‘Bullock cart boy’ Nijhar chronicles his success story

K-S-NijharKUALA LUMPUR: K S Nijhar is well known for being the first Malaysian Punjabi to break “invisible” micro-minority barriers to join the MIC’s top brass.

Not many people, however, know of his other achievements and his truly humble beginnings – in fact, so humble that he was actually born at the back of a rickety bullock cart in a little known village in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia.

On July 2, Nijhar, who served as MIC vice-president from 2000 to 2008, turned 80 and in conjunction with his birthday, he launched “The Bullock Cart Boy”, a book narrating his life story and written by his daughter Premeeta Nijhar.

Published by MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd, the book chronicles, in Nijhar’s own words, his extraordinary life during which he experienced “the entire spectrum of war and peace, feats and failures, health and sickness, joys and sorrows, as well as tragedy and victory.”

Nijhar, whose full name is Karnail Singh, was a Senator for six years and served as International Trade and Industry Ministry parliamentary secretary from June 1989 to June 1991. He also contested and won the Subang parliamentary seat in the 1999 and 2004 general elections, but was not fielded in the 2008 polls.

At the book launch at a hotel here recently, Nijhar shared his thoughts with 100 or so guests, including his mentor, former MIC President S Samy Vellu, current President Dr S Subramaniam, Deputy President S K Devamany and Federal Territories Liaison Committee Chairman M Saravanan.

“My story is one of difficult beginnings, as someone who was born at the back of a bullock cart to a poor migrant family that lost everything to war.

“I felt compelled to tell my story because there is always something to be gained from the hard-earned experiences of others.

“When I was struggling I had nothing but sheer grit and determination to be a successful and exemplary person, not only for my family but also the rakyat,” said Nijhar, who was born in 1936 in the sleepy hollow of Kroh, now known as Pengkalan Hulu, just south of the Thai border.

Only started schooling at nine

Relating the unusual circumstances of his birth, Nijhar said since there were no clinics then in Kroh, his father had to summon a bullock cart rider to send his mother to an army clinic in the next town, Kelian Intan.

“The journey would usually take about three hours, but I made my entry into the world way before reaching the clinic,” he said, grinning.

He was popularly known as the “bullock cart boy” among village folk, but little did they know that the child was destined for academic excellence and a hugely successful career.

Nijhar’s father, Amar Singh, then owned a sundry shop in Kroh, but life became hard for Nijhar and his four brothers during the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945) as Kroh was one of the hotspots for guerrilla activities.

The family stayed in the upper level of a shophouse that had no rooms or electricity or water supply; their meals were frugal and each of them only owned two sets of worn clothes and had no shoes to wear.

Nijhar had no formal schooling during the war years, instead he and his brothers were ordered by the Japanese to clean the toilets and compounds, and tend to the garden and wash dishes at the Kroh army camp.

Being a firm advocate of education, his father enrolled him and his brothers at St Patrick’s School in Kulim, Kedah. Nijhar was nine then, and could neither read nor write and did not know a word of English. He quickly went on to learn the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).

“I seized intuitively upon my education as a way out of hardship. I discovered that I loved to learn, and that I was a good student.

“I liked the feeling of being top of my class, especially when my teacher told my classmates to stand up and clap for me. My success motivated me to work harder,” he narrated in his book.

Top student

Nijhar and his brothers stayed in a rented hut in Kulim, but since the school was a good half-an-hour walk away, he decided to stay at a schoolmate’s house that was located closer to the school. His schoolmate’s father was an engineer and his mother took “pity on me and fed me well”. In return, Nijhar helped her with the household chores and at night, slept on a straw mat on the veranda.

In 1947, he joined St Xavier’s Institution in Penang and stayed in a small cubicle on the upper floor of a shophouse. He became increasingly serious about his studies, but found it difficult to study at night as the landlord insisted that all lights be switched off by 9pm.

