S'pore's first head of navy Jaswant Singh Gill dies at 97

A pillar of the Sikh community, he served in key defence roles in country's fledgling years

Mr Jaswant Singh Gill, who died last Saturday in his home, retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 1972.
Mr Jaswant Singh Gill, who died last Saturday in his home, retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 1972. PHOTO: REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE NAVY/FACEBOOK

Mr Jaswant Singh Gill, Singapore's first head of navy and a pillar of the Sikh community, died last Saturday, 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 at about 10am.

He is survived by two sons and four daughters.

Mr Gill came 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, head of the Singapore Armed Forces training department in the general staff division and commander of Tengah Air Base and Changi Air Base.

He retired from the SAF 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 where 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 Mr 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.

He also made significant contributions to the Sikh community, serving as the Singapore Khalsa Association's president from 1966 to 1981.

The association, set up 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.

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.

"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 they also had to learn how to play instruments for Sikh music like the twin drums tabla.

"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 due to the pandemic, commemoration services took place via Zoom so Mr Gill's children, five of whom are currently not here, could join in.

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore's first head of navy Jaswant Singh Gill dies at 97'. Print Edition | Subscribe