Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pakistanis in 1900s Singapore

Pakistan existed neither as a concept nor a nation-state until the 1940s. Singapore, on the contrary, has been a flourishing port city with a diverse population for many centuries.
It is easy to point to the impact of Chinese, Malays and Indians on Singapore's history. That Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, along with English, are Singapore's official languages is testament to that fact. However, within these larger groups there are 'subdivisions' which too have added to the rich flavours of modern Singapore.
The initial impact of 'Pakistanis' on 1900s Singapore occurred primarily through the British Indian army. Soldiering seems to come naturally to many Muslims from Northwest India, today's Pakistan.
Pari (Fairy) Lake located in the Swat Valley of Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province

Among the military contingents located in Singapore at the time was the Fifth Light Infantry Regiment. The Fifth Light Infantry Regiment contained mainly Muslim soldiers from Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province. These same two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the Northwest Frontier province) provide the bulk of the troops and officers for present day Pakistan's military.
The regiment arrived in Singapore in October 1914, in the midst of Europe's first 'world' war. The 1914-18 war saw the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey, side with Germany against the British. Until its disbandment in 1924, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had for many centuries also held the title of Islam's Caliph. The Caliph is the spiritual and moral leader of all Muslims.
Consequently, when soldiers of the Fifth Light Infantry fell prey to rumours that the regiment was being shipped to Europe to fight against the Sultan's (Caliph's) troops, half of the regiment's troops mutinied against the British. The other half of the regiment scattered across the island. Eight hundred mutineers roamed the island looking for British targets. Order was not fully restored for approximately ten days.
In the aftermath of the 1915 Mutiny, colonial authorities passed the 'Reserve Force and Civil Guard Ordinance' imposing compulsory military training for all male subjects aged between 18–55; Singapore's first experience with National Service. 
Indian Muslim Soldiers of the Fifth Light Infantry being executed at Outram Road
Additionally, British administrators required all Indians in Singapore to register themselves with the authorities. The registration requirement did not sit well with most Indians, who had little to do with the mutineers or their cause.
Singaporean academics tend to couch the 1915 Mutiny in the context of Muslim soldiers unwilling to fight other Muslims. History refutes this argument.
Muslims routinely fought for the British (and other colonial powers) against other Muslims, e.g. Afghanistan. At times, Indian Muslim soldiers even fought against troops loyal to the Mughal Empire. The fact that Malay Muslim soldiers under the command of the Sultan of Johor assisted British colonial authorities in capturing mutineers from the Fifth Light Infantry regiment also puts paid to the 'pan-Islamist' argument.
Whatever one's views on pan-Islamism, one fact is clear: Pakistanis have been making waves in Singapore for almost a century now!
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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