Global Sikhs: The day when Sikhs went to the aid of the world

15 years ago, Global Sikhs sprung into action following the tsunami that brought about massive destruction at Aceh, Indonesia

Voyage of Mercy: Shamdev Singh in the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy maiden mission – Photo: The Sikh (Special Edition), March 2005

The Dec 26 2004 Asian tsunami – triggered following a seabed earthquake that measured 9.0 on the Richter scale off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia – saw waves of destruction smashing into parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Close to 500,000 people have died and millions more have been left in urgent need of food and shelter. As Asia grappled with tsunami aftermath, the world has come together in an overwhelming show of sympathy, love and support.

In Malaysia, an established Sikh body – the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia rose to the occasion by spearheading Global Sikhs,a humanitarian relief team that has ventured into the heart of destruction in Aceh, Indonesia, to do their bit in offering assistance to the victims.We capture their story in this special issue.


THEY are familiar with men in turbans.The tsunami-ravaged Aceh, a province in the sprawling Indonesia archipelago, is known for its Islamic credentials. But the “new men in turban” who descended on their land early this year were a new sight for the people of Aceh, who associate turbans and beards as being Islamic or Arab.

“Are you a Muslim?” asks an elderly lady as Dr Jaswant Singh attends to her in the first few weeks following the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami that slammed Aceh with waves as high a three story building.

“No, I’m a Sikh,” he replies.

“What are you doing here?” the lady asks. One look and you can tell something is bothering her. She’s not alone. Many others in Aceh carry the same look of bewilderment and agony. This lady has lost almost her entire family in the killer waves that smashed into Aceh following a massive undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Aceh alone lost close to 300,000 people in the tragic incident Hence, the makcik – the Malay word for an elderly lady – has many reasons to be anxious.

“I’m here to help,” replies the 37 – year old doctor who grew up in Puchong, Selangor.

”Where are the Arabs?” the lady shot back another question, gazing at his turban.

Dr Jaswant is from the Global Sikhs – Waves of Mercy, an ad-hoc humanitarian relief team powered by a group of Sikhs and expatriate sailors in Malaysia. The soft-spoken doctor signed up to be part of the maiden team of 31 volunteers to carry out relief work in Aceh.

It is a brave act, indeed. as Aceh is closest to the epicenter of the earthquake and one of the worst hit by the tsunami. The almost daily tremors that occurred were a grim reminder to the volunteers that the region could be whacked by another earthquake. These volunteers were walking on Ground Zero that may witness an epidemic outbreak.

Yet Dr Jaswant and his friends braved on.

it did not take long though for the people of Aceh to get to know more about these men in turban. They were not Arabs.They are the Bhai Khanaiyas of today – men and women who are willing to go deep into troubled areas, carrying with them aid and relief, plus bringing hope and love to people desperately in need of them regardless of nationality and race.

True blue humanitarian workers

The Global Sikhs – Waves of Mercy, a mission spearheaded by the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (SNSM), has been tremendously successful, both in accomplishing its mission and endearing the hearts of the Malaysian public, plus those from outside the country.

When the SNSM decided to shoulder this mission, it was something it had never executed before. Volunteers of the SNSM, the Malaysian-based Sikh organisation established in the early 1960s, are experts in running Gurmat camps gatherings we come to know as Samelans. They have little or no knowledge of humanitarian relief work. But the call for seva was so strong that these Sabha volunteers found themselves sailing across the deep blue sea, wearing the badge of humanitarian relief work to do their bit for the tsunami victims.

Take Malkith Singh, for example. A long-time dedicated volunteer of SNSM, currently its vice president, Malkith has been assisting in running the day-to-day affairs of the SNSM for many years now. He has organised countless Gurmat camps and coordinated the kirtans and parchars of international raagi jathas. Malkith partakes in the cooking of Guru-ka-Langgar almost every other day in one Gurdwara or another and has attended to to families in need of assistance.

