First job in Malaya

More often than not, the new Sikhs to arrive in Malaya were poorly educated, lacked skills, and had little money. Top jobs in 1920s and 1930s: Labourers, police constables and watchmen, noted Dr Manjit S Sidhu in his book SIKHS IN MALAYSIA. This is part three of extracts from Chapter 1: Sikh Migration to Peninsular Malaysia

| Malaysia | 15 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |
A platoon of Sikh recruits after completing basic training at Police Trainig Centre Jalan Gurney, Kuala Lumpur in 1957. Gurdwara Sahib Polis Depot, Jalan Gurney – PHOTO / Gurdwara Sahib Pulapol, KL

By Dr Manjit S. Sidhu | Sikhs in Malaysia

First Job in Malaya

More often than not the new arrivals were poorly educated, lacked skills, and had little money. As such they had little choice but to take up whatever job that was available and later to look for better-paid jobs. This applied with particular force to those who arrived in Malaya in the late 1920s and in the 1930s when the Peninsular economy was badly affected by the Great Economic Depression and employment opportunities were rather limited.

Thus, it is not surprising to find that 18 per cent became labourers, largely in the tin and iron mines in the first instance. The logic was simple- to take whatever job was available and then look for a better position. Almost an equal proportion became police constables-a prized job in those days for it not only provided relatively high wages, but it also gave them prestige; additionally, it assured them of a regular-once every five years-paid holiday to the Punjab.

SEE ALSO: Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 1

SEE ALSO: Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 2  

The next largest group, with 13 per cent, became watchmen/security guards at banks, mines, business firms, goldsmith shops, etc. Twelve per cent of the migrants, especially children, who had been brought along by their parents, became students. It was only after completing their studies that they took up employment as government school teachers, clerks, etc. Seven per cent became salesmen (often in Sikh shops) or peddlers. A similar proportion became clerks: this group comprised the English educated group who had passed the Indian Matriculation Examination or its equivalent level. Eight per cent became bullock-cart drivers or lorry attendants. Three per cent became Punjabi teachers while another 3 per cent became tailors. The latter category had skill in that profession since their parents were also tailors in India. The remaining 12 per cent took up such diverse occupations as priests, estate – conductors, cooks, mechanics, bus conductors, horse trainers, letter compositors in the Punjabi press, etc.

A majority of the Sikh migrants to Malaya had left the Punjab with less than Rs. 100. Therefore, they were anxious to take up the first available job as soon as they could find it. Almost one-third found employment almost immediately, within the first week of their arrival. This group included the four persons who had been recruited for work in Malaya, from the Punjab. Another 20 per cent obtained employment within a period of one month; in fact, one-half of this group took only 2 weeks to find a job. One-fifth took up to 4 months. This implied that seven-tenths of the Sikh migrants had obtained employment within the relatively short span of 4 months, half of them having achieved the same within fourteen days.

Table 7: First job in Malaya

Type of job                     Per cent

Labourers                      18

Police Constables           17

Watchmen                      13

Students                        12

Salesman                       7

Clean                            7

Lorry Attendants            4

Bullock-cart drivers

cum dairy farmers          4

Tailors                           3

Teachers                        3

Others                          12

Total                          100

There were some who took up to a year while one-fifth took over a year (some several years) to find employment. Invariably 7 per cent had close relatives or fellow-villagers in the Peninsula; their relatives looked after them until they found employment of their choice. The remaining 20 per cent were largely dependents of immigrants. In most cases they were promptly enrolled into local English-medium schools and a majority of them succeeded in obtaining Junior/Senior Cambridge or even Higher School Certificates.

