Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 2

When Sikhs migrated to Malaya, where did they spend their first night? How did they finance their journey? DR MANJIT SINGH SIDHU had interviewed 100 Malayan Sikhs in 1978 and 1979 to find out the answers to these and more questions.

| Malaysia | 13 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |
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

By Dr Manjit S. Sidhu | Sikhs in Malaysia

Choice of Destination

The majority (63 percent) of the migrants went to Malaya because they were sent to join relatives already in Malaya or they were invited by relatives from Malaya. Another one-third (31 percent) chose to migrate to Malaya since they heard favourable accounts of the distant land from Sikhs returning from Malaya to visit their relatives and friends in the Punjab.

Reports about the favourable climate, the existence of an influential Sikh community which had set up Sikh Temples in most major towns, and of good job prospects, together with the relatively high wages, made many young Sikhs eager to seek a fortune, if not a competence, in distant Malaya. Only 4 per cent of those interviewed had been directly recruited from India for service in British Malaya. Two had been, recruited by police recruitment teams visiting India. One had been recruited to work as a mine labourer by a Sikh contractor from Malaysia while another had been recruited to work as a priest in Malaysia by the president of a Sikh temple in Malaysia, during the latter’s visit to Punjab. Another two had gone to Malaysia for other reasons. One had gone to leave his newly-wed sister in Malaysia as her husband worked there. The other had gone to persuade his brother to return to India. However, on reaching Malaysia, he too changed his mind and decided to stay in Malaysia.

Reasons for Out-migration

It is necessary to separate the reasons for migrants leaving their home-land from the reasons explaining their choice of destination, though it is not often easy to distinguish one from the other. To the question “Why did you leave your place of birth”, as many as 39 percent replied that they wanted to seek higher incomes. This implied that they were not satisfied with the level of income to be obtained in Punjab. Since many came from rural areas, it often meant that they had to live in a joint family system, in which the family elders met all their essential needs, but they were not paid fixed wages. By out-migrating, they not only had the chance to escape from the usual overbearing attitude of family elders, but also the opportunity to earn fixed wages. Another 16 percent stated that their agricultural holdings in their traditional village were inadequate to provide a comfortable living. Seven percent said life as a farmer was difficult while six percent replied that their land in Punjab was not irrigated, and consequently agriculture was a gamble in the monsoons.

SEE ALSO: Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 1

Two percent said they had run away from home owing to family misunderstandings. One was being compelled to marry for the third time after the death of his earlier wives. To avoid marriage, he ran away from home and migrated to Malaysia. In the other case, the person had eloped with his paternal aunt and to avoid the wrath of the family, he ran away to Malaysia with his beloved. Five percent said the reason for leaving the home was purely wanderlust, a desire to see different lands. The remaining 11 percent said they had no choice since they were minors when their parents took them to Peninsular Malaysia.

Contacts in Malaya

Only 29 percent of the migrants interviewed did not have relatives living in the Malay Peninsula prior to their migration (see table 4). Many of them, however, had fellow-villagers or neighbouring villagers living in Malaya.

Table 4: Migrants’ relatives in Malaya*

Types of relations                      Percent

Father/Stepfather                       16

Grandfather                                 1

Brother                                      15

Sister                                           5

Cousin                                        11

Uncle                                          19

Aunt                                             1

Brother-in-Iaw                               3

No relations                                  29

Total                                           100

* These categories include relatives living in Malaysia at the time of migration or had lived in Malaysia at an earlier period.

For 15 percent, their fathers were either in Malaysia or had been there at an earlier period. In one case, the stepfather was in Malaysia, while, in another, the grandfather had been there at an earlier period.

Another 15 percent had brothers in Malaysia. As many as 19 percent revealed that their uncles were in Malaysia at the time of their migration. Eleven per cent had cousins living in Malaysia prior to their moving there. Amongst the remainder, 5 percent had sisters, 3 per cent brothers-in-law, and 1 percent an aunt living in Peninsular Malaysia prior to their migration.

