Born in 1936 to a father who was a military contractor, Mr Param Ajeet Singh Bal grew up helping his father in his trade. Like many other Singaporeans, life for his family was simple and the standard of living was not very high. He fondly remembers visits to places like the Botanic Gardens as a key form of entertainment for the family.
However, Param Ajeet did not spend too much of his childhood in Singapore. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, his family left for India where it lived off a piece of land. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise for this young Sikh and his family. He stated: “During the Japanese Occupation, we were extremely lucky not to be in Singapore. We managed to escape the atrocities and deprivation which other people suffered then.”1 While Singaporeans in Singapore suffered under Japanese reign, Param Ajeet and his family lived comfortably in India.2
As soon as the Japanese left Singapore, Param Ajeet and his family decided to return to Singapore. It was another blessing in disguise for him as he narrowly avoided becoming a victim of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. An estimated hundreds of thousands of people died, as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, Muslims to Pakistan, and many others were caught up in a chaotic transition.3 Although back in Singapore, Param Ajeet still had a strong attachment to India in his early days and clearly remembers the pride he felt when he sang India’s national anthem at the Indian High Commission in Singapore once India announced its Independence.
Fortune soon changed for Param Ajeet as he started his life back in Singapore. With the help of the Sikh community, Param Ajeet succeeded in enrolling into Khalsa English School. He did extremely well in his studies and joined Raffles Institution. There, he was an all-rounded individual – he played hockey and joined the sea-cadet core. He was also an outstanding student at Raffles Institution and performed admirably to secure a place in University of Malaya where he received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. He then went on to obtain a Master of Arts (Honours) in Economics from Australian National University in Canberra. For his academic excellence, Param Ajeet received the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship award.
Param Ajeet was an assured, focused and ambitious young man. He was clear about the purpose of his education – he wanted to join the highly regarded Singapore Administrative Service – and he put all his effort in ensuring that he succeeded in his quest. “I wanted to be in a position where I found the job challenging and where I could make a contribution at the highest level possible.”4 For him, the experiences in the civil service significantly shaped him as a person and created anchors for him to hold on to in times of hardships.
In 1963, Param Ajeet was offered a job in the Singapore Administrative Service. For the next 11 years, he worked judiciously with the Ministry of Finance to devise multiple forward-looking policies relating to Singapore’s fiscal and revenue structure that helped to shape its economy. A year earlier, Singapore had held its first general election that marked the first step towards self-government. This made Param Ajeet’s role and that of his colleagues at the ministry even more relevant as Singapore needed to ensure that it had sound fiscal and revenue policies in an effort build its economy. His work was considered a pioneer in its area and led to him receiving the Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Public Administration Medal)5 in 1969.
Param Ajeet’s career then took him to the newly formed Ministry of Environment. Again, this was an important appointment since Singapore faced acute environmental challenges, particularly relating to the slums and the Singapore River. It was indeed challenging times for Param Ajeet as he astutely used his social and communications skills to tackle the many complains and issues faced by the Ministry. As Param Ajeet looks at the clean and green landscape of Singapore today, he cannot but help appreciate the work his Ministry did to start Singapore onto this path by taking hard decisions in the 1970s.
Param Ajeet’s achievements at the Ministry of Environment brought him into the spotlight and he was approached by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation to be one of the heads of the Department of Broadcasting. Due to his strong economic background, Param Ajeet was also placed in charge of creating sound financial policies and welfare schemes for the corporation. Param Ajeet rose to become Senior Vice President of the Television Corporation of Singapore (the successor of the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation) where he oversaw various divisions.
Param Ajeet and I belong to the pioneer generation which was given many opportunities in the then newly-independent Singapore. I like to believe think that we did make some contributions under the radar towards SG50! I got to know Param Ajeet well in the early 1960s when we were fellow students in Canberra, Australia. ereafter, Param Ajeet joined the Singapore civil service where his Economics training was put to good use in the Economic Planning Unit of the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of the Environment and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
We saw each other more frequently after we had retired. I became more aware of his involvement in community a airs such as in my former Ulu Pandan constituency as well as in Indian and Sikh matters. I hope that younger Singaporeans, who enjoy opportunities to contribute towards SG100, will also enjoy the kind of friendship that Param and I, and those of our generation, have had for over half a century.
