Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 1

Did early Sikh migrants from Punjab to Malaya own much of land? Were they educated? SIKHS IN MALAYSIA, published in 1991, looks at the system under which Sikh migration to Malaya operated. Author DR MANJIT SINGH SIDHU interviewed 100 Malaysian Sikhs born in India and Pakistan between 1978 and 1979. The first chapter of the book is entitled 'Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia'

| Malaysia | 10 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |
Wedding, Malaya (1947) – PHOTO / KHALSANET GALLERY

By Dr Manjit S. Sidhu | Sikhs in Malaysia

When the 1953 Immigration Act made further migration to Peninsular Malaya¹ virtually impossible, the Sikh community was already firmly established and remarkably influential. And yet, its first representatives, Bhai Maharaj Singh and Kharak Singh², arrived there in 1840s outcasts – exiled to the Straits Settlements³ for their part in the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s. [Correction: One recent research based upon British records reveals that Bhai Maharaj Singh and Kharak Singh landed in Singapore on 9 June 1850, confirmed in a despatch dated 21 June 1850 from the Governor of Straits Settlements to the Secretary to the Government of India – Editor Note].

Although inauspicious, this beginning might be seen as emblematic of the curious, unpredictable, personal strand to be discovered behind the larger, more obvious causes that prompted so many to seek a new life in a distant land.

Predictably enough, the Sikhs, renowned as warriors, next set foot in Malaya to exercise their warlike skills for, in 1872, Captain T.C. Speedy raised an armed force of Sikhs and Pathans to suppress the Chinese gangs fighting for control of the rich tin mines in Perak State, on the west coast. [Correction: The actual year was 1873 – Editor]. After their successful debut as lawmen the Sikhs were eagerly sought by other troubled state governments in the Peninsular. In their wake came relatives and fellow villagers bringing with them the diverse skills, trades and abilities of field and farm. Once set afoot, the migration conditions, fluctuating in response to the economic conditions, for the next eighty years.

Although Karnail Singh Sandhu [actual spelling: Kernial] provides an excellent historical account of Sikh migration into Malaya, based on a wide range of historical record and some oral testimonies many aspects of Sikh migration remain unknown⁴. For example, little is known about the information channels, the routes taken by the migrants, their stops at the ports of embarkation and disembarkation, their entry into the job market, their subsequent occupational and spatial mobility in the Peninsular, their return journeys to the Punjab, their acceptance of Malaya as their permanent home, and so on. This paper will attempt to look into these aspects of Sikh mobility into the Peninsular as these have remained neglected. It is hoped that this study will provide an overall picture of the system under which Sikh migration to Malaya operated.

The source of information for this research comes from a questionnaire survey covering 100 Malaysian Sikhs born in India and Pakistan. The respondents were usually at Sikh temples during my temple attendances on Sundays or Fridays in several parts of the country⁵. The survey was conducted during the period 1978 and 1979 and covered Sikhs from Selangor, the Federal Territory (Kuala Lumpur), Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca, Johore and Pahang states. Owing to the constraints of time, it was not possible to cover the remaining states.

Among those covered by the survey three quarters migrated from five districts of the Punjab-Faridkot (21), Ludhiana (18), Rupar (13), Ferozepur (12), and Amritsar (12). The rest from Punjab originated from Bathinda (6),  Jalandhar (5), Gurdaspar (4), Sangrur (3), Kapurthala (1), and Hoshiarpur (1). Outside present-day Punjab, Hissar and Ganganagar districts contributed 1 person or 1 per cent each. Since Sikh migration from the Indian sub-continent antedates the partition period (1947), it was found that 2 Sikh migrants originated from the Pakistani districts of Lyallpur and Gujaranwala

Migrants’ Birth by Decades

Table 1 gives the information of the period in which the migrants were born

Table 1: Decades in which Sikhs migrants were born

Period                    Proportion

Pre-1900                5 per cent

1901 – 1909           20 per cent

1910 – 1919           39 per cent

1920 – 1929            28 per cent

1930 – 1939            6 per cent

1940 – 1949            2 per cent

1880 – 1949            100 per cent

Almost two-third were born in the pre-1920 period and were in the old-age group, being over 60 years old. The oldest migrant amongst those surveyed was born in 1889. A majority of those born in the post-1920 period were born in the decade 1920- 1929. The youngest migrant was born in 1942. This clearly illustrates that the Indian born Sikhs in Malaya are largely in the old-age group and by the end of this century it will be hard to find survivors amongst them. It is estimated that Indian born Sikhs today form barely 10 per cent of the total Sikh population found in Malaya in 1990, the proportion is rapidly being reduced because of two factors. First, as the Sikh population increases (almost entirely on account of natural increase), it swells the local-born proportion. Secondly,the bulk of the Indian-born Sikhs are in the old-age group (60+) and these are rapidly declining in numbers because of their high death rates.

