Once Sikhs landed in Malaya, how many never revisited Punjab?

What made them visit Punjab? Did they sponsor others to come over to Malaya? Someone actually spoke to 100 Malaysian Sikhs who were born in India and Pakistan to get the answer.

SIKHS IN UNIFORM: Sikhs in the police force in a 1948 photograph taken at Pusing, Perak. Second from the left is Kpl 1610 Ishar Singh, the dad of Commissioner Amar Singh who became the first Malaysian India to become a Federal director. Amar’s maternal grandfather, Bachan Singh, was a constable in the police force. – Photo courtesy of Amar Singh

By Dr Manjit S. Sidhu | Sikhs in Malaysia

Revisiting the Punjab

Only 5 per cent of the Sikh migrants to Malaya had never revisited the Punjab. Amongst the remainder, the time-lag between their emigration to Malaya and the return trip to their native place (Punjab) varied greatly from 2 years to 50 years. Eighteen per cent revisited the Punjab within 5 years.

Another 35 per cent did so between 6 and 10 years while 28 per cent took between 11 to 20 years. Fourteen per cent took 21 years or more before making the sentimental journey to their places of birth. Amongst them were some who revisited the Punjab after 40 years. [Source: Interviews by author in 1978 and 1979 of 100 Malaysian Sikhs born in India and Pakistan].

The 5 per cent who had yet to revisit India, still entertained visions of doing so in the future. Unless they make an early decision their dreams may fail to materialise as they are old men. The proportion of those who never revisited the Punjab might have been higher but for the fact that in many cases (especially for those in the police force) their passage was provided for-once every five years-by the colonial authorities.

[Footnote: Since many Sikh migrants to Malaya were poor, they evolved a system to help fellow Sikhs to revisit the Punjab. Most Sikhs from the same town would contribute some money (usually between M $10 and M $20) to help their fellow Sikh brother to return to the Punjab for a visit.]

Table 11: Length of time taken to revisit the Punjab since emigrating to Malaya

Length of time (Years) / Per cent

0 – 5                18

6 – 10              35

11 – 15            18

16 – 20            10

21 – 30              7

3- 1 40             2

Over 41            5

Never revisited  5

Total             100


Purpose of first revisit

One quarter of the Sikh migrants to Malaya revisited the Punjab with the intention of getting married. Of these, 2 were unsuccessful and returned to Malaya with their marital status remaining the same (i.e. single). Two per cent gave the reason for the revisit as pilgrimage to the Sikh holy places in India. The largest proportion (53 per cent) gave social reasons for their first visit, the most common being to see their parents or other relations. Fifteen per cent stated the following reasons; medical treatment, to buy land, to have the shares of their ancestral property transferred to their names or their children’s names, to study or to return home as they were without work owing to the Economic Depression of the 1930s. And of course there were 5 per cent migrants who had yet to revisit the Punjab. [The source f

Right up to the mid-19508 most of the Sikhs moving between India and Southeast Asia used the sea route. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that the air-route between Singapore (or Kuala Lumpur) – New Delhi became popular. But old habits die hard and some still use the Port Klang (or Penang) – Madras sea route since it is not only cheaper but also allows them to carry more luggage. Most of those going through Madras, stay at the Sikh temple to break the journey.

Table 12: Reasons for the first return trip to Punjab

Reasons       Per cent

Marriage         25

Pilgrimage        2

Social             53

Other              15

Never revisited  5

Total 100


Subsequent visits to the Punjab

Earlier it was noted that 5 per cent of the Sikh migrants to Malaya had never revisited the Punjab. Eleven per cent had been able to do so only once. A quarter however made two trips to the Punjab. Another 23 per cent did make 3 visits.

Fourth and fifth visits were made by 12 and 9 per cent of the migrants respectively. Thereafter, the frequency declined sharply (see table 13). It is worth recording that 2 wealthy Sikhs did make over 10 trips to the Punjab; these visits were necessitated by their substantial economic interests in both India and Malaya.

Table 13: Visits to the Punjab

Frequency (Per cent)

1 (11%, 2 25%), 3 (23%), 4 (12%), 59%, 64%), 7 (5%),

8 (3%), 9 (1%), 10 )-), 10+ (2%), None (5%), Total (100%)

About one-quarter of them used the sea route in all their journeys to India. Fifteen per cent used the air-route during their subsequent visits; only on their maiden journey to Malaya did they travel by sea. The remainder used both the sea and air routes during the subsequent visits. Since the 19705 the air route has become popular for several reasons. Owing to increasing competition among the airlines operating in this sector, some airlines offer relatively cheap fares (about $1000 Malaysian Ringgit) for return tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi. Besides, it takes only a few hours to reach New Delhi instead of several days by sea. Furthermore, New Delhi is relatively close to the Punjab and one can reach one’s village from New Delhi within a few hours. The time factor is crucial for taking the air route since it is difficult to get more than a month’s leave from one’s place of work.

Sponsoring subsequent migrants

A large proportion of the Sikh migrants had been helped in one way or another in their migration to Malaya by relatives, fellow villagers and others. To discover whether the same sort of attitude prevailed amongst the emigrant Sikhs covered in this study, they were asked: “Did you help other Sikhs from the Punjab to migrate to Malaya? If yes, what sort of help did you provide?”

