Known for their loyalty, the Gurkhas have been an important part of Singapore’s history and security. Whenever trouble erupted along racial fault lines, the Gurkhas were on hand to ensure order and impartiality. But how much do we actually know about them? And what do they remember about Singapore? Curious, photographer Zakaria Zainal set out to put faces and voices to this largely silent force. Zakaria’s work has been collected into a book, Our Gurkhas, published by Epigram Books. He has also produced an e-version of the book, Singapore Gurkhas, for the Singapore Memory Project, which can be downloaded here. We chat with him to learn more about the inspiration and motivations behind his project.

Yeong Chong (YC):  You’ve described your work as “sharing stories through photography”, and you’ve chosen a deeply poignant subject matter at that: the Gurkhas in Singapore. As an invisible, para-millitary force that saw Singapore emerge from the dark ages of the communal riots, what were some of the deepest memories etched in some of these retired constables’ minds that left an impression on you?

Zakaria Zainal (ZZ): The narrative and prominence of the Singapore Gurkhas will naturally be tied to the communal riots of the 60s. However, one of the many stories that left a deep impression on me was not the riots of 1964 but the riots of 1969—also known as the May 13th incident. Singapore, even after independence, could not escape the spillover effect of the 1969 racial riots in Malaysia. It was the worst case of communal violence in Malaysia’s history that resulted in a state of emergency and suspension of Parliament. It made me aware that racially-charged events in the region have a significant bearing on Singapore then, and perhaps even now.

Mr Prem Bahadur Limbu recounted the violence that broke out in areas along Jalan Ubi and Jalan Kayu, with parangs and spears used in the clashes. I can still remember the expression on his face — stoic and serious — when describing these clashes. It made me realise that the peace we enjoy with our friends, from diverse backgrounds, was quite a different story just over four decades ago.

Mr Prem Bahadur-Limbu

YC: The project has come a long way since its debut in the Straits Times last year. Not only were you commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project to expand the collected materials into an e-book, you’ve also recently put out a full length photobook under Epigram Books. In each of these publications, how did you choose to curate the stories? What were some of the dominant themes that emerged as you were doing so?

ZZ: First and foremost, I am grateful for the support shown from various publications, including the Singapore Memory Project as well as Epigram Books. This underscores the importance of this visibly invisible community and their contributions even before the independence of Singapore.

In essence, all the stories reflect the memory and nostalgia of the Gurkhas during their time here— especially Singapore’s history through their eyes. Personally, I feel, in this body of work, there is always tension between the photographs and their stories. Sometimes, the photographs are visually powerful but lack a good story and at times, it can be the other way around.

Retired sergeant Tulsi Prasad Gurung

In choosing these portraits for various publications, there are several factors I consider and it is a deliberate process, from choice of portraits and even sequencing. Questions I ask include the target audience, the platform of presentation (print or digital) and even the desired themes I wish to express, such as: memory and loss; an ever-changing Singapore; historical milestones; the community’s way of life as well as quirky observations.

You will get a range of this in both the e-book as well as the full length photobook.

 YC: How did you go about your fieldwork? Was it difficult getting retired Gurkhas to speak to you, given their reputation as a steadfast and loyal force?

ZZ: I have been researching and interacting with this community intermittently since 2009 when I was based in Nepal for 6 months on a newspaper internship. Also, in my final year of university, I co-authored The Invisible Force, an illustrated journalism feature on the Singapore Gurkhas with writer Chong Zi Liang, which we hope will be made into another book. This gave me a good platform to understand these Gurkhas and their concerns, as well as build trust. Some remain guarded but most are happy to talk about their best days serving Singapore and the many memories they created during their time here.

During my fieldwork, it was quite a tedious process, from arranging individual meetings, to explaining what I was doing and why, and also taking time to get to know their stories—which took anywhere from an hour to half a day just talking and reminiscing about life in Singapore. Photographing them was a relatively easier task, in fact.

One of my favourite moments doing this project was looking through their old photo albums and the photographs they had taken during their time here. If their stories are intangible records of their experiences in Singapore, then these old photographs are tangible documents that they treasure and hold on to. They also proved highly useful in triggering key memories that they had of their time here and helped me with the interviewing process. You can get an exclusive preview of them in the e-book commissioned by the Singapore Memory Project .

YC: For some photographers, the magnitude of a single project can sometimes evolve to such a scale that would take over as a lifelong work-in-progress. Do you see this project of the Gurkhas as one having such a scale and depth?

ZZ: I think it is possible for this project to have such scale and depth. When I first started out with this project, I had a bold dream of creating a massive visual archive and photographing all living Gurkhas who have served in Singapore.

However in the course of the project, you will need to evaluate and ask yourself if doing this is in the best interest of your subjects involved as well as yourself—and the resources that you can muster. And with any project, knowing when and how to close the chapter, I believe is just as important.

But for now, what I have in mind is a travelling exhibition in Nepal to showcase these portraits to the people that matter—the Gurkhas themselves, as well as their family and friends in the community. This will be done in November together with the generous support of the Singapore International Foundation. I hope this is one way I can give back to a community that has opened their homes and hearts to me and allowed me to document them as such.

Mr Prem Bahadur Limbu recounted the violence that broke out in areas along Jalan Ubi and Jalan Kayu, with parangs and spears used in the clashes. I can still remember the expression on his face — stoic and serious — when describing these clashes. It made me realise that the peace we enjoy with our friends, from diverse backgrounds, was quite a different story just over four decades ago.

Zakaria Zainal

YC: Any words of wisdom for those who are just starting out and trying to make a living out of photography?

ZZ: I remember reading this advice on the web from Magnum photographer, Alex Webb. He said that you should only take up photography because you love doing it and that the main reward is the process of doing so. Other rewards — recognition, financial remuneration — come to so few and are so fleeting. The process of making an image, a portrait or otherwise, never fails to surprise me.

Personally, photography has allowed me to reach out to people and communities, in a visceral way. And the sum of all these experiences have shaped the person I am today.


Our Gurkhas, published by Epigram, can be purchased at any good book seller. For more information on the book, visit its FaceBook page at: You can also visit Zakaria’s webpage at:

The book launch of Our Gurkhas will be held on August 31, 2012. For more information on the event, go to:

Download your copy of Zakaria Zainal’s Singapore Gurkhas from the Singapore Memory Project portal here. Do you have any memories you’d like to share? Share them with us at our portal!


dazed and confused

Stephanie Pee
Associate, irememberSG
Singapore Memory Project


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