Most people know Singapore’s Gurkha Contingent as the guards in blue uniforms and cocked hats – but beyond seeing the Gurkhas guarding spots around town and working the barricaded Mount Vernon Camp where they’re based, most people don’t know much about who they are and what they’ve experienced.
The Gurkha Contingent was formed in 1949 as part of the Singapore Police Force, with recruits taken from the British Gurkha Camp in Pokhara, Nepal. Ever since, they’ve attained a reputation both here and around the world for bravery and impartiality, most notably in neutralising the Chinese-Malay riots of the 1950s and ’60s. After starting with 149 men in 1949, the force now numbers more than 2,000, with several hundred joining the Gurkha Contingent every year from a pool of more than 20,000 applicants.
As with most branches of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the mandatory retirement age for guards in Singapore’s Gurkha Contingent is 45 – at which time they are repatriated back to Nepal along with their families. Though the Gurkhas receive a significant pension, their in-betweener status has raised eyebrows among human rights activists here – while the UK now grants citizenship to Gurkhas who have served more than four years in the British Army, no such option is open to Singapore’s equivalents.
Yet photographer Zakaria Zainal simply wanted to tell the stories of these people. He first encountered the Gurkhas during his National Service. After getting lost during a training exercise, his group ran into a Gurkha who helpfully – if gruffly – pointed them in the right direction.
The fascination grew during an internship abroad in Nepal in 2009 while studying at Nanyang Technological University, where he chanced upon a Singapore Gurkhas Pensioners Association (SGPA) meeting. That meeting led to a final-year university thesis focusing on the retired Gurkha community – a project Zakaria, 27, continued to pursue after his graduation. His project involved travelling back to Nepal in 2011, and plenty of long, cramped bus rides to all four states of the country – all to meet, interview and photograph as many former Gurkhas as possible.
‘It was a riveting experience finding and meeting a community who were really attached to Singapore,’ says Zakaria. ‘For many of them, I was the first Singaporean they’d met in a long time, and they loved talking about their time in Singapore. More often than not, the Gurkhas and their wives would talk about Singaporean food, much like we do here – everything from seafood to durian.’
Zakaria recalls that the Gurkhas took his photography sessions seriously. ‘Most had stoic faces and stiff postures, remnants of a time when discipline ruled their lives. But as much as I wanted them to smile, many also had few or no teeth left.’
Here he tells the stories of meeting just three of the 50 or so Gurkhas he has encountered so far.
Chandra Bahadur Gurung, 69
'Retired staff sergeant Chandra Bahadur Gurung was one of the first Singapore Gurkhas I met in Nepal in 2009 at the SGPA meeting. He has been particularly helpful during this project – he even drove me around in his car to meet other Gurkhas during my last visit.
'Notably, Gurung served during the 1964 race riots. His memories of the turbulent time were still vivid: "When Malays were beating Chinese, Malay policemen would let them continue," he told me. "When Chinese were beating Malays, Chinese policemen would do nothing." The Gurkhas were called in for long shifts to keep the peace, though the frequency of the clashes meant that they had little or no time for a meal.
'Today, he lives near to the stunning Phewa Lake, overlooked by mountains in Pokhara. He and his wife have great memories of Singapore, and his wife mentioned particularly how she missed her time living in Singapore – she even managed to pick up a bit of Malay to converse with stall owners from the wet market. Before I left them, she had one small request: that I would bring back some ikan bilis, or dried anchovies, for cooking on my next visit. She told me: "It's just not the same as ikan bilis in Nepal."'
Resham Bahadur Pun, 68
'I met retired corporal Pun by chance, after photographing another retired Singapore Gurkha who lived just across the street. During our interview, we spoke in Malay – his command of the language was better than most others' because of his extended stay in Bandar Seri Begawan, where he worked for the Brunei royal family. This is one option the retired Gurkhas can choose as their second employment after they finish their stint in Singapore.
'Amazingly, he had just returned from a three-month visit to Singapore – his first visit since retiring 34 years ago. During his visit, he stayed with his daughter, who is married to a Gurkha currently in service in Singapore – and discovered a city vastly different to the one he left in 1977. The transportation changes were incredible (he remembers only two-lane roads back then), and he was particularly amazed to see cars and trains going underground. The highlight of the trip: taking a photograph of the newly built Marina Bay Sands with his wife.'
Shanta Bahadur Gurung, 49
'Repatriated only a little more than five years ago, retired corporal Gurung was one of many Gurkhas I met who had a Merlion proudly displayed in their living room. He had even brought back a copy of Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs, The Singapore Story, as a keepsake. During our meeting, he even remembered and turned to the page – and paragraph – that highlighted the former prime minister's admiration for the Gurkhas. Having only left Singapore recently, Gurung said he felt privileged being able to serve and observe Singapore's rapid change over the years.'
For more information, check out the Singapore Gurkha Contingent Facebook Page.
Our Gurkhas: Singapore Through Their Eyes will be launched on 31 Aug, 7.30-9pm, at 5/L National Library Building.