Salute to an invisible force: Gurkha Contingent in Singapore

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A Gurkha trooper at Raffles City during the 117th International Olympic Committee Session giving directions to a member of the public in 2005. Photo: Huaiwei, Wikimedia Commons

After India gained its independence in 1947, troops under the British Army were given the choice of remaining either on the British side or joining the newly established Indian Army. The Gurkha Contingent (GC) was formed to replace the Sikh unit in Singapore, which was reverted to the Indian Army as requested.

According to Singaporean author and photojournalist Zakaria Zainal, who has co-authored a book called The Invisible Force: Singapore Gurkhas with Chong Zi Liang, the GC has played a very important role in safeguarding Singapore’s interests, especially during its tumultuous period of racial violence.

Here is the history of the Singapore GC.

April 9, 1949: A total of 142 men formed the Gurkha Contingent, replacing the Sikh Contingent. They were stationed on Duxton Plain, guarded key installations such as Istana and prisons, and functioned as a riot squad.

1950: The GC was deployed when the Malay and European communities rioted because of a court ruling giving the custody of young Maria Hertogh to her biological Dutch Catholic parent after being raised as a Muslim for eight years.

1955: The GC was dispatched again to neutralize rioting Hock Lee Bus workers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Pro-communist elements within the union exploited the dispute to force a confrontation with the government.

1956: The GC moved into Mount Vernon Camp and have been stationed there ever since. It was called on to disperse riots after  Chinese middle-school students staged a sit-in and camped at several schools.

1964: The GC and military reinforcements were deployed to maintain peace when major rioting broke out between Malays and Chinese during a procession where 20,000 Muslims had gathered in Padang to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

1970-1990: The GC evolved from simply riot control and sentry guards, as well as undertaking officer training.

2000-2001: The GC was involved in Singapore’s overseas security and humanitarian missions in East Timor and trained new recruits from the police academy. Taking on a higher profile after the terror attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, it complemented police forces and guarded key installations throughout Singapore.

2003: A team of 30 men from the Singapore Police Force was deployed to Iraq. The GC trained about 1,500 Iraqi instructors and police officers for three months.

2004-2013: The GC apprehended two of the armed fugitives known as the Pulau Tekong Robbers who fled Johor and arrived at Pulau Tekong, the largest of Singapore’s outlying islands, on a motorized boat. A total of 700 police and army personnel were mobilized in a massive search party. The GC was deployed again in a massive manhunt for Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas Selamat Kastari, who escaped from Whitket Road Detention Center, as well as to quell the Little India Riot that left one person dead and 39 injured.

An invisible force

During World Wars I and II, the Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960 and the Indo-Malay confrontation from 1963-66, many Gurkha soldiers lost their lives fighting alongside British forces in Singapore and the Far East. They are buried and commemorated at Singapore Kranji War Cemetery, with their headstones located at the Gurkha Garden nearby.

Nowadays, the 2,000-member-strong GC remains as a force largely invisible to the citizens of the city-state as they hardly come out of the barracks. Most people also don’t know that the GC currently serves as a special unit under the Singapore Police Force.

About 35-50 new GC members, recruited by the British Army in Nepal, are sent to Singapore every year. They are allowed to bring their children under 21 years of age with them but they don’t enjoy right of abode in the city-state. They must return to Nepal upon the completion of their services.

This is why there is virtually no Gurkha community in Singapore, except for about 500 Nepali families who moved to the city-state from Malaysia or Indonesia.

Let’s not forget the Gurkhas’ contributions to Singaporean society. Jai Gurkhas!

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