Perlis Sikhs: Their socio-economic conditions in 1950s

Emeritus Professor Dr D.S. Ranjit Singh Darar, a passionate Malaysian historian, takes us back into the days when Sikhs moved to Perlis, the northernmost state of the Federation of Malaysia. In this book extract, he describes their socio-economic conditions in 1950s

Staff of the Chartered Bank in Kangar, 1961 – Source: Book: Sikh Pioneers of Perlis, Malaysia 1906-1957: A Community History / Personal collection of author Ranjit Singh Darar

Book: Sikh Pioneers of Perlis, Malaysia 1906-1957: A Community History
Author: D.S. Ranjit Singh Darar

By D.S. Ranjit Singh Darar | Book Extract |

Most of the second batch of Sikh pioneers started their livelihood as small-scale cloth and miniature vendors. In the early 1950s, these vendors used to sell their goods at an open-air centre in the middle of Kangar town called “Bai Bazar” (1). These vendors were: Joginder Singh (cloth); Abtar Singh (miniatures); Pritam Singh (cloth); Darshan Singh (cloth); Rattan Singh (miniatures); and Bachan Singh (miniatures).

On certain days of the week, some of these vendors, especially the cloth merchants, used to sell their wares at weekly or periodic markets held in different parts of the state on specific days. These markets, called pasar nat in Malay, were very popular. The largest ones were held in Simpang Empat (Tuesdays) and Kuala Perlis (Fridays) (2). All sorts of produce and goods were sold at these markets by farmers, middlemen and small traders. The items brought to these day markets included agricultural produce (corn, sugarcane, watermelon); poultry, sundry goods, miniatures, cloth, toys; Malay kueh (cakes), and many other items. Traditional medicine men attracted large crowds.

These markets were well patronised by the local population, and small traders like Pritam Singh and my father Darshan Singh, made it a point to attend these two large markets every week. Small-time traders from Kangar who wished to conduct business at these periodic or weekly day markets usually transported their wares by lorry in the early morning while they themselves would cycle there. Pritam Singh and my father did the same. It was hard work but quite rewarding.

To conduct their business, small traders had to obtain a pedlars and hawkers license from the government (3). Most of the cloth merchants obtained their supplies from an established Indian-owned shop in Kangar named Mydin Pitchay and Sons (no more in existence).

In the 1960s, some of the Sikh cloth vendors at “Bai Bazar” found that business was not so lucrative and started to peddle their cloth items to Malay kampungs. Pritam Singh and my father, Darshan Singh, were the earliest to switch to this mode. They would cycle each day to different villages to sell their cloth. Later on, when the Honda Cub made its appearance in the 1970s some of them bought these motorcycles to go on their rounds to the kampungs. The new mode of transport improved their earnings as they were able to cover longer distances on their trips.

In the early 1980s, another important change occurred in the lives of the “Bai Bazar” traders. The Hokkian Association of Kangar, which was located in the centre of the town, decided to build a new bazar consisting of a few rows of wooden stalls on their vacant land. Traders at the “Bai Bazar” and the back lanes of the shops were offered to purchase these stalls for purposes of relocation which the town council was insisting’ (4). Some of the traders, including Joginder Singh (and Abtar Singh), Rattan Singh and Bachan Singh acquired these stalls and started operating from the new premises. All four of them later upgraded themselves as shop owners.

Many of the Sikhs of the second batch also worked as security guards in addition to their main profession as small-time businessmen. Pricam Singh, Darshan Singh, and Bachan Singh, for example, worked as security guards in Chinese owned rice mills for some time. Beginning in 1960, most of them found better and more secure jobs as security guards in commercial banks. These were : Pritam Singh and Essar Singh (from Kulim) in Maybank, Kangar; and Darshan Singh, Jagathjit Singh (from Alor Star), Abtar Singh and Bachan Singh in the Chartered Bank, Kangar. Most of them retired in the 1970s (5).

(1) Interview with Vavinder Pal Singh Pritam Singh at Kangar, 16.02.2013 and author’s personal knowledge and experience. I used to help my father at this bazar in 1955-1956

(2) See uniquelyperlis.blogspot. These “pasar nat” are still held at three main places these days, at Simpang Empat, Kuala Perlis; and Arau. See Malay Mail, 20.01.2021.

(3) See a sample of a pedlars and hawkers license issued by the Government of Perlis under Enactment No. 7 of 1356 dated 13.07.1955 given to my father Darshan Singh in Figure 9.3.

(4) Based on notes written by Judvinder Singh Bachan Singh dated 04.09.2020.

(5) More details see Chapters 10 and 11. See also Plate 9.2

D.S. Ranjit Singh Darar author of ‘Sikh Pioneers of Perlis, Malaysia 1906-1957: A Community History’

(Extracted with permission from Sikh Pioneers of Perlis, Malaysia 1906-1957: A Community History)

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