Sikh immigration to Malaya

| Malaysia | 11 May 2017 | Asia Samachar |
GALLANT: Sikh policemen manning High Street Police Station, KL – Photo courtesy of Dr Surendar Singh Cheema

By Ranjit Singh Malhi

Allow me to share with your readers my research regarding early Sikh immigration to Malaya based upon official British records and authoritative sources. I am in the process of completing a book on the history of Malaysian Sikhs and their role in nation building.

Based on existing documentary evidence, the first Sikhs who came to Malaya were Nihal Singh (popularly known as Bhai Maharaj Singh) and Kharak (also spelt as Khurruck) Singh. Bhai Maharaj Singh and Kharak Singh were political prisoners who were sentenced to exile for life due to their involvement in the anti-British movement in Punjab, India. Bhai Maharaj Singh is regarded as the soul of the first anti-British movement in Punjab. Kharak Singh was a close associate (disciple) of Bhai Maharaj Singh. Both of them landed in Singapore on 14 June 1850, and not July 1850 as stated in some books. Bhai Maharaj Singh died in solitary confinement in Singapore on 5 July 1856.

Kharak Singh was transferred to Fort Cornwallis, Penang in August 1857 because the British authorities feared that he (together with fellow prisoners) might cause trouble in Singapore. As stated by Kernial Singh Sandhu (an authority on Indian immigration to Malaya), other classes of Sikh convicts (besides political prisoners) were also sent to the Straits Settlements. In 1857 there were about 60–70 Sikh convicts in the Singapore jail. Some of them were transferred from Singapore to Penang to break up a particular gang. Convict immigration was prohibited after 1860. According to Kernial, there is no direct link between these exiled Sikh convicts and the current Sikh community in Malaysia and Singapore.

Beginning from the 1870s, the Sikhs from the Punjab (ancestral homeland in India) started immigrating to Malaya mainly to serve in the police and paramilitary forces. The pioneer recruits were enlisted by Captain Tristram Speedy—a former Superintendent of Police in Penang—to help Ngah Ibrahim (territorial chief of Larut, Perak) restore law and order in Larut. Trade and tin mining in Larut was disrupted by frequent fighting between two warring Chinese clans (Ghee Hin and Hai San). Captain Speedy left for India on 27 July 1873 and managed to recruit 95 discharged Pathan and Punjabi (Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims) sepoys at Lahore, and not 110 as generally believed. Captain Speedy reached Penang on 29 September 1873 and proceeded straight to Larut. These sepoys were reenlisted as the Resident’s Guard after the signing of the Pangkor Engagement on 20 January 1874, and became the nucleus of the Perak Police (together with a few Malays and Chinese constables). By end 1874, the police force numbered 266 men.

The Perak police force was renamed the Perak Armed Police in 1877 under the command of Lieutenant Paul Swinburne. The Sikhs and Pathans formed the paramilitary guard and the Malays as criminal police. The Perak Armed Police was renamed on 15 May 1884 as the First Battalion Perak Sikhs to reflect its military character. By 1890, the battalion had 713 Sikhs as compared to 265 Malays.

From 1880s onwards, Sikhs were recruited in considerable numbers in the police forces of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. In 1884 forty Sikhs joined the Selangor police force as a military body to provide guards in Kuala Lumpur. In 1895 the Malay contingent consisted of 503 men and the Sikh contingent 230 men. By 1890, there were 75 Sikhs in the police force of Sungai Ujong. At the beginning of 1890, the Sikh Contingent in Pahang numbered 104 and later during the same year another 50 Sikhs were recruited.

The Sikhs also formed the backbone of the Malay States Guides (MSG) established in 1896 and headquartered at Taiping, Perak. The MSG was Malaya’s first own regiment and entrusted primarily with the task of maintaining the internal security of the Federated Malay States and quelling internal disturbances. The MSG consisted of four infantry companies of Sikhs, two infantry companies of Punjabi Muslims and Pathans, and a small artillery battery with one section Sikhs and one section Punjabi Muslims. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the MSG comprised 550 Sikhs, 90 Punjabi Muslims, 210 Pathans, 3 Hindus, and 1 Malay. The MSG 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 Johore police force after a British Adviser was appointed to the state in 1914.

Those Sikhs who failed to join the police and paramilitary forces took up jobs in the private sector to work as watchmen, moneylenders, bullock-cart drivers, dairymen, milk vendors, and labourers in the tin and iron ore mines. Most of the Sikh watchmen also operated as moneylenders. Thousands of Sikhs were also engaged in the construction of railway lines, including that from Gemas to Tumpat.

From late 1920s onwards, a large number of Sikhs from the commercial and educated classes immigrated to Malaya. Most of the Sikh commercial immigrants became primarily wholesalers and retailers in the textile and sports goods trade. The educated classes were mainly attracted by offers of subordinate employment (primarily administrative and technical personnel) in the government service, particularly in the railways, prisons and hospitals.

Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, who runs a management consultancy, completed his PhD in 2015 on the history of Sikhs in Malaya. He is passionate about writing history as “it is”.


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