The Sikh community is one of the smallest ethnic groups in Singapore and is usually considered part of the larger North Indian community. According to the 2010 census, there are about 12,952 Sikhs in Singapore. The Sikhs first came to Singapore in 1819 as sepoys, servants or convicts of the British East India Company.
The term “Sikh” originally referred to the followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The word was derived from either the Sanskrit words “sisya” or “siksa”, meaning “disciple” and “instruction” respectively, or from the Pali word “sikkha”, meaning “training” or “study”. Today, the term “Sikh” is used to refer to a person who follows the teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus.
The Sikhs come from the Punjab area in northwest India and are adherents of Sikhism. It is generally believed that the first Sikhs who came to Singapore were part of the group of sepoys under the employment of the British East India Company. Sikhs and other Punjabis started migrating out of the Punjab province shortly after the British took control of the area in the mid-19th century. While British control established peace and encouraged economic growth in the area, it also created a phenomenon of indebtedness for many of the rural Sikhs who turned to alternative forms of work to augment their income. When the British started recruiting for the Indian Army in the Punjab area, many Sikhs joined as recruits.
One of the earliest recorded Sikhs who came to Singapore was Bhai Maharaj Singh and his disciple, Khurruck Singh. They were deported from Punjab to Singapore in 1850 as state prisoners of the British and were interned at the Outram Prison for resisting the British annexation of Punjab. After Bhai Maharaj Singh’s death in 1856, his remains were initially enshrined in a spot near the Outram Prison where he was cremated. His tombstone was subsequently relocated several times due to urban development. His memorial shrine is now at the Silat Road Sikh Temple.
Occupations and trade
Historically, the Sikhs in Singapore were largely associated with police and security work. This was because they were first brought in to Singapore as policemen.
In 1881, the Sikh Police Contingent (SPC) was established in Singapore. The creation of the SPC was the result of an 1879 Commission of Enquiry into the state of the police force. The commission recommended that a Sikh contingent be formed in the local police force. The first batch of 54 Sikh recruits for the SPC arrived from Punjab on 26 March 1881. The SPC was highly regarded by the British and were deployed to various states in Malaya to help quell uprisings and revolts. The SPC was disbanded at the end of World War II in 1945.
The Tanjong Pagar Dock Company also recruited Sikhs for its Dock Police Force. The force was responsible for the security of the docks and harbours, as well as the godowns. By the 1930s, there was a Sikh police force at the naval base in Sembawang and another at the Royal Air Force airbase in Seletar.
Not all Sikhs found work as policemen as the British recruiters had stringent requirements. The ideal Sikh recruit had to be younger than 25 years old with a minimum height of 5 ft 6 in (around 1.68 m) and a minimum chest measurement of 33 in (about 84 cm).
Those who could not find employment in the colonial police forces found work as security guards and watchmen for private employers. Chinese businessmen, for example, were known to entrust their family’s security to Sikh bodyguards. The Sikh watchmen were known as jagas (Malay word for “guard”) and they could be found guarding banks, godowns, major stores and school compounds.
While the majority of Sikhs in Singapore were employed as security guards and policemen, there were also Sikhs who ran small businesses. Others worked as dairy farmers and bullock cart drivers. Following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, there was a great influx of Sikh businessmen to Singapore. The Sikh migration boom continued well into the 1950s. Most of these Sikh migrants were textile merchants who set up textile shops and department stores in High Street.
Religious and secular associations
The main religious institution of the Sikhs is the gurdwara (temple), which literally means “gateway to the guru”.
The first Sikh temple was established by Sikh policemen in the 1880s. The temple was located at the Pearl’s Hill barracks where most of the Sikh policemen and their families were housed. There was another gurdwara in Anson Road built by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company for its Sikh police force. When the colonial government acquired the Anson Road plot around 1912, the Sikh police force was offered an alternative site at Silat Road for their gurdwara.
As the Sikh community grew, the facilities at the Pearl’s Hill gurdwara became inadequate. The Sikh civilians also wanted their own gurdwara outside the barracks premises. In 1912, a committee led by a Sindhi merchant named Wassiamull bought a small bungalow in Queen Street and converted it into the Central Sikh Temple, which became a major gathering point for all Sikhs in Singapore.
