Legacy of peace forged by pioneer Gurkhas: Book extract from The Invisible Force

As a Gurkha who arrived in Singapore before its independence, Mr Chandra Gurung witnessed the 1964 racial riots that schoolchildren now read about in their history textbooks.

"When Malays were beating Chinese, Malay policemen would let them continue," says Mr Gurung, 72, who served from 1961 to 1988. "When Chinese were beating Malays, Chinese policemen would do nothing."

Racial tensions were so high that each three-man patrol needed a Gurkha to act as a neutral presence while his counterparts, one Chinese and one Malay, dealt with their own community. At the height of the violence, Mr Gurung often did not even have time for a meal.

The Gurkhas are an elite force plucked from the foothills of Nepal to serve in foreign militaries.

Every year, thousands of Nepalese youngsters go through a series of medical, academic and physical tests to have a shot at becoming a Gurkha. Fewer than 5 per cent are selected in the end and sent to Britain or Singapore.

Here, they belong to the police force's Gurkha Contingent which was formed in 1949. The paramilitary policemen serve for about 25 years but cannot stay permanently and have to return to Nepal when they retire at 45.

For their children, born and raised in Singapore, the culture shock of resettling in Nepal can overwhelm. They are more comfortable speaking English or Singlish, and must adjust to the littered streets of Kathmandu and overcrowded mini-vans as the main form of public transport, among other things.

But even now, the competition to be a Gurkha is keen, and being selected is highly prized.

Unlike today's Gurkhas who mostly stand as a deterrent force in peaceful Singapore, the first batches of Gurkhas cut their teeth as policemen quelling riots and strikes that were widespread in the 1950s and 1960s. Police work during the early days of the Gurkha Contingent was no mean feat as the officers faced mounting problems from secret societies, rampant murders and strikes.

Besides racial conflict, labour unrest was a source of turmoil. In 1955, the Hock Lee bus workers picketed the bus depot and prevented vehicles from leaving.

"The protesters were very restless, like they were just waiting for something to happen," says Mr Tulsi Gurung, 80, who served from 1951 to 1972. Sure enough, violence broke out and Mr Tulsi Gurung's orders to disperse the crowd with minimal physical harm were impossible to carry out.

With only a baton and shield to work with, the Gurkhas charged at the rioters to prevent the fighting from spreading. In the meantime, lorries ferrying schoolchildren to classes in place of buses were escorted by Gurkhas to ensure the passengers' safety.

The spectre of communism also threatened Singapore then and the Gurkhas were called upon to neutralise the Malayan Communist Party in the 1960s.

Mr Chandra Gurung was relaxing in his quarters one afternoon when the alarm was raised and all the Gurkhas assembled with their riot gear. Arms and live ammunition were issued.

They were kept in the dark about their mission until nightfall, when they were notified that they were going to arrest communist conspirators who had been planning to assassinate ministers and blow up key installations.

They got into patrol cars, once again with one Gurkha to a Malay and Chinese counterpart, heading out to make the arrests. Some of the targets were half-naked and bleary-eyed when they answered the door.

Mr Chandra Gurung's account corroborates details of Operation Coldstore in 1963, where more than 100 alleged left-wing activists were arrested and detained, including key members of the opposition political party Barisan Sosialis.

Although it has been almost 30 years since Mr Chandra Gurung returned to Nepal, he still remembers Singapore fondly.

The retired Gurkha easily matches names like Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam to the portfolios they held in Singapore's first Cabinet.

He also remains fiercely loyal to the country he served as a policeman and says plainly: "I love Singapore. If anything bad happens, I am ready to fight.

"I am ready to go back and die for Singapore."


This edited extract is from The Invisible Force, a new book about the lives of the Singapore Gurkhas and the problems they face in Nepal upon retirement. It is by ST journalist Chong Zi Liang and freelance photographer Zakaria Zainal, both of whom went to Nepal six times and interviewed about 80 former Gurkhas. The book, published by Ethos Books and launched on Aug 23, 2014, will be available in major bookstores from Sept 1.

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