PICS: CHONG ZI LIANG
It's 4.30 in the morning and 18-year-old Sai Roka and 60 other boys dig up sand and rocks in pitch darkness with their bare hands and fill their dokos. After some stretching exercises, they strip off their sweatshirts and windbreakers in the 15 degrees chill and stand at the starting line, each carrying 25kg on his back.
At the sound of "go", they break into a full sprint and roar "Ayo Gurkhali". Toughened by twice-weekly trainings, most run the five km course with minutes to spare. They are from the Lotus Training Institute, a centre that prepares young men for stringent selections to join the ranks of the elite force, which has served Britain for almost 200 years and Singapore since 1949. There were 7,819 potential recruits last year and only 236 were picked: 176 for the British Army and 60 for the Singapore Police Force.
At Lotus, boys chosen for the final round of selections run twice a day at dawn and dusk to build speed and stamina. Afternoons are spent in Mathematics and English classes. They train with the doko every Monday and Friday. Saturday is their only day off.
Sai and four other boys from Lotus are 'banjas' – the sons of Singapore Gurkhas who grew up in Singapore. Kushal Thapa, 19, who was born in Singapore and returned to Nepal in 2007 when his father retired, says living in the Gurkha Contingent's Mount Vernon Camp made him yearn for the military life as well.
"Looking at the Gurkhas, I always thought they were special and different from ordinary people. When I was 13, I told my dad, 'One day I will be just like you, father.' He was very impressed," he recalls.
Arjun Rana, 17, also idolises his Gurkha father. His Facebook profile picture is a montage of photos of him and his father lifting weights and flexing their muscles under the caption, 'Like father, like son'.
After completing his O levels in 2011, Arjun decided against continuing his studies in Singapore even though his father had some years to go before retirement. "I can always go for further studies later, but the chance to join the army will run out in a few years," he says.
Upon their return many banjas find themselves strangers in their own land andhave a hard time adjusting to life in Nepal. They cannot read the Devnagari script and speak only broken Nepali so continuing their education is challenging. Enlisting in the Gurkhas is not only a way to keep their forefathers' legacy alive, but also an escape from unemployment in a country where 46 per cent of the population is without jobs.
The Singapore Gurkhas are just as keen for their sons to don the signature broad-rimmed hats and khukuris. In Singapore, "When are you going to start training for the army?" is a frequent conversation opener between the older men and the boys.
Sai's father, Harka Roka, 37, is staying at the Lotus hostel during his leave to support his son's bid to enlist. Anxious for his son to excel, he reminds Sai that something as minor as spitting – a common occurrence in Nepal – could kill his chances at the British camp. When an English speaker arrives at the training centre, he summons his son to speak to the visitor for 'maximum practice' ahead of his selection interview.
Former Singapore Gurkha Yem Gurung, 52, who retired in 2004 has been running Lotus for the past six years. He says the banjas raised in Singapore are not as tough as the boys who have grown up in Nepal's rugged terrain. But if they clear the fitness tests, the Singapore boys have a better chance of success because the British Army prefers better-educated soldiers.
"The banjas speak English very well so they have an advantage at the interviews. Physical fitness is more easily trained," he explains. More than 20 Lotus-trained banjas have successfully enlisted so far, including his son.
The day before central selection, Sai posts on Facebook: "It's our turn tomorrow and we are ready to go. Goodbye to Facebook." The other banjas leave messages of encouragement on each other's pages. About two weeks later, congratulatory notes start trickling in on Sai's Facebook. A phone call to his father confirms that Sai has been selected.
Arjun also makes the cut. About three weeks after entering the British camp, a photo of him looking sharp in uniform appears on his Facebook followed by a post from him: "I thank each and everyone of you who have supported me in one way or another to help me achieve my dream. Will get back to Facebook next year. Farewell."
While Sai and Arjun follow their fathers' footsteps, hundreds of banjas have been rejected and will have to struggle in Nepal to find work and a sense of belonging.
A longer version of this story was published in The Sunday Times, Singapore on 16 December 2012.
Lions in the Lion City
Singapore's Gurkha Contingent was formed in 1949. The unit saw action in the ensuing decades against militant unions and in racial riots, where their image as a neutral force became an asset. Today, they are entrusted with protecting Singapore's most important people and installations. Their signature broad-rimmed hats and khukuris are familiar sights outside top ministers' homes. Thousands of Nepali teenagers apply to be Gurkhas in the British Army and Singapore Police Force each year, but less than 200 will join the ranks of this elite fighting force. Singapore Gurkhas and their families return to Nepal after their retirement, but many of their children want to follow in their father's footsteps.
His Gurkha hat still fits Staff Seargent Netra Gurung's head 10 yerars after he retired .
The flags of their fathers
Nepali documentary on Gurkha recruitment is selected for IFDA in Amsterdam
Our Gurkhas, ZAKARIA ZAINAL
Singaporean photographer gives Gurkha veterans a place in the history of Singapore and Nepal
Invisible force, CHONG ZI LIANG and ZAKARIA ZAINAL in SINGAPORE and NEPAL
Singapore Gurkhas give the best years of their life to the Lion City, but could do with a better deal once they retire