Dr Chiang Hai Ding
Former Member of Parliament for Ulu Pandan and Singapore’s Ambassador (1971-73 & 1978-94)
BRINGING CULTURE TO THE COMMUNITY
In spite of his highly challenging job with the Singapore government, Param Ajeet also found time to contribute to the Sikh community. In fact, even before he joined the workforce, he had been active in the Sikh community and he was credited with bringing culture to the community.
Together with a few Sikh undergraduates and young educated Singapore Sikhs, Param Ajeet established the Singapore Sikh Cultural Group (SSCG) during his time at the university. His team organised the Vesakhi Mela in the 1960s and it turned out to a massive success. However, Param Ajeet faced several challenges during his time as a Secretary of the SSCG as some members of the Sikh community were not in favour using the SSCG’s funds for cultural activities. However, being a visionary, Param Ajeet saw great value in promoting the Sikh culture and in it becoming the bedrock of the identity of Singapore Sikhs in the future. He was indeed right!
At the same time, Param Ajeet was also involved in the construction of the Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA) building through his efforts on the Fundraising Committee. “Funds were not easy to come by but we had to do our best and to construct the building”,6 he explained. Eventually, this effort, too, became a success. He proudly exclaimed: “We made SKA into a cultural organisation, not just a sporting organisation. For me, that was an important achievement.”7
In addition to SKA, Param Ajeet was a member of the Sikh Council of Elders, the Sikh Gurdwara Board and the Sikh Welfare Council.
For him, being involved in the Sikh community, despite his hectic work schedule, was never an issue. He belonged to the Sikh community and had a duty to ensure that it progressed with the rest of Singapore society. For him, it has always been country and community before self.
SERVICE, TIME AND MONEY
Today, Param Ajeet is retired but still keeps abreast of developments in the various Sikh institutions. He expressed great confidence in the future of the Sikh society in Singapore. Sikhs now have a better standard of living and this provided them with an opportunity to advance themselves in life and to make more telling contributions to the community in particular and society in general.
He expressed the hope that Singapore Sikhs today, like their ancestors who came to Singapore with very little in their pockets, will continue to make important financial contributions and create time to be involved in the Sikh institutions. He also believes that Sikhs can start their communal and societal contributions on a small scale such as helping at the Sikh temple or community clubs. This will help them gain the value of service. He feels that, only with the combination of value of service, time and money will the Sikh community in Singapore fulfill its full potential as part of the larger society.
Param Ajeet has great hope for young Sikhs as they are the vanguard of the Sikh community. He stressed the need for them to capitalise on the opportunities Singapore provides to educate and upgrade themselves. He expressed his delight at the establishment of Young Sikh Association (Singapore), stating that it is a great initiative by Mr Hernaikh Singh, Mr Satwant Singh and several other like-minded and forward-thinking young Sikhs. It is an important platform to connect young Sikhs to developments around them.
Param Ajeet’s early life journey took him from Singapore to India and back as he avoided two major catastrophes in the process. He personifies the true values of perseverance, hard work and determination – traits that saw him taking advantage of the opportunities that came his way as he went on to make significant contributions to Singapore’s national landscape and the Sikh community.
1 Interview with Mr Param Ajeet Singh Bal, August 6, 2015.
2 V Kor, Simple Living and High Thinking, The Vine, 1(5), 1997, p 20.
3 See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/indo-pak-partition2.htm.
4 Interview with Mr Param Ajeet Singh, op. cit.
5 The Pingat Pentadbiran Awam was instituted in 1963. There are three grades of the Medal, namely, gold, silver and bronze. The Medal may be awarded to the following persons for outstanding efficiency, competence and industry – a public officer; officer employed by any statutory authority; any person who is or has been in the service of any organisation rendering services in education; or any person employed in any company which is wholly-owned by the government and which is carrying on business mainly as an agent or instrumentality of the government. See http://www.pmo.gov.sg/nationaldayawards.
6 Interview with Mr Param Ajeet Singh Bal, op cit.
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