New documentary to focus on first Sikh in Singapore

From left: Moderator Vithya Subramaniam, documentary director Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, executive producer Simranjit Singh and researcher Li-Jen Tan at a panel discussion on the story of freedom fighter Bhai Maharaj Singh on Sunday. He was the first Sikh i
From left: Moderator Vithya Subramaniam, documentary director Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, executive producer Simranjit Singh and researcher Li-Jen Tan at a panel discussion on the story of freedom fighter Bhai Maharaj Singh on Sunday. He was the first Sikh in recorded history to set foot in Singapore, sent here from India in 1850.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Unlike many other communities, the Sikhs in Singapore can trace the exact origin of their presence on the island to one man: freedom fighter Bhai Maharaj Singh.

The saint-soldier is the first Sikh in recorded history to set foot in Singapore, sent here by the British in 1850 as a political prisoner.

To mark the nation's bicentennial celebrations, a documentary detailing his life and influence is in the works, with a trailer that was released on Sunday at the Black Box in Fort Canning.

The 60-to 75-minute documentary, titled Saint Soldier - Uncovering The Story Of Singapore's First Sikh, is targeted for release in December. It is directed by Ms Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, 40, while Mr Simranjit Singh, 40, is the executive producer.

Mr Singh, who runs a healthcare company, said he was inspired to create the piece as he felt that not many Sikhs here knew the story.

Bhai Maharaj Singh led the movement against British occupation in the Indian state of Punjab, but was arrested and then sent to Singapore's Outram Prison where he died in 1856.

There is a memorial to him at the Silat Road Sikh Temple, also known as the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road.

 
 
 
 

Said Mr Singh: "I have a special connection to the temple because I lived near there, and I spent my childhood at the memorial watching Sikhs and non-Sikhs visit it."

In the past, many custodians of the memorial would tell the story of Bhai Maharaj Singh to visitors, he said.

"But many of them have passed on, and many of the stories are gone, and I realised that much of the younger generation of Sikhs did not have an understanding of who Bhai Maharaj Singh was. They are not connected to the story any more," he said.

Ms Kaur-Nagpal said the team travelled all around the world to trace the life of Bhai Maharaj Singh.

She saw his story as a portal to that of the Sikh diaspora in Singapore. The founding of the community stemmed from the formation of a small Sikh contingent in the police force in the 1880s, after Bhai Maharaj Singh's death.

She said: "Through him, I can go back in time and space, and understand more about myself and the people around me."

Mr Singh added: "He represents a key tenet of Sikhism called Charhdi Kala, which roughly translates to unwavering resilience."

From the first Sikh policemen in the 1880s to the Sikh contingent that arrived in the 1940s for the Battle of Malaya, Bhai Maharaj Singh's spirit is one that is entrenched in the Sikh community, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2019, with the headline 'New documentary to focus on first Sikh in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe