Malaysian Sikhs raise their hand

It fills me with pride that the spotlight has now turned to Malaysia - my home country.

On May 21, Gobind Singh Deo was sworn in as the minister of communications and multimedia in the Cabinet of Malaysia. The 45-year-old Sikh lawyer is part of the new cabinet instituted by the country’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who wrested power from incumbent Najib Razak in a closely-watched election earlier this month. Gobind is the first ever Sikh in South East Asia to be sworn in as a cabinet minister and more significantly, in the Muslim dominated Malaysia.

The prominence of Sikhs in Malaysia is is being bandied around in Malaysia in the form of a joke about the investigations going on about the corrupt practices of the ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak. Gobind, one of the main thorns in his side is now a cabinet minister. The main police prosecuting officer leading the raids on his home and other premises to extract all the ill-gotten wealth is Amar Singh, the highest-ranking police officer in Malaysia who is now being touted for the top position of IGP. The lawyer defending him till recently was Harpal Singh who has now bowed out. The judge is Harminder Singh. Prosecutor is Amarjit Singh of AJ Chambers. Get ready for Narinder Singh, the Director of Prisons. The final postmortem if needed will be Dato Dr. Bhupinder Singh, chief of Forensics. And finally, karma from the late Karpal Singh, former opposition leader and father of Gobind, of whom I shall say more below.

After India, then Canada, it is now the turn of the Sikhs in Malaysia, numbering over 100,000, to lift their heads proudly and proclaim that they are well and truly Malaysian Sikhs, with even a cabinet minister!

Some friends in India wanted to know some more details about Sikhs in Malaysia. 

It fills me with pride that the spotlight has now turned to Malaysia - my home country. Here is a brief snapshot. I do take some interest in history, and Malaysia, as I mentioned, is my home country. I was born and raised there.

My first trip out of Malaysia was at the age of 19 - to India! (Yes, I felt like an alien tourist then, and do, even today. The closest I feel about India is as a stepson. We need not go into the reasons. But I do have extreme affection for my fellow Indian Sikh brothers and sisters and many great Indian friends.)  

Let me introduce a few other famous Sikhs of Malaysia, not forgetting that Sikhs went and settled in the old Malaya from just after Maharaja Ranjit Singh's reign. Some of us can trace back up to six generations in Malaysia! My own venerable father Giani Harchand Singh Bassian came to the old Malaya first in the 1930's for about 4 years as a bachelor, and later in 1947, then a family man, as a British government salaried Punjabi teacher and later Granthi Sahib. My older brothers Pr. Gurmukh Singh OBE, a reknowned Sikh figure in UK and S. Baldev Singh Dhaliwal, a former town councillor in South Australia, besides our sister who was the oldest amongst us all, were all born in India.

Being the youngest, I was born in Malaysia and even though I now live in Australia via ten years in UK, I do still associate strongly with Malaysia. I always share a joke with my older brothers, previously to their consternation, but of late with resigned acceptance, that the only reason I go back to India is get off the plane and kiss the hallowed 'dharti' of my forefathers and thank God that I was not born there!

Let us start with one interesting bit of trivia of an historic incident all Sikhs are familiar with. The Komagata Maru incident. Baba Gurditt Singh Ji, the man responsible for this famous incident accumulated his finances needed to hire the Komagata Maru in a small town just north of Kuala Lumpur called Serendah raising cows and selling milk. Serendah is today famous for its 'barfi' called Rawang barfi. The main 'ardaas' for the fateful but highly historically significant journey was conducted by a Baba Sham Singh Ji of the main police Gurdwara Sahib in Kuala Lumpur. The Komagata Maru ship was I believe hired in Singapore but sailed officially from Hong Kong in 1914. I knew Baba Sham Singh Ji. He still holds the record of longest serving Granthi Sahib in one gurdwara in Malaysia - from 1912 to 1964, a period of 52 years!

