Thousands of Nepalese teenagers vie at annual Gurkha selection tests
This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Dec 16, 2012
Thousands of Nepalese teenagers vie each year at the annual Gurkha selection tests, which conclude in December, for a coveted spot in the storied military outfit.
This year is no different. About one hundred are selected for the British Army and 60 for the Singapore Police Force annually. There are currently some 2,000 Gurkhas stationed here protecting Singapore's most important people and places.
In 2012, Chong Zi Liang travelled to Nepal to meet a group of children of Singapore Gurkhas, who dreamt of following in their fathers' footsteps, and observed the teenagers' training for the gruelling physical trials. Here is their story.
It is 4.30 in the morning and 18-year-old Sai Roka checks his woven bamboo basket for holes. When dawn breaks, he will strap it to his head and shoulders for a 5km uphill dash with 60 other fit young men.
But first, he sips a cup of Horlicks for breakfast. A full stomach makes running hard.
At the city outskirts, the youths dig up sand and rocks - in pitch darkness and with their bare hands - to fill the baskets, known as dokos. Then, after some stretching exercises, they strip off their sweatshirts and windbreakers in the 15 deg C chill.
Now, with the foothills illuminated by the first rays of light at 6.30am, they stand ready at the starting line, each carrying 25kg on his back.
At the sound of "Go!", they break into a full sprint and roar "Ayo Gurkhali!", invoking the battle cry of the famed Nepalese soldiers: "Here come the Gurkhas!"
Before they can join the ranks of the elite force which has served Britain for almost 200 years and Singapore since 1949, they must finish the doko race within 48min. It is one of several hurdles to cross.
Toughened by twice-weekly training, most run the course with minutes to spare. "My shins hurt from the stress of the weight in the beginning, but I got used to it after three or four runs," says Sai.
The youths are from the Lotus Training Institute, a centre that prepares young men for the stringent selections to serve in Britain or Singapore.
There were 7,819 potential recruits last year and only 236 were picked - 176 for the British Army and 60 for the Singapore Police Force.
Given the fierce competition, dozens of centres have sprouted to prepare Nepali males aged 171/2 to 20 for the selection process.
At Lotus, Sai and four other boys are "banjas" - the sons of Singapore Gurkhas, who grew up in Singapore.
Mr Kushal Thapa, 19, who was born in KK Hospital and returned to Nepal in 2007 when his father retired, says living in the Singapore Gurkha Contingent's Mount Vernon Camp made him yearn for the military life as well.
"Looking at the Gurkhas, I always thought they were special and different from ordinary people. When I was 13, I told my dad, 'One day I will be just like you, father.' He was very impressed," he says.
Arjun Rana, 17, clearly idolises his Gurkha father too. His Facebook profile picture is a montage of photos of him and his father lifting weights and flexing their muscles under the caption, "Like father, like son".
He completed his O levels at Bartley Secondary School last year and decided against continuing his studies in Singapore even though his father had some years to go before retirement.
"I can always go for further studies later but the chance to join the army will run out in a few years," he says. The cut-off age is 20.
Signing up for the Gurkha trials started with having his O-level certificate and passport scrutinised as part of a process to weed out those with counterfeit documents.
Next came regional selections, which included English and mathematics tests. In the fitness trial, the youths had to do at least 12 pull-ups, 70 sit-ups in two minutes, and run 800m under 2min 45sec. Failing any station meant instant disqualification.
Then came an interview in English and Nepalese by a British and Gurkha officer, before the final shortlist was decided for the central selections being carried out this month.
The thousands of hopefuls were whittled to 530 finalists, who must report to the British camp in Pokhara, where they will have no contact with the outside world. Mobile phones are not allowed.
After medical, academic and fitness assessments, they will have to do a short swim, run 2.4km in under 9min 45sec and run the doko race.
Anxious parents waiting at the gates of the camp will know their sons' prospects by sight. If they spot their boy taking a long, lonely walk out, it will mean crushing disappointment. If their sons do not appear, they made the cut.
About 100 will be picked for the British Army and 60 for the Singapore Police Force. They begin their new lives immediately and will not see their families for several weeks.
The Lotus Training Institute is one of the centres where those chosen for the final round of selections hone their skills.
The youths run twice a day, at dawn and dusk, focusing on sprinting to build speed and stamina. Afternoons are spent in maths and English classes. They train with the doko every Monday and Friday. Saturday is their only day off.
