Jarmal Singh: The oval-ball turban ‘king’

The retired Singapore senior police officer may well be the first and only turbaned-Sikh in the world to captain any national team to regional glory

JARMAL SINGH: 1979 Asian rugby championship – Photo: Singapore Rugby Union (SRU)

IN the world of rugby, the oval-ball contact team sport which originated in England in the first half of the 19th century, the famous Bollywood liner “Singh is King” will perfectly fit Jarmal Singh.

I dare say, by any sporting imagination, that this retired Singapore senior police officer may well be the first and only turbaned-Sikh in the world to captain any national team to regional glory.

Yes, Sikhs are known for their world-class prowess in hockey, cricket, football and even kabbadi (a team contact sport with its roots in the millennia-old history of ancient India and South Asia). But in the oval-ball sport of rugby, it’s a global rarity, let alone to be skipper, as Jarmal stands tall because of his outstanding leadership qualities on the field.

SEE ALSO: Singapore’s inimitable rugby captain

The Singapore Rugby Union (SRU), on the 40th anniversary of winning the Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) Cup in 1978, feted the oval-ball heroes on Saturday at the SAFRA Toa Payoh Clubhouse with a reunion dinner and in launching a tribute book entitled When We Were Kings, authored by Godfrey Robert, the former The Straits Times sports editor.

Indeed, the soft-spoken Jarmal, who was captain of the Singapore rugby team which went on to win an unprecedented “treble” of national awards – Team of the Year, Coach of the Year and Sportsman of the Year – was humblest when the showers of praise were bestowed on him and his team-mates.


The 70-year-old even confessed, for the first time, that he kept his sporting heroics away from his family: “I’ve never discussed any of it with my children or my grandchildren – they’ve never asked – and even if they did, I wouldn’t know what to say, where to start.”

Like a sporting rags-to-riches fairy-tale, they produced the best results in the annals of Singapore rugby, Under the name Singapore Civilians, they won the prestigious Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) tournament after 44 years of participation.

In the semifinal, they beat the favourites, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (RNZIR), and prevailed over the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces Blackhawks in the final. Later that year, they produced their best result at the Asian Rugby tournament.

The Lions finished an amazing third place at the sixth edition held in Kuala Lumpur, behind powerhouses Japan and South Korea. They upset Thailand 16-15 in the third-place play-off.

Jarmal Singh at the When We Were Kings book launch – Photo: Suresh Nair

The extraordinary season was hailed by pundits as a “Grand Slam” achievement by the game of rugby in the history of sport in Singapore.

Jarmal, who played on the wing and also as a wing-forward, says: “We had a very good coach in Nat Bava. What the team achieved was because of him. He improved our fitness levels and we could play with great strength and confidence.”

Award-winning rugby coach Natahar Bava, the SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ 1978, sums up Jarmal as a “highly respected utility player, small in size but very strong in discipline”.

“Jarmal was elected by the players as Singapore captain in 1978,” says Natahar, a decorated US-trained educationist, who also taught at the Singapore American School for over 35 years. “His election was amazing as he was from a non-traditional rugby-playing school (Gan Eng Seng Secondary School) and he seriously started playing rugby as a senior police officer and late into his adulthood.


“Under his captaincy, Singapore won the MRU Cup after 44 years and we were rewarded with an unprecedented ‘hat-trick” of SNOC awards. If I need to sum up Jarmal in a few words, I’d hail him as a highly respected utility player, small in size but very strong in discipline, teamwork and as a rousing role-model.”

Jarmal was nicknamed as the “Flying Sikh” for his sprinting and tackling prowess, notes Natahar. “I recollect he was the only Singaporean to score a try against the world-class Western Samoa during the quarterfinals of the Main Cup at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1979.”

The nine-letter word “difficult” is almost non-existent in the vocabulary of this turbaned Assistant Commissioner of Police (Retired), who I’ve personally known for more than three decades. Whether it was defending against a stronger opponent on the rugby pitch, dealing with convicts, managing two jobs in a day or communicating the needs of the community to officialdom, Jarmal has not even once held the view that these were unachievable.

This is the steadfast mantra adopted by Jarmal throughout his life, born in India in 1948, and coming to Singapore’s shores as an eight-year old in 1956. His early life was shrouded by umpteen challenges.

Son of a humble watchman, Jarmal’s traits of working hard and never giving up were inherited from his father who played a major role in shaping his character. Growing in a zinc structure called home and situated just behind the warehouse, his father guarded as a “jaga”, he witnessed his father holding two jobs to make ends meet.

As a teenager, on his part, Jarmal tried his best to help. Family friends tell me he paddled daily on a bicycle to school instead of taking the bus so as to save a few cents. While other watched movies in the cinema, he would stare intently at the entrance of the cinema with vague imaginations of the interiors of a cinema.

At an early age, he knew education was the stairway to a respectable lifestyle and he took up a part-time day job to earn a few dollars while studying the night away for crucial examinations. And he settled for handmade spiked running shoes instead of those that were commercially produced due to the latter’s hefty price of S$20.

