Mothership Q&A: A glimpse of Gurkhas book authors Chong Zi Liang and Zakaria Zainal

Gurkhas, part of the Pioneer Generation that contributed to S'pore's peace and security.

Tan Xing Qi| September 10, 08:16 PM

The Gurkhas have been serving Singapore for more than 65 years but yet so little has been reported on these tough, supremely fit soldiers from Nepal.

Two Singaporeans are trying to change all that.

Chong Zi Liang, sub-editor with The Straits Times, and photographer Zakaria Zainal co-authored The Invisible Force - a series of untold stories on one of the most enigmatic groups in Singapore.

They tell the insane fitness tests all Gurkhas go through and why former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew commands so much respect among the Gurkhas.


1. Describe your book in a tweet.

Zi Liang: Oh dear, I tweet for The Straits Times as part of my job, so I'd better not screw this up. How about:

Look past the khaki hat & kukri blade, get the most complete story of the #SingaporeGurkhas yet in #TheInvisibleForce


2. What inspired you to write the book?

Zakaria Zainal: Since 1949, articles written about the Gurkhas from the mainstream press amount to less than 10 and it does not go beyond your typical boilerplate statements about the Gurkhas. Beyond their role of the Gurkhas, who are they and what do they do?

ZL: The stories that the Gurkhas and their families shared are just too compelling not to be told.

There's the 70-plus-year-old who spent the 1950s and 1960s battling strikes and riots, and has no qualms about returning to Singapore at his age to fight and die for our country should war break out here. There are the Gurkha children, born and raised here, who speak Singlish as well as you and me, but have to leave Singapore when their fathers retire.


3. You mentioned that the competition to be a Gurkha is keen. How does one succeed in becoming a Gurkha?

ZL: Start training in January for a series of physical, medical and academic tests that are spread out in the latter part of the year. Get super fit and be able to crank out pull-ups, sit-ups without breaking a sweat. Run like the wind.

Pass the regional selections and begin training for the doko test by running 5km uphill with 25kg of rocks strapped to your back and forehead in a traditional basket. Pray your body doesn't betray you by hiding an anomaly all these years that the medical test will detect. Have the luck to beat thousands of other candidates and be among the 3 per cent who succeed every year.

Congratulations, you're now a Gurkha!


4. How can we better help the Gurkhas who contributed to our nation-building?

ZZ: There needs to be a greater outreach effort to the Gurkhas who returned home in the mid 70s onwards who faced some of Singapore’s most turbulent growing up pains. They all spent more than 15 years on this island, but we treat them as though they are just on a 1-3 year contract to work on this island. Can’t they be considered as our Pioneer Generation too?


5. You guys travelled to Nepal six times. What is your impression of the country?

ZL: Nepal seems like Singapore about 60 years ago. There are the frequent strikes and protests that different groups stage on an almost daily basis. Politicians make lots of speeches but nothing gets done. There are multiple left-wing parties each gunning to be the true "people's representative".

These are things I read in history textbooks about Singapore but which I saw in Nepal.

Of course, outside of Kathmandu is a different Nepal. Breathtaking mountain ranges are what the country is known for but the plains, or Terai region, are worth a visit too.


6. What was the most interesting story?

ZZ: There was one British Gurkha officer we met in Pokhara, Nepal who told us that Singapore then was a turbulent time with strikes and riots but one man changed it all.

“You know his name."

We both knew who he was referring to, but thought it was a rhetorical statement and that he would say the name himself.

“Come on, say his name. You know it."

Both of us kept quiet, still stunned that he wants us to say his name. He must have thought that we were ingrates to a modern Singapore and that we don’t know who this man was.

“Lee Kuan Yew”.

And he went on telling us about his admiration about Lee Kuan Yew (as with all the other Gurkhas) and if they had a Lee Kuan Yew in Nepal, things may be so much better.


7. How do the Gurkhas find their Singaporean counterparts in the police force?

ZZ: I think they enjoy the interaction with their Singaporean counterparts. Maybe a little book smart when it comes to certain rigours of the job, but still more than capable of getting the job done.


8. Why do you think your book is a necessary read for Singaporeans?

ZL: As we approach 50 years of independence, we're in a nostalgic mood and busy looking at the different groups and individuals who have helped build Singapore's success. Ultimately, I hope The Invisible Force will help to recognise the contributions of the Gurkhas to peace and security here.

ZZ: Reading this will give you a clearer picture of their lives, what they do and the kind of emotional attachment they have for Singapore. And I hope by reading this, all of us can ask better and more intelligent questions about the Gurkhas and what we as Singaporeans can do to help them and their children during their time here and when they retire.

Otherwise, we may still be asking if their Kukris need to taste blood before it is unsheathed, 65 years later. is giving away two copies of The Invisible Forceautographed by Zi Liang and Zakaria. Share with us your favourite portion of the interview in the comment box below. We will select the two best comments and notify the winners in the comments box.


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