Life of Watchman Narayan Singh: Living Through Great Depression, Japanese Occupation & Malayan Emergency

This watchman kept every single document, including his vaccination certification. This is the story of Narayan Singh who first came to the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1921 and worked as a watchman on a coconut plantation and padi storage facility in Bagan Serai. His grandson MALKEET SINGH captures his story


By Malkeet Singh | Experience |

I never had the opportunity to meet my maternal grandfather, Narayan Singh Sewa Singh (Lakha Village), who lived a greater part of his life in the Federated Malay States from 1921 until January 1950, before returning to Punjab.

I was fortunate enough to have met my maternal grandmother, Nihal Kaur Surwan Singh (Alekay Village), during her return visit to Malaysia in 1980 after 30 years! I saw her for the final time in 1983 when I first visited my ancestral village in Punjab. She passed away some years later.

Both my Nana and Nani (maternal grandparents) led an extremely tough life struggling in abject poverty and hardship. My grandfather first came to the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1921 and worked as a watchman on a coconut plantation and padi storage facility in Bagan Serai run by Kong Lee (Perak) Plantation Limited which was incorporated in the United Kingdom and managed by Brown, Phillips & Stewart. His elder brother Haldhar Roor Singh was also in the police force.

My Nani’s brother, the late Ujagar Singh, served as a policeman at the Ipoh Police Station for several years prior to his untimely demise involving an accident in a Police Land Rover he was travelling in.

I can share with conviction the employment history of my grandfather with fervent accuracy because he kept every single document of his including testimonials, receipts, home leave applications, vaccination certificates, and the works. Every piece of paper was of extreme importance and not to be discarded.

Watchman Narayan Singh Sewa Singh’s letter issued in 1927 from the manager at the Kong Lee Plantations in Bagan Serai – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

The earliest testimonial of his is dated April 1926 (attached). He was a meticulous individual who made sure that he had everything in black and white including home leave approvals from the colonial estate managers.

Watchman Narayan Singh Sewa Singh’s letter issued in 1934 from the manager at the Kong Lee Plantations in Bagan Serai – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

Indeed, his foresight was a great help in accelerating my uncle, Naginder’s application to settle in later years in the United Kingdom as the documents came in very handy as documentary evidence.

During the Great Depression of 1929 to 1934, Malaya was not spared. Those working in the plantations and mines were the hardest hit. Migrant labour from China and India had to be repatriated back to their home countries. My grandparents did return to Punjab for a couple of years to continue working on their ancestral farmland.

Picture taken in January 1950. (Left to Right) : Naginder Singh, Narayan Singh, Nihal Kaur, Karam Singh. (Back): Karam Singh – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

My mother, Jasmail Kaur, who was born in Bagan Serai in 1929 spent her early childhood in Punjab. I believe my grandparents returned to Bagan Serai sometime in 1934 or 35 and continued working on the same plantation in Bagan Serai for a couple of years.

In 1940, they left the Kong Lee Estate and started working in Bikam Rubber Estate, Sungkai for a couple of months followed by Jara Estate, Bagan, Bukit Mertajam until 1948.

Narayan Singh’s reentry permit dated 1950 – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

My mother shared with me the hardship the family had to endure during the Japanese Occupation whilst living on the estate and surviving mainly on fruits and keeping your presence under the radar.

She also shared about a powerful Thai Buddhist Monastery in a Village called Nona (Nenas?) near Kulim. Somehow, I can’t seem to locate it.

My mother married in 1946 at the Bagan Serai Gurdwara and moved to Kamunting, Taiping, where my father was staying with his brothers and their families. In 1947, my parents moved to Rawang where my father had secured a teaching job.

Narayan Singh’s smallpox vaccination certification issued in 1950 – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

Sometime in 1948, my grandparents and their children had a rude and frightening shock, when communist bandits confronted them for money at Jara Estate, Bagan. The family was so poor and could not give any money resulting in my uncle getting assaulted by the bandits.

On hearing this, my father immediately requested my grandparents to move to Sungei Bakau, Rawang for safety reasons. To sustain the family, my grandfather reared cows and worked as a Special Constable at the Rawang Tin Fields.

However, in mid-January 1950, due to my grandfather’s ill health, the family decided to sell off their meager belongings and take a ship from Penang and sail to Calcutta, India. From Calcutta, they took a long train journey to Punjab.

My mother tells me that my father accompanied the family on the train journey from Rawang to Butterworth bidding them a final bon voyage for he never returned to India after setting foot in Malaya in 1932 at a very tender age of 7 years. Such was his karma.

Haldhar Roor Singh would have also probably returned to Punjab after his retirement. Haldhar Roor served at the the Bagan Serai Police Station for many years. Although, he was married but had no children. My mother’s elder sister, Basant Kaur, was his pet niece. He loved dressing her up as a little male kid with a joora. She passed away in 1947 during the Partition.

(Left to Right): Haldhar Roor Singh (Narayan Singh’s elder brother) and his niece Basant Kaur – Photo: Courtesy of Malkeet Singh

I thank the Almighty that my mother who is 94 years old is hale and hearty with an excellent and sharp memory. She is able to share in-depth family history and experiences with the family. Her only setback is that she has lost her eyesight due to advanced glaucoma but is well compensated by Mother Nature with alertness and a superb memory.

In my upcoming post, I will share the story of a Tiger Moth plane that crashed during an acrobatic stunt on June 2, 1953, just yards away from the Rawang Police Station. This was on the eve of the late Queen Elizabeth’s coronation celebrations. My mother shared information about the young pilots who perished. On double-checking with the Straits Times archives her accuracy matched. My recent posts on Templer’s Park tigers were also enriched by the information shared by my mother.

I am eternally grateful to be blessed with the divine company of my mother to enrich, inspire and honour our lives. I shall endeavour to research, write and share as many fascinating stories as I can complete. I am also dying to complete a story on Sulakhan Singh, the Station Master extraordinaire who served at the Malayan Railways Station in Rawang and many more.

Malkeet Singh

Malkeet Singh is a veteran ad man, who ran Bloomingdale Worldwide Partners for more than 3 decades. He is retired and now dedicates his twilight years to writing on various subjects including early family history of forefathers, Sikh settlers in Malaya, climate change, sustainability and trending topics.


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