Sikhs in Thailand: Retrospect and Prospect

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| Bangkok, Thailand | 3 Oct 2016 Asia Samachar |
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Sikhs in Thailand by Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu, published in 1993

By Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu

Since their migration to Thailand a hundred years ago, the Sikhs have made solid economic gains.

Today, the Sikhs in Thailand enjoy the highest standard of living amongst Sikhs in Southern Asia. The richest Sikhs in the Thailand are also amongst the richest in the world.

This is no mean achievement when it is recalled that most of the early migrants from West Panjab (mainly from the districts of Gujranwala, Shekhupura and Sialkot) to Thailand started off from home with barely a hundred rupees. Their economic advancement from sales assistants and pedlars to retail and wholesale businesses (often in cloth) was largely due to their economic background and hard work.

The majority of the Sikhs in Thailand are Arora Sikhs whose families were mostly engaged in trade in the former undivided Panjab. They possessed the necessary skills to become traders in this far-off country. These pioneer migrants made great personal sacrifices to save money. With frugal living, the pedlars built up sufficient capital to advance yet again, but this time as retail traders; some becoming the wholesale cloth merchants of Sampheng in Bangkok today.

In the last ten years many have ventured into new businesses. These new enterprises include factories for producing lace work, cloth, baby products, printing and dyeing, gloves, condoms, shoes, construction equipment, gem-cutting, etc. Others have ventured into the urban property market, building flats and apartments; some have started guest-houses or hotels of all categories to cater to a now well-developed, tourist market.  At resort towns such as Pattaya and Phuket there are many tailor shops run by Sikhs as is also the case of Bangkok, particularly in the areas of Sukhumvit, Silom and Banglamphu. Altogether, Sikhs run about 500 tailor shops in Thailand.

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Those Sikh migrants who came from the undivided Panjab in the pre-1950 period are now fast dwindling. Even so, survivors from this group still exert considerable influence in the affairs of the gurudwaras and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the Central Organisation of the Sikhs in Thailand.

The present generation of local-born, “Mussoorie” educated younger Sikhs, now have the responsibility for the affairs of the Young Thai Sikh Association. Without doubt the older generation of Sikhs made very valuable contributions to this society, creating the C.O.S.T., building impressive gurudwaras, setting up clinics, a welfare home for the old and destitute members of the Sikh society, etc. But now it is felt that they should gracefully retire form the helm of society affairs and hand over its reins to the more progressive and enlightened Sikh Naujawans (youth) who now feel able and willing to carry the torch, as the old order changes and yields to the new.

Business

The Thai Sikhs have done remarkably well in business activities. Despite this, they have failed to produce a class of professionals. Currently there are barely a score of Sikh doctors and a few lawyers. The number of engineers, architects, professional accountants, etc. also remains very low. This is not difficult to explain as it is not uncommon to find Thai Sikh parents discouraging their children, at all levels, from pursuing higher education. Once the boys complete their secondary education (eg. at Mussoorie in India) they are brought back to the shop and encouraged to master the family business. Parents, sincerely believe that this is the best career interest of their children. They also believe that there is more money to be made from business than as a professional of any grade.

Equally important from the parents’ point of view is the need to get a son or daughter married before they reach the age of twenty-one. This is because they are afraid that the boy may marry a girl from another race or religion. Naturally, once a boy is married at such a young age, any urge to follow another study is diminished and he more readily accedes to his parent’s wishes as he starts to assist his father in the family business. As a fact, it has been observed that very few young Sikhs have the courage to break out of this “strangehold” of family business.

Few Professionals

Surprisingly, few Sikhs in Thailand are concerned that there are too few Sikh professionals in service here. For Sikhs to survive and thrive, in the coming twenty-first century, they will have to produce a group of intellectuals who can guide the community to meet the challenges that lie ahead. This group of intellectuals should come from the present professionals who have received advanced education in local or foreign universities. Such intellectuals cannot be expected from the secondary school, “Mussoorie” educated shopkeepers. At present few Sikhs in Thailand read the leading English language newspapers. The number of Sikhs who read Time Magazine or the Far Eastern Economic Review is very small. Consequently, their knowledge of international affairs is extremely limited.

No society can afford to be economically wealthy but intellectually bereft. It is only a question of time before other groups overtake and then surpass them. To survive and prosper, encouragement must be given for the emergence of a Sikh intellectual group who can act as a “think-tank” for the community.

Since many of the Sikhs in Bangkok are now moneyed (some of them are billionaires) they suffer certain constraints. Very big Sikh firms in the past have often declined through family disputed and mismanagement.[]  To overcome such problems, it is time that the rich Sikhs combined their wealth to launch one or two world targeted corporations that could compete with already existing conglomerates, as owned by local Thai and Chinese businessmen. To run these corporations on professional lines, high calibre management is required. The time has come for the rich Thai Sikhs to think big. Only then will they be able to make a wider impact, not only in Thailand but also in Southeast Asia. As an example, if individually talented Sikh, such as the tycoon, Sura Chansirichawla, can make an impact, then a joint corporation launched by Thai Sikhs could also thrive. As Khalsa they should be ever hopeful, keeping in mind the religious motto “chardi kela”. It is now time that they reappraise the whole situation and do something new as a joint community venture.

Though now an urbanized and an economically advanced community, the Sikhs have remained segmented, impersonal and transitory in their relationships. Few of them get up at dawn and recite the morning prayer, Japji, or the evening prayer, Rehras. Most of them now only put on tape-recordings of these prayers. Even on Sundays, relationships. This has affected their inter-personal relationships as well as their attitude towards their religion the number of youths attending the service at the gurudwara (temple) is limited; those who come are often only persuaded to do so by their parents. Such an attitude is understandable as the gurudwara committee members allocate most of the time to the local priest or visiting preachers.

The local youths are seldom encouraged to participate in giving lectures or in singing hymns. Probably the biggest problem related with the reluctance of younger Sikhs going to gurudwara (temple), is that all too often they cannot follow the lecture or understand the words used in the hymns being sung. This results from the fact that a majority of the youngsters cannot speak or understand Punjabi properly or read and write Gurmukhi, the script used in the writing of the Sikh scriptures.

  • Extracted from Sikhs in Thailand by Dr Manjit Singh Sidhu, Chapter 6, Retrospect and Prospect. The book (ISBN: 974-583-280-4) was printed in 1993 by Chulalongkorn University Phyathai, Bangkok

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