Compiling the legacy of the Sikhs in a book


Utam Singh’s 16-seater buses in the 1930s. Photo: Jithinder Singh

Do you remember the towering Sikh watchmen and their charpoy beds? With their long beards and strong build, they always looked formidable to me when I was a child. These watchmen were often seen guarding the premises of banks and other buildings with high security needs.

That Sikhs were entrusted with such work is no surprise, says Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi; Sikhs are renowned the world over for their bravery and were highly sought as policemen, soldiers and watchmen.

Ranjit, 62, a management consultant and prolific author, related how the local population in British Malaya were apparently overawed and intimidated by the sheer physical size and fierce looks of Sikh policemen.

“Isabella Bird, a 19th century explorer and writer, saw in Taiping ‘a single Sikh driving four or five men in front of him, having knotted their hair together for reins’.”

Ranjit has written more than 20 books on history, management, personal development, graduate employability, and soft skills. Two of his books on personal quality and self-esteem have been published in Arabic in Saudi Arabia. He has a degree in History from Universiti Malaya (1977) and a PhD in History from Asia e University (2015) both in Kuala Lumpur. He also has a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University in the United States. While management consultancy and training is Ranjit’s bread and butter, he has always written about history alongside the business books – “Most people know me as a historian because of my strong stand on writing Malaysian history as it is.”

For his next book, Ranjit has done four years of painstaking research on the Sikhs in Malaysia and hopes to publish it by the end of next year.

“To date, there is no comprehensive, authoritative and objective book pertaining to the history of Sikhs in Malaysia from the 1870s till present time,” he says, adding that this community has a glorious history. Ranjit’s book will cover political, economic and social aspects.

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Najar Singh Bagha Purana driving a bullock cart in Serdang, Selangor, in 1944. Photo: Bhagwan Singh Bagha Purana

Presently, he says there are 75,000 Sikhs (less than 0.25% of the country’s population) in Malaysia and the community takes pride that “within one generation, the Sikhs were transformed from policemen, bullock-carters, watchmen, dairymen and mining labourers to professionals including doctors, lawyers, engineers and academicians.

“This transformation was possible because the first generation of Sikhs led simple and frugal lives and ensured that their children received good educations,” he says.

Ranjit says the Sikhs contributed significantly towards nation building, particularly in maintaining law and order. They also played a significant role in the early economic development of Malaya, especially the Federated Malay States.

From the 1880s until the late 1920s, the main mode of road transport in Malaya was bullock carts and the majority of bullock-carters were Sikhs. The Sikh bullock-carters, Ranjit says, contributed to the development of the tin mining and rubber industries. They transported tin ore, latex and rubber sheets as well as construction materials for the building of roads and railways.

Among the Malayan Sikhs who owned a fleet of bullock carts and became prominent contractors were Vir Singh (Pajam, Negri Sembilan), Hamir Singh (Sungai Petani, Kedah) and two brothers, Bhan Singh and Dhan Singh (Kuala Lumpur).

When motorised vehicles became popular in the 1930s, the Sikh were among the first to start lorry transport businesses and bus companies. Among the most successful Sikh lorry transporters in Malaysia before the 1980s were Ginder Singh Gill, Gajjan Singh, Indra Singh Sujapur, and Nashter Singh Rai. Currently, among the leading Sikh transporters in Malaysia are Pritam Singh Agency Sdn Bhd, Syarikat Roda Bulk Movers Sdn Bhd, and Sidhu Brothers Transport Sdn Bhd.

According to Ranjit, in Negri Sembilan, until the late 1970s, about 70% of the bus companies were owned by Sikhs, including Utam Singh Omnibus Co Ltd, Seremban Town Service Co Ltd, and Seremban Omnibus Co Ltd.

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Utam Singh’s 16-seater buses in the 1930s. Photo: Jithinder Singh

Ranjit also wants to address factual errors and share new research findings. Among them:

> The oldest known Sikh organisation in Malaysia is Sri Guru Singh Sabha Penang (1895), not Khalsa Diwan Malaya (1903), now known as Khalsa Diwan Malaysia.

> English explorer and adventurer Captain Tristram “Speedy” Charles Sawyer (1836-1911), recruited 95 discharged sepoys from Punjab in 1873, not 110 as generally written. And most of the sepoys he were Pathans, not Sikhs.

> The Malay States Guides were not involved in the atrocities of the 1915 Singapore Mutiny.

> Numerous Malayan Sikhs were involved in anti-British political activities geared towards either gaining independence for India (Ghadar movement, 1913-1918 and the Indian independence movement in Malaya during World War II) or safeguarding the religio-political interests of the Sikh community in Punjab (Akali movement, 1920-1925).

According to Ranjit, W.H. McLeod (1932-2009), a New Zealand scholar who wrote about the Sikhs, described Sikhs as “an extremely capable community which exercises upon the life of modern India an influence far greater than its numerical strength might otherwise warrant”.

Khushwant Singh (1915-2014), a leading Indian historian, novelist and journalist describes the Sikhs as “India’s best farmers, best soldiers and best sportsmen”.

The Sikhs, Ranjit said, are generally renowned worldwide for their dauntless courage, martial spirit, industriousness, honesty, resilience, and assertiveness.

Ranjit considers his book project as “a labour of love”. “It’s also to fulfil my late father’s wish to have such a book written,” he says.

He is committed to sacrificing his time and energy so that the history of his community is recorded before “all is lost!”

“People will remember you not for your wealth but rather for your kind deeds and what legacy you left behind,” says Ranjit. For him, his legacy will be his book on his Sikh countrymen. And he will be able to stand tall like most of them (turbans and all).

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