Home News Community SENIOR CITIZEN DIARY Reflections From A Melburnian Centenarian Didar Singh

SENIOR CITIZEN DIARY Reflections From A Melburnian Centenarian Didar Singh

This February, Sardar Didar Singh will turn 100 years old, a notable milestone few of us are able to achieve. We walk down memory lane with a man whose life has spanned three countries – India, Malaysia and now Australia.
Born in the village of Gaggarwal, near Morinda, in Punjab on 13 February 1913, it was the time when the British ruled India giving it independence in as late as 1947. So, war and peace were very much part of the social fabric Didar Singh grew up in. Singh was just four when his mother passed away, the First World War had begun and his father Harnam Singh was serving in the Middle East as he was in the private army of the Maharaja of Patiala, the Patiala Lancers. Singh was left in the care of his elder sister, Tej Kaur. Upon his father’s return, he was back living with him and his brothers. When his father retired, he went back to farming.
Singh received his initial education at the village school in Gaggarwal. “We walked ten km everyday rain, hail or shine,” says Singh. The pursuit of education saw him shift to Middle school in Khant, then to Kainor Khalsa College, Chamkaur Sahib Khalsa College, and finally City High School in Patiala. After completing high school in Patiala, Didar Singh returned to his village and briefly helped his father with the farming and planting an orchard.
Singh’s memory of his father is that of a strict disciplinarian given his military background. “It was military discipline at home too and everything had to be done a certain way, if not we would get a caning,” he recalls. The children took part in all the domestic chores including looking after the animals, cleaning the cow dung in the sheds, milking the buffalos, drawing the plough across the fields with the oxen and extracting water from the well. Far from the days of electricity, running water or automobiles, says Singh.
It was also during this time when he had completed high school that a person from the village had come back home on leave from overseas. This person convinced Singh that he could get a job as an office clerk as he was now well versed in Punjabi, Urdu and English. The person also persuaded Singh’s friend Amar Singh who had not gone to school that he could work in the mines. They were both assured of jobs in the east. Colloquially, the east was known as ‘Chine’ – anything past Calcutta or Kolkata as is now known.
It was a decision that would herald another journey in his long life. With his father’s blessings and financial help, Didar Singh took a train from Punjab to Calcutta. From there he boarded a steamer with the best room on the ship – on the deck and open to the elements. Few days later, he arrived in the Island of Penang in Malaysia. After being in quarantine for a few days, he learnt from the Punjabis living in Penang that the state of Kedah were recruiting people for their police force. Each State in Malaysia had its own police force.
Not wanting to lose any opportunity, Singh travelled to Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah and found himself among a queue of 30-40 Punjabis hopefuls. He had already passed the medical and physical tests. He remembers vividly how the recruiting officer Commissioner J.P. Pennefather-Evans walked up and down the line scrutinising the next batch of police officers. Singh took the opportunity to hand him a letter written in English at which the Commissioner asked in Punjabi ‘who had written this letter’. When Singh replied that he had written it himself, Commissioner Evans proceeded to look at his hands. Fortunately for Singh, his hands were very rough from the agricultural work he had done back home and, thus on this basis, he was recruited. Out of the hopefuls, only 10 were selected.
Singh’s initial duties were to guard members of the Royal family of Kedah. “They preferred Sikh guards as they would not interfere with their women and were excellent guards,” he says. During his night shifts, he used to study under the street lamps. He had a pocket dictionary and used to read books and newspapers to better his English. He also studied and learnt Malay. Clearly, a self-made and self-taught man, it was his drive to excel that would see him rise to the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police during the British times.
Singh went on to serve in different divisions in the police, including prosecution (where he had to learn Criminal Procedure Act, Evidence Law and other legal subjects); the Criminal Investigation Department (CID); Flying/Jungle Squad (after WWII there was a problem with communists in Malaya. The Flying squads were the first ones sent in at any sign of trouble and they had to conduct jungle warfare with the communists). Singh rose through ranks. He not only became a gazetted officer, a Deputy Superintendent of Police but was also Officer In Charge of Police District (OCPD) and Officer Superintending of Police Circle (which included several districts) in various states of Malaysia, gaining fame and respect in not just Malaysia but Singapore and India as well.
Singh retired from the services in 1969 and spent time in India. By then Malaysia was also undergoing its own transition in history. The government was heading towards racial bias and non-Malays were beginning to be treated as second class citizens.
Moving to Australia in 1986 was a decision based on giving his children a better education and future. And while he enjoys life in Australia, he reminisces about life in Malaysia fondly as he was at the prime of his career and had it all – a good life, fame and challenges.
“The times have changed, of course,” says Singh, adding, “Compared to the hard life we had to endure, the lifestyles of people have changed, children enjoy comforts and many things are taken for granted. But it is a progress that we take in our stride and I am always amazed by the rapid change and progress mankind is making.”
A strong believer of Waheguru, Singh has lived life according to its diktats especially in the true style of a Sikh “rehat maryada”. Hard-work (kirat karni), prayer (naam japna), voluntary service (seva), communal life, and daswand (donating 10 per cent of your earnings), have been the principles of his life. He has served in Gurudwara committees across Malaysia and has been integral part of the Sikh Community in Melbourne as well. He was Chairperson of the Blackburn Gurudwara Committee, during 1999-2000 at the age of 86.
For all his time in Malaysia or Australia, Singh has never forgotten his roots and never misses a chance to pay homage to his village whenever he is in India. He also built a school and funded generously towards the building of a Gurudwara in his village.
Singh’s knowledge, humility and integrity shine through his personality. Little wonder, why he is such a respected member of the Indian community. “To be able to live in harmony, we have to treat everyone equally no matter who you are,” he says. Pearls of wisdom from a centenarian.
By Indira Laisram