Historian Ranjit Singh Malhi's new book details the Malaysian Sikh community experience


In the 1960s, Kuala Lumpur’s High Street Police Station was manned almost entirely by Sikh policemen. Photo: Datuk Dr Surender Singh Cheema

The Sikh community has long played a crucial role in the development of this country. In the old days, Sikh bullock carters provided pivotal transport services, which boosted early tin mining and rubber industries.

From a pioneer immigrant generation starting off as policemen, soldiers, watchmen (jaga), milk men and mining labourers, many Sikhs in Malaysia are now professionals, academics, high-ranking civil servants and top businessmen.

“Able-bodied Sikhs also played an important role in policing British Malaya, North Borneo, and Sarawak and thereby contributed to the preservation of law and order, which was a prerequisite for economic development, ” says Ranjit Singh Malhi, 66, a historian and author.

Not many are aware of the full extent of Sikh contributions to this nation. Ranjit is on a mission to rectify this with his new book Sikhs In Malaysia: A Comprehensive History.

This book captures the diverse stories of Malaysian Sikhs, spanning the second half of the 19th century till the present day, all based on the author’s extensive research.

“The book adopts a thematic approach... with chapters on immigration and settlement; policing and defending the nation; anti-British political activities 1914–45; role in economic development of present-day Malaysia; Punjabi newspapers; socio-religious, literary, educational, sports and political organisations; and gurdwaras and community building, ” elaborates Ranjit.

“It also has a chapter on seven Malaysian Sikhs who have made notable and enduring contributions both at the national and international levels. I was fortunate to have gathered valuable historical information through my interviews with more than 30 Sikhs in the 1970s, while I was conducting research for my BA graduation exercise (The Punjabi Newspapers And Sikh Organisations Of Kuala Lumpur).”

Ranjit's new book is based upon a decade’s extensive archival research and interviews with more than 100 Malaysian Sikhs.  Photo: The Star/Azhar MahfofRanjit's new book is based upon a decade’s extensive archival research and interviews with more than 100 Malaysian Sikhs. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

Through his career, Ranjit has written over 20 books, on topics such as history, management, personal development and graduate employability. He has a PhD in History from Asia e University in Kuala Lumpur, as well as a Masters in Public Administration from Syracuse University in the United States.

A respected community

Ranjit’s latest book features 50 prominent Malaysian Sikhs, including socio-religious leaders, successful businessmen, politicians and sporting legends.

A highlight also includes a biographical chapter surrounding seven prominent Malaysian Sikhs. These include lawyer Karpal Singh Deo, Datuk Dr Keshmahinder Singh, known as “the doyen of Malaysian Opthalmology” and Gurchan Singh Gill, known as “The Lion of Malaya”, who led a resistance movement against the Japanese forces during WWII.

One Malaysian Sikh figure Ranjit hopes more people would be aware of is lawyer/left wing-politician Karam Singh Veriah.

“Karam was the youngest elected MP in newly independent Malaya. Not many people know and appreciate that he fought fearlessly for the poor and voiceless till his last breath. Karam could have amassed a huge fortune as a brilliant lawyer but he chose to champion the interests of the poor, ” says Ranjit.

Among the Malaysian Sikh women featured in the book are Datuk Rhina Bhar and Rani Kaur.

Mahee Singh Dhillon, a sepoy who joined the Perak Armed Police in 1878 and retired as Chief Constable of Penang. Photo: Athiavan Singh DhillonMahee Singh Dhillon, a sepoy who joined the Perak Armed Police in 1878 and retired as Chief Constable of Penang. Photo: Athiavan Singh Dhillon

Rhina Bhar, a lawyer and a former prominent member of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (PGRM) has the distinction of being the first and only Malaysian Sikh female Senator to date in the Malaysian Parliament.

On the sporting front, Rani Kaur, a prominent Malaysian women’s team hockey forward and a prolific goal scorer, has the distinction of being the only Malaysian Sikh Sportswoman of the Year. She was given this outstanding honour in 1974 for representing Malaysia in women’s hockey since 1963 and having captained the Malaysian national women’s team to win the Asian Cup in 1974.

Clearing the air

The book also addresses about 50 popular misconceptions and inaccurate beliefs about the Sikh community in Malaysia.

For example, that Sikhs began immigrating in considerable numbers to Sarawak in the 1890s, not the 1920s as some believe.

Ranjit was inspired to write this book as it was the last wish of his father (Sadhu Singh Malhi, who retired from the Malaysian police force as a detective sergeant) that his son record the history of the Malaysian Sikh community.

“Second, personally, I want to leave a legacy behind by writing a comprehensive, authoritative and generally objective history of Malaysian Sikhs for the benefit of future generations, ” says Ranjit.

The book was definitely a labour of love for Ranjit, who took about a decade to put it together.

Its genesis goes back further to 1976-1977, where Ranjit wrote his honours thesis on the history of Punjabi newspapers and Sikh organisations while at Universiti Malaya. The author then continued with full time research for his PhD thesis from 2012-2015, and then spent another five years researching and writing this book.

He interviewed over 100 Sikhs in total.

By devoting all his time to the book, Ranjit had to forego earning income as a management consultant and trainer.

However, he does not regret it in the least.

Rani Kaur, a prominent Malaysian women’s team hockey forward and a prolific goal scorer, has the distinction of being the only Malaysian Sikh Sportswoman of the Year. Photo: HandoutRani Kaur, a prominent Malaysian women’s team hockey forward and a prolific goal scorer, has the distinction of being the only Malaysian Sikh Sportswoman of the Year. Photo: Handout

“I faced two major challenges in putting this book together. First, to undertake meticulous and painstaking research to ensure factual accuracy, towards which end I spent countless hours in archives and libraries in three countries: Malaysia, Singapore and India.”

The research in India, says Ranjit, was most valuable, particularly pertaining to the Ghadar, Akali and the Indian independence movements in Malaya.

“Second was to ensure a smooth and logical flow of the book’s content with minimal errors. I was truly blessed to have an exceptional editor K. N. Krishnadas, who worked closely with me and greatly enhanced the quality of the book.”

Ranjit aims to publish a second edition of his book within the next 12 months. He aims for it to incorporate new relevant information on Sikh organisations and individuals, based upon feedback and comments from the Malaysian Sikh community.

“I may also work on another book tentatively titled ‘Who’s Who of Malaysian Sikhs’, based upon my research and focusing on Sikh individuals from all walks of life who excelled in their work and made a difference to the Sikh community or to the nation as a whole, ” says Ranjit.

As a resource, this book is a valuable edition to the Sikh story in Malaysia, but are there plans to create into a digital library or database on the Sikh community in the future?

“I consider my book as a work in progress. I plan to build on it by doing more extensive research. No plans as yet for a digital resource centre, ” says Ranjit.

Working on this project has given Ranjit many illuminating moments surrounding the Sikh community.

“The book was an eye-opener to me. I was amazed how several Sikhs from humble and poor educational backgrounds became wealthy and successful entrepreneurs through sheer industriousness. Also the fact that numerous Sikhs serving the police and military forces sacrificed their lives fighting communist terrorists during the Emergency, ” he concludes.

Sikhs In Malaysia: A Comprehensive History is available here. Contact 019-341 9999 or 012-335 0555.

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