One could easily mistake Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Jaswant Singh Gill for a man in his early eighties instead of his actual young age of ninety-two (in 2015). He still carries the stern authority and proud bearing from his Singapore Navy and teaching days. When he speaks, one realises that here is a man who has witnessed not only the many turbulences and challenges faced by Singapore in its fight for independence, but also contributed greatly to the position in which Singapore is today.
Jaswant was born in Punjab, in India, in 1923 to a farmer. He began his education at Khalsa School in Moga, which was one of the few schools that taught English language at that time. At the tender age of six, Jaswant relocated to Singapore with his uncle who was then working as a clerk in the Singapore Police Force.
Jaswant started his formal education shortly after arriving in Singapore. Being knowledgeable in English beforehand, he was able to do well in his examinations to obtain a place in the prestigious Raffles Institution.
To secure a proper job, Jaswant pursued a two-year course in commercial studies where he picked up valuable skills such as book-keeping and typing. He eventually joined the government clerical service where he met Justice (Late) Choor Singh and struck up a long-lasting friendship with him despite the latter being 15 years his senior.
Singapore Khalsa Association
One of the first Sikh institutions that Jaswant was affiliated to was Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA). The Association was started in the 1920s as a means for Sikh boys to meet for friendly sport games, with cricket and hockey being the two most popular sports among Sikhs at that time. He first became interested in SKA during his time as a student in Raffles Institution. Once he started working in 1941, he joined the Association where he helped collect donations for its various events as well as for the building fund.
During the Second World War, the Japanese took over the SKA premises at Jalan Bahagia. At the end of the war, the building had been looted and needed much repair. However, when the government requisitioned the land in the 1960s, SKA had to scramble to acquire another piece of land for a new building. This land was at Balestier Road, where the current SKA building stands.
As Jaswant was elected as the President of SKA continuously from 1966 to 1981, the burden of the new building fell on him. The new building would cost S$750,000 which, at that time, was a very big sum. The Association set up a Building Committee to collect donations. As President, he also went around raising funds. He emphasises that, without the support of the gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and the sangat (congregation) who donated willingly, the donations would have been harder to secure.
After purchasing the building, there were some funds leftover. Jaswant and some of the more foresighted members created the SKA Trust Fund. This was used to make some very wise investments and the initial sum of S$25,000 has now become about S$15 million. This sum is kept by a group of Trustees, including Jaswant.
Passion for Teaching
From very early on, Jaswant had a passion for teaching. After the war, he went back to his old job in the clerical service but he did not stay there for long. In 1948, he was transferred to the Ministry of Education (MOE) as a teacher. He first taught at Outram Primary School and moved on to various other schools, including Raffles Institution. His passion for the job soon led him to being promoted to school principal. In this position, he oversaw several schools such as Sungei Kadut Primary School and Dunearn Secondary School. He took great pride knowing that many of his former students went on to become successful. Some of his brightest minds eventually entered politics and have served or are serving as ministers. After retiring from MOE in 1973 at the age of 50, Jaswant went on to teach commercial subjects at the United World College.
While teaching, Jaswant took an interest in the Teachers Union. He was the General Secretary from 1959 to 1963 and eventually Vice President from 1963 to 1964. During this period, the communists were trying to capture as much political power as they could in Singapore. They attempted to take over the Teachers Union. However, Jaswant, along with other colleagues, prevented the Teachers Union from falling into their hands. He recalls being heckled by members of the Barisan Socialis, the communist inspired party as they tried to subvert the authority of the Teachers Union and win its members to their side.
As an educator, he recognised the importance of knowing one’s own culture and language. Jaswant placed an emphasis on the Punjabi education. The first Punjabi school, Khalsa Punjabi School was set up in the new SKA building. This allowed for the centralisation of the classes. With the introduction of the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation, SKA handed over its Punjabi school to the Foundation.
The words of Andrew Carnegie that “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it” exemplifies Jaswant’s effort in mobilising the Sikh community behind his vision and leadership. Despite his countless achievements, he has always remained humble, accepted collective leadership and stayed resolute in ensuring that Singaporean Sikhs do not forget their roots. I have known him for more than 30 years. A lasting legacy of Jaswant’s leadership is the significant role that SKA plays in the lives of the Sikhs. As a founding member, he remains synonymous with the building which has provided the Sikh community with an important place to celebrate its rich and vibrant culture, tradition and language in cosmopolitan Singapore.
Mr Philip Tan Kee Seng
Director, Former SKA Billiard Saloon
Another important milestone achieved by Jaswant is his service in the Singapore navy. From a young age, he had acquired a love for history and freedom struggles. Reading up on the Indian Freedom movement as well as Sikh history, he became so riled up.
After the Second World War, when the British came back in 1945, he felt that he had to do something to prepare himself to serve an independent Singapore. While teaching, he met a senior colleague who was serving as an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Singapore. He approached his colleague and asked him about the RNVR.
On the promise that he would become a naval officer, Jaswant joined the RNVR. After a year of scrubbing the decks and cleaning latrines, he was commissioned Acting Sub Lieutenant in 1951. At that time, he was the first and only Sikh officer and only the second Asian officer among a force of 100 British officers and 900 sailors.
When Singapore abruptly gained full independence in 1965, the Royal Navy pulled out of Singapore leaving a small group of local officers and sailors. Jaswant was then the highest-ranking officer and he was made the Commanding Officer of the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force (SNVF).
The SNVF was the pioneer of the modern-day Republic of Singapore Navy. The SNVF had two old ships, RSS Panglima and RSS Bedok. Jaswant and the pioneers of the SNVF utilised them proudly during the Indonesian Konfrontasi. Commanding from the Panglima, Jaswant led the SNVF to Sarawak where his team and the Indonesians exchanged fire from their territory.
As the British began pulling out of Singapore, important bases were being handed over to local senior officers. When Tengah Air Base was handed over to Singapore in February 1971, as one of the highest ranking officers at that time, Jaswant was made its Commander. In December that year, Changi Air Base was handed over to Singapore. This was the biggest RAF base outside of the United Kingdom at that time and was very important to the British. Jaswant was made Commander of the base. In 1972, he retired from the Armed Forces.
When asked how the youth of today can serve Singapore and continue the hard work of the pioneers, Jaswant said: “Stay loyal to the nation and always train in what you are good at – be it sports, military or education. By upgrading yourself and always learning, you do not only benefit yourself, you also benefit your nation as you contribute in ensuring Singapore’s excellence.”
Jaswant followed this mantra throughout his life and succeeded in everything he set out to. He is indeed an officer and a gentleman – one the Sikh community and Singapore can be proud to call their own!
 C Singh, The Sikh Community’s Contribution to the Development of Singapore: A Collection of Essays and Personal Reminisces (1st ed., Vol. 1). Singapore, Singapore: Justice Choor Singh, 2005.
 Interview with Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Jaswant Singh, August 5, 2015
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