Only 17 per cent of the migrant Sikhs had helped others from the Punjab to migrate to Malaya. In most cases they helped relatives but there were some who helped fellow-villagers. In some cases they brought the new migrants along, on their return to Malaya, after a holiday in Punjab. Others sponsored new migrants by sending them entry permits to the Peninsula. Once the fresh migrants landed in Malaya they were usually well looked after by their sponsors until they found employment and got sufficiently adjusted to the new environment.

On the whole it would appear that a majority of the Sikhs covered in the survey avoided sponsoring more migrants from the Punjab. But it should be remembered that about 70 per cent of the Sikhs covered in this survey entered Malaya between 1930 and 1953. The 1930s was a particularly difficult period in the Peninsula’s economic history owing to the economic slump, especially in view of the country’s heavy dependence upon two export commodities – tin and rubber. Their low prices affected all sectors of the Peninsular economy and in turn gave rise to considerable unemployment. Just as the economy began to show signs of early recovery in the late 1930s and early 1940s there came the Second World War when free movement between Southeast Asia and British India ceased altogether.

Although migration from Punjab to Malaya revived after the end of the War, India became independent in 1947 while Malaya remained a British Colony for another decade, thus breaking the former link that existed between the two British colonies. Besides, in 1953, new immigration rules were passed that virtually brought all forms of migration into the Peninsula to a halt.

Despite this, many Sikh females-married to Sikhs from Malaya-from the Punjab continued‘to enter the country freely. But since the Indian sex ratio has improved vastly in the post-Second World War‘ period, the . Malaysian government openly started discouraging non-Malays from bringing alien wives to Malaya. This new policy was introduced from 1979 onwards.

Visits to other countries (excluding India)

In this section the neighbouring countries of Singapore, Thailand and Burma are excluded since these have been common stop-overs for Sikhs travelling between Malaya and India by sea or air. One-fifth of those surveyed had travelled to other regions, such as Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nepal, East Africa, the Middle-East, the United Kingdom and Europe.

One person had even been on a world tour. These visits were made for various reasons. For example, the five who had been to the UK had different reasons for doing so. One who had joined the police force as a constable had gone there several years later for a senior police officer’s course. Another had gone there in the mid-19503 to seek employment, but had returned since he found the cultural differences too great to overcome. One had gone to bring back his son (who was studying there) upon receiving intelligence that the son was about to marry an English woman. Of the remaining two, one had visited Britain as a member of the Malaysian Police Band while the other had gone to UK. as a tourist.

The trips to Pakistan by seven persons were mostly undertaken as pilgrimages to Sikh temples that are located in that country. Of course, two Sikh migrants (Aroras) had been born in the Pakistani Punjab prior to the partition of the Indian Sub-continent. Another Sikh had visited East Africa and the Middle East as a soldier in the British Army, during World War 11. One of the Sikhs visiting Indonesia had gone there to get married to a Sikh girl from that country.


Children settled outside Malaysia

Thirty-five per cent of the migrants had children settled outside Malaysia. Nine per cent revealed that their children had remained in India since birth. Six per cent had married their Malaysian-born daughters in India, while a similar proportion had their daughters married in Singapore; ten per cent have children married and settled in the UK, 3 per cent in Australia and New Zealand and 2 per cent in the US Internal mobility amongst migrant Sikhs Having examined their revisits to the Punjab and other countries, it is also pertinent to examine their mobility within the Malay Peninsula. Table 14 summarises their moves within the country. In all cases the moves imply a shift in residence from one town to another. Intra-urban mobility has been ignored.

Table 14: Geographical mobility In Malaya amongst Sikh migrants

Number of moves                Per cent

Did not move since arrival      24

l to 2 moves since arrival       20

3 to 5 moves since arrival      28

6 to 10 moves since arrival     16

Over 10 moves since arrival    12

Total                                     100

Barely a quarter of the migrants have remained in one place since their first arrival. On the other hand, the majority had moved several times. This was not unexpected since the majority were wage earners and had to move frequently as the situation warranted. The maximum number of moves was often made by Sikhs working in the Police Force who were frequently posted from one town to another and occasionally from one state to another.

The other category to move frequently were the watchmen especially those working in small mines and construction sites. As soon as the minerals were exhausted and the mine closed or the construction work was completed, these workers were compelled to move on in search of new jobs. This procedure was repeated every now and then. On the other hand, those who became salesmen and later businessmen tended to remain in the same place since their contacts were confined to that locality.


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]


[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] 16137


First job in Malaya (Asia Samachar, 15 June 2017)

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

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

Three main phases of Sikh immigration into Malaya (Asia Samachar, 11 May 2017)

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


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  1. To Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu, do you know how important your above research means to Sikhs born in Malaysia? We are eternally grateful to you. It shows the difficulties our forefathers went through in the early years. Let’s make the most of our opportunities in Malaysia and continue to serve Malaysia with distinction and at the same time play our part in sharing with our fellow Malaysians our contribution so we and our future generations will not be deprive of our rightfully place here.

  2. My Dadda Ji Ninder Singh and Nanna Ji Bela Singh were both in the Malaya Police Force in the 1920S. They both returned to India.I have photos of them in Polce uniform if it would be of any interest for your information on Sikhs In Uniform.

    I have not posted above comment before.

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