of these two gurdwaras was soon undermined by `temple politics’ which stemmed from factional differences in the local Sikh community.19 These differences, which had their origins in regional rivalries in central Punjab, had been further reinforced by British colonial recruitment policies that saw Sikh regiments grouped according to region and caste. There was intense rivalry between the Malwa Jats and Manjha Jats in the security forces as the two groups competed against each other for privileges, promotions and military honours. This regional rivalry extended beyond the security forces as rival factions started to contest for the control of key institutions, particularly the Central Sikh Temple. This rivalry came to a head in 1925, when each group broke away to form its own gurdwara with their separate congregations.20

In Singapore, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha at Wilkie Road had a Manjha-dominated following while the Malwa group built its own gurdwara, the Malwa Khalsa Dharmak Sabha, at Niven Road. The numerically smaller Doaba group formed the Pardesi Khalsa Dharmak Sabha at Kirk Terrace.21 This factional split notwithstanding, the Central Sikh Temple remained the institutional centre of the whole Sikh community and continued to function as the symbolic focal point of the early Sikh community in Singapore.

Sikh migration to Singapore and Malaya petered out in the 1950s as a result of post-war political developments in Southeast Asia. Strict immigration laws passed by the Malayan government in 1953 and again in 1959 led to a marked reduction in immigrant numbers. The post-war years also saw the rise of nationalist movements and the creation of new nation-states in Asia. Sikhs who were based in Singapore had to choose between returning home to India and making Singapore their country of domicile. Those who decided to stay on eventually became citizens of an independent Singapore. For the earlier generation of Singapore-domiciled Sikhs, regional loyalties formed a key aspect of their identities and this was manifested in the establishment of gurdwaras based on historically rooted regional and caste affiliations.

However, with the coming of age of the Sikh community in Singapore in the later half of the twentieth century, efforts have been made to steer the community away from regional and caste-based divisions. The younger generation of Singapore Sikhs who have assumed leadership positions in the community have turned their attention to building a progressive and unified Sikh identity. The community has also focused on the transmission of the Punjabi-Sikh tradition and the revival of Sikhism among Sikh youth since the 1990s.

The image of the turbaned Sikh policeman has been and continues to be a prominent feature in historical narratives on Singapore and its colonial past. After Singapore’s independence, Sikhs remained closely associated with the military service in Singapore and this has often been highlighted as an important contribution made by the community to the country. Sikhs have also established their presence in politics and the professional services in Singapore. With Singapore celebrating 50 years of its independence this year, it is timely that the Singapore Sikh community too is commemorating the achievements made by its members.



singapore-sg50-tan-tai-yong-380x2941  Professor Tan Tai Yong is Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs), Yale-NUS College. He works on South and Southeast Asian history. A graduate of the National University of Singapore and Cambridge University, he has researched and written on the Sikh diaspora, civil-military relations, the social and political history of colonial Punjab, the partition of South Asia, and the history of Singapore.

2  Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E Brooke and Roland St J Braddell (eds.), One Hundred Years of Singapore, Vol. 1 (London, 1921), pp 250-51.

3  K S Sandhu, Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement 1786-1957, Cambridge, 1969, pp 40-5.

4  During the first three years of British rule, the Punjab produced an annual surplus budget of Rs. 400,000. See Khushwant Singh, The Sikhs, London, 1953, p 83.

5  Amarjit Kaur, `North Indians in Malaya: 1870-1947’, unpublished MA thesis, University of Malaya, 1974, p.112.

6  K S Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p 124.

7  Interviews with Choor Singh, June 26, 1985, and Seva Singh, October
23, 1985).

8  Amarjit Kaur, `North Indians in Malaya’, pp.66-71. This information is
also based on an interview with Seva Singh (October 23, 1985).

9  C A Vlieland, British Malaya: A Report on the 1931 Census and Certain
Problems of Vital Statistics, London, 1932, p 208.

10  K S Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p 121.

11  K S Sandhu, “Sikh Immigration into Malaya during the period of British
rule”, in Jerome Ch’en and Nicholas Tarling, eds., Studies in the Social History of China and Southeast Asia (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 345.

12 Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Vol. 2: 1839 – 1988, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp 270 – 287.

13 Amarjit Kaur, `North Indians in Malaya’, p 226.

14 H S Tan, `The Cultural Landscape of Singapore: A Study of the Growth and Distribution of Religious Institutions in Singapore’, unpublished Academic Exercise, University of Malaya, 1962, p 35.

15 Interview with Choor Singh, October 22, 1985.

16 Datt Soam, `A Sikh Community in Singapore’ , unpublished Academic Exercise, University of Singapore, 1964, p 16.

17 Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West, Singapore, 1979, p 45; Datt Soam, `A Sikh Community in Singapore’, p 16.

18 Interview with Seva Singh, October 23, 1985.

19 The Sikh migrants in Singapore came mostly from three different localities in Central Punjab – the Manjha (the lower plains tract of the Beas and Ravi Rivers), Malwa (roughly the areas south and east of the Sutlej River) and Doaba (the plains tract of Beas and Sutlej Rivers). Sikhs from these three different localities, divided by caste and geographical cleavages, had traditionally been antagonistic to each other. It has been said that Malwa Jats have tended to look down on the Manjha Jats, and both in turn tended to look down on the Doabis. See W. H. Mcleod, The Evolution of the Sikh Community, Delhi, 1975), p 97.

20 Bibijan Ibrahim, `A Study of a Sikh Community’, unpublished M.Soc.Sci thesis, National University of Singapore, 1982, p 36.

21 H S Tan, `The Cultural Landscapes of Singapore’, p 35.

final-sg50-book[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]


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