On Jan 7, 2005 Malkith sailed with 30 others on the maiden Global Sikhs‘ relief mission to Aceh. He was on a yatch, fully loaded with thousands of boxes containing food, medicines and emergency supplies and ready to sail more than 500kms.

Malkit Singh (left) and Dr Jaswant Singh (right)were part of the Global Sikhs’s first mission to Aceh in 2004 – Photo: The Sikh (Special Issue) 2005

Within weeks the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy team of volunteers was nursing some 10,000 people in two areas. In Pulau Weh, an island just north of Banda Aceh, the volunteers were assisting some 7,000 people displaced and housed temporary in 15 makeshift camps. While Pulau Weh was not as badly hit by the tsunami as other areas in Aceh, aid and relief work carried out by Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy did become the turning point for the people of this beautiful island who had lost their homes and everything else.

In Paroe and its surrounding areas – villages facing the Indian Ocean that faced the full brunt of the tsunami – some 3,000 villagers came under their care. Here, however, was a story of death and destruction.

In no time, thousands of makciks, like the one under Dr Jaswant’s care, came to know of Sikhs. Whenever they see the men in turban or the words ‘Global Sikhs‘, the villagers knew help has arrived. Not only do they bring food, medicine and love abundance, to the delight of the villagers, the people of Aceh were amazed that the Global Sikhs brought them the Quran and other religious items required by Muslims.

The word began to spread, carrying forward the good name of the followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. An incident in Sabang,the small port city in Pulau Weh that acts as the forward station for the mission illustrates the point.

A group of doctors from the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy were left alone to carry out thew work. Feeling hungry walked into the town to buy some food. The shop owner refused to accept payment. “Kamu orang bawa pertolongan” (You’re men who brought us aid),” he said. And when they see men in turban, or the Global Sikhs banner, even the army waves you on. While they may know nothing of the Sikhs, they found them to be honourable people, providing true blue humanitarian relief, with no hidden agendas.

Back in Malaysia, people from all walks of life came to know of these Sikh volunteers: how they have joined in efforts to provide emergency aid to Aceh. Malaysians are impressed as to how such a small community is able to mobilise aid and relief within such a short span of time.There are less than 80,000 Sikhs in Malaysia out of a population of 25 million people. News of the good work of Global Sikhs and other agencies also began making its round in the Sikh circles, as well.

SNSM hopes the good work being carried out by Global Sikhs will correct the misperception people have regarding Sikhs. Global Sikhs hopes to put forward an image of the Sikhs that is dynamic, vibrant and humanitarian. “For years, Sikhs have been branded as terrorists and people who gave trouble. Sadly this image has lingered on, ” Global Sikhs operations director Harvinder Singh told team members in a meeting in the early days of the mission. “This disaster is an opportunity. We will represent Sikhs around the world. Hopefully, it will remind them of Bhai Khanaiya, the first Red Cross.”

What is the spirit of Bhai Khanaiya? We go back some 300 years ago. ln the midst of a battlefield. one solitary soul was walking around, water and medicine in hand. He would attend to anyone in sight, no questions asked. There was a battle going on, with two sides at war with each other. That did not stop him from nursing the wounds of everyone in his path.

Bhai Khanaiya had performed selfless service of humanity with no distinction of nationality, caste or creed. Some Sikhs complained to Guru Gobind Singh that Khanaiya had been resuscitating the fallen enemy soldiers. He was summoned to the Guru’s Darbar. The case against him was put forward. Now, what do you say, Brother Khanaiya? ”Yes, my Lord, what they said is true in a sense, but I saw no Mughals or Sikhs in the battlefield. I only saw human beings.” The Guru. pleased with the reply, blessed him and told the Sikhs that Khanaiya had understood his teachings correctly. In a sense, the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy mission works on that very principle: we are here to serve anyone who needs our help.

Global Sikhs operations director Harvinder Singh (left)

The story of Global Sikhs began in the days following the Dec 26 disaster. The province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra is just across the Straits of Malacca. Malaysia is its closest neighbour. Some key volunteers of the SNSM were approached with the idea of providing some form of assistance to the victims in Aceh. At that time, the number of dead reported was way much lower and Indonesia was still not in the news as the place worst hit by the deadly waves.

