Kids Corner


The Guardians of the Spirit World -
The Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore

Photos & Article by AMARDEEP SINGH




Very early in my career, an incident in Chennai, India, taught me the importance of being mindful of one’s conduct as reputation takes a long time to build and can be destroyed in an instant.

In 1994, as a 27 year young executive with a multinational, I was based in Chennai, responsible for forging business alliances with local establishments. A certain Mr. Chandrasekhar, General Manager of the local Higginbothams Bookstore had proved to be impossible to meet by each of my predecessors. Going by the laws of probability, I was told, one would be better off not concentrating energy on him.

One day, however, I still chose to walk into his office and presented my visiting card to his secretary. At that very moment, Mr. Chandrasekhar was rushing out of his office and we exchanged a momentary glance. I instantly sensed a positive energy in his smile. Thirty minutes later, I was inside his office and, surprisingly, the business agreement I had sought was signed in that single meeting.

I could not understand why my predecessors had failed.

A few months later, in a follow-up meeting, I asked Mr. Chandrasekhar why for years he had refused to meet the other representatives from our company, while with me he had made the entire engagement so smooth.

He replied: “At the age of 20, when I first travelled to Delhi from Chennai, my mother’s only advice was that on getting down at New Delhi railway station, I should not talk to any stranger and proceed directly to the taxi stand and engage a Sikh taxi driver to get me to the hotel.”

So what did that have to do with him having been so receptive to me?

I soon realized that he was following his heart, and the image of trustworthiness and honesty as ingrained by his mother.

That’s a lot of blind trust placed on an entire community.

From that day, I became mindful that my actions should never marginalize the years of reputation built by the elders of my community.

Fast forward to October 2013. I was approached by two youngsters in Singapore, Ishvinder Singh (Ish) and Vithya Subramaniam (Vithya). They wanted me to partner with them to photograph statues of Sikhs guarding the graves of Chinese people at the city’s Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Background to the Bukit Brown Cemetery: A large tract of land smack in the heart of Singapore island, it houses over 100,000 tombs of Singaporean Chinese. It was opened in 1922 by the municipal corporation and has now been abandoned to nature since 1973.

In the cemetery there are nearly 50 tombs with statutes of Sikh soldiers guarding them. The count of 50 is not official as graves tucked in the lap of natural vegetation continue to be discovered and the terrain in some areas is hard to navigate. In September 2011, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced the construction of a new road that would cut through Bukit Brown, effecting about 5,000 tombs. Fearing further development in the future, many groups have been rallying to “Save Bukit Brown Cemetery”, calling for the preservation of a century old historical site.

Ish explained to me: “In 2011, when the government announced that a part of Bukit Brown Cemetery was to be re-claimed for a highway, I was not too concerned. Bukit Brown did not matter to me because the Chinese culture was foreign to me and I had no intentions of messing with the supernatural. Until one day on Facebook I noticed a bunch of turbaned and bearded statues appear on my screen that looked so much like me! These were the Sikh statues of Bukit Brown and more than 24 pairs of them had been re-discovered by Mr. Peter Pak who had documented them on his blog. I was struck by the careful detail of the turban, handcrafted curl of the beard and the crafting of the kirpans they wore. I fell in love with Bukit Brown. I soon found myself rallying around the ‘Save Bukit Brown Cemetery’ campaign, feeling that this place mattered to me.”

Ish’s engagement as a turbaned Sikh in the protection campaign was spotted by TEDxYouth@SG  and he was invited to speak at the local youth chapter.

Vithya’s previous trips to the cemetery -- now left to the vagaries of the elements and therefore in the grip of overgrown vegetation, making it tough to navigate in certain areas -- made her a valuable partner in spotting tombs with statues of Sikh guards.

The duo-team complemented each other well and they needed in me a mentor, someone with an experience in exploration and photography.

The personal identities of Sikhs and Chinese, intermingling to form a collective identity of Singapore in the Bukit Brown Cemetery, is reflective of the diverse history of this small island nation.

Sikhs hail from Punjab. Indu (the old name ascribed to the subcontinent), the land mass east of River Indus, a resource rich nation attracted invasions by Central Asians via Afghanistan to loot, plunder and rule. The trend of repeated attacks since the 9th century was only reversed in the 18th century, when Sikhs succeeded in forming their own kingdom and sealing advances into their territory and beyond.

While Punjab was secured by Sikhs, the British had succeeded in expanding their rule elsewhere on the subcontinent, with the reach of British India stopping where the boundaries of Sikh kingdom began. Between 1845–1847, the two Anglo-Sikh Wars concocted by the British led to the annexation of Punjab and the Sikh Empire into British India.

The valor of Sikhs in these two wars did not go unnoticed. Thereafter, British started recruiting Sikhs as military and police personnel in countries under the rule of the crown.

The British recruitment handbooks stated: “The Sikhs displayed masculinity, [were] fairly un-corruptable and made good policemen.” [R.W. Falcon]

The British reinforced adherence to the Khalsa discipline and identity through their recruitment policies. Only turbaned and bearded men of certain height and weight were accepted into the ranks. It was also made mandatory to maintain a turban and beard during the entire service period. The British recognized that in the Sikh beliefs lay their sense of discrimination between right and wrong -- somewhat unique to the subcontinent and beyond -- making them matchless and gallant warriors. As such, military service became a domain that could further nurture a coherent Sikh identity.

