He had a difficult start to his educational life and professional career. He faced many hurdles in then-tumultuous Singapore. However, the late Dr Mehervan Singh doggedly overcame each one of them to emerge a stalwart in the Singapore accountancy sector as well as in the inter- religious circles nationally and internationally, and the Sikh community.
Born in Patiala in Punjab, Mehervan moved to Singapore with his father, Mr Nand Singh, the first priest of the Silat Road Temple. Mehervan was just 10 years old then. He studied in Radin Mas Primary School before gaining entry into Raffles Institution where he emerged as the top student in his class. He was awarded a scholarship by the Indian government but it was withdrawn as he could not prove that he was a British subject, being born in the princely state of Patiala.1 It was for the same reason he was denied a job at the Government Clerical Services. Naturally disappointed but undeterred, he eventually secured employment as a clerk at the British Air Ministry in Singapore.
He then went to work with the Inland Revenue Department in 1948, after excelling in Accountancy in the Higher London Chamber of Commerce Examination.2 There, he decided he wanted to be an accountant and persevered for six years through a correspondence course to pass the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants examination. He became the first Sikh accountant in Singapore and started his firm, Mehervan Singh & Co. It eventually grew from its humble beginnings to a highly successful venture. It also became a household name in the Sikh community, with many Sikh institutions, companies and individuals using its services.
Apart from his professional affiliation to the Sikh community, Mehervan was socially and religiously connected to it as well. He cared for it and was always keen on being involved in community-based projects. He was particularly interested in educational development and wanted to create greater awareness of Sikhism among non-Sikhs.
He strongly believed that with awareness came appreciation and with that, greater camaraderie and brotherhood.
His extensive involvement in community service eventually resulted in him becoming a founding member of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) – it was formed in 1949. He was also its Honorary Secretary from 1963 to 1983.
“It was my privilege to be acquainted with Dr Mehervan Singh when I became a member of the IRO. When working with him, I found him to be an extremely open-minded individual. His thoughts and inter- faith activities were an inspiration to me and many others.
For his sel ess inter-faith and social work, he was given the Public Service Star at the National Day Awards ceremony in 1966. With regard to his role as the roving Ambassador of the Sikh faith and his inter-faith work, Mehervan will be missed by not only the Sikh community but also by non-Sikhs.
Mr Noor Marican
Advocate and Solicitor Marican & Associates
According to his son, Mr Gurmit Singh: “He was very passionate about the IRO. I think that was the one and only passion he had so he really immersed himself in it.”3
For the IRO, in general, and Mehervan, personally, it was imperative that the different religious groups in Singapore came together to promote greater awareness and understanding of one another so as to avoid any recurrence of racial conflicts in Singapore. When the IRO first started out, it did not have all the major religions as part of its landscape. Mehervan succeeded in bringing on board the Bahais and the Taoists. He felt that, for the IRO to be successful, it must involve all the religious groups in Singapore.
The racial riots in 1964 tested Mehervan’s resolve as well as the significance of the IRO. As he was in the IRO, he was issued a permit to go out during the curfew to mediate between the groups. His family worried for him as there were cases of murder and bashing. However, Mehervan knew that he could not succumb to fear as it would mean the failure of the IRO. Eventually, peace was restored and it was a major achievement for the IRO and him.
Gurmit attested to the fact that his father never saw any issue as an obstacle. “It is very difficult to say when he had a challenge. The interesting thing about him was that he breathed and lived his religion – Sikhism. He would always say it is not a challenge, it is always chardi kala’.4 He always strived forward. So if anybody were to ask what some of the challenges are, he would say there are none. There was no such thing as it cannot be done. You simply strive to do it.”5
The race riots further convinced Mehervan of the importance of harmony among all the diverse religious groups in Singapore. He used speaking opportunities at various events to further push the good work of the IRO. He also attended numerous conferences worldwide that focused on issues of religious tolerance and ways to bridge the gap between different faiths.
One such conference was the four-yearly World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), which he attended in 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1989 and 1994. The WCRP led to the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace, which held its first assembly in Singapore in 1976. Mehervan was appointed its Secretary-General, re-appointed in 1981 and then again from 1986 to 1991.(6)
Apart from the IRO, Mehervan was also active in a number of charitable and voluntary organisations. They included the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association, the Leprosy Relief Organisation, the Aftercare Association, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Singapore Indian Educational Trust, the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association and the National Kidney Foundation.7 His selfless service was recognised by the Singapore government when he was awarded the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star)8 in 1966.
Mehervan’s resolve and whole-hearted commitment to the Sikh community’s cause earned him the title of ‘Roving Ambassador of the Sikh Faith’. (9) He took every opportunity to represent the Sikhs and speak about Sikhism. He had an audience with a number of world political and religious leaders, including Dr Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Paul VI, United States’ President Jimmy Carter, Cardinal Cooke at St Paul’s Cathedral and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. He also had a meeting with Pakistan’s President, General Zia Ul Haq, in 1979 to discuss the maintenance of Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of the first Sikh Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
On top of his work and travels, Mehervan found time to write books on the Sikh faith and his trips. A tireless writer, he even wrote a book after suffering a heart attack and while convalescing in hospital. His books included Religious and Cultural Heritage of Singapore, Whither Singapore Sikhs? and Daedal Decades: Autobiographical Essays.
He recorded his memories and thoughts as he wanted young Sikhs and young Singaporeans to know their history. He strongly believed that they must have a stake in the country and never take things for granted, especially since they now enjoy peace and did not live through the tumult and troubles faced by the previous generations.
Mehervan was also known to be a revolutionary in the Sikh community and was ahead of his time. He was not afraid to be unorthodox, particularly on his views on the engagement of the youth. For instance, he wanted to introduce joint youth camps for Sikh boys and girls so that they could meet and learn about their faith and community. While such an idea was initially shunned, such camps have now become regular events in the Sikh community. In fact, they cater not just to the youth but also to anyone keen to have a better understanding of Sikhism.
Mehervan also stressed on the importance of providing more direct opportunities for other faiths to better appreciate the Sikh community. He allayed fears that progressive thinking would lead to forsaking one’s beliefs. Such forward thinking resulted in the opening up of the gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and the langar (communal meal) halls to people of other faiths. In doing so, it enabled people of all faiths to meet and interact, thereby encouraging a greater understanding of the Sikh community and its beliefs and practices.
Mehervan passed away on 2 January 1999. According to Gurmit, his father’s open-minded nature shone through in every stage of his life. He gave serious consideration to ideas that may not conform to the norms when he saw the ultimate good that could be derived by the country and the Sikh community. It was this openness that resulted in Mehervan overcoming all challenges with his chardi kala attitude to become synonymous with inter-religious harmony and the progress of the Sikh community in Singapore.
3 Interview with Mr Gurmit Singh, August 15, 2015.
4 Chardi Kala is a concept in Sikhism that refers to a mental state of optimism and joy. Sikhs are ideally expected to be in this positive state of mind as a sign of their contentment with the will of God, even during the times of adversity. See http://searchsikhism.com.
5 Interview with Mr Gurmit Singh, op. cit.
8 The Bintang Bakti Masyarakat was instituted in 1963. It is awarded to any person who has rendered valuable public service to the people of Singapore; or who has distinguished himself or herself in the field of arts and letters, sports, the sciences, business, the professions and the labour movement. See http://www.pmo.gov.sg/nationaldayawards.
9 This was started by the late Justice Choor Singh – Interview with Mr Gurmit Singh, op. cit.
[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. Some parts of the article above have been adapted from other external sources]
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