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From a coffee boy during Japanese occupation, street smart Kartar Singh Dalamnangal managed to build a respectable real estate practice in Singapore

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Singapore | 28 Aug 2017 | Asia Samachar |

Kartar Singh Dalamnangal – Photo / SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS

The story of the late Mr Kartar Singh Dalamnangal is fraught with a number of perilous occasions. Like any outstanding individual worth his or her salt, Kartar always prevailed in the end. Moreover, it seemed that the compassionate man undoubtedly had superhuman powers, given his proclivity for making the most of his circumstances.

Hard work and the spirit of enterprise featured prominently in Kartar’s life story. At the young age of just eight years, his mother made the difficult decision of sending him to Singapore with his uncle in the hope that he would get an education and make a better life for himself. She bet on his prospects and future being better in Singapore than if he stayed on to become a farmer in Dalamnangal, a small village in north-western Punjab.

His hopes of attending school were quickly dashed when, shortly after arriving in Singapore, his aunt fell ill and was incapacitated until the time of her death. As his uncle had to work full time to support the family, Kartar took over the responsibility of caring for his two younger cousins. The lack of a formal education did little to dampen the spirits of the young Kartar, as his later life would attest.

COFFEE BOY

In 1942, Kartar was only 17 years old when the Japanese occupied Singapore during World War Two. His wife, Bibi Mendro recalled that her bold and bright husband started serving the tea her mother made to the Japanese. Eventually, he found favour with them and got a permanent position as a ‘coffee boy’ for a Japanese trading firm.[1]

The street smart young man quickly realised that if he was going to make any progress, he would have to learn to speak the language of the Japanese and that was precisely what he did. Before long, he had impressed his bosses with not just his linguistic abilities, but also his trustworthiness and work ethic. He was then given a promotion with an assignment to start providing labourers for the construction of the Jurong shipyard. It was here that Kartar first displayed his business acumen – while the other suppliers were only paying labourers on a monthly basis, Kartar paid them on a daily basis. It is no surprise then that he became the agent of choice for many of the labourers and this just at the fresh young age of 20 years. In a short period of time, he became responsible for a few hundred workers.

I met Mr Kartar in the early 1980s through one of his daughters. I am a paraplegic and wheelchair bound. Right from the start, he welcomed me into the family and treated me like his own. He felt that it was very important for me to be independent and, as such, supported me in my business venture. When I went into insurance, he bought insurance from me for his family as well as introduced his friends to me. He did not just serve those in his community, but also those outside his community.

Mr Kartar was also a generous donor to the Society for Aid to the Paralysed (now known as Society for the Physically Disabled). Like me, he inspired many of my disabled friends through his support and his ability to relate to them.

Englebert Eagle Alan Ho Society for the Physically Disabled

Kartar Singh Dalamnangal in an undated photo – Photo / SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS

Unfortunately, after the surrender of the Japanese, all the money he had prudently acquired during the war was worth nothing. However, this did not get him down at all. His keen sense for creating opportunities meant that he would rise again through determination and self-belief. Just after the war, Kartar decided that he wanted a job that would sustain him beyond peace time just in case war broke out again. He became a mechanic with the British Army and slowly built up his savings.

FIRST HOUSE

In  1957, he had saved up enough money to make a down payment on his first house. On one account, this is how his real estate business started. Despite now owning his own house, Kartar continued to live in the British quarters, choosing instead to rent out his house to earn some additional income. On another account, his real estate business started after he lost everything he had for the second time when an earlier family home, with all his hard-earned savings and belongings, was razed to the ground on Diwali day and the family was left with nothing but the clothes on their back.

Before long, however, Kartar bounced back from this tragedy and never look back. Bibi Mendro shared that when the house burned down, they met a Mr Raju who ran a junk store. In order to furnish their new house, they bought furniture from him cheaply and then cleaned, varnished and restored the furniture till it looked good as new.[2]  In typical fashion, this crystallised into another business plan for the savvy entrepreneur. He and his wife began to repeat this process en masse and started a small concern furnishing houses in the Fu Yong Estate. Eventually, from just looking to him to help furnish their houses, the owners entrusted him with finding tenants to rent and then sell their properties. And these were the humble beginnings of Kartar Singh Realty Pte Ltd. At the height of his success, Kartar owned more than 10 properties and held a portfolio of over 200 properties all over Singapore. In 1985, he built the now iconic Kartar Apartments (or Kartar Ghar) which still stands proud along Thomson Road.

