“Try your best, be a good person and the rest will sort itself out.”1 This is indeed sound advice, especially coming from a man who rose from humble beginnings to become Singapore’s longest-serving Sikh diplomat. Today, Mr Ajit Singh is Singapore’s Consul-General in Mumbai, with jurisdiction over the Indian states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Goa.
Born in 1949, Ajit spent all of his childhood and teenage years at the former British Naval Base in Sembawang. His father was a policeman. Like any other military cantonment, Ajit remembers the family’s quarters to be clean and orderly. The government compound comprised accommodation for several hundred Asian workers.
Ajit stated: “Although life was basic and simple, and money was scarce, like so many others in the compound, my family made the best of whatever was available and the experience was fun.”2 During this time, his family moved several times – from a large one-bedroom with a section marked out as ‘kitchen’ to a small two-bedroom flat with a balcony which, for him was a luxury.
The government compound was more of a village and the whole community was closely knit. As a student, Ajit walked to school with his friends from the compound and played games whenever and wherever the opportunities allowed. There was genuine warmth. Like many others, he knew the parents, brothers and sisters of friends and could walk into a friend’s home unannounced. It was normal back then. Those personal bonds of friendship have continued to this day. For him, childhood brings forth many happy memories. Most of those memories revolve around Naval Base School, where he forged some of the most enduring life-long friendships with schoolmates from different races, religious and social backgrounds.
The schooling system did not have the same pressures and stress frequently alluded to by most Singaporeans nowadays. However, Ajit remembers the students being extremely competitive and determined to succeed. There was a spirit of competition in the classroom and school, not to mention the pressure of staying in the same compound as many other students from the same school. Naval Base School produced several students who attained national recognition over the years. In fact, many Sikh boys and girls from the school went on to pursue tertiary education and became doctors, lawyers, teachers and senior professional staff. Ajit was one such individual. He did well in his studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Singapore in 1971. Twelve years later, Ajit obtained a Master of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
In 1974, Ajit joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has held various posts, including Assistant Director for Malaysia and Brunei, and Deputy Director in the Policy Planning and Analysis Directorate IV (South Asia, Middle East, Africa, Latin America and International Organisation). Ajit served in Singapore missions in Moscow, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, New Delhi, Pekan Baru and Chennai. He also held the post of Deputy High Commissioner in the Singapore High Commission in New Delhi and Consul General of Singapore in Chennai. Ajit also participated in various regional and international meetings. These included various Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meetings, the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Jakarta in 1991, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1982 and the Indian Ocean Rim Ministerial Meeting in 1997.
Ajit stated: “I have been fortunate to serve my career as a diplomat and representative of Singapore. Living away from Singapore for so many years does lead to fresh perspectives.”3
The regular postings also meant having to uproot his family every few years and starting all over again in a new country or city and a new environment. His wife and three children probably felt it far more than he did since his posting did have an impact on his children’s education. However, he accepts such disruptions in the life of a diplomat and in the service of the nation.
In the last four decades in Singapore’s foreign service, Ajit has played an important role in promoting Singapore’s political and economic interests abroad. He expressed particular delight and contentment that his work has led to many other governments, business and community officials developing positive attitudes towards, and building stronger relationships with Singapore.
The role and life of a diplomat is no stroll in the park – it is in fact quite far from it. However, Ajit’s work ethics have played a key role in ensuring that he has succeeded in whatever he has set out to do. During his student days, and in his professional career as a diplomat, Ajit has adopted the mantra of doing his best and never giving up. He sees setbacks as challenges and as opportunities to make a comeback. He has revolved his life around patience and humility in order to remain grounded in his lifestyle and interactions with friends. He also places significant stress on the importance of family values and orientation and believes that our daily lives must be based on strong personal values and principles. In this regard, he sees his faith in Sikhism as a pillar of strength. He is able to turn to this pillar of strength in times of need.
