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Valar Qringaomis

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Gurkhas in Singapore

(translated on request from the original article on Singabuzz: Les Gurkhas à Singapour)

The Gurkhas are members of elite units of the British Army and Singaporean Police, chosen from a small number of Nepalese tribes for their physical capabilites, their unfailing loyalty and their exceptional physical involvement.

Some history...


A Gurkha in Singapore.
On his back the khukuri, traditional curved knife.


Originally Gurkhas were members of the Rajput Khasi clan in North India. Pursued to North India by the Muslims, the tribes settled in present-day Nepal. Gurkhali, their language with an European origin, then became the official language of Nepal and Hinduism the state religion. At the start of the 19th century, the Gurkhas fought the East India Company while the Gurkhas tried to increase their territory. They lost the fight but they won the respect of the British, impressed by their ardor for battle and their devotion to the flag. The English Army, from then on, recruited them as mercenaries at the heart of elite units that one can compare to the French Foreign legion. During Indian decolonisation, the Gurkhas had the choice of integrating into the Indian or English armies. They have taken part in all conflicts since and have most recently been seen during the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan where they still are part of peacekeeping efforts.

Nepal is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world; the average income is less than US$340 yearly and 70% of the population lives on less than US$2 per day. Not surprising then that 14,000 candidates present themselves each year for admission into the prestigious Gurkha corps with a pay of 1,500€ to 2,000€ a month. This salary lets a young person bring his family out of poverty forever. But the selection process is unpitying...

To join the Gurkhas the candidate of 18-20 years has to weigh at least 50kg, measure more than 1.6m and not have diseases like tuberculosis, and above all be endowed with a physical strength no matter what the test... The first round, called "Hill Selection" allows the winnowing out of those who cannot do more than 15 chinups, 75 situps immediately after, and an endurance course. Those left sit for a written test of mathematics and English. Only 750 of the 14,000 starting candidates will then be able to participate in the famous "Doko Race". This Doko Race requires candidates to run 5km in less than an hour, at a height of more than 1,000m, a basket of 25kg of sand and rocks on their backs... Only 230 candidates qualify to join the English army and 73 join the Singaporean police for at least 15 years. Their motto: "Better to die than live as a coward" says much about the state of mind of the combatants!

In Singapore

The Kranji War Memorial in Singapore
One recognises Gurkhas tombs from the Khukuris which decorate them
200,000 Gurkhas fought during the 2 World Wars with the English army, and 45,000 lost their lives.


The Gurkha Contingent (or GC) is a special police force created in 1949 to replace a disbanded Sikh police unit. It can be deployed as a rapid reaction force in the face of a terrorist threat, for the protection of VIPs and above all to maintain order. During the 1970s, there were clashes between the Malay and Chinese populations and the population was upset to see that the Singaporean police's actions were influenced by their ethnicities. The Gurkhas - Nepalese - did not belong to any Singaporean ethnicity and were as a result known to be impartial during the settlement of street disputes. Very courageous and masters of themselves, they so gained the respect of the population. One recognises Gurkhas by their blue-grey uniform, their hat (called the Terai Gurkha Hat after the Terrai region of Nepal) and their large curved traditional knife named the khukuri.

In Singapore the members of the Gurkha Contingent live with their families in the barracks of Mount Vernon Camp which they very seldom leave. The camp is thought to be like a small Nepalese city and in order that its inhabitants have the least possible contact with the Singaporean population, for the sake of their impartiality. In any case Singaporean citizens, with no exceptions, are not allowed to enter the camp. If young recruits arrive generally single, they can get a wife and kids from Nepal to live with them in the camp. The kids are often educated in local schools, which lets them get a good and useful education for their return to their country. The government asks them to be as discreet as possible, and Gurkha men cannot marry Singaporean women. At the age of 45, the Gurkha police officer retires automatically, which means for mean a return to nepal with his wife and children. Even if the Gurkhas employed by the English army have the right to stay in the UK (and even to become citizens), it is very difficult for Gurkhas based in Singapore to do the same.

________________________________

This article has few photos because Gurkhas are very discreet, at the request of the government. It is lmost impossible to publish pictures of them or their camp. Zakaria Zainal is one of the rare photographers to have convinced Gurkhas to allow themselves to be photogrpahed. After a time in Nepal during his university studies, he met former Gurkhas who have retired and are passionate about their history. Becoming a photographer, he went again to Nepal to photograph them and get them to recount their lives, or rather their lives between Nepal and Singapore. He returned with magnificent black and white portraits accompanied with anecdotes entrusted by these fighters who have left a bit of their souls in Singapore: Our Gurkhas, Singapore Through Their Eyes.

***

"We speak in Malay among ourselves to practice"

"I don't speak English. But I still speak a bit of Malay. Even after having left Singapore for more than 40 years, we Gurkhas still remember some Malay, the language that we had studied when we served in the Singaporean Gurkha Contingent. Sometimes here in Nepal, we speak Malay to practice among ourselves. In the 1950s, Malay was the common tongue which was used and it was in this language that we made exchanges. I think that now English is more widely used"

Nar Bahadur Gurung (4518) holds a photo of himself, taken when he arrived in Singapore in 1953.
Coporal at his retirement, currently 74 years old, served from 1953 to 1973.

You can look at Zakaria's work on his website and on his webpage: https://www.facebook.com/gurkhas.sg

His book: Our Gurkhas Singapore Through Their Eyes
ISBN 978-981-07-3026-0
is available at Kinokunya for 26.64 SGD

The photo at the head of this article is also Zakaria's.
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