Among the unknown stories about the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, is his intimate connection with Punjabis, and particularly with the family of Shiromani Akali Dal stalwart and Khadoor Sahib MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura.
Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died on March 23 at the age of 91. He is recognised as a global leader who guided his country to emerge from the status of a third-world country to a first-world nation within a single generation.
The Brahmpura family, initially based in Singapore, was actively engaged in money-lending, a profession that Punjabi migrants still prefer in many parts of Southeast Asia. Brahmpura was himself born in Singapore.
Singapore, which was founded by the East India Company, always had a large share of Punjabis, either engaged in the armed forces or in the money-lending business. Today, Punjabis continue to occupy important positions in Singapore; till recently, their chief of army was a Punjabi, Ravinder Singh.
When Brahmpura was the cooperation minister in the Punjab government, this reporter asked him about his place of birth, since he was the only Akali legislator at that time whose Vidhan Sabha record mentioned that he was born abroad. Brahmpura’s face glowed when asked about his birthplace. Instead of responding to this query, the minister asked: “Do you know Lee Kuan Yew?”
“He was our family lawyer,” Brahmpura reminisced as he narrated this anecdote. At that time, many locals originating from Mainland China were engaged in gambling, and they used to come to the Brahmpura family seeking loans. According to the prevalent practice, those loaning money used to deposit their property papers against this loan. “Often, when they lost money and were unable to return it, we used to move court to mortgage their property,” Brahmpura said. For this, we used to solicit Yew’s services, he added.
“Yew was never happy at this task. He used to tell us that though it is his professional duty to help us, he felt that the practice was not morally correct,” Brahmpura recalled. Yew always stated that if he ever acquired a position of authority in the government, he would ensure that this law that forced the debtor to lose his property was repealed.
And that is what happened. When Yew became a minister, this law was overturned.
The Brahmpura family, which had ties with Punjab’s Majha region, returned to their homeland, but their connection with the father of modern Singapore always remained.
Going Down memory lane
Talking to Hindustan Times from Singapore, where he has gone to attend a family function, Khadoor MP Ranjit Singh Brahmpura said his parents shifted to Singapore along with almost 50 relatives in the 1920s. “Everyone landed in a ship. My father Mohan Singh, along with his brothers Bachan Singh and Bhola Singh, started lending money. The business soon flourished. I was born there in 1937. Whenever I am in Singapore, I visit the area where we lived. Singapore was not as big then as it is now,” he recalled.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Thailand)