Over the next few years, several more gurdwaras were established in various locations around Singapore, including Cecil Street, Wilkie Road, Chandy Road, Kirk Terrace, Kerbau Road, Jalan Kayu, Sembawang Naval Base and Sembawang Road.
In 1924, the Sikh community came together to establish a halfway house on Silat Road where new migrants could stay until they found employment and accommodation. It was known as the Police Gurdwara and it was built using donations from Sikh policemen in Singapore and the Sikh communities in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Thailand and Malaya. It later became known as the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, or the Silat Road Sikh Temple.
In 1977, the Singapore government acquired the land at Queen Street where the Central Sikh Temple was located. The Sikh community was given a piece of land in Towner Road to relocate their gurdwara. The Central Sikh Temple was temporarily situated at the Bukit Ho Swee Community Centre until the new temple building at Towner Road was completed in April 1986.
Today, the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board manages and operates the two main gurdwaras: the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road and the Silat Road Sikh Temple.
Besides the gurdwaras, various other religious and non-religious organisations were established over the years to look after the social welfare of the Sikh community.
The Sikh Missionary Society was formed in 1940 with the objective of propagating the Sikh faith. It distributed Sikh religious tracts in various languages, including English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese. It also set up a scholarship fund for needy students to support their university education. However, the society became inactive by the 1960s after the death of its founder Bhag Singh.
One of the earliest non-religious Sikh groupings was the Singapore Sikhs Cricket Club (SKCC). It was established in 1927 by a group of seven Sikh students from Raffles Institution as a sports club. The club eventually expanded to include boys from other educational institutions as well as adults. In May 1931, the SKCC was officially registered as the Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA). The club’s activities were interrupted by the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945). It reconvened after the war and gradually expanded its activities from organising sports events to other social activities such as fun fairs, camps for young Sikhs, Punjabi classes for children, lectures, conferences as well as other cultural activities.
Besides community organisations, the government also helped in setting up agencies to look into the welfare of the community. In 1915, the Sikh Advisory Board was established to advise the British colonial government on “matters regarding the Sikh religion and customs”. The Sikh Welfare Council was founded in 1995 to cater to the needy in the community.
Most male Sikhs adopt the term “Singh” (meaning “lion”) as part of their name, while most female Sikhs have the name “Kaur” (meaning “princess). The Khalsa order is the major religious order in Sikhism. Khalsa Sikhs who have undergone the initiation ceremony must keep and wear the five Sikh symbols, namely unshorn hair, a wooden comb, an iron bracelet, a sword and knee-length underwear.
The turban is one of the most recognisable features of the male Khalsa Sikh who keeps his hair uncut. To the Sikhs, the hair is a natural gift from the Guru and must be kept at all costs. The turban keeps the hair clean and free from dust. Today, it is also common to find some male Sikhs who keep their hair short as a result of cultural assimilation.
The main events in the Sikh calendar are the anniversaries of the birth and death of the gurus, especially of its founder, Guru Nanak, and the last Guru, Gobind Singh. A major Sikh festival is the Vesakhi (or Baisakhi), the Sikh New Year, which falls on 13 April every year. The festival commemorates the occasion in which five brave Sikhs offered themselves as a sacrifice for their community.
Choor Singh Sidhu (b. 19 January 1911, Kotteh, India–d. 31 March 2009, Singapore): Magistrate, district judge, supreme court judge.
Davinder Singh: Former Member of Parliament, Chief Executive Officer of Drew & Napier LLC.
Inderjit Singh (b. 5 June 1960, India–): Member of Parliament, Ang Mo Kio GRC, People’s Action Party.
Kartar Singh Thakral (b. 22 September 1933, Bangkok, Thailand–): Chairman of Thakral Group.
Pritam Singh (b. 2 August 1976–): Member of Parliament, Aljunied GRC, Workers’ Party.
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The information in this article is valid as at 23 July 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.