Within days, the Sabha House the SNSM headquarters in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, turned its premises into a center facilitating and coordinating relief operations. More than 100 volunteers were deeply engaged in one activity or another towards this end. Donations in the form of food, clothes and others began pouring in by the lorry loads. Every nook and corner of the two-story bungalow was almost filled up with goods from generous Malaysians. Clearly. a humanitarian relief agency was taking shape at Sabha House. The meeting room was transformed into the mission’s Command and Control Centre, which soon would be operating 24-hours a day. By all accounts this is probably the largest Sikh humanitarian relief agency, in terms of number of volunteers, to go into action in an international tragedy.

By end-March, the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy would have sent some 160 volunteers to Aceh over seven missions, performing all kinds of relief and rehabilitation work. Indeed, history is in the making for Sikhs in Malaysia and worldwide.

The energy levels these volunteers exude were simply amazing and contagious. In a matter of no time hundreds came forward to render help in one way or another. These volunteers, most of them with full-time jobs or people running their own companies, came forward to lend time, energy and expertise. Without doubt, the mission needed all the expertise it could muster. Being new to relief work the learning curve was steep. The ‘to-do’ list was lengthy: clarifying the mission, identifying the right people for the right job, providing basic emergency and relief training, searching for funds and goods, coordinating with other relief agencies, getting the necessary approvals, reaching out to people about the work, and so on.

As the mission moved on, the right people and the required stuff began falling in place. At times, it was almost as if miracles were unfolding, one after another. For the first few shipment, the mission needed medicines costing millions of dollars. Overnight, the supply reached our doors at Sabha House. We needed foodstuff to take to Aceh. Again, the donors came forward.

Critical to the mission was a proper control centre. A couple of army experts with just the right expertise and experience came forward to help in that area. At the end, the Command Centre transformed into a mission operation centre: there were clocks on the wall telling you the time In Aceh and Kuala Lumpur, and maps of Aceh were plastered on both corners of the room. Dedicated telephone lines and networked computers were put in place for volunteers to get cracking. The man responsible for putting the Command Centre into place was Global Sikhs deputy operations director, Satwant Singh, a globetrotting environmentalist with a multi-national company.


So, how did we get to Aceh? At that point the big international agencies were already making a beeline to Banda Aceh, the capital of the province, perched at the tip of the Sumatra. But feedback that we got noted that the relief teams and goods were stranded at the capital as the complete destruction of the road network on the west coast of Aceh hindered onward movement into the remote areas of Aceh.

Bearing this in mind, what do we do? That was one of the most critical questions for operations director Harvinder Singh and the team. A dedicated and long-time SNSM volunteer, Harvinder played an instrumental role In providing leadership to the team, at that point already in high gear.  Having put In so many collective man-hours, they were not about to col back. “lf you want success, you have to do something you have never done before,” Harvinder had said to the team.

And that‘s exactly what happened – treading on a path other volunteers had never treaded before. By sheer coincidence, Global Sikhs were matched with the Waves of Mercy, a group of sailors based in Langkawi, an Island on the West coast of Malaysia. Led by Captain Hugo Crawford, the group of expatriate sailors was already busy putting together a team to send goods and people to Aceh. The Irish-born Capt Hugo and friends were at Langkawi when tidal waves rocked the shores of Langkawi an island on west Side of peninsular Malaysia. The US$10m ship under his care – it belongs to a businessman – was one of the few that were spared during the incident on Dec 26. The 52-year old former carpenter, who hails from Belfast, refused to let the tragedy get the better of him. “The images haunted my mind as I tried to sleep,” says Capt Hugo.”In a flash, it was clear to me what I had to do. I’m a captain of a 130-foot motor yatch. So, why not I attempt a rescue mission for the thousands of unfortunate people along the coastline of Northern Sumatera.” He bandies around his fellow-seamen. That’s how Waves of Mercy came about.

