Gurkhas have their roots in Nepal. Reputed for their fearless military prowess and loyalty, the Gurkhas in Southeast Asia were initially brought to Singapore as special soldiers on the payroll of the British Army. Today, the Gurkha Contingent is a unit in the Singapore Police Force and serves as a neutral safekeeping and counter-terrorism force.
The Nepalese Gurkhas in Singapore are mostly of either Mongolian or Aryan descent, with the majority belonging to the former.1 They are mainly from the Nepali hill tribes of Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu and Sunwar.2 Gorkhas, or Gurkhas, were warriors who fought for Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, in the 18th century. The term Gurkha is an Anglicised version of King Prithvi's birthplace, Gorkha, which is a district in Nepal.3
The Gurkha soldier traditionally used a weapon known as the kukri – an 18-inch-long, curved, fighting knife. Although they were later armed with rifles, the Gurkhas still prefer to use their kukri. Ayo Gorkhali!, which translates to “The Gurkhas are upon you!”, is a much-feared war cry of the Gurkhas.4 They are predominantly Hindus, with some embracing Buddhism and animism.5
Enlistment of the Gurkhas
The British had their first encounter with the Gurkhas during the Anglo-Nepal War (1814–16). Although the latter were outnumbered, their fighting prowess impressed the British.6 Subsequently, in a strange turn of events, the Gurkhas who held Lieutenant Frederick Young captive soon developed a deep respect for his patriotism and chivalry. Young then enlisted the first batch of Gurkha soldiers into the British forces. In April 1815, Gurkhas were recruited into four battalions. The association of the Gurkhas with the British led to the Gurkha diaspora in Southeast Asia. As the British presence became prevalent in this part of the world in the 19th century, the Gurkhas followed them.7
Service in Singapore
In Singapore, the Gurkhas represent a small community living at Mount Vernon.8 The Gurkha Contingent was formed as a part of the Singapore Police Force on 9 April 1949.9 The contingent, made up of former Gurkhas from the British Army, replaced the Sikh unit within the police force that had disbanded.10 Major Scott Leathart was the contingent’s first commanding officer.11
Having fought in the defence of Malaya during World War II, the Gurkhas had proven themselves ready to defend while remaining impartial, but loyal.12 This was evident during the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, the Hock Lee Bus strike and riot in 1955, and the 1950s riots by the Chinese High School.13 To this day, the Gurkhas are recruited as a unit of the Singapore Police Force, unaligned with any of the local races.14 The Gurkha Contingent is deployed during high-profile events in Singapore, such as the Trump-Kim summit in June 2018 and New Year’s Eve celebrations. They act as a deterrent force to possible security threats by patrolling in high visibility armoured vehicles.15
The Gurkhas come to Singapore when they are as young as 18 years old, and they return to Nepal after 15 to 20 years of service. They reside at the Mount Vernon Cantonment, a self-contained community that has its own temple, schools and mini-mart. Built in the 1950s, the cantonment is located at Mount Vernon, off Upper Aljunied Road, and is closed to the public.16
1. J. P. Cross, In Gurkha Company: The British Army Gurkhas, 1948 to the Present (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1986), 13 (Call no. RSING 355.310941 CRO); W. Brook Northey, The Land of the Gurkhas: Or the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal (New York: AMS Press. 1975), 92–95. (Call no. R 954.96 NOR)
2. Byron Farwell, The Gurkhas (New York: W. W Norton & Company, 1984), 12, 18, 19, 174 (Call no. RSING 356.1 FAR); Northey, Land of the Gurkhas, 92–95.
3. Bikrama Jit Hasrat, History of Nepal as told By Its Own and Contemporary Chroniclers (Hoshiarpur: V.V. Research Institute Book Agency, 1970), lvii–lxi.(Call no. R 954.96 HAS); Chandra B. Khanduri, A Rediscovered History of Gorkhas (Dehli: Gyan Sagar Publications, 1997), vi (Call no. R 954.96 KHA); J. C. Lawrence, The Gurkhas: 200 Years of Service to the Crown (London: Uniform Press, 2015), 3 (Call no. RSEA 355.310941 LAW); Nanda R. Shrestha and Keshav Bhattarai, Historical Dictionary of Nepal (Lanham, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003), xxxviii. (Call no. R 954.96003 SHR)
4. Chong Zi Liang and Zakaria Zainal, The Invisible Force: Singapore Gurkhas (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2014), 11 (Call no. RSING 355.359095957 CHO); Farwell, The Gurkhas, 99, 108; Khanduri, Rediscovered History of Gorkhas, 199; Lawrence, 200 Years of Service to the Crown, 22–30.
5. J. P. Cross, Gurkha Tales: From Peace and Wwar, 1945–2011 (London: Frontline, 2012), 194–96 (Call no. RSEA 355.310941 CRO); Lawrence, 200 Years of Service to the Crown, 96.
6. Lawrence, 200 Years of Service to the Crown, 1–6; Shrestha and Bhattarai, Historical Dictionary of Nepal, xl.
7. Lawrence, 200 Years of Service to the Crown, 6, 87, 89, 125–29, 141–51, 165–74.
8. Zakaria Zainal, Our Gurkhas: Singapore Through Their Eyes (Singapore: Wee Editions, 2012), viii. (Call no. RSING 355.35095957 ZAK)
9. “Gurkha Contingent,” Singapore Police Force, accessed 5 December 2016.
10. Scott Leathart, With the Gurkhas: India, Burma, Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia, 1940–1959 (Edinburgh; Cambridge: Pentland Press, 1996), 186 (Call no. RSING 356.113092 LEA); “Gurkhas to Form New Riot Squad,” Straits Times, 16 February 1949, 3; Joanne Lee, “Gurkhas Mark 50th Year,” Straits Times, 10 April 1999, 38; Chan Kwee Sung, “War or Peace, Gurkhas Deserved Reputation,” Straits Times, 2 January 1999, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Leathart, With the Gurkhas, 186–87; Lee, “Gurkhas Mark 50th Year.”
12. Chan, “War or Peace, Gurkhas Deserved Reputation”; G. R. Stevens, History of the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Goorkha Rifles (the Sirmoor Rifles). Volume III, 1921–1948 (Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1952), 194–97. (Call no. R 356.10941 STE)
13. Leathart, With the Gurkhas, 195–98, 217–18, 225–27, 233; Lee, “Gurkhas Mark 50th Year.”
14. Chong and Zainal, Invisible Force, 30–33.
15. C. Goh, “Snipers, Gurkhas Deployed to Keep Singapore Safe during New Year’s Eve Celebrations,” Channel NewsAsia, 31 December 2017. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Deepanraj Ganesan, “Trump-Kim Summit: North Korean Advance Delegation Arrives in Singapore as Security Preparations Intensify,” Straits Times, 9 June 2018.
16. Lee, “Gurkhas Mark 50th Year”; Jose Raymond, “Home Away from Home for Gurkhas,” Straits Times, 18 April 1999, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
E. D. Smith, Valour: A History of the Gurkhas (Kent: Spellmount, 1997). (Call no. R 355.35 SMI)
The information in this article is valid as at 2018 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.