The history of Sikhs in Malaysian advertising

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Lessons in minority branding through selfless service.  

Singh means Lion. 

But when I tell my Singaporean friends that Sikhs have a name claim on their country, they are not amused. 

But our namesake is everywhere, on brands like Singha Beer to the Singh brothers who are die-hard fans of Manchester United and part of the MU brand at Old Trafford.

As my friend Steve Teoh loves to remind me, Sikh and you shall find.

Their conspicuous turban and bangle (crudely teased as a bottle opener) on their wrists do more than announce that a Lion is in our midst. 

From fearlessly helping in open funeral pyres in COVID-stricken New Delhi to providing over 30,000 home-cooked meals to those in self-isolation in New York, Sikhs look like an advertisement about humanity on the move. 

Closer to home, a group of Sikh bikers from the Santana Riderz Malaysia Club embarked on a self-funded biking expedition from Malaysia to Pakistan passing through five counties to raise awareness and funds for paediatric cancer patients of the National Cancer Society of Malaysia. 

Sikhs remain neutral at all times in all societies and countries, and more often than not, help neutralise conflicts.

The total population of Sikhs in the world is much smaller than the population of Malaysia.

As a relatively young religion founded 500 years ago, and now the fifth largest in the world, there only two words Sikhs live by: TO SERVE. 

Relax, this is not a piece about religion but I bet a lot of you did not know what defines a Sikh. 

So there you go, you learnt something new today. 

… Relax, this is not a piece about religion but I bet a lot of you did not know what defines a Sikh. So there you go, you learnt something new today…

Now back to the story of Sikhs in the Malaysian advertising scene. 

I am writing this article from memory so I can only talk about Sikhs I know or have met, which believe me is ample enough… 

Biggest constellation of turbans

A good place to start is in the early 1980s with Daljindra Singh Dogra who I wrote about last week. He roared through quite a few agencies as a larger than life Creative Director and he remains the Gold standard for many of us. Del’s son Jonn Dogra is now Creative Director at Entropia. 

The 80s also saw the unleashing of the terrifying trio in probably the biggest constellation of turbans in the industry: Malkeet, the Turbanned Stranger and Gurdeep. 

Malkeet (this scribe’s early mentor) started in Ogilvy and blazed through Idris Associates, Bates, Foot Cone & Belding before starting his own shop called Bloomingdale Advertising which launched brands like Proton, etc. Malkeet remains a fire-starter of a writer till this day, firing on all cylinders from his one-desk office in Rawang. Malkeet’s son Gurmeet is a handsome Account Director at Entropia.

… The Turbanned Stranger got his break in advertising pretending to be Malkeet (and it worked) but he never recovered from a hangover he had in 1986 when he was a creative in McCann-Erickson London…

The Turbanned Stranger got his break in advertising pretending to be Malkeet (and it worked) but he never recovered from a hangover he had in 1986 when he was a creative in McCann-Erickson London. He only remembers he was born in Bukit Besi, Dungun, Terengganu and that his son Sandesh Singh still works with him as a Senior Project Manager.

And Gurdeep (the tallest and youngest in the turbanned trio) started in Ogilvy as an AV Assistant then moved on to amazing things, pioneered Ogilvy’s first sister agency Meridian Advertising before establishing his own successful outfit called Hunter (note the predatory streak in the name). Gurdeep is a super suit (who was suitably mentored by the amazing Bob Seymour). 

Through the 90s, there was one intense copywriter called Ram Singh Sandhu, whose first name rhymed with the Turbanned Stranger’s. He always looked up at the sky when walking, and because he wore dark glasses we nicknamed him Blind Man Walking. Ram had an equally colourful partner called Soon who sounded like a black soul singer if you spoke to him with your eyes closed. They went on to win many awards, including a big one for Nescafé Classic. Between Ram and Soon (they were inseparable) nobody knew who did the actual work. They were just happy being rainmakers! 

There was also a great writer called Manjit Kaur aka Rani who found early fame at Peter Beaumont & Friends and subsequently went on to work in Jakarta. According to Linkedin, Nora Manjit is now ECD on Coca-Cola at McCann Worldgroup Shanghai.

At Leo Burnett Malaysia there was a really good award-winning senior writer called Baldish Kaur, who still writes a punch. 

Today you will find an upcoming talented copywriter called Pia Dhaliwal working there. 

But how can I forget Big Su or Surinder Singh Parmar, a deep and strategic thinker on marketing communications, who had an intuitive gift for distilling marketplace intel. Su was a roving advisor highly sought out for new business presentations. Easily recognisable, he is a big big burly Sikh you don’t want to face in a pitch. 

We also had one Gurmeet Singh who was a copywriter at a local ad agency called Bob Kappa Advertising in Kelana Jaya. I remember him well and also worked with him for a while. He looked like a more handsome version of Kenny Rogers and was bored of doing property ads all day.

… Finally, when I was doing my research for this piece, a few people asked me why am I writing about Sikhs. I replied ‘Why not?’…

On the advertising film production side, many prominent Sikhs have left award-winning trails….

Sheen Surinder Singh who towered from the ground up in the business and  now runs Passion Pictures and Iron Hill Media. 

Film-maker Rajay Singh of Directors Think Tank whose exploits have been well documented here

Pat Singh and Pete Singh, Executive Producers Extraordinaire at Think Tank. 

Dave Singh, who is a truly awesome award-winning senior TVC editor. 

Baldev Singh who formed BW Films, then Pumpkin Pics and now does production work mainly for foreign companies. 

On the client side, Dato’ Ranbir Singh Nanra served as Chief Marketing Officer at Telekom Berhad for seven years and now remains a senior business advisor. 

On the academic front, I wish to recognise the phenomenal work of Kiranjit Kaur (Kiran Ludher), Professor in the Faculty of Communication & Media Studies at University Teknologi Mara.

Finally, when I was doing my research for this piece, a few people asked me why am I writing about Sikhs. 

I replied ‘Why not?’. 


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