LEARNING

Another important facet of Kartar’s personality was his insight into the notion that education was a key to bettering one’s self so that one would be able to achieve the maximum out of life. It was this that led Kartar to finally enroll in adult education classes in his twenties. Bibi Mendro recounted that her husband would go to class, learn new English words and then diligently come home and teach her all those new words.[3]

She admitted though that she was not always as patient as him when it came to understanding the more difficult ones. Beyond that, he also ensured that each of his four children acquired tertiary education. In fact, the forward-thinking man ensured that all his children studied Mandarin. On their part, his children understood his belief in the value of education and the insistence that everyone should strive to better themselves. Mr Jagjit Singh, one of his sons, shared an account of a time after Kartar had passed away: “A Malay man came to the house to pay his respects. The family did not know who he was at all. On speaking to him, they found out that in his younger days, the visitor had been lost in life but had crossed paths with Kartar, who had motivated him to go back to school. The man then went on to make something of himself.”[4]

STAUNCH FAITH

Throughout all the ups and downs in Kartar’s life, the one unshakeable constant would undoubtedly be his staunch faith in God. His favourite verse from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, is ‘If God is above you, who can harm you?’ This manifested itself in a number of ways, including the immense amount of sewa (service) he did throughout his life. In the words of the late Justice Dr Choor Singh, “Since the end of the Second World War, he put his heart and soul in sewa at this [Silat Road] gurdwara (temple).”[5]

The Silat Road Temple held a special place in the heart of Kartar because he personally supervised the reconstruction and renovation of the temple. In fact, the conceptualisation and construction of the Bhai Maharaj Singh[6] shrine, containing his samadh (tombstone), was Kartar’s idea.[7]

According to the late Justice Choor Singh, he was politely addressed as jathedar (leader of the community. Far beyond the sizeable donations he made to the building fund for the temple, he volunteered much of his time to serve the community. However, his community work was just not confined to his later days when he was comfortable in his own life and enjoying the fruits of his hard work. Bibi Mendro attested that, from the onset, for every S$100 they made selling refurbished furniture, S$25 would be set aside to be donated to needy individuals.[8]

Kartar was truly a selfless man who lived his life in the service of others. There are stories abound of the numerous times that he benevolently gave freely so that others would have a roof over their heads. The moniker he earned of jarabanwala (the stocking man) immediately conjures the image of his humble all-white attire, complete of course with the knee-high socks, which was essentially the uniform of a British Admiral. His family shared that the success in the form of wealth he had achieved personally “was never as important to him as the good that he could do with it.”[9]

In an article written on the Silat Road Temple, the late Justice Choor Singh concluded: “Men like him [Kartar] serve to inspire.”[10] He forsook his studies to look after his young cousins, exercised ingenuity to survive the Japanese occupation, built and then rebuilt his business and contributed selflessly in the service of his fellow beings. Long after his passing, the jarabanwala continues to remain an inspiration in and outside the Sikh community.

Kartar Singh Dalamnangal – Photo / SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS

Endnotes

[1] Interview with Bibi Mendro, June 16, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Interview with Mr Jagjit Singh, June 16, 2015.

[5] History of Silat Road Sikh Temple. See http://www.sikhs.org.sg.

[6] Bhai Maharaj Singh was a Sikh saint-solder and hero of the Sikhresistance to the British occupation of Punjab. He was tortured by the British and exiled to Singapore where he died in captivity in 1856. See http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia.

[7] Interview with Bibi Mendro, op. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Interview with Mr Jagjit Singh, op. cit.

[10] http://www.allaboutsikhs.com/world-gurudwaras/gurdwara-sahibsilat-road-singapore.

 

final-sg50-book[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published in 2015 by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]

 

[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]

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