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A vintage picture postcard showing the Taiping Police Station building.

In a nod to the great Sikh Guru Nanak’s birthday, Alan Teh Leam Seng trawls through history to find out more about the role of Sikhs in maintaining law and order in Malaya

GURDWARA Sahib Alor Star is packed with people by the time I arrive at noon. The heightened activity is understandable as the Sikh community will be celebrating the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the 10 great Sikh Gurus, in less than a week's time.

Unable to find a suitable parking spot, I stop by the kerb, activate the hazard lights and make a call to my former classmate who I know is already anxiously waiting for my arrival. He appears almost instantly with several others and they proceed to unload the foldable tables from the boot of my car.

After thanking me for the generous loan, he hands me a vintage picture postcard depicting several armed Sikh guards. "This is right up your alley. Hope to hear more about the role of my community in the Malay States Guides when you come and join in the festivities this Friday," he says before bidding me farewell.

Despite having seen this postcard more than once in the past, I’ve never actually taken the trouble to find out about its historical significance. I guess now is a good time to do so! Without further deliberation, I head off towards Alor Merah, a quiet suburb north of Alor Star, to do some research.

My decision to visit the National Archives library doesn’t disappoint. Accompanied by a sizeable stack of books and historical journals pertaining to the subject matter, I plunge headfirst into the annals of history.

iew of the Malay States Guides barracks in Taiping in 1910.

INFLUENTIAL LARUT CHIEFTAIN

The origins of the Malay States Guides can be traced all the way to Ngah Ibrahim, the influential Perak chieftain who held sway over Larut in the 19th century. Prior to 1872, he used a force of 200 well-armed Malays to maintain order among the Chinese miners from whom he derived revenue. But frequent fighting between the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret society factions during that year quickly diminished the number to just 40 men.

Incapacitated, Ngah Ibrahim persuaded Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy to resign from his Penang Superintendent of Police post and head off to Calcutta to enlist a small force for him. Speedy eventually returned directly to Larut with 110 discharged sepoys comprising Sikhs, Hindus and Pathans. The force had scarcely begun to restore order when the Pangkor Engagement was signed and Ngah Ibrahim's period of virtual independence came to an abrupt end.

Sir Andrew Clarke, Governor of the Straits Settlements, made Speedy the Assistant Resident and instructed him to first discharge his men and then re-enlist them to serve as the Resident's Guard.

Speedy enlisted a small group of discharged sepoys and brought them to Larut in 1872.

BIRTH OF LARUT POLICE FORCE

Speedy made Kota, a small village by the banks of the Larut River near Taiping, his base and billeted the sepoys in Chinese houses. With the help of a non-commissioned officer, Inspector Deen Mohammed, Speedy maintained order among his men and began training local recruits. This expanded group of sepoys and 160 Punjabi, Malay and Chinese conscripts became known as the Larut Police Force.

About half of the force was used to guard the Taiping government buildings. The others were used to patrol isolated areas that were home to a scattered and lawless Chinese population of woodcutters and fishermen who regularly gave shelter and assistance to groups of criminals and pirates. Speedy's men also kept in check a group of armed Malays under Panglima Mat Ali that was active in the Kurau and Krian districts.

With the restoration of order, tin mines began to re-open and the Chinese population ballooned from 4,000 to 25,000 within 12 months. Together with the Malays and others, the total population was 33,000 by the time James Wheeler Woodford Birch was appointed Resident of Perak in November 1874.

By the middle of 1875, Speedy was primarily preoccupied with the reorganisation of the Larut administration while Birch tried to settle boundary disputes, raise revenue and, with very little success, win over the Malay chieftains. Both of them didn’t have any time to establish a central training depot for the recruits. As a result, the Indian and Malay conscripts never learnt the proper way to handle arms and their discipline and efficiency deteriorated. Rifles that were supplied were of all designs and sizes while uniforms had mixed descriptions where no two were alike.

British forces in Bukit Gantang, Perak in 1875.

BIRCH ASSASINATED

Perak plunged into total chaos when Birch was assassinated at Pasir Salak together with his interpreter Mat Arshad and one of his two sepoy escorts on Nov 2, 1875. The other escaped downstream to tell the tale in Bandar Bharu. Five days later, the sepoys under Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Francis Abbott, together with reinforcements from Penang, made an unsuccessful attempt to attack Pasir Salak. The failure was attributed to the lack of communication and discipline among the sepoys. Additional help in the form of a considerable military force from Hong Kong and India prevented the situation from deteriorating but the hunt for the perpetrators continued well into 1876.

The incident made the Straits Settlements government realise the dire need for suitably-trained officers to lead the Larut Police Force. As a result, allocations were quickly approved to have two new barracks built in Taiping. The appointment of Lieutenant Paul Swinburne as Superintendent of Police and Resident's Guard by December 1876 paved the way for a complete overhaul of the force into the Perak Armed Police.

Swinburne began by organising a Resident's Guard of 200 Sikhs trained in artillery drill and equipped with a battery of mountain guns. The 500-member Police Force, which consisted primarily of Malays, was in charge of the police boats and information procurement from the local population. Swinburne, who was fluent in Malay and Hindustani, also established a central training depot that armed and dressed the men to their best advantage.

By 1877, a guard-room and a lock-up were added to the front of the barracks. A site for a hospital was also cleared on an adjoining hill. A year later, the men received proper uniforms procured from England. Swinburne strategically placed the Sikhs in police stations around the mining areas as these were the places where unrests were most frequent.