The Sikhs first came to Singapore in 1819 as military and police personnel of the British East India Company. In 1881, the Sikh Police Contingent (SPC) was established in Singapore. The SPC was highly regarded by the British and was deployed to various states in Malaya. The SPC was disbanded at the end of World War II in 1945 because of the role of Sikh policemen and military personnel in partnering with Japanese, under the umbrella of “Azad Hind Force” -- The Indian National Army (”INA”) -- to march towards the subcontinent from its South-East Asian colonies and free it from British rule. The INA was founded and led by a Sikh soldier, General Mohan Singh, and disproportionately peopled by Sikh soldiers. 

Not all Sikhs in Singapore found work as British policemen and military personnel as there were stringent recruitment requirements. Those who could not find employment in the colonial police forces found work as security guards and watchmen for private employers. So strong was the image of trustworthiness and honesty of the Sikhs that Chinese businessmen were known to entrust their family’s entire security to Sikh bodyguards.

The Sikh watchmen were known as jagas (Malay word for “guard”) and they could be found guarding banks, godowns, major stores and school compounds.

It is with this background that one needs to see why some Chinese businessmen, on the death of their family members, felt the need to erect statues of Sikh bodyguards. The Chinese have an elaborate system of beliefs in the afterlife, and have detailed practices and rituals whereby they reach out to their ancestors and offer material gifts.

Hence, standing alongside other statues of Chinese Gods and angels, the Sikhs statues bear testimony to their image of strength and integrity. The Sikh guards are not just security guards at these graves. Instead they are elevated to guardians of the afterlife.

So strong was the impact and imagery of Sikhs that one Chinese businessman had also erected two large statues of Sikh bodyguards at the entrance of his residence. The picture below is from Singapore archives, clicked in 1939, showing two Sikh statues at the entrance. This house does not exist in modern Singapore.

This has been a fun project to work with Ish and Vithya. While we have only succeeded in photographing only eight tombs with Sikh statues, there are many more to be discovered and photographed. Fortunately the Land Transport project impacts only one grave with a Sikh statue, which will soon be exhumed.

As some Singaporean Chinese continue to voice themselves under the banner of “Save Bukit Brown Cemetery”, I see an opportunity for the Sikh community to come forward and also voice the need to protect this heritage site. This would truly reflect the intermingling cultural history of this nation.

In order to continue with the project to photograph all the graves with statues of Sikh bodyguards, I encourage the youth of Singapore Sikh community to form a team with Ish and Vithya to help identify the graves so I can continue to photograph them professionally.

Bukit Brown Cemetery is a shared heritage indeed.

More importantly, Bukit Brown Cemetery reminds us of the importance of being mindful of our daily conduct as over time it creates a reputation.

Indeed, reputation does follow to the grave!

Edited for
To see more photos, please CLICK here.

The author is an Engineer with an MBA from the University of Chicago. He was with the American Express Company for twenty years, where he was last leading the Asia Pacific revenue and pricing function. He is an avid photographer with interests in writing and philosophy. He maintains a blog at

The team that made this project possible:

Vithya Subramaniam's interests in Sikh identity and history began when she first saw the Golden Temple gleaming through a dark winter morning. The sights and questions from then have since yielded an undergraduate thesis seeking to understand the memory of Operation Blue Star within the space of the Golden Temple Complex. This recent South Asian Studies and Political Science graduate from NUS continues to interrogate the visual space and questions of Sikh identity closer to home. Exploring the Sikh guard statues at Bukit Brown Cemetery is one such present pursuit. Otherwise, Vithya's time is spent at NUS, tutoring modules on the politics of South Asia, and the South Asian Diaspora in Singapore.

Ishvinder Singh is a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore and is currently a supply chain professional for an American Oil and Gas company. He has also spent a significant amount of time in the United States pursuing his other passions of entrepreneurship and business management. At any other time, Ishvinder may be found in Bukit Brown documenting the statues, or in the archives reading up on the Sikhs of Singapore.

December 4, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Gurpal Singh Bhuller (Chester, Virginia, USA), December 04, 2013, 12:24 PM.

The "jagas" of Malaysia and Singapore are well-known. I recall that there is/was also an old Chinese (probably Confucian) temple in Penang that had two statues of Sikh guardians before the altar to "guard" and look after all those who came to worship there. Sikhs in those days were regarded as incorruptible, honest and trustworthy. So much so that the person in charge of protecting the first Prime Minister of Malaysia (Tengku Abdul Rahman) had a Sikh (Gurcharan Singh) as his bodyguard. Younger Sikhs in Malaysia may not be familiar with their history, and their current reputation as hard drinkers and party goers gives little credit to their ancestors. Time to reclaim their heritage!

2: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), December 04, 2013, 4:10 PM.

I have a Singaporean friend who tells me that Sikhs in Singpore and Malaysia are affectionately called "Babu ji". He has many Sikh friends in Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok, Reykjavik and London. He maintains that the Sikhs are virile and young even at 75. Even though of Chinese origin, he speaks a bit of Punjabi and understands the language as well, as it became evident when a Sikh swore an insult at him in Punjabi and he replied that he understood. After this incident they became friends. During our conversation, I could detect that Sikhs have built an enviable reputation in South East Asia.

3: Tan Koon Siang (Singapore), December 07, 2013, 12:54 PM.

Yes, my comment when I saw the picture of a real Sikh with a stone Sikh: Reliability is timeless.

Comment on "Reputation:
The Guardians of the Spirit World -
The Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.