“Ajit has been a good friend and a good colleague of mine for more than three decades. I have always known him as someone who is trustworthy and can be relied on to do his best whatever the task. At the Ministry of Foreign A airs, he has served in a wide variety of postings from Moscow to India, none easy. However, he has never faltered or given up no matter how difficult the situation.
As a friend, Ajit is great company and a great raconteur with an inexhaustible fund of stories. I suspect that these qualities of steadfastness, determination and joie de vivre have something to do with Ajit’s deep commitment to Sikhism. No matter where he is posted, he always keeps his links with the Singapore Sikh community. I am very happy that Ajit’s contributions to his community and his country have been recognised. ere is no more deserving person.
Mr Bilahari Kausikan
Ambassador-At-Large and Former Permanent Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore
It may surprise many that despite being out of the country for much of his career, Ajit has been able to make a telling contribution to the Sikh community in Singapore. It boils down to desire. Ajit was actively involved in the Sikh Naujawan Sabha based in Sembawang. He spearheaded the organising of many activities that created religious, social and cultural awareness for all. He was also Chairman of the Organising Committee when the Sikh Naujawan Sabha organised a Vesakhi concert in Sembawang as a national event. Singaporeans saw the event as an important marker in the promotion of the Sikh community in Singapore.
While in university, Ajit was Chairman of the committee of Sikh undergraduates that organised a seminar on issues relating to the Sikh community. This allowed Sikh undergraduates to debate on the challenges for and responses by the Sikh community in Singapore. The purpose of this event was to create a spark in the undergraduates so that they would further contribute positively to the issues once they graduated.
When Ajit became the Vice President of the Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA), he saw the unfulfilled potential that Sikh youth and women had in contributing culturally, socially and religiously to the community. He spearheaded the initiative to set up the youth and women wings at SKA. These two wings continue to be an important part of the Association. Despite being in India, Ajit continues his relationship with the Sikh community in Singapore. He is a member of the Trustee Boards at SKA and Yishun Sikh Temple.
Ajit strongly believes that while there will be challenges for the Sikh community in Singapore, there will continue to be new opportunities as well for them to strive and excel. The Sikhs are hardworking and entrepreneurial people. His posting to India provided a chance for him to witness the Sikhs in India punching well above their weight in many fields despite the fact that they account for less than two per cent of India’s population. For him, Singaporean Sikhs should look beyond the traditional professions and move into new areas linked with the new economy. The Sikh community can and should remain progressive and relevant.
An important factor in the Sikh community’s and Singapore’s success is the youth. As a Singaporean who witnessed the tumultuous years of the 1950s and 1960s, and the uncertain 1970s, Ajit fully appreciates the need for young Sikhs and young Singaporeans not to take our vibrancy and harmony or even our survival as a nation for granted. He has every faith that the younger generation will not do so. As long as the next generation stays true to and builds on the core values as a society and nation, the future of Singapore will indeed be a bright one. However, he cautions the youth against the consequences of being too complacent and insists that a right blend of confidence and humility is the ingredient for success. Ajit spent much time in his youth contributing to the betterment of the Sikh community and is therefore well-placed to provide such advice.
Despite being on the road for much of his life, Ajit has no plans to slow down just yet. He has many plans for the future. When he returns to Singapore from his overseas assignment, he plans to participate in social and community work with a national body. He also sees himself contributing further to the Sikh community by joining hands with his long-standing friends in the Sikh institutions. Finally, post-retirement, he hopes to make use of his extensive knowledge and experience in Malaysia, Indonesia and, particularly, India to assist and advise Singapore businesses in making inroads into these countries.
It is a fallacy to assume that one must remain in Singapore to contribute to one’s community and society. Ajit spent much of his working life on overseas postings and travelling on the job. Yet, he has been able to contribute to the national and international arenas as well as the Sikh community. Ajit is indeed a true personification of the saying: ‘Where there is a will, there is a way’.
1 Interview with Mr Ajit Singh, August 6, 2015.
[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published in 2015 by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]
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