In the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century Sikhs dominated transport business in Malaya; this was particularly so in Negeri Sembilan state. In the early stages operated bullock-carts. Slowly they progressed to owning lorries and then bus companies.
In Negeri Sembilan they owned bus companies; foremost was Uttam Singh Bus Company. Even the Seremban Town Bus Company was owned and operated largely by Sikhs. In Port Dickson, Tampin and Nilai Sikhs were forefront in transport upto the time Malaya gained independence in 1957. They even ran transport business in the estates.
Sardar Ginder Singh Gill owned one of the largest transport companies in Negeri Sembilan.
He was born in 1901 in Mehna village which lay between Jagraon and Moga, in Indian Punjab. His father, Sardar Sunder Singh migrated to Malaya in 1905 to join his elder brother, Tota Singh, who had come to Malaya earlier; together with him came his family, including his young son, Ginder Singh. They took a train from Jagraon to Ludhiana, a military cantonment town; from here they took another train to the port city of Calcutta, the then capital of British India.
At Calcutta they stayed at the main Sikh Temple, Vadi Sangat, located on Harrison Road. Soon they bought tickets from a local travel agent and took a steam ship to Penang. After a journey of about 13 days, they reached Penang port. At Penang they stayed for sometime at Bricklin Road Gurdwara; they bought on a local tramp (steamer) which took them to Port Dickson where Cinder Singh’s uncle, Tota Singh, lived. This seaside town was to become his abode for rest of his life.
SCHOOLING BY CHANCE
Through the influence of Tota Singh, Ginder Singh’s father obtained a job as head watchman with Straits Trading Company in Seremban. Ginder’s schooling began by chance. The manager of Straits Trading Company, Mr. Cameron, a Scotsman, visited his father’s quarters and saw the young Ginder playing with sand. He rebuked Sunder Singh and asked him why he had not put his son in a school? Only then his father put him in Saint Paul’s Institution, along Paul Street (now renamed Jalan Yam Tuan). The school was run by Mr. Coelo and in 1908 it was taken over by the Brothers who then put up a new building.
In 1913 the family moved to Port Dickson. Ginder’s father had been ailing since his wife’s death in 1906. His father remarried.
The father passed away in 1913 and Ginder became an orphan. Luckily his uncle, Tota Singh, took care of him; again there was the kindly Chinese Mr. Tan Chin Fook, the head clerk of Straits Trading Company, who treated him as his own child. Ginder became quite attached to the Chinese gentleman and his two daughters. In their company he learnt to speak Hokkien fluently.
When his father fell ill, the young Ginder used to look after him. Consequently, he missed one year of schooling. After his father’s demise, he started schooling again. Daily he used to travel all the way from Port Dickson to Seremban by train. A brisk walk from the railway station would take him to St. Paul school in about 5 minutes. According to him ‘it was great fun travelling by train then’. Since he was quite studious, he passed his Junior Cambridge in 1915. In school he joined the school-band; he used to play the clarinet. He was barely 15 years then.
His uncle did not want him to study further and he wanted him to be close to him, so that he could keep an eye over his nephew, lest he went astray. Tota Singh approached his employer, Mr. Mc Clymont, the general manager of Sungai Ujong Railway which ran between Port Dickson and Seremban. The Scotsman also had a private firm which dealt with Ben Meyer. Besides he was an agent for Asiatic Petroleum Company as well as for several rubber estates around Port Dickson. Tota Singh used his influence with the Scotsman to get Ginder Singh a job as a clerk; he was pushed around to various departments and after two years he was made the head clerk. He continued in that post even after the Scotsman had sold the firm to A.C. Harper; the company acted as an agent to Shell Company and the Steam Ship Company as well as forwarding agent to estates. At that time there were hardly any motor cars.
Ginder’s uncle, Tota Singh had prospered as a money-lender. Besides he had a fleet of 5 buses, plying the Port Dickson-Seremban route. This company’s buses plied the Port Dickson-Pengkalan Kempas route.
In 1922, Ginder Singh bought two lorries and started transporting rubber from nearby estates to Port Klang; from here it would be transported to Singapore by steam ships. From there it would be shipped to Europe. Soon he bought more lorries and his business expanded rapidly.