Exactly half entered Malaya in the 1930s, while 30 per cent had migrated earlier. Another one-fifth went there in the post-1940 period, the majority of them having done so in the three years preceding a (almost) total ban on migration to Malaya, introduced in 1953.

Table 2: Year of migration in the Malay Peninsular

Year of Migration     Proportion

1910 – 1919            7 percent

1920-1929              23 percent

1930-1939              50 percent

1940-1949               8 percent

1950-1953               12 percent

1910-1953               100 percent

Occupational Background of Sikh Migrants

As many as two-thirds of the Sikh migrants were ‘jats’ or farmers. The rest were artisans by occupation. It is interesting to note that the 2 Brahmins were originally Hindus but, in order to get employment in the Malayan Police Force, they became Sikhs. This was because the British used to reject Brahmins for Police work as they considered the Brahmin’s “Social influence is liable to undermine discipline”⁷.

EARLY Sikhs in Singapore: From Left to Right: Rattan K, Mama, Ram S (child), Pritam K, Rattan S (child), Mansa S, Mehtab S, Puran S. – PHOTO / KHALSANET GALLERY

Land Owned by Families of Migrants

The amount of land owned by the migrants’ fathers gives us a clue as to the prosperity of the families that sent out emigrants from the Punjab.

A study of the table below reveals that one-third of the migrant families owned less than 10 acres of land. The families of another third owned between 10 – 19.9 acres of land, while the remaining third’s families owned over 20 acres of land.

Table 3: Land owned by migrants’ fathers

Size of holding (acres)  Per cent

0 – 4.9                         19

5 – 9.9                         13

10 – 19.9                      34

20 – 39.9                      26

40+                               8

0 – 40+                      100

Further investigation into the land owned by the migrants (i.e. their share of the family property – total land owned by the father divided by the number of sons) was on average. about 6 acres. This average is somewhat misleading. In fact, 12 per cent of the migrants’ families were landless. Another point worthy of note is that in many instances the farms were not irrigated. Consequently, agriculture was a gamble in the monsoons.

Literacy/Educational Attainment

Thirteen per cent of the migrants were illiterates. The educational attainment amongst the rest varied from literacy in Punjabi (Gurmukhi script) to a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-three per cent of the migrants were merely literate. Eight per cent had reached Matriculation Level. Two per cent had B.A. degrees and 1 per cent had done F.A. Another ten per cent had completed either the Junior or Senior Cambridge: all ten of them had gone to Malaysia as young boys and had studied there. The rest had an assortment of attainments such as Urdu Std V, “Budimani” Intermediate, Middle Level, etc. Thus we find that almost 90 per cent of the Sikh migrants were literate, being able to read and write. Over half had been to regular schools, This was remarkable, considering the fact that the overwhelming majority of them originated from the rural areas of the Punjab.



¹ The term ‘Malaya’ is used to describe Peninsular Malaysia or West Malaysia. This name is used since it is more familiar with non-Malaysians, especially so with Sikhs living in India. At times, Malaya is also referred to as the Malay Peninsular or simply the Peninsular.

² Sandhu, K.S. (1970) ‘Sikh Immigration into Malaya’, in Social and Economic Studies on China and Southeast Asia Edited by J, Chen and N. Tarling, Cambridge University Press. Also see Khushwant Singh (1970). A History of the Sikhs, Oxford University Press, Vol. 2, p. 82. According to Khushwant Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh was deported to Singapore where he was kept in a solitary cell and died on July 5, 1856.

³ The Straits Settlements  comprised of Singapore, Penang and Province Wellesley, Dindings and Malacca

⁴ See footnote 3.

⁵ In the former Federated Malay States and Straits Settlements, Sunday is a public holiday but in the Unfederated Malay States (Johore, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu), Friday is a public holiday; usually regular temple services coincide with these public holidays.

⁶ The proportions (i.e per cent) and actual numbers coincide since the survey coincide since the survey covered exactly 100 Sikh migrants from India to Malaya.

⁷ Malayan Police Magazine, 1929, Kuala Lumpur, p.203.

₈ The largest holding owned by an emigrant Sikh’s family comprised of 60 acres.

Sikhs In Malaysia by Dr Manjit S. Sidhu, p185-p191, Published by Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society Malaysia, 1991. – PHOTO / ASIA SAMACHAR

[Extracted from Chapter 1: Sikh Migration to Peninsular Malaysia from Sikhs in Malaysia by Dr Manjit S. Sidhu, Published by Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society Malaysia, 1991]


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