Singapore’s Smaller Ethnic Minority Groups 

Singapore is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups. But how much do we really know about some of them? Challenge introduces you to two of these communities that have had a long history with Singapore.
Besides Chinese, Malays and Indians, there are also Sikhs and Armenians who call Singapore their home

CMIO is an acronym most of us are familiar with. But while the C, M, and I are generally familiar territory, there are many small ethnic communities that make up Singapore’s social fabric. Challenge takes a look at two of these:

Sikhs

Sikhs started coming to Singapore from the 19th century, during the British colonial period. With the formation of the Sikh Police Contingent in 1881, many initially arrived in Singapore to seek employment as policemen. Many businessmen soon followed.

By the 1950s, Sikhs became part of the nation’s military, government, business, education, cultural and sporting scenes, representing Singapore at the national and global stage.

Sikhs are followers of Sikhism, a religion that grew out of the Punjab region of South Asia in the 15th century. Being at the crossroads of east, west and south Asia, Punjab was historically home to diverse faiths and cultures.

The Sikh identity that emerged focused on the universal brotherhood of humanity as well as societal and gender equality, with the spirit of service and charity to humanity as core tenets of the Sikh faith.

Illustrations of The Central Sikh Temple (left) located at Towner Road and an instrument (right) used in Sikh devotional music
Illustrations of the Central Sikh Temple (left) located at Towner Road and an instrument (right) used in Sikh devotional music.

The Sikh temple, or gurdwara, plays a pivotal role for the Sikhs. From the early years, they were the spiritual centres for the community, places to connect with others, temporary residences for new arrivals, and centres for Punjabi language education (during the Second World War, the Silat Road Sikh Temple even housed a shelter for widows and orphans).

There are currently seven gurdwaras in Singapore – the biggest of which is the Central Sikh Temple at Towner Road.

The Silat Road Sikh Temple, which is situated along Jalan Bukit Merah, was built by the Sikh Police Contingent in 1924.
The Silat Road Sikh Temple, which is situated along Jalan Bukit Merah, was built by the Sikh Police Contingent in 1924.

A major festival for Sikhs is Vaisakhi, which is celebrated in mid-April. It marks the birth of the Sikh order called the Khalsa. During this festival, Sikhs hold kirtans, or the singing of devotional songs, visit gurdwaras and hold community fairs, where people gather to socialise and share festive food.

The Indian Heritage Centre is running an exhibition on Singapore’s Sikh community until January 30, 2022. Admission is free.

Exhibition on the Sikh community at the Indian Heritage Centre.
Exhibition on the Sikh community at the Indian Heritage Centre.

Today the Sikhs make up about 13,000 of Singapore’s total population. They are considered a model and exemplary community – small, highly driven and motivated by a strong spirit of service.

Some prominent Sikhs in public life include Inderjit Singh, who served as a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC from 1996 to 2015, and Davinder Singh, a leading Singaporean lawyer and considered the country’s top litigator.

Elsewhere, Singapore’s first head of navy was a Sikh, the late Commander (Retired) Jaswant Singh Gill. He also contributed to the Sikh community, serving as the Singapore Khalsa Association’s president from 1966 to 1981. Other prominent figures in the military include former Major-General Ravinder Singh. He succeeded Chan Chun Sing, currently Singapore’s Minister for Education, as Chief of Army between 2011 and 2014. Singh was the first non-Chinese to serve in this role since 1982.

Another notable figure is Dr Kanwaljit Soin, who became the first female Nominated Member of Parliament in 1992.

Fun Facts:
  • The first Sikh to migrate to Singapore was Maharaj Singh, who was sent here in 1850 as a political prisoner by the British after the Second Anglo-Sikh War.
  • Sikhs in Singapore have often mistakenly been called Bengali because many arrived via the port of Calcutta in the Indian state of Bengal; the fact is Bengalis and Punjabis are ethno-linguistically different and their homelands are far apart.
  • While most Sikhs in Singapore are Punjabi, not all Punjabis here are Sikhs; some are followers of other religions like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
  • Most Sikhs in Singapore speak Punjabi, a language from which the Singlish word “shiok” is said to have derived; the root word in Punjabi is “shauk”, which means enjoy.

Armenians

The Armenians were among the earliest merchants to arrive in Singapore when it was established as a British colonial trading port in 1819. Most of them hailed not from Armenia itself, but from Persia, or modern-day Iran.

Their numbers in Singapore never grew beyond a hundred at any given time. In fact, at their peak in the 1940s, there were around 100 Armenians here. Today, they number between 30 and 50, made up of a mix of expatriates and locals.

Modern day Armenia (centre) is located in the Caucasus region.
Modern-day Armenia (centre) is located in the Caucasus region.

Their tiny number notwithstanding, the community has had a sizable impact and influence on Singapore.

Notable Armenians include Emile Galistan, after whom Galistan Avenue is named. He joined the government service in 1903 and was eventually appointed in 1946 to the board of trustees of the Singapore Improvement Trust – the predecessor of today’s Housing and Development Board (HDB).

Beyond the Public Service:

  • The Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet, was co-founded in 1845 by an Armenian named Catchick Moses.
  • The iconic Raffles Hotel at Beach Road was opened and operated by Martin and Tigran Sarkies, in 1887.
  • Not too far away from Raffles Hotel is the Armenian Apostolic Church along Hill Street. Built in 1835, it is Singapore’s oldest church building and one of the last physical symbols of the community here.
The Armenian Church at Hill Street.
The Armenian Church at Hill Street.

The Armenian Church is the central religious authority for Armenians. Major religious festivals for the community include Christmas and Easter.

The difference with other Christian Churches is the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus together with the Feast of the Epiphany, resulting in the Armenian Christmas that falls on January 6.

Services at the Armenian Church were regularly held throughout the year, typically conducted by a visiting priest who is usually flown in around four to five times a year for various occasions, such as Christmas and Easter.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these services are currently suspended. When not in use, the church doubles up as a wedding venue for other Christian communities, or for musical performances.

A room at the Armenian Heritage Gallery with exhibits and artefacts of the Armenian community.
A room at the Armenian Heritage Gallery with exhibits and artefacts of the Armenian community.
Fun Facts:
  • The Armenian Apostolic Church in Singapore is the oldest remaining church of its kind in this part of the world.
  • There are no Armenian restaurants in Singapore; the closest to Armenian food you would find here is Lebanese cuisine.
  • Males in Armenia have to serve two years of military service as well; they are only allowed to book out of their camps once or twice during that period.
  • Chess is a mandatory subject for school children in Armenia because of lessons learnt in strategic thinking, organisation, and planning.

To learn more about the Armenian community, you can visit the Armenian Heritage Gallery. Do note that you need to make an appointment prior to visiting the site, which is within the church compound.

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  • POSTED ON
    Jul 15, 2021
  • TEXT BY
    Keval Singh
  • PHOTOS BY
    Keval Singh
  • ILLUSTRATION BY
    Ryan Ong
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