| Singapore | 23 Sept 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Colonel (Retired) Gurcharan Singh Sekhon was literally born in the cowsheds in 1937. His father was the owner of cows and buffaloes, and had a huge farm near Aljunied Road. Growing up in pre-Second World War years, life for this little young boy was rather enjoyable and relaxed.
“Before the Japanese came, we were living very comfortably. I was running around and not doing much. However, when the Japanese came, my entire life changed.” The tranquility that existed immediately disappeared and the whole country went into turmoil.
Gurcharan’s life took a further turn for the worse during the Japanese occupation when he ended up going to a Japanese school. The teachers were strict, uncaring and unfriendly, and they mercilessly caned the students. For Gurcharan, life at home was not any different. The Japanese raided homes as they wished and took whatever they wanted and the locals were helpless to do anything about it. However, unlike the Indians and Sikhs, life was even more traumatic for the Chinese. The Japanese were extremely brutal towards them.
The turning point in Gurcharan’s life came when the Japanese left Singapore in 1945. A year later, he joined Saint Andrew’s School. He felt extremely privileged to receive an education from the school. The school’s principal and teachers left such a signiﬁcant impression on him. He fondly talked about his former principal and mentor, Mr Canon R K Adams. “He became an excellent friend for every family in the school.” He gave Gurcharan multiple leadership positions in the school, something of a rarity for non-Christians in the school at that time.
While the principal and teachers played a key role in Gurcharan’s life in school, his father made a signiﬁcant impact on his life at home. The father was a disciplinarian and this, Gurcharan acknowledged, made him the man he is today. His childhood experiences during the pre-occupation period, during the war in Singapore and post-Japanese occupation era laid the foundations for who he was going to become when he grew older.
In 1959, Gurcharan succeeded in securing a place in the university in Kuala Lumpur. Following his graduation with an engineering degree, he found a job and remained in the Malayan capital. Working with Gammons Hawaiian Dredging Pomeroy, life for Gurcharan was, once again, comfortable. He had a stable job and had little complaints about life. However, life was to change again for him.
Gurcharan’s father and then Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Gurdial Singh rang and asked him to enter the uniformed services. He was reluctant at ﬁrst but he did not want to disappoint his father. Like many Sikh families, Gurcharan’s family viewed the job as one that provided stability, recognition and respect. In March 1966, Gurcharan returned to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur and went for a series of recruitment tests. Three months later, he joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and it signalled the start of his contributions to the nation and the Sikh community.
At 29 years of age, Gurcharan was one of the most senior recruits when he joined the SAF while the majority of the recruits were only 18 or 19 years old. His seniority and educational background made him the most obvious choice for group leader. He was a senior ofﬁcer cadet. He eventually became a platoon commander. One of his key roles was getting meals for his platoon since he had access to his brother’s car from time to time. One meal contribution, he recalled, as a leader, was to buy 20 packets of char kway teow (fried ﬂat rice noodles) for his men. Such gestures helped him to gain the conﬁdence of the men around him. It also marked the beginning of his contributions to the soldier fraternity and he saw them as an integral part of him.
Gurcharan’s progress in the armed forces was nothing short of remarkable. When the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute was set up in 1967 as the ﬁrst military institute to train ofﬁcers and and non-commissioned ofﬁcers, an Engineer Training Wing was incorporated into the plan. Together with another ofﬁcer, Gurcharan, then a Second Lieutenant, was selected to attend a basic engineer ofﬁcer’s course in Fort Belvoir in Virginia, United States. Upon completion of the course, the two ofﬁcers and the Commanding Ofﬁcer, Major George Mitchell, conducted the ﬁrst Engineer Commanders’ Course in Singapore from April to August 1968. These ofﬁcers then formed the nucleus of the Singapore Combat Engineers.
Gurcharan was instrumental in the birth of combat engineering in the armed forces in Singapore. He was a pioneer of the combat engineers and he was a part of it until he left in 1984. He was also the ﬁrst man from the ﬁrst batch to command the Command Staff College as well as the ﬁrst man to command the First Division from his batch. Gurcharan was one of three Sikh colonels in a group of only seven colonels in the armed forces – there were no generals at that point in time. Gurcharan was indeed able to make his mark in the uniformed group.
Gurcharan’s contributions, however, were not just limited to the SAF. Having played cricket, rugby and hockey at the highest level, he took it upon himself to give back in a meaningful way to these sports. Realising that these organisations were facing challenges since they were new, he felt that he could best make a difference by taking on leadership positions in these sports.
Gurcharan held the appointment of President of Singapore Rugby Association and Singapore Cricket Club. He was also the Vice President of the Singapore Hockey Association. His involvement in the sporting arena saw Gurcharan becoming a member of the Singapore Sports Council, an achievement which he is extremely proud of. Gurcharan’s leadership traits, honed in the armed forces, played an important role in rejuvenating these organisations.
Gurcharan also played a pivotal role in the progress of the Sikh community. As the President of Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA), he was instrumental in raising its standard and range of activities for its members.
Being a senior and respected member of the Sikh community, Gurcharan was asked to take charge of building the Central Sikh Temple. It was no easy task for several reasons. Firstly, it was earmarked to be built in a new location and, therefore, required signiﬁcant funding. Furthermore, as the location was in a residential area and on a small plot of land, Gurcharan and his team had to overcome many obstacles to build this temple. They succeeded admirably.
With the experience and knowledge gained from building the Central Sikh Temple, Gurcharan assisted in the building of the Silat Road Sikh Temple in Jalan Bukit Merah. He remarked: “I did whatever I could for the building of our temples. This was my national service to the community and society.”
Although Gurcharan is almost 80 years old today, he continues to lend his support to the Sikh community. He is currently a member of the SKA Board of Trustees.
For Gurcharan, the Sikhs in Singapore are a dynamic, hardworking and reliable group. He feels that they have excelled in everything they have set out to do. In the recent past, Sikhs have held many important positions in the ﬁelds of defence, medicine, academia, sports and education, among others. Sikh parents should continue to encourage their children to pursue careers in these ﬁelds.
As such, parents need to support them in making life’s important decisions. At the same time, Gurcharan feels that we need to ensure that young Sikhs pick up the baton from the senior members and they continue to serve the community. Only when we serve can we fully appreciate the challenges we face and devise relevant platforms to address them so that the Sikh community continues to remain a progressive, cohesive and united group.
Gurcharan’s career path was, in a way, chosen for him by his father some 50 years ago. However, it turned out to be a life-changing one for him. That single most important decision has allowed him to make important leadership contributions to the Sikh community and Singapore at the national level. It has also allowed him to leave a permanent mark in the armed forces and on Singapore’s nationhood.
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