The above data clearly illustrates a chain-migration pattern in the case of a majority of Sikhs migrating from North India to Malaysia.

Financing the Journey

Prior to the Second World War, the trip from the Punjab to Malaysia cost approximately between Rs. 40/- and Rs. 60/-. For example, in 1911, it cost Rs.12 by train from Amritsar to Calcutta and another Rs. 30 to make the sea journey from Calcutta to Penang. But, as Sandhu points out “Few Sikh potential emigrants had ready cash even of this ‘magnitude’.

Only 16 per cent of the migrants claimed to have financed their journey to Malaysia personally. Over half (57 percent) were financed by their parents, another 7 percent were helped by their uncles. In the case of the remainder, their passages were met by brothers (4 percent); sisters (1 percent), recruiting agents (4 percent) and cousins (1 percent); three per cent took personal loans from other close relatives while five others were helped by more distant relations. The remaining 2 admitted to having stolen the passage money from home because of opposition to their plans to out-migrate.

In several cases parents took loans from relations or village money-lenders to finance their children’s overseas trip. Others sold cattle to raise the necessary cash. The majority of the migrants interviewed started their journey from their villages with only Rs. 60 to Rs. 100. Only one person set out with considerable cash (Rs. 1,800) and, upon reaching Malaya, he promptly became a money-lender.

Journey from Punjab to the Port of Embarkation

On the first leg of their journey from Punjab to the port of embarkation the fresh migrants were more often that not accompanied by someone. Only 9 percent travelled alone. Almost half (49 percent) were accompanied by relatives who were returning to Malaysia; in most cases, the relatives were either parents, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, brother-in-law, stepfather, aunt; occasionally, it was some other, distant, relative. Close to one-third (31 percent) were accompanied by fellow-villagers or neighbouring villagers returning to Malaysia after revisiting Punjab. Only 2 percent reported to have been taken to Malaysia by recruiting agents.

Another two who had been recruited for work in Malaysia preferred to travel in the company of returning relatives.

In many cases, once the decision to migrate had been taken, the would-be migrant (or his parents) made enquiries as to when some relation or fellow-villager/neighbouring villager was returning to Malaysia. Having found one, the migrant would follow the ‘experienced traveller’ on the journey to Malaysia. The presence of someone who had earlier undertaken the journey to Malaysia/Singapore gave the fresh migrant added confidence. In many instances such an arrangement was necessary, for the new migrant was often only educated in Punjabi or he was an illiterate and, as such, could not read the instructions at railway stations as these were usually written in English or Hindi/Urdu. Equally important was the fact that the parents of the migrant felt greatly relieved to see their ‘boy’ safe in the company of someone personally known to them.

Wedding, Malaya (1947) – PHOTO / KHALSANET GALLERY

Ports of Embarkation

All but 5 of the 100 migrants covered by the survey sailed off from the port of Calcutta as it was the nearest and most convenient port (from Punjab) with a regular steamship service between India and Malaysia. But with the decline in passenger traffic between Calcutta and Rangoon/Singapore. the passenger ships plying this route ceased to operate a few years after World War 11. Only 4 per cent of the Sikh migrants embarked from Madras on their maiden journey to Malaysia. All of them were latter-day migrants who went between 1945 and 1953. A solitary Sikh migrant sailed from Nagapatnam. In fact, he was a member of the British task force that sailed out from India to recapture British Malaya, as it was then known.