Lotus is run by former Singapore Gurkha Yem Gurung, 52, who retired in 2004.
He says the banjas raised in Singapore are not as tough as the boys who have grown up in Nepal's rugged terrain.
But if they clear the fitness tests, the Singapore boys have a better chance of success because the British Army prefers better-educated soldiers, says Mr Gurung, who has been managing Lotus for six years. More than 20 Lotus-trained banjas have successfully enlisted in that time, including his son.
"The banjas speak English very well so they have an advantage at the interviews. Physical fitness is more easily trained," he explains.
The banjas are keen to enlist because from an early age, they know that their stay in Singapore is not permanent and going home to Nepal means returning to a country with 46 per cent unemployment.
Once back in Nepal, many find themselves strangers in their own land because many do not read Nepalese and speak only broken Nepalese. Continuing their education there is a challenge.
Mr Daya Rai, 20, who left Singapore in late 2010, is doing a Bachelor in Business Administration course in Nepal. He did well enough in Singapore to complete his A levels at Serangoon Junior College, but is finding his degree course tough-going because he struggles with the language.
Given his age, this is his last chance to try to enlist as a Gurkha. He is training with three other banjas at Leon Club, another training centre with an even more punishing schedule than Lotus.
Here, the trainees practise the doko race every other day. Instructors hit them with plastic pipes when their performance is not up to scratch. There is no rest day.
The Singapore Gurkhas are just as keen for their sons to don the signature broad-rimmed hats and kukris, the curved blades that Gurkhas carry when on duty.
At Mount Vernon Camp, a frequent conversation opener between the older men and the boys is: "When are you going to start training for the army?"
Indeed, Sai's father, Mr Hark Roka, 37, is staying at the Lotus hostel during his leave to support his son's bid to enlist.
Anxious for his son to excel, he reminds Sai that something as minor as spitting - a common occurrence in Nepal - could kill his chances at the British camp.
When an English speaker arrives at the training centre, he summons his son to speak to the visitor for "maximum practice" ahead of his selection interview.
"His fitness is okay, so the medical exam is the biggest problem. If he fails the doko, he can always try again next year. But if he fails the medical, there is 99 per cent no second chance," says Mr Roka.
For Sai and his friends, the challenge is to stay focused as they count the days to the final tests. After months of training, the banjas exude a quiet confidence. "I do believe we can pass," Sai says.
But for now, there is one more evening run to get through, one more doko race to endure. As Sai adjusts the straps on his basket, Mr Roka reminds him to "keep equal weight on all three straps for a three-point contact".
The next morning, Sai gets off to a good start near the head of the pack. The route winds past village houses and scenic views of rice fields, but the boys keep their heads down, fighting the incline and the weight on their backs.
Exhausted at the finish line, they have only minutes to catch their breath, dump the load from their dokos and make their way to the bus taking them back to their hostel.
Within an hour, the race results are up on a notice board and the trainees crowd around to check how they have done.
Sai walks away with a smile. That morning, he cut almost a minute from his doko time.
In dad's footsteps
"Looking at the Gurkhas, I always thought they were special and different from ordinary people. When I was 13, I told my dad, 'One day I will be just like you, father.' He was very impressed."
MR KUSHAL THAPA, 19, who was born in Singapore and lived in the Singapore Gurkha Contingent's Mount Vernon Camp
WHO ARE THE GURKHAS?
- The Gurkhas are elite soldiers from Nepal employed in the British Army, Indian Army and Singapore Police Force.
- When Britain and Nepal, also known as the Kingdom of Gorkha then, fought a two-year war that ended in 1816, the British were so impressed by their adversaries that they later started recruiting them into their armed forces.
- Over the years, the Gurkhas built up a reputation for bravery, loyalty and ferocity in battle that borders almost on legend. The Gurkhas fought in both world wars and more recently, have seen action in Afghanistan.
- Last year, a British Gurkha was decorated for single-handedly fighting off at least a dozen Taleban insurgents attacking his checkpoint in Afghanistan.
- Singapore's Gurkha Contingent was formed in 1949. The unit saw action in the ensuing decades against militant unions and in racial riots, where their image as a neutral force became an asset.
- Today, they are entrusted with protecting Singapore's most important people and installations. Their signature broad-rimmed hats and kukris, a curved blade, are familiar sights outside top ministers' homes.