Table 8: Time between arrival in Malaya and obtaining first employment

Week             Per cent

1 Week           31
2 Weeks          10
1 Month            9
2 Months           7
4 Months         13
8 Months           3
1 Year               7

Over 1 year      20

Total              100

Assistance in obtaining employment

Earlier it was seen that one-half of the migrants to the Peninsula found employment within the space of 4 weeks and another one-fifth had taken up to 4 months. It is remarkable that 70 per cent of the Sikh migrants had obtained employment within this short period. This achievement was all the more striking when it is remembered that one-half of them entered Malaya in the 1930s, a period of considerable economic uncertainty owing to the world wide economic depression. This was not achieved without considerable assistance from their local contacts. This section seeks to identify those contacts1.

Two-fifths were helped by relations in their search of employment. Twelve per cent obtained assistance from fellow-villagers already living in Malaya. Another 22 per cent found their maiden employment in Malaya through the help of local Sikh contacts. As many as 18 per cent found employment on their own initiative. Four per cent had a job waiting for them as they had been recruited from India. The remaining 3 per cent had been helped by non-Sikhs with whom they had come into contact upon arrival2,

Table 9: Identification of persons providing assistance in finding first employment in Malaysia

Relationship         Per cent

Relation               41
Fellow-villager      12
Some local Sikh    22
Recruited in India   4
A non-Sikh friend   3
Ownself               18

Total                  100

In a few cases the new arrival was assisted in a peculiar fashion, one that also served the interests of the helper. The new arrival was asked to take over the job of the helper (with approval of the employer) for a few months while the latter went off to India on a social visit. The understanding between them was that when the ‘helper’ returned from India he would get back his old job.

Frequencies in Job Changes

Only 4 out of the 100 persons interviewed in this survey continued with the same job throughout their stay in Malaya. One was a money-lender who had gone to Malaya with a substantial amount of money (Rs l,800/=) and has prospered in that profession. Another started work as a bus-driver and has continued to work for four decades in the same Sikh bus company in Seremban. The other two had gone to Malaya as minors, studied locally, became teachers and have continued to work in the same profession.

Table 10: Frequencies in job changes amongst Sikh migrants to Malaya

Frequencies in job changes (Per cent)

Never changed    4
1 Time                1
2 Times            14

3 Times            13

4 Times            12

5 Times            18

6 Times            14

7 Times            10

8 Times              6

9 Times              3

10 Times            5

All Changes     100

Earlier it was noted that many of the migrants took up whatever job was available in the first instance. Later, having settled, they widened their contacts, and after some time were able to secure better paid jobs that were more rewarding financially and less strenuous.

In fact, it was observed that all the 18 per cent who had become labourers upon arrival changed to some other jobs; the usual reason given being that mine labour was arduous and financially less rewarding; likewise many watchmen/security guards changed their places of work several times. Very often they worked for tin mines or construction firms.

When the mines closed owing to exhaustion of tin or in response to a steep fall in the tin price, the watchmen and other mine workers were forced to find alternative work. Similarly, once the construction project was completed, the watchmen moved elsewhere. Even police constables upon retirement took up alternative work. This was to supplement their meagre pensions. Those who had remained policemen throughout their police career usually became watchmen whilst those who had risen in rank usually became chief security officers to large firms or mines.

Even Sikhs who had become priests in the first instance, moved to other temples that offered higher remuneration. Therefore, it is not unusual to find that a Sikh migrant changed his job several times during his long stay in the Malay Peninsula. It must also be mentioned that many Sikhs while changing their jobs experienced appreciable spatial mobility, often liable to be transferred from one area to another from time to time. This will become evident in a later section dealing with a few case studies.


1 In many cases the local contacts stood as guarantors for the new arrivals, assuring the employers about the good conduct of the new recruits.

2 One immigrant was helped by a Muslim police officer, another was helped by his Eurasian teacher. since he had spent several years schooling in Malaya. The third person said he was helped by a Tamil person to get a contract.


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

[This is part three of the extract 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]


Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 2 (Asia Samachar, 13 June 2017)

Sikh migration to Peninsular Malaysia – Part 1 (Asia Samachar, 10 June 2017)

Sikh immigration to Malaya (Asia Samachar, 11 May 2017)


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