The jaga are traditional watchmen or guards who used to stand vigil outside banks, godowns and shops to prevent theft and damage to property.1 The position was initially filled by Sikhs in early Singapore and eventually came to be associated with the Sikh community.2 Jaga is Malay for a watchman or caretaker.3
Many of the early Sikhs from Punjab, India, came to Malaya in hope of finding work as soldiers or policemen in the British service. However, not all were successful. To pay off the large debt incurred to come to Malaya, they sought alternative employment as watchmen and security guards.4 Some jaga were also former policemen in the Sikh contingent of the local police which had disbanded after World War II.5 These Sikh jaga guarded homes, banks, godowns, retail shops and factories, usually after office hours and during the night.6
Due to their imposing appearances and martial reputations established from their experiences with the British military and policing, Sikhs were highly sought after by businesses and the wealthy for private security services.7 Over time, these Sikh watchmen became status symbols of the rich, as wealthy Chinese businessmen would hire them as personal bodyguards as well as to protect their homes and businesses.8 The jaga were known for their loyalty, dependability and friendliness which made them ideal guards and door-keepers at banks and hotels.9 So valued were their services that the Chinese were known to burn effigies of Sikh jaga as offerings to the dead. Statues of Sikh guards adorned the tombs of some rich Chinese merchants in the belief that they would continue their protective roles in the afterlife.10
The work of these Sikh watchmen usually began around 5 pm and ended at 8 am the next morning, with no leave on Sundays or public holidays.11 However there were also watchmen who worked during business operating hours and others who worked 24 hours a day.12 To help them stay vigilant during these long hours, most jaga owned a charpoy, a hammock-style bed made up of ropes tied to a wooden frame. The charpoy was usually brought to the pavement outside the building’s main door to be slept on, or to be used as a seat for friends.13 Most jaga also exercised to stay fit.14 They were often seen in a turban with their long beards, garbed in their ethnic dress the kurta and dhoti, which are long, flowing, cotton garments.15
A jaga’s pay was modest. In the 1930s, they were paid between $3 and $15 a month.16 By the 1980s, the jaga earned between $300 and $500 a month.17 To supplement their incomes, some jaga carried out other businesses such as moneylending on the side.18
Once a familiar sight in Singapore, the traditional jaga had become a dying trade by the 1980s.19 With the introduction of modern security and surveillance equipment as well as security services offered by security agencies, the role of the jaga has become increasingly diminished.20
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. “The Night ‘Jagas’,” Goodwood Journal, 1st Qtr (1981): 32‒33 (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ); S. M. Muthu, “The Vanishing Breed…,” Straits Times, 24 October 1980, 11; S. R. Gautnam, “Watchman of Yesteryear,” Straits Times, 29 December 1989, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Shaun Koh and Ganesh Vijayan, “That Big, Strong and Friendly Man,” Straits Times, 16 May 1982, 13; Chan Kwee Sung, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action,” Straits Times, 7 August 1999, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Night ‘Jagas’,” 32–33.
4. Arunajeet Kaur, Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and Straits Settlements (1874–1957) (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2009), 115‒19 (Call no. RSING 363.2095951 KAU); Malminderjit Singh, et al. eds., Singapore at 50: Sikhs and Their Contributions (Singapore: Young Sikh Association, 2015), 14. (Call no. RSING 294.6095957 SIN)
5. Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
6. Kaur, Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and Straits Settlements, 117–18; “Night ‘Jagas’” 32; Muthu, “Vanishing Breed…”; Gautnam, “Watchman of Yesteryear.”
7. Kaur, Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and Straits Settlements, 115–19; Singh, et al., Singapore at 50: Sikhs and Their Contributions, 14.
8. Kaur, Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and Straits Settlements, 117–18; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
9. Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear”; Koh and Vijayan, “That Big, Strong and Friendly Man”; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
10. Kaur, Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and Straits Settlements, 118; “Sikh Guards at Chinese Tombs ‘Show There Were Strong Links’,” Straits Times, 12 January 1993, 23; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
11. “Night ‘Jagas’” 32–33.
12. Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear”; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
13. “Night ‘Jagas’” 32; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action”; Muthu, “Vanishing Breed….”
14. “Night ‘Jagas’” 32–33; Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear.”
15. “Night ‘Jagas’” 32–33; Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear”; Koh and Vijayan, “That Big, Strong and Friendly Man”; Chan, “Good Old Jagas Missed in Action.”
16. Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear.”
17. Muthu, “Vanishing Breed….”
18. Muthu, “Vanishing Breed….”
19. Gautnam, Watchman of Yesteryear.”
20. “Night ‘Jagas’” 32–33; Muthu, “Vanishing Breed…”; ”; Koh and Vijayan, “That Big, Strong and Friendly Man.”
"He Loves the Job and Its Dangers," Sunday Times, 16 May 1982, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
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