The Sikhs and Their Fighting Spirit
By Preveena BalakrishnanSeptember 2022 FEATURE
THE ARULMIGU SRI MAHAMARIAMMAN Temple, along Queen Street in George Town, apparently used to house two statues of Sikhs on their gopuram, the ornate entrance tower of a Hindu temple. The three-tier gopuram is otherwise richly decorated with depictions of Hindu deities. It led me to think, what did the Sikhs do to gain such a venerated position on the gopuram of Penang’s oldest Hindu temple?
The Sikhs, many of whom were strapping and hardworking farmers, came from different clans known as the Jats, Sainis and Kumbohs. In Malaya, they were called Jaga, or guards in Malay, and were always looked upon as commanding figures with a reputation for honesty and hard work. It was a common sight to see Sikhs standing vigil outside banks, business premises and godowns, providing security against theft and other damages around George Town in the past.
The military qualities of the Sikhs were discovered by the British during the Anglo-Sikh Wars, when the Sikh army crossed the Sutlej River into British-ruled India to attack British troops after observing offensive military preparations along their border. Although the British eventually managed to conquer and annex the Sikh empire, they suffered heavy casualties. The Anglo-Sikh Wars fostered in the British a grudging admiration of the Sikhs’ fighting prowess, paving the way for them to be the preferred choice for police and military work in British Malaya.
The Arrival of the Sikhs
Aside from a brief mention of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who was said to have travelled to a place called Suvarnabhumi during the 16th century (when Melaka was a thriving port city), early Sikh migrants were speculated to be political prisoners who had opposed British rule in India. Until 1860, these Sikh convicts were deported to the Straits Settlements.
Nihal Singh, popularly known as Bhai Maharaj Singh, was one of them. Revered by his followers, he led the revolution against the British after they lost the Anglo-Sikh war. He was arrested and exiled to solitary confinement in Outram Road Prison, Singapore, together with his attendant, Kharak Singh, as political prisoners. They were among the first Sikhs to arrive in British Malaya.
Many also believe the Sikhs first came to Malaya as policemen. In fact, the word “police” used to be synonymous with the Sikhs, for many of them were in the police force in the Straits Settlements and the Federation of Malaya.
Fine Men for Police Work
In 1861, a civil war for control of tin mines broke out in Larut, caused by the rivalry between the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies who were allied with the Malay chiefs and local gangsters. In 1873, more than 10 years since its inception, Captain Tristram Speedy, who was stationed in Penang as superintendent of the police, was commissioned by the Chief Minister of Larut, Dato’ Ngah Ibrahim, to stop the wars.
Speedy raised a force made up of 110 British Indian Army soldiers from Calcutta, the majority of whom were Sikhs, and brought them directly to Larut. They immediately set to work, only ceasing after the conflict ended with the signing of the Pangkor Treaty of 1874 (also known as the Perak Engagement Treaty) between the British and Perak royalty.
Appointed Assistant British Resident of Perak, Speedy re-enlisted men from his original force to set up what was essentially the first police force in Perak, called “The Resident’s Guards”. In this tumultuous territory, crime was rampant, and to ensure sole loyalty, the British imagined a police force that was not racially akin to any of the races in Malaya. The Sikhs fit the bill.
Speedy’s “guards” grew to become the nucleus of the Perak Armed Police, a paramilitary that predominantly recruited Sikhs and Pashtuns in the state. Highly effective and efficient in their restoration and enforcement of law and order in Larut, “The First Battalion Perak Sikhs”, a specialist armed force, was formed in 1884 to quell civil unrest, suppress criminal activity and combat the violent feuding of Chinese secret societies.
Many Chinese, especially the Cantonese, feared the Sikhs and called them Mungkali Gwai or Bengali Devils because they were used by the British to suppress the constant infighting and rebellion among Chinese clan associations and secret societies.
During the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the Sikhs fought valiantly with the British and the Malayans to defend the country. In fact, more than 1,000 Sikhs perished in battle before the fall of Singapore and after General Percival surrendered Malaya to General Yamashita of Japan. “Sikh prisoners of war were killed brutally and many who were sent to the Death Railway never returned,” said Major Harjit S. Rendawa, a former army officer.
When the British artillery retreated from Kluang, a platoon of Sikh soldiers engaged the Japanese to delay their advance. The Sikh battalion ambushed a Japanese party, who fled in confusion before the Sikh bayonets.
In a privately printed account of the British retreat to Singapore, the 5th Sikh regiment “had not fed since the previous morning. We, therefore, set forth with a battalion of men who were already marching on an empty stomach… and this at a time when they were likely to be called upon to rise to unknown heights of energy and vitality.” Many Sikh watchmen were the first victims of the Japanese bombing of Raffles Place in Singapore. Still, not a single Sikh officer abandoned his post during the bombardment of the naval base of the Japanese forces in Johor.
“They fought because Sikhs had always fought,” Ian Morrison wrote in his book, Malayan Postscript. “Their fathers had been in the regiments, their grandfather before them. Sikhs fought because fighting was in their blood... With their army discipline, they continued to fight as they are taught to fight and never flinched even when discouraged and physically exhausted from going up to face the enemy again.”
The Sikhs’ hardiness, loyalty, boldness and independence of spirit formed the backbone of colonial Malaya’s police and paramilitary forces. They played a crucial role in maintaining law and order, which greatly facilitated the economic development of British Malaya and fought hard in battles for a home far away from their ancestral lands.
 Lapo-Dhalliwal, Malkiat Singh, and Mukthiar Kaur Rattian- Sandhu. 1971. Sikhs in Malaysia Series Volume One. Penang.
 The Cantonese people generally referred to foreigners as “gwai”, meaning ghost or devil. For example, white people were “gwai lou” or ghost/devil man and the Japanese were called “yat bun gwai zi” or Japanese ghost/devil. Cantonese speakers frequently use “gwai” to refer to foreigners in a non-derogatory context, though in certain contexts, they may also be used pejoratively.
 Lapo-Dhalliwal, Malkiat Singh and Mukthiar Kaur Rattian- Sandhu. 1971. Sikhs in Malaysia Series Volume One. Penang.
- David, Adrian. 2021. “Sikh armed forces veterans’ contributions immeasurable.” News Straits Times. December 25. Accessed July 2, 2022. https://www.nst. com.my/news/nation/2021/12/757754/sikh-armedforces- veterans-contributions-immeasurable.
- Kaur, Manvir. 1986. “The image of the Sikhs in Malaysia.” studentsrepo.um.edu.my.
- Lapo-Dhalliwal, Malkiat Singh, and Mukthiar Kaur Rattian- Sandhu. 1971. Sikhs in Malaysia Series Volume One. Penang.
- Toh, Terence. 2021. “Historian Ranjit Singh Malhi’s new book details the Malaysian Sikh community experience.” The Star. Apr 13. Accessed Aug 2nd , 2022. https://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/ culture/2021/04/13/historian-ranjit-singh-malhi039snew- book-details-the-malaysian-sikh-communityexperience.
specialises in ethnoscapes and intangible cultural heritage valuations.