Two police officers stand outside a house not far from the posh Orchard Road shopping district, keeping watch over this city-state’s most famous citizen. But they are not Singaporean.
The guards for the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, are Gurkhas, part of a contingent of the legendary fighting men from Nepal brought to work in Singapore’s police force.
Little is known about them, and no one in the force will speak about them or say how many there are. Police officials denied permission to interview or photograph any of the Nepalese Gurkhas.
Through storied service with the British army, Gurkhas are renowned for loyalty and grit, and the police officers here seem to be seen as ideal guards for the corridors of power. Besides guarding Lee’s house, Gurkha officers also are outside the presidential palace, the Istana.
The Straits Times reported in early June that 1,500 Gurkhas are working as police officers.
Recently the contingent played host to a young couple from Nepal who came to Singapore so surgeons could separate their twin daughters, who were joined at the head.
The Gurkhas are famous from their service in special regiments in the British army. Impressed by the fighting abilities of their Nepalese adversaries during an 1814 war, the British decided to recruit them.
Gurkhas fought alongside the British in both world wars, as well as in Cyprus, the former Malaya and the Falklands. They were also deployed in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.
The Gurkhas here are not part of the British brigade.
“The Gurkha contingent belongs to the republic here,” said Col. Bruce Niven, commander of Singapore’s Gurkhas. “They’re serving this country as policemen.”
Niven, a Scotsman, was a colonel in the 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles when he came to Singapore in 1981 to train the Gurkha police force. He’s been serving with Gurkhas since 1960.
Niven resigned his commission with the British army in 1983 to stay with the Gurkha police force. He left the post in 1996 to work as a leadership consultant, but rejoined the Gurkhas in May.
It’s not known how much Singapore pays its Gurkhas, but the issue of retirement pay for Gurkhas with the British army has long been contentious. Gurkha veterans want the same benefits as British soldiers and say Britain’s government did not go far enough when it announced a doubling of their benefits last year.
Niven has put together two books of photographs on Nepal that are being sold to raise money for retired Gurkha soldiers. The books are photographic journeys through the terraced Himalayan region that is home to the Gurkhas.