ATTRACTIVE TERMS

In order to attract suitable Indian and Sikh conscripts, Swinburne's proposal to give them six months half-pay leave after three years and a free passage home if they were of good character were adopted in the 1882 Pension Regulations.

Swinburne fell ill shortly after Lieutenant Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Perak Armed Police in January 1879 and left Perak two years later. Walker was made Commissioner upon Swinburne's departure.

In August 1880, Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlements visited the Perak Armed Police and was captivated by the Sikhs. He wrote: "I was especially pleased with the Sikh police, their skirmishing was excellent and the wrestling after parade gave me an opportunity of observing their fine physique and remarkable litheness."

The Sikh's good work and high rate of military efficiency were recognised in 1884 when the Perak Armed Force's name was changed to the First Battalion Perak Sikhs. The Perak Sikhs played crucial roles in many public services like manning the Fire Brigade. In 1887, they successfully dealt with a large fire in Kamunting.

Following an outbreak of rabies in 1890, the Perak Sikhs temporarily undertook the registration of dogs. Their service at the offices of the Registration of Births and Deaths and the Registration of Vehicles eventually led to the first official census in Perak.

The Sikh guards performed their duties admirably and with the utmost distinction.

PAHANG REVOLT

"Excuse me but you may want to have a look at this," the helpful librarian interjects, handing me a book on Pahang history. I only realise the relevance when he shows me the page about the Perak Sikhs' brief involvement in two campaigns against the revolt led by Dato Bahaman, the Orang Kaya of Semantan, Tok Gajah and Mat Kilau. Grateful for the unexpected tip, I thank him profusely before giving the page a closer look.

The Perak Sikhs first made contact with their enemy at Bukit Bersepit in 1892 but the rebels managed to slip away during the skirmish and retreated into Kelantan. History repeated itself two years later when Walker and his men nearly had the enemy in their grasp after capturing enemy stockades at Jeram Ampai but Mat Kilau and his followers eluded capture when reinforcements took longer than necessary to cut off their retreat.

Returning my focus to the book I was looking at earlier, I learn that the rapid proliferation of rubber estates and tin mines in Perak during the last decade of the 20th century began to take its toll on the Perak Sikhs. As a remedy, Walker organised Sikh watchmen working for the mining companies into auxiliary policemen and ordered his troopers to conduct frequent mounted patrols. The strength of the Perak Sikhs was increased by a further 75 non-commissioned officers and men in 1894. But that still proved insufficient to meet the ever increasing demands.

The Malay States Guides rifle team posing with Walker at Bisley, England in 1910.

MALAY STATES GUIDES

The signing of the Federation Agreement on July 1, 1896 provided for the formation of the Malay States Guides. Due to legal technicalities, the Perak Sikhs couldn’t be absorbed into this new entity and became members of the Sultan of Perak bodyguards. Forced to start afresh, Walker toured the four protected Malay states and selected his men from Sikhs in various police forces in Selangor, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Pahang who had volunteered for service in the Malay States Guides.

Walker's task was made easier by the fact that the pay for the Guides were slightly higher than that of their police counterparts and, in addition, they were entitled to a pension upon reaching the age of 45. The Malay States Guides came into existence on Sept 1, 1896.

Taiping was chosen as the Malay States Guides headquarters as it already had an excellent range, suitable training ground and the cantonment of the former Perak Sikhs. Married quarters and additional barracks were constructed in 1905.

In 1912, Lieutenant-Colonel E.R.B. Murray who succeeded Walker as Commandant two years earlier, reorganised the Guides based on the Double Company system which had proven its value in the Indian Army. This reorganisation gave the Sikh officers greater responsibilities and put them on the same salary scale as their counterparts in Singapore.

SHOOTING CHAMPIONS

Other improvements came in the form of weapons upgrades and maintenance as well as a generous government allowance for ammunitions. The Martini-Enfields provided at the initial stages of formation were replaced with the more reliable Lee-Enfield magazine rifles in 1903. The Guides excelled in their shooting skills and their cream of the crop regularly won honours at competitions held at the famous Bisley Camp in Surrey, England.

These successes stood the Guides in good stead when they went on to play a prominent role in the founding of the Selangor Volunteers and training the pioneers in their first few difficult years. The Guides were also responsible for the formation of the Perak Rifle Association, from which sprang the Perak branch of the Malay States Volunteer Rifles.

Their skill in marksmanship also proved useful during times of active service. In April 1915, disturbances broke out in Kelantan following changes in taxation. Haji Mat Hassan, who history remembers better as Tok Janggut, stabbed a Malay police sergeant when he was making enquiries about the villagers' refusal to pay tax. Together with several hundred villagers, Tok Janggut looted the Pasir Puteh police station and other government buildings. The timely arrival of the Guides quelled the uprising. Three rebel leaders, including Tok Janggut, were killed.

A feeling of desolation fills my heart after reading that the Malay States Guides were disbanded upon the completion of the tour of duty in Aden at the end of 1919. At the same time, I am heartened by the fact that the men were honourably discharged. Those who had more than 10 years of service were pensioned while the rest were given gratuities. Options were given to younger members to either join the Indian Army or the Federated Malay States Police.

Despite the rather sad ending, I’m sure my friend will be glad to know that the Sikhs and their fellow compatriots performed their duties admirably and with the utmost distinction. Each and every one of the men will be remembered for the crucial roles they played in the building of our nation.

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