Who was the richest Sikh in Southeast Asia in the 1950s? Malaysia’s first Prime Minister had persuaded a retired Sikh police officer to take charge of Zoo Negara? Who was it? Who is the first woman to become a magistrate in Malaya? Who is the first Asian to be promoted to the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police in Malaya?
They are Jagat Singh, SAC Ishar Singh, Harwanth Kaur and ACP Pritam Singh, respectively.
These are some of the 57 personalities whose lives and times are captured in the newly released Pride of Lions: Eminent Sikhs in Malaysia authored by Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu.
The 295-page hardcover book brings to life some interesting stories of Sikhs, both men and women, in Malaysia. The stories of Jagat Singh and Ishar Singh, for example, are captivating.
Jagat was the largest land owner in Perlis in pre-independent Malaya and a long time leader of the Khalsa Diwan Malaya (KDM). Due to his involvement in the Ghadar movement in Malaya, the British considered him a threat to the British Empire in the Far East, which led to a failed sedition trial. Still, he was detained in Singapore, only to be released upon a petition by his wife.
Probably unknown to many, he borne the expense of the Guru Ka Langgar served at Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Penang. Imagine the number of Sikh migrants who came through Penang who would have benefitted from his generosity.
The story of how Malayan Prime Minister Tunku gets Ishar (1906-1987, born Serendah) to take on the Zoo Negara assignment is heart warming. “I have full confidence in you. If you face any problems you can always come and see me,” Tunku told him. In the end, he delivered beyond their expectations, even managing to turn around the loss-making zoo.
The ‘most colourful character’ in the book, in the words of the author himself, is Colonel Dara Singh (Col. Ong Ah Leng). His father, Mota Singh, was a soldier who saw action in Europe in the First World War in 1915. Somehow, Dara (1914-2001, born Kamunting) was adopted by a Chinese family who sponsored his education in Taiping.
In 1939, Dara went to Burma in response to the call by Chiang Kai-shek for overseas Chinese to help China in its war efforts. At the age of 27, he was made a colonel in the Chinese army and had the opportunity to have lunch with Generalissimo Chang and his wife in Chungking. Impressed with his skills, Dara was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General. The story does not end there.
“Prof Khoo himself suggested that I write about Dara Singh,” Dr Manjit tells Asia Samachar. Well-known Malaysian historian Prof Dr Khoo Kay Kim wrote the foreword for the book.
What about the others? “I had known many of these people. During interviews, some of them would suggest some other names,” he said.
Dr Manjit is also the author of the Sikhs in Malaysia, which captured the results of interviews, conducted in 1978 and 1979, of 100 Malaysian Sikhs who were born in India and Pakistan. See here and here.
The retired Malaysian university lecturer had also released recently another book, ‘Sikhs and Sikh Institutions In Pakistan’. See here.
Harwanth Kaur (born 1937, Ipoh), one of the entries, holds the distinction of being the first female Sikh lawyer and the first lady magistrate in Malaysia.
After reading law in London, she returned to Malaya in 1962. After chambering, she was called to the Bar in February 1962. One year later, she was appointed magistrate in Kuala Lumpur, creating history by becoming the first woman to become a magistrate in Malaya, and later a President of the Sessions Court.
During the Japanese occupation, Ajeet Kaur (born 1931, Tanjong Malim) had learnt English from a friend while attending to their cows in Kuala Kangsar. She was 12 years old then. She eventually went on to become the first Sikh lady to become an Australia trained doctor. She was one of the pioneer members of the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (SNSM) and a founding member of the Sikh Welfare Society (Selangor/Federal Territory).
The other women included in the book are Ajaib Kaur (social worker popularly known as Madam Joe), Dr Harbans Kaur Virik (first child specialist in Malaysia), Kirpal Kaur (entrepreneur and owner of Gulati Stores), Kirenjit Kaur (lawyer and first lady district governor of Rotary in Malaysia), Preetam Kaur Gill (social worker and women’s rights activist) and Dato Rhina Bhar (lawyer, politician and first Sikh woman senator in Malaysia).
Some of the obvious legendary names included in the book are lawmaker Karpal Singh (DAP chairman, opposition politician knowm as ‘Tiger of Jelutong’), Tan Sri Ajit Singh (Malaysia’s first Sikh ambassador), Budh Singh (founding member and the second president of Malayan Indian Congress, MIC), Datuk Gurbakhs Singh Kler (Father of Sabah sports), Gurchan Singh (Singa, The Lion of Malaya, Aide-de-Camp to Tunku Abdul Rahman), Tan Sri G S Gill (leading businessman dealing in sports goods), Prof Gurdial Singh (former law professor at University Malaya), Gurmit Singh (environment crusader), Dato Harjit Singh Hullon (television news editor and prominent news reader), Dato Dr Harjit Singh (President of Johor Cricket Council), Karamjit Singh (motor rally champion known as The Flying Sikh), Datuk Dr Keshmahinder Singh (eye specialist and founder president of Sikh Welfare Society Malaysia), Lall Singh (Malaysia’s cricketing legend), Major General Datuk Ranjit Singh Ramday (First Sikh Major General in the Malaysian armed forces), Tan Sri Sarwan Singh Gill (court interpreter who rose to Chief Justice of Malaya) and Dr Veerinderjeet Singh (tax expert).
Some of the possibly lesser known personalities, to some, have also been captured. When travelling the North-South highway along the Peninsular Malaysia, one would have caught the sign board for Ladang Guru Nanak at Serendah, Selangor. The owner was Shamsher Singh (born 1920, Punjab), a police officer turned rubber planter. He took the path less travelled, paving the way to his success. Don’t skip this entry!
There are also entries on Datuk Balwant Singh Kler (Malaysia’s sports official from Sabah), Ginder Singh (owner of largest transport business in Negeri Sembilan) and others. Like most of the others, they have stories to tell.
Among the Sikhs from Penang are Prof Dr Chatar Singh and Dato Sri Chet Singh.
Dr Chatar (born 1929, Kuala Kangsar) is one of the founding fathers of University Sains Malaysia (USM) and of the School of Physics and the School of Mathematical Sciences. He was also the man responsible renaming the road in front of Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Penang to Jalan Gurdwara in 1990. That took seven years! Among others, he had a long association with the Penang Sikh Association.
Chet (born 1936, Kuala Kangsar), who started working as a teacher before moving to the Home Ministry, was transferred to Penang in 1967 to become the State Financial Officer. In 1971, he was made the General Manager of the Penang Development Corporation. In this role, he was instrumental in making Penang the northern hub of manufacturing industries.
There are more stories in the book. The author has done a tremendous job in capturing, in many instances, the story from the horses mouth themselves. It is the first draft of the history of Sikhs in Malaya, and Malaysia. “It’s a labour of love on my part,” said Dr Manjit.
HOW TO GET A COPY?
Price: RM50 (add RM10 for postage within Malaysia)
For further assistance, Whatsapp to Asia Samachar at +6017-335-1399
Once Sikhs landed in Malaya, how many never revisited Punjab? (Asia Samachar, 24 Oct 2017)
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)
Malaysian retired lecturer releases book on Sikhs in Pakistan (Asia Samachar, 24 Feb 2017)
Amardeep’s burning passion sparks second book on Sikh legacy in Pakistan (Asia Samachar, 1 Sept 2017)