The one Sikh who has had an impact on Sikhs and influenced Sikhi direction in Malaysia is without doubt Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji. Mention Baba Ji's name to any Malaysian Sikh and he/she will talk about him with great reverence and affection. For about 35 years from the late 1950's to the early 1970's Baba Ji touched every Sikh through the length and breadth of Malaysia including Singapore. He was responsible for 'Granthi Samelans' in the 1960's where most Granthi Sahibs in Malaysia used to come to Malacca where Baba Ji resided, for one week periods every year, where discourses on Sikhi and Gurmatt were held. Issues impacting on Sikhs and gurdwara protocol used to be discussed and resolutions passed to be relayed back by the Granthi Sahibs to be actioned by gurdwara committees. He was also responsible for helping to initiate and setting up the Sikh 'Naujawan' movement in Malaysia which is today almost 55 years old organised as the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.  Today his 'Varsi' is celebrated by up to 30,000 Sikhs in the third weekend of May in the coastal town of Malacca where he resided most of his life. 

Gurchan Singh 'Singa' called the Lion of Malaya, was a freedom fighter during WW2 whose exploits of sabotaging Japanese stores and armaments and narrow brushes with death are legendary. There is a book written about him. He went on to become the personal bodyguard (ADC) of the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, of the independent Malaya in 1947. Tragically he died in the 60's in a car crash. 

Stepping back in time a little, the first 'British' royal bodyguard of the Sultan of the northern state of Kelantan were 22 Sikhs. They were there specifically to keep the Thais from the north, out of Malaya. This is going back to the late 1890's.

The two rearguard battles of specifically Sikh soldiers behind the retreating British Army as the Japanese advanced in 1941 will be spotlighted one day. The Battle of Kampar and the Battle of Nyior. All the Sikhs died, but this was the first time in the Japanese advance in South East Asia in WW11, that the Japanese realised that they were not invincible and the British were heartened that they could beat them one day. And did, almost four years later!

Besides many other prominent Sikhs, I must mention Karpal Singh, the Tiger of Jelutong. The one man the ruling party of  independent Malaysia feared. He was a lawyer and a key opposition politician from the island of Penang. He was jailed numerous times for his outspoken attacks on the injustices and lately open corruption of the ruling party. He died in a suspicious car crash in 2014, at the peak of his career a few years ago. He is the father of the now first Sikh cabinet minister Gobind.

There have been numerous other prominent Sikhs in Malaysia over the last 130 odd years - those who accumulated phenomenal wealth (one legendary Jagat Singh was banished from the north-western state of Perlis because he  owned a large portion of the state and because the sultan of the state owed him too much money, beside suspicion by the British that he was a German sympathiser!!!) those who hold and held very high government positions; those who had been active politically; the top lawyers, doctors, engineers, medical specialists and also sportsmen and women.

It is regular occurrence in Malaysian newspapers to read about news involving Sikhs - mainly about some Sikh barrister defending a high profile client; some high ranking Sikh public servant commenting on some new government initiatives; a Sikh surgeon commenting on some medical progress; politician Karpal Singh and Gobind Singh have been regularly appearing in news for comments on apparent Government or former ruling party misdemeanors; Harjit Singh has been reading the news on prime time TV in the Malay and English languages for the past 40 years!

It is also quite common for politicians and others to comment on Sikh activities especially charitable work. For example, when a tsunami hit the western coast of Indonesia in 2004, the Malaysian Sikhs were the first relief workers in the hardest hit town of Acheh. A Malaysian politician commented wryly that while Malaysian NGO relief organisations were still debating on what brand of bottled water to take to the devastated Indonesians, the Sikhs were already there, in their own hired ships taking food and water, medical supplies, and even copies of the koran for the devastated Muslims! 

The first change of government in Malaysia after Independence from Britain in 1947 augurs well for the country hopefully leading to an effective two party democratic system with a strong rule of law. Sikhs are always at their best when presented with a level playing field. We wish them well. Waheguru meher keray.

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