Within a week – by Jan 7 – the new partnership of Global Sikhs – Waves of Mercy sent out two vessels carrying 31 volunteers and 150 tons of emergency supplies on its way to Aceh.The first team, led by with Malkith Singh as the chief-de-mission, also included a group of 10 medical personnel.

Global Sikhs volunteer Raj Sonia (second from left) at one of the camps under the care of Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy – Photo: The Sikh (March 2005)

The new partnership changed the plan we had initially wanted to operate, thus realigning the mission’s anchor. Unlike most humanitarian agencies in Aceh that came in via air, Global Sikhs now could avoid Banda Aceh and the likelihood of its volunteers and goods getting stranded.

As the only humanitarian aid agency fully mobile with sails, Global Sikhs set its base camp in Sabang, Pulau Weh. The local hospital in Pulau Weh was in dire need of extra help. It had lost five of its nine doctors to the tsunami. Dr Susheelwant Kaur and colleague went straight to work making their way from one camp to another, handing some 7,000 people at 15 Internally Displaced Camps.

Some 20 days after the tsunami, the Global Sikhs team sailed along Paroe. The village caught the attention of Global Sikhs. Since the tsunami incident, the village facing the epicenter of the earthquake had not received any relief, save for a solitary air drop a couple of days earlier. But that proved of little use. Cooking rice with the polluted water made everyone sick. “Move than half its population had been wiped out. When we first landed there, some of the children there could not even walk,” says Malkith Singh, who was on board the Sean Paquitto yacht that brought relief to the villagers.

Dr Tikfu Gee (left) and Dr King (right). Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy maiden mission – Photo: The Sikh (Special Edition), March 2005

Back at home In Malaysia, things were moving at break-neck speed. Right from the beginning, the mission was meant to embrace anyone and everyone who wanted to serve as humanitarian relief workers, regardless of race, religion or nationality. From the onset, Global Sikhs had enlisted non-Sikh members. Dr Tikfu Gee was busy drawing up the medicine list together with Jagdeep Singh and his wife Jasmeet Kaur. Kishore Kumar was gallantly handling logistics. The husband-wife couple of Tik and Stephanie were working into the wee hours of the night, alongside Tarminder Singh, to get the website up and running.

From day one, the mission adopted the inclusive route. To keep the platform open to other concerned organisations, the team adopted the name Global Sikhs. SNSM Jathedar (president) Harwindar Singh spelt out its mission: “Global Sikhs is a platform for anyone who wants to serve in providing relief to the devastated people of Aceh and to assist them In rebuilding their lives.” At that juncture, the Global Sikhs alliance had already included the United Sikhs. Others Sikh organisations soon began lending a helping hand.

Global Sikhs Aceh Mission 2004 – Photo: The Sikh (Special Issue) 2005

Over the weeks, Global Sikhs have been concentrating its efforts in providing assistance to Pulau Weh and Paroe. At Pulau Weh, the team embarked on several other projects. One of them is ensuring proper sanitary conditions  at displaced people’s camp.

With the operations moving from the emergency phase to the rebuilding process, Global Sikhs have just sent 16 boats to Paroe. This is to help the predominantly fishing community back on its feet. More boats are on its way. ”You should have seen the glow in the eyes of the people In Paroe when they got the boats. It was simply awesome,” said one volunteer working there.

More importantly, it’s giving the people there – the four or five villages there lost at least half their members and saw the waves destroying their homes – something to look forward to. “We‘re now me the rebuilding phase,” says Jagdev Singh, SNSM Vice President who has taken over as Global Sikhs‘ director of operations.

The work being done by the brave volunteers of the Global Sikhs-Waves of Mercy is definitely making a difference. For years to come, the people of Aceh will remember the men in turban who came as waves of mercy following the waves of destruction.

[The article first appeared in the The Sikh (Special Edition), a SNSM magazine, published in March 2005. The author was the Global Sikhs media director]



When Sikhs led volunteers to help Aceh tsunami victims (Asia Samachar, 28 Dec 2019)


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