IT is a myth that the earliest arrival of Sikhs in Penang is associated with the police force.
In his paper The Earliest Arrival of Sikhs in Malaya, Rajindar Singh Bedi noted that the first Sikhs to arrive in Malaya were political prisoners from Punjab.
“These were officers and men of the army of the annexed Punjab, captured by the British after the second Punjab war of 1848,” he said.
“They were deemed dangerous to the East India Company rule in Punjab. Penang and Singapore were designated penal colonies for prisoners from India serving sentences of more than seven years.
“The most famous prisoner was Maharaj Singh who died in solitary confinement in Outram Road Prison in Singapore in 1856. His assistant, Kharak Singh, was transferred to Penang Prison in 1857 after rumours circulated among the prisoners that Kharak Singh was planning an uprising in the prison,” he said.
The last known Sikh prisoner from India died in Penang in 1903.
The first Sikhs to be recruited by the British for the police force were sent to Hong Kong in 1867. These men with their burly and bearded appearance helped to subdue the criminal activities of the Chinese gangs there.
By the 1890s, Sikhs were employed as police personnel in all Malay states and also British North Borneo and Sarawak.
Penang was the main gateway for ships coming in and most of the Sikh migrants stayed on the five-foot ways of shop houses.
An open area where the present Penang Chinese Town hall is located in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling was a popular place of convergence for the community.
According to Rajindar, a small detachment of Sikhs was stationed in Penang as policemen and guards.
“They were stationed in Pulau Jerejak — a leper colony until 1968,” he said, noting that the entire Penang Harbour Board security force comprised of Sikhs until 1957.
“In the days before refrigeration, the dairy industry was controlled by the Sikhs who supplied fresh milk to the community.
“In Province Wellesley, there were a number of milkmen like Pratap Singh who would cycle down from places as far as Sungai Bakap and Juru and then cross over by ferry to George Town to deliver fresh milk to his customers.
“The first Malayan Sikh lawyer in Penang was Gurcharan Singh Virik, who later was made a Justice of Peace,” said Rajindar.
Foreign trading houses and Chinese businesses employed Sikhs as ‘jaga’ (watchmen) at their premises, godowns and residences until the early 70s, when uniformed security personnel started being employed.
“The history of the Sikhs in Penang and Malaya is no different from the other races.
“They came here to earn a living, and they did well. Their sacrifices have resulted in the Malaysian Sikh community having the highest ratio of professionals among all ethnic groups in Malaysia,” he said.
According to Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (Penang Branch) vice-president Kirpal Singh, there are documents proving that the country’s first Gurdwara was located in Penang.
“The Wadda Gurdwara Sahib on Jalan Gurdwara is more than 100 years old,” he said.
It is also known as the Diamond Jubilee Sikh Gurdwara because the land on which it stands was given to the Sikh community in 1897 — the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Every Sikh police constable contributed to the building fund by donating a month’s salary each.
When it was completed in 1899, the Gurdwara was the largest in Southeast Asia at that time.
Vasakhi Fest 2009 organising chairman Harbinder Singh said the Sikh community was currently trying to liaise with London’s British Museum to ascertain the exact location of a small Gurdwara built on the historic Fort Cornwallis site in George Town.
“We know that it was located in Fort Cornwallis and was constructed by the Straits Settlement Sikh Police contingent in the 1800s,” he said.
The Vasakhi Fest was recently held at Fort Cornwallis to showcase the Sikh way of life, culture, customs and traditions.