He teamed up with Uttam Singh and formed the Uttam Singh Bus Company. Later he sold his shares in that company to Uttam Singh. Ginder’s contacts with Harper & Company helped him to secure more transport work. Since his business had expanded greatly, he resigned as head clerk and ventured full-time into his transport business.
In 1936 Ginder Singh bought an ailing bus company, Chin Wah Bus Company, from a Chinese firm. The company’s busses plied the Port Dickson-Pengkalan Kempas route. He sold some of his shares in Chin Wah Bus Company to his brothers-in-law who had migrated to Malaya from Punjab. At the same time he bought shares in Ganeson Bus Company in Seremban.
Before World War Two, Ginder Singh bought a textile shop together with T. Mahima Singh and Santokh Singh in Paul Street. During World War Two he suffered great loss; the Japanese Government confiscated his lorries and buses. During those war years, he worked in his shop, ‘Gian Chand’, as manager. Following the end of World War Two, his lorries and buses were returned to him. Once more his transport business thrived. At one time he had a fleet of over 100 tankers transporting oil for Shell and Esso; this was revealed to me by Mr. Piara Singh of Seremban. He prospered and bought property in Negeri Sembilan and Johore. He named one of his rubber estate in Johore as Sunder Rubber Estate and the other as Ginder Rubber Estate. One was named after his late father and the other after himself.
It was in 1922 that Ginder Singh returned to the land of his birth, Puniab, and got married to Madam Isher Kaur of village Chand Purana. According to Ginder Singh, his wife was ’a very strict and good woman’. The couple had six boys of whom only two survived, Gurdev Singh and Ajaib Singh. The elder boy went to UK to study medicine, but fell ill owing to the cold weather; he returned to Malaya and resumed his medical studies at Singapore; he was the class mate of Dr. Karpal Singh of Pantai Medical Centre, Kuala Lumpur. After completing his housemanship, he set up a private clinic in Port Dickson. Later on, he migrated to Australia and settled in Melbourne.
Ginder’s younger son worked with his father in transport business. It was in 1927 that Cinder Singh built for himself a bungalow in Port Diction and named it Gill House. It cost $10,000/ to build then and is located near the sea.
CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY
Ginder Singh contributed to society in various ways. He was chairman of Port Dickson Welfare Society and played a major role in setting up the Old Folks Home to cater for the elderly and the homeless. He was an active member of the Malaysian Tuberculosis Society and was Chairman of the Negeri Sembilan Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis for twenty-one years, from 1957 to 1978. This society was founded in 1948; Ginder Singh was a founder member and highest donor, having donated RM 5000/. His involvement with this society was largely due to the fact that his father was a victim of this disease and he saw how he suffered.
He was also a Rotarian. He was a member of the Seremban Rotary Club (he was President of the club in 1947) and later the founder President of the Port Dickson Rotary Club which was set up in 1964.
Besides he was a founder member of the Negeri Sembilan Sikh Union and later its patron. He also played an important role in building the Port Dickson Gurdwara and was its president for many years. Back home in his native village, Mehna, in Punjab he gave generously to establish the village school. In Negeri Sembilan he was forefront in contributing money to various charities and Sporting events.
His business was largely run by his younger son, Ajaib Singh, a well known figure in sporting circle, especially golf and cricket. Sadly Alaib Singh Passed away recently; he was most helpful in giving details about his late father.
1 The Sikhs. A publication by Khalsa Panth, Negeri Sembilan in 1299, to mark the 300 years of the formation of Khalsa Panth, in 1699, at Anandpur-Sahrb, p-102-105. 2015.
2 Personal interview with Mr. Ajaib Singh, in Port Dickson, in January and February 2015.
- The Malaysian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosns (MAPTB) N.S. revelaed that Sardar Ginder Singh was the longest serving Chairman of the Association, having served from 1957 to 1978. This office is located at 6, Jalan Dr. Krishnan, 70000 Seremban. The Association was founded in 1948.
Adapted from Pride of Lions: Eminent Sikhs in Malaysia by Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu.
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Pride of Lions (Asia Samachar, 28 Oct 2017)