Singapore's first head of navy Jaswant Singh Gill dies, aged 97

Mr S. Jaswant Singh Gill retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 1972, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. PHOTO: REBUPLIC OF SINGAPORE NAVY/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - Mr S. Jaswant Singh Gill, Singapore's first head of navy and a pillar of the Sikh community, died last Saturday (Dec 19) at about 10am, aged 97.

He was running a fever caused by pneumonia and was being readied to be taken to hospital when he died in his home.

He is survived by two sons and four daughters.

Mr Gill had come to Singapore with his uncle when he was six, and served in key defence positions in Singapore's fledgling years after fighting for Singapore during Konfrontasi, a conflict between Indonesia and the then Federation of Malaysia which took place between 1963 and 1966.

In addition to being Commander of the Singapore Naval Volunteer Force when the British left in 1967, he was the Commanding Officer of Pulau Blakang Mati Camp, the head of the Singapore Armed Forces training department in the general staff division, and the Commander of Tengah Air Base and Changi Air Base.

He retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 1972, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The Republic of Singapore Navy, in a tribute to Mr Gill, said on Facebook on Sunday that it is deeply indebted to the commander.

"Just as our white ensign continues to fly daily, his words will be etched in our minds as we continue with our daily resolve to bring honour and respect to our country," it said. Mr Gill spoke at the 1967 ceremony when Singapore's white naval ensign was hoisted for the first time, a momentous occasion for the then newly independent nation whose fate was yet uncertain.

According to Singapore's Early Sikh Pioneers: Origins, Settlement, Contributions And Institutions, written by Rishpal Singh Sidhu, Mr Gill also earned kudos from fellow Sikhs for not drinking despite it being the norm in the armed forces.

"Where imbibing a sundowner after hours is a norm for most military officers, Jaswant Singh Gill has remained a teetotaller, making do with a plain soda or ginger ale, thereby earning understanding and respect from his fellow officers for his faith," it said.

Mr Gill also contributed to the Sikh community, serving as the Singapore Khalsa Association's president from 1966 to 1981.

The association, begun in 1931, initially served as a sports club for the Sikh community, but later evolved into a community space where people gathered for important life events, such as weddings.

Today, the building in Tessensohn Road is also widely used by non-Sikh Singaporeans, with ballrooms and a dance studio available for booking by the public.

In a photo taken on April 28, 2014, Mr Jaswant Singh Gill (third from right) and fellow naval volunteer reservists celebrate the pioneer navy unit's 80th anniversary. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Kirpal Sidhu, 60, Mr Gill's nephew, said his uncle was the head of his extended family and imbued in the children early on a sense of discipline and excellence.

When he was young, he would have to show his uncle his report card regularly and be advised on how to improve.

"He ran a very tight ship. There are things he made sure we knew he would not tolerate. We all had to know how to speak our mother tongue, Punjabi, fluently," he said, adding that the children also had to learn how to play instruments for Sikh music such as the organ-like harmonium and twin drums tabla.

"At that point, it was very painful (for me as a child) but now I am so thankful. He is someone we can emulate and we will miss him tremendously."

Mr Kirpal said that because of the pandemic, commemoration services took place over Zoom so that Mr Gill's children, five of whom are currently not in Singapore, could join in.

"He walked his talk and did not speak in double language. He tells you things as it is. We are very proud of his role in Singapore's nation building. We are so proud that he chose to step up," he added.

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