Shortly after Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was temporarily moved out of his home at Oxley Road while security was beefed up. When Lee returned. he found Gurkha policemen posted as sentries. At that time, the Gurkhas were mainly used to quell riots and protests that were rampant during the '50s and '60s. Now, the safety of the prime minister was their responsibility as well.
The Gurkhas still guard 38 Oxley Road today. Forty-five years after our nation's independence, these soldiers from Nepal continue to protect Singapore's most important places and installations. Precious little is known about the Gurkhas except their reputation of unwavering loyalty and bravery. Yet the 60th anniversary of the Gurkha Contingent (GC) slipped by quietly last year.
Presently, the British conduct recruitment of Gurkhas yearly. Some 15,000 youths from all over Nepal vie for about 400 slots, around 100 of which are for the Singapore Police Force. The strength of the GC has been growing consistently over the years, from 760 in 1990 to over 2000 today.
Naturally, the Gurkhas are proud of their unique service to Singapore. "Without the GC, there is no peace and security in Singapore," retired Station Inspector Buddhi Gurung says. Underlying that pride is also a mountain of goodwill and genuine affection for a country they called home for almost thirty years.
But recently, rumblings of unhappiness have begun to surface among those who have retired and returned to Nepal, as Singapore law requires them to do. The biggest issue surrounding the retired Gurkhas is that of the pension paid out upon retirement. "Since the time I retired 10 years ago, prices of basic items like rice and gas have tripled in Nepal," says Netra Gurung, vice-chairman of the Singapore Gurkhas Pensioners' Association (SGPA). The association has scored a couple of small victories, with occasional pension reviews, but Gurung adds that the Gurkhas hope for an inflation allowance instead of arbitrary reviews.
The families of the Gurkhas remain another contentious issue. Widows of deceased servicemen do not get any part of their husbands' pensions and though the widows of Singaporeans on pension are subject to the same policy, the SGPA contends that the situation is not the same. The wives of Gurkhas are not allowed to seek employment during their time in Singapore and so have no skills other than being a housewife.
And while their children attend local schools in Singapore when their fathers are still in service, they are only allowed to finish their education within the institute they are enrolled in upon their fathers' retirement. They face great difficulty obtaining student visas once their fathers have retired. This is all the more perplexing as foreign students, even those from Nepal, usually have no problems obtaining student visas as long as they qualify for schools here. The Gurkha children seem paradoxically handicapped by their fathers' service to Singapore. Haridhoj Gurung, who was recently appointed chairman of the SGPA, says: "There is only one way to describe this situation Ė discrimination."
Official statistics show that slightly more than one out of three people living in Singapore are not citizens, but permanent residents and expatriates. Ministers go out of their way to explain the need for tolerance towards newcomers, stressing that we need them to boost the population because of falling birth rates, and to provide the skills the country needs.
Yet after spending more than half their lives protecting the island state's most important people and places, the Gurkhas and their families find themselves unwelcome the moment they hang up their blue uniforms.
Most Gurkhas do not seek citizenship or even permanent residence for themselves. After all, they arrive on our shores as foreign young men. What the Gurkhas do want are the same working opportunities extended to other foreigners and for their children not to be discriminated because of their fathers' service.
Such requests, made to the Singapore government through letters from the SGPA, continue to be ignored. The authorities are under no pressure to act anytime soon and Singaporeans are unaware of this situation. This is unlike the United Kingdom, where a very public lobbying effort led by actress Joanna Lumley pressured the British government into according full residential rights in 2009 to Gurkhas who serve more than four years. Kharga Gurung, an executive member of the SGPA, says: "The UK Gurkhas had support from the UK people and even the MPs. Maybe if the people of Singapore support us, we will have success too."
One Gurkha, who spent the '60s here fighting communists when the Malayan Communist Party was at the peak of its power, says: "I love Singapore. If anything bad happens, I am ready to fight. I am ready to go back and die for Singapore." What does it say when we repay such devotion by saying no to their requests to remain among us?
Follow the river,†Paavan Mathema