Harbhajan Singh: Singaporean hero battling SARS epidemic

Retired as unit nurse manager at Singapore’s Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), he continued to work on annual contract at Tan Tock Seng Hospital

| Singapore | 19 Oct 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Harbhajan Singh: Retired as unit nurse manager at Singapore’s Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), he continued to work on annual contract at Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Harbhajan Singh: Retired as unit nurse manager at Singapore’s Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), he continued to work on annual contract at Tan Tock Seng Hospital
What will you do when you are suddenly faced with the scary unknown – a faceless fiend that seems to be devouring all in its path? Will you stay and fight or flee? Well, if you are Mr Harbhajan Singh, you will dig in deep, systematically fend off and tackle the onslaught as it comes to pass minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour and day-by-day. You will emerge a hero and find your rightful place as an important contributor to Singapore’s national cause.

Nearly all of Singapore will remember the scourge of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that befell it in 2003. However, not many were placed in the position that Harbhajan found himself in – right on the frontlines of the battle against the deadly disease. As the unit nurse manager at the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), Harbhajan suddenly found the small old building crowded with patients. As the CDC did not have the facilities of a major hospital, one considerable difficulty was creating as many isolation beds as possible. Despite the fact that patients were flowing in at alarming rates, at the height of the epidemic “within two hours 100 patients [could] come in,” the staff had to ensure that they kept the probable cases separate from those merely suspected of having the disease.

To this end, Harbhajan recalls how his team methodically created more wards by quickly refurbishing disused wards, converting facility rooms into wards, emptying existing wards of patients who were ill but could afford to go home and then finally bringing in container wards – the latter adding approximately 90 additional rooms.

To discuss those days now with the benefit of hindsight and the comfort of knowing that that storm has been weathered belies the arduous times those actually were. Recounting how challenging that period was, Harbhajan explains that, as the unit manager, he had to play a dual role of nursing manager (looking after the welfare of the nurses under his authority) and an operations manager (being responsible for the facilities in the hospital). Apart from handling the burgeoning number of patients, there were also issues to be dealt with amongst the healthcare professionals. In addition to this battle on the inside, Harbhajan recalls how, in the early days, public bus drivers did not want to take those in hospital uniforms on board and how taxi drivers refused to go to the hospital. The danger was real – 33 individuals, including two doctors and a nurse, contracted the disease and died. Naturally, Harbhajan was highly concerned and the psychological stresses weighed on his mind. However, this stalwart realised that he was a manager and he had a job to do.

Harbhajan has indeed been widely recognised and lauded as a Singaporean hero for his service during the epidemic. He has had numerous newspaper articles written about him and several accolades to his name.

Pride In Job

As Harbhajan started telling his story, it became evident that he takes much pride in his job and is very appreciative of all the recognition he has received. Yet, ironically, Harbhajan initially seemed reluctant to talk about the SARS period because, as far as he is concerned, he was just doing his job. This response is not too puzzling when one realises that it is characteristic of the man who does not dwell on the past but rather looks forward to the future. He is always hungry for a challenge.

This is currently most evident in his attitude towards ageing and retirement. Despite having officially retired in 2002, Harbhajan shares that, in actuality, he “retired on paper but physically he has not left the hospital.” He now works on an annually renewed contract basis, and his contract has been renewed every year for the last 13 years.

Far from being disgruntled at the shift in the focus of his job, from being on the ground taking care of patients to now taking on a more administrative role of ensuring the welfare of the nurses, Harbhajan finds his current job to be meaningful as well. He feels that, in any line of work, including his own, the important thing is that one must feel happy about coming to work and, to this end, he explains that the social interaction and, more specifically, the exchange of learning from others and also teaching others is important.

Father Figure 

The veteran nurse is something of a father figure to other nurses in his department. In fact, in a 2011 interview, the Director of Nursing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital described how Harbhajan “is like a mentor [to us]. He watches over us and is a role model.”

Gratifyingly, the remarkable work that he does continues to be given its due recognition. Harbhajan received yet another award just as this article was being written. He became the first nurse to be awarded the Tan Tock Seng Emeritus Fellow Award. The Emeritus conferment is the hospital’s highest distinction reserved for those who have made a lifetime impactful contribution and serve as an inspiration for the staff. The new ‘Emeritus Fellow’ category recognises staff who are non-doctors and it is open to all family groups. This throws into the spotlight yet another facet of Harbhajan’s outlook on life – he extols the virtues of life-long learning.

Harbhajan Singh - PHOTO / SG50 BOOK
Harbhajan Singh – PHOTO / SG50 BOOK

An inspiring mentor, an exemplary staff and a humble man with a big heart are few of the many commendable qualities that Harbhajan is well-known for. He has dedicated more than half a century to Tan Tock Seng Hospital as one of our longest serving nurses. With his unwavering spirit, professionalism and commitment, Harbhajan has brought the hospital and nursing to greater heights.

Harbhajan’s tenacity is evident in his fervent appetite to develop himself, and acquire experience and knowledge in such clinical domains as thoracic, orthopaedic and emergency nursing. He remains an astute leader with his charming ways of managing and developing people. He is an icon in his own right, not only for his wisdom but also for his unrelenting energy and passion in wanting to serve. Though officially retired in 2002, Harbhajan continues to serve in Tan Tock Seng Hospital and helps to guide our next generation of nurses.

171st Founder’s Day Message Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Although he has been in the profession longer than all those he currently works with, Harbhajan remains more than receptive to learning new things on the job and excited about all the technological changes and medical advances that keep occurring. In his own words, the system is evolving and he wishes to remain a part of it for as long as possible.

In an interview earlier this year, Harbhajan explained how, although he initially had “zero experience and knowledge of computers”, he is today “just as well versed as the younger ones in Microsoft Word, Excel and other software programmes.”

Far from competing with the “younger ones”, however, Harbhajan firmly believes that both groups of workers have useful knowledge to offer each other. He is of the view that, while the younger workers are technologically more adept and are doubtlessly very knowledgeable about the work that they do, the older worker has the experience and wisdom to complement those traits.

And Harbhajan does walk the talk – he is a cherished member of the nursing team at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He has managed to remain relevant to all those around him regardless of whether they rank above or below him. This is made clear through the interesting quirk of how many of his seniors were once junior nurses whom he supervised then became his “partners in rank” and went on to become his bosses – they continue to hold him in high regard.

IN HIS OWN WORDS: Watch the video, entitled ‘National Day Parade 2014 Singapore Stories – Mr Harbhajan Singh’ released by Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Early Days

Harbhajan is a fantastic example of the success and fulfillment that hard work can bring. Reflecting on his early years, the septuagenarian explained that when he left school in 1959 after completing his Cambridge school certificate (equivalent of today’s O Levels), job opportunities were scarce and most parents did not have the means to enroll their children in higher education courses. Rather, older children were expected to quickly find employment and support the family. Under the employment scheme conducted by the Public Services Commission, Harbhajan selected teaching as his first choice and hospital technician/nursing as a second choice. During the interview, Harbhajan was offered his second option. He took it up. His rise through the ranks from a student of nursing to a senior nurse manager with the rare honour of being the longest serving nurse in the National Healthcare Group suggests that he has not looked back since.

When asked to name a high point in his career, Harbhajan’s quick response was that it has to be the entire journey of reaching the pinnacle of the nursing profession through sheer hard work (and without a degree). With his admirable work ethic and zest for self-betterment, Harbhajan truly epitomises the saying that “work hard in silence and let success make all the noise.” His success has certainly placed him and the Sikh community proudly in the annals of Singapore’s nursing history.


final-sg50-book[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]


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