It was the proverbial “blood, sweat and tears” of his father and family, with an unending string of hardships that constantly reminded Jarmal to work hard and to burn the midnight oil.

The academic excellence in him prevailed as Jarmal’s perseverance and determination saw him surpassing all expectations and entering the University of Singapore. He graduated with a Bachelor in Science degree in 1971. He joined the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and not in his wildest dreams would he imagine that the next 40 years of his life in the blue uniform, which he wore with pride and distinction.


Jarmal, in a nutshell, ranks as extraordinary officer who rose through the senior police officer ranks through hard work, self-belief and commitment. While at the Police Academy, he received the prestigious Public Service Commission scholarship to do his Master of Business Administration degree at the National University of Singapore. In spite of having to manage work and studies at the same time, he completed his degree and graduated in 1984.

The government recognised his special value-added organisational skills and he was the Director of Special Projects (NPC Redesign), tasked with building the Neighbourhood Police Centres (NPCs) throughout Singapore so as to strengthen crime prevention efforts across the island.

He was more than a dawn-to-dusk turbaned-cop, who always led, very distinctly, from the front.

As the Commander of the Volunteer Special Constabulary, Jarmal spent his evenings administering and managing a team of volunteers from all walks of life who selflessly worked after office hours and weekends to assist the police officers in discharging their duties. During the day, he performed his duties as the Commander of the CISCO Auxiliary Police Force

Needless to say, he quickly caught the eye of his bosses with his exemplary hard work, contributions and dedication. He received numerous awards during his career with the SPF. These included the Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Public Administration Medal) (Bronze) (Bar), Pingat Bakti Setia (Long Service Award), Minister’s Award for Home Team Achievement and Singapore Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.

Jarmal also received the Commissioner of Police’s commendation for his impressive investigation work on the Robinson’s Department Store fire that occurred in 1972.

His elite sporting attributes came to true light as a senior police officer. He had a keen interest in sports and was actively involved in athletics, football and hockey since his school days. He only picked up rugby in 1971, the year he graduated from the university and on joining the SPF. However, this sporting activity was to give him fame and glory far beyond his imagination.


For a rare turbaned sportsman, Jarmal stood out at rugby for the next 10 years. He was a fast learner and was able to muster the sport so well that, in 1973, he was selected for Singapore’s national rugby team where he played in various tournaments with Malaysian states.

Even today, in the humblest of tones, he attributed the victory of his 1978 team to the ability and competency of the players instead of his captaincy brilliance. In 2014, Jarmal added another accolade to his glittering sporting career when he was recognised by the government as a ‘National Sports Pioneer’.

Jarmal Singh (left) with Singapore national coach Natahar Bava (middle) and then law minister E W Barker – Photo: Singapore Rugby Union (SRU)

Beyond his career and sporting passion, he also contributed to the community and society. An example of this service is his 26-year commitment on the School Advisory Committee of Gan Eng Seng Secondary School. He has also been active in the Sikh community. About 20 years ago, he became part of the first resource panel to consider issues relating to the Sikh community. He has served as the Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board, which acts as an intermediary between government bodies and the Sikh community.

The retired Jarmal smiles to himself as he looks back to how his three sons and even his two grandchildren know minimal of his sporting heroics. He, however, remains indebted to his wife for his prolonged string of personal and professional successes. He says: “She took good care of the three sons while I was away on career pursuits and sporting tournaments. She significantly also encouraged me to pursue my life-long dreams.”

The blue-uniform continues to be a regimental life-long icon trademark. Despite retirement, he still has the passion to serve. He recently authored a paper titled “Crime Prevention: The Singapore Approach” to share his valuable insights and knowledge from his long years of experience in the police force. He also provides consultancy services with the Ministry of Home Affairs.

For a son of a watchman, who rose to be a Police Assistant Commissioner and rarer still, probably the only turbaned Sikh in the world to skipper a country’s rugby team, Jarmal deserves to be crowned as a “king”.

Indeed, his rags-to-riches personal lifestyle is the tale that the Sikh community must repeat over and over again as he lived through very tough times but those crises and challenges made him what he is today.

“Singh is King”. I’d say Jarmal is ‘King’ as his outstanding philosophy of humility, hard work, commitment, honesty and determination has stood him well over the last 40 years or so as an iconic Made-in-Singapore Sikh officer and gentleman.

These personal and professional trademarks have also enabled him to leave an indelible mark at the national and international levels through a glittering police and sporting career.

Yes, thanks to the Singapore Rugby Union (SRU), at the weekend’s 40th anniversary of winning the Malaysian Rugby Union (MRU) Cup in 1978, we’re reminded, through the Jarmal Singh-heroics of what the tribute book says: “When We Were Kings”.

Jarmal Singh is King.


The original article appeared here

Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has known Jarmal Singh, over three decades, as a very rare breed of an officer, gentleman and sportsman of the highest distinction.



Singapore’s inimitable rugby captain (Asia Samachar, 14 July 2017)

Wrong ‘turban’ remark gets Fandi Ahmad in a big bind (Asia Samachar, 14 Sept 2016)

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