Upon a Nepalese Gurkha soldier’s arrival on Singapore shores, he is taken straight from Changi Airport to Mount Vernon Camp, and then promptly to Pulau Tekong to commence rigorous field training the average full-time National Serviceman will be glad he never has to experience.
Thrust into hotter and more humid conditions after growing up in the mountains, the elite military men spend months in infantry and especially jungle training — one of the areas of warfare they are specially known for.
Meanwhile, the sprawling campus in Aljunied is pretty much a self-contained world for the Gurkhas, their wives and children, who move together with him. Mount Vernon camp houses sporting facilities, a medical centre and minimarts stocked with basic groceries and supplies, says the author of a new book on the community, Chong Zi Liang.
“They really live their entire lives in the camp; even grocers are brought in to sell vegetables to them,” the 29-year-old said at the launch of The Invisible Force: Singapore Gurkhas, co-produced over a five-year period with his former university mate Zakaria Zainal, a freelance photographer. “They don’t have to go out (of the confines of the green barbed-wire fences) if they don’t want to.”
The area around the camp has also evolved to reflect the presence of the Nepalese, with Nepalese restaurants and essential ingredients in Nepalese cuisine sold in shops in the Joo Seng estate. Yet, working and living for decades in Singapore necessitates thorough knowledge of all the best food available, and exactly which hawker centres serve the best-tasting versions of them, and the Gurkhas are no different, he adds.
Chong, who now works as a sub-editor for national broadsheet The Straits Times, discusses in one chapter of his book the routines of Singapore’s Gurkhas — chiefly rotating between guard duty and rest, with three months of home leave every three years, and they are only allowed to bring their wives and children back to Singapore to live with them after their second home leave.
Wives who move to Singapore are not allowed to work. Children are allowed to receive their education here, but once their fathers retire, they are only allowed to stay to complete their stint in the educational institution they are studying in at that point, before having to head home as well.
Sharing these details at the book launch over the weekend at the Arts House, Chong and Zakaria shared that the realisation that precious little has been written about the Gurkhas in Singapore motivated them to publish the book. After meeting a community of retired Singapore Gurkhas when they were on internship together in Nepal in 2009, the two set about telling the stories of these elite soldiers.
The Singaporeans’ efforts culminated in their final-year project at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, which highlighted the issues of pensions not being adjusted to inflation, widows of retired Gurkhas being denied their husbands’ pensions and children having to uproot and return to Nepal after spending all their lives in Singapore.
Zakaria also returned to Nepal in 2011 to photograph the retired Gurkhas, putting their portraits together into a book he published on his own to raise awareness about the difficulties riddling the community. After that, the duo decided to work together to produce a third, more comprehensive hardcover, launched coincidentally on the year of the 65th anniversary of the Gurkha contingent’s presence in Singapore.
The new book contains an account of the insanely rigorous, and at some points heartwrenching, selections that young Nepalese boys go through to become selected to the elite contingent, as well as exciting tales from retired Gurkhas about the strikes and riots they dealt with in the 1950s and 60s. It even features a chapter on the children of retired Gurkhas, their passion and inspiration to step into their fathers’ shoes and serve time in the army.
“Very modestly, we just want more Singaporeans to know about the stories of the Gurkhas, since they’ve been here for so long but so little is known about them,” said Chong at the book’s launch at the Arts House over the weekend. “It’s really a story that’s worth telling and worth knowing.”
Online orders for “The Invisible Force” can be made here.