“I rose at 4am daily, secured my books firmly in the waistband of my trousers, climbed out a window of the first floor, tiptoed on the narrow ledge, and slid down a lamp post to the street. I made my way to the Esplanade. There, the lighting was at least sufficient for me to make out the words in my textbooks, if I strained my eyes enough.”

From 1947 to 1953, Nijhar was top student in his class and was an avid footballer, athlete and debater. He passed his School Certificate Examination with flying colours.

In August 1955, at the age of 19, he was among the batch of pioneers chosen to study at a newly established teachers training institute, Brinsford Lodge College, in England. In the final examinations, two years later, his name topped the list, along with two other students. And it was in Brinsford Lodge that he met the “enchanting Molina Sinha”, who became his wife in 1959.

On his return from England, Nijhar taught at the Bukit Mertajam High School in Penang. Never neglecting his quest to further his studies, he sat for the Higher School Certificate exam, scored good results and went on to pursue a degree in economics at the University of Malaya (UM). Later, he pursued his Master’s and PhD degrees, and in January 1971, he “finally closed the chapter on my decade-long quest for education” and joined UM as a lecturer in economics.

Corporate scene

In 1973, he decided to trade his scholarly appearance for an executive suit, and stepped into the fast-paced world of banking. In 1975, he joined the Malaysian corporate scene after he was appointed group general manager of TAB Holdings. His package included a Mercedes Benz car, driver, first-class air travel, five-star hotel accommodations and a generous entertainment allowance.

Recapping that moment in his book, Nijhar said, “I could hardly believe that I had arrived at that station in life. The ‘Bullock Cart Boy’ who never owned a pair of shoes and was illiterate till the age of nine, was now clad in fine woollen suits, fancy wristwatch and handcrafted leather shoes from Europe, and hobnobbing with royalty.”

In 1978, he ventured into business, where he had his share of ups and downs.

In 1979, he acquired a 51% stake in security company Cisco (M) Sdn Bhd, which marked his first step towards a sustainable business venture.

Nijhar’s political career, meanwhile, took off after he was accepted as MIC member in March 1974, a good three years after he had submitted his membership application.

“It was Samy Vellu (who was then Selangor MIC secretary) who got my membership approved,” he said.

Nijhar recalled that he had sought Samy Vellu’s frank opinion on his chances of tasting success in MIC and his mentor told him bluntly: “As a non-Tamil and non-Tamil speaker, your chances are weak. If you don’t have proficiency in the language, how will you safeguard the community’s welfare?”

Political career

Samy Vellu urged Nijhar to learn the Tamil language and engage with the party’s grassroots in order to succeed in politics.

“I worked hard at cultivating grassroots support. I also took up Tamil language classes. As my pronunciation was poor, I stuck mostly to Malay and English,” said Nijhar.

And succeed he did, particularly after Samy Vellu was elevated to the top party post in 1979. Nijhar was appointed as chairman of two newly created bureaus – the Economic Bureau and Education Bureau – in 1980. To kick-start the party’s economic agenda, he organised the National Economic Congress (NEC) to promote Indian participation in equity and business, followed by a series of roadshows nationwide to engage with delegates on the party’s plans.

Among the new ideas spawned by the NEC was the Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED), which was set up in 1984 as the MIC’s educational arm to provide financial assistance to needy students. Through MIED, TAFE College – now located in Seremban – was opened.

In later years, Nijhar also played an integral role in the inception of the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology in Kedah.

“My appointments (as chairman of the two bureaus) pioneered a new era for the participation of northern Indians in the MIC,” he said.

Reflecting on the remarkable journey of his life, the father of two said while he had no control over his fate, he believed that he had some control over his faith.

“I believe I could choose to keep my faith strong through each of life’s challenges. And I believe I could choose how to respond to those challenges, and to continue to dream and to dare.

“And because one cannot fail until and unless one gives up, I kept fighting. And I have fought many a good fight.”

Nijhar hoped that Malaysia’s present and future generations would draw upon the great strengths that lay within them and keep growing this nation.

“I am certain of one thing… as a nation, if we share a common dream and we dare together, the possibilities are infinite,” he added.