Sikh migrants on their way to Southeast Asia would usually head for the Sikh temple once they reached Calcutta and would sojourn there while waiting to catch a boat to Malaya/Singapore. The 2 Sikh temples most commonly visited by the migrants were the Vadi Sangat and Khalighat ‘gurudwaras’. In a few instances, Sikh migrants did stay with relatives or fellow-villagers who had businesses in Calcutta. In one instance a Sikh stayed at a Hindu ‘dharamshala’. The Madras-Penang/Singapore route come to be used by Sikhs only after the Second World War. Since there were few Sikhs living in Madras, there was no Sikh temple there. With donations from various Sikh temples in Malaysia, together with individual donations, a double storey Sikh temple was built in Madras City in 19531. Since then it became the main stopping centre for Sikhs travelling by sea between India-Malaya/Singapore. Prior to the completion of this temple, Sikhs faced considerable hardships in Madras. For example, one Sikh migrant was forced to stay at a Hindu temple at Madras. Currently, few Sikhs travel from Malaysia to Punjab via Madras as most prefer to fly from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi.

Ports of Disembarkation

From the figures given in table 5 it is clear that about two-thirds of the Sikh migrants entered Malaysia through the port of Penang (Georgetown), the Malaysian port nearest to India. Another one-fifth entered Malaysia through the south, having disembarked at Singapore, the major entrepot of Southeast Asia. Eight percent landed at Port Swettenham (now renamed Port Klang) which lies roughly half-way between Penang and Singapore in the Straits of Malacca. One landed on the muddy beach of Morib, a few miles to the south of Port Swettenham. This was an unusual entry; this person formed part of the British task-force that recaptured Malaya during the Second World War.

Table 5: Ports of disembarkation

Port                                        Percent

Penang                                    69

Singapore                                22

Port Swettenham                       8

Others                                      1

Total                                      100

Many of the Sikh migrants revealed that in most cases the ship carrying them stopped at Rangoon and used to dock there for a day or two. Many used to disembark and take the opportunity to visit the Sikh temple in Rangoon where they used to exchange news with Sikhs settled there. Some used to buy greens and fruits as they used to do their own cooking on board the ship.  Virtually all the migrants used to travel by deck or bunk class.

The First Night in Malaya

After disembarking from the ship (or after being released from the quarantine area) almost half of them headed for the local Sikh temple where they rested for some time-ranging from a day to several weeks. Here they were provided free food and shelter. At the same time, those without relations in Malaya, would make inquiries about fellow-villagers or persons from neighbouring villages from their home district. At the same time they would try to pick up a few sentences of Malay language to enable them to move about the new place2.

Table 6: First night spent In Malaya

Place                              Percent

Sikh temple                     47

Relative’s house                36

Police barrack                     3

Other                                l4

Total                               100

Those who had relatives would usually take a train journey to the town (or the nearest town) where the relatives lived and would reside with then until they found a job. Where the relative was a dairy-farmer/bullock-cart driver, the new arrival would provide help in cutting grass for the cows or help in milking the cows, etc. In the case of young migrants (boys), their parents or other relations would usually send them to English-medium schools. It was usually this category of migrants who were able to move up the social ladder, the social mobility being facilitated by their English education and the fact that they learnt to mix with other ethnic groups at an early age. In fact, several of them completed the Junior/Senior Cambridge locally and usually became teachers, clerks, etc.

Three percent said they lived in police barracks with friends or relatives. This proportion might have been larger had it not been for the strict rules and regulations preventing outsiders from living within the police compound for reasons of security.

One-seventh spent their first night in Malaya with fellow/neighbouring villagers or other places. Some who were accompanied by some other returning Sikh, spent their first night either at the person’s house or at whatever place (usually relation’s house) that person stayed. There was not a single instance, among the 100 persons interviewed, of a migrant who had spent his first night in a hotel. This was because such ‘luxuries’ were not only unknown to the country yokels but also beyond their means, for most of them had started the journey with barely Rs.60.


Personal communication from Mr. Surat Singh, Kuala Lumpur. According to him the Sikh Temple was opened on Baisakhi day. 1953 by Col. G.S. Gill.

There were several Sikhs who said that they had bought guide books from Punjab before leaving for Malaya. From these Punjabi-Malay guide books they had picked up elementary Malay.


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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