| Singapore | 7 Sept 2016 | Asia Samachar |
In its advances to join the ranks of developed countries around the world, Singapore selected English language as one of the main languages of the state. Due to the multitude of cultures present in the various industries, English was emphasised as being the primary language that business would be conducted in. However, in the cultural melting pot that is Singapore, on top of the four main languages, there were many different languages and dialects spoken throughout the city state on a daily basis. Recognising the need for future generations to be able to appreciate their culture and language, several Sikhs rose up to the challenge of promoting the Punjabi language and giving it greater prominence in the Sikh community and within the nation as well. One of the most prominent Sikhs to champion this cause is Mr Bhajan Singh.
Born in Punjab in India in 1944, Bhajan lived with his mother and three siblings while his father was in Singapore working as a watchman. In 1953, due to the unfortunate passing of his mother, Bhajan and his siblings joined their father in Singapore. Although Bhajan topped his exams and was eligible to attend the top Singapore schools at that time, he decided to join Gan Eng Seng School so that he could work as a night watchman for a go-down just across the school. Despite the many hardships during this period, Bhajan worked hard and completed his GCE ‘A’ Level examinations. It was during this time that Bhajan started his involvement with the Sikh community. He helped out at the old Central Sikh Temple along Queen Street during his free time.
After qualifying as a teacher from the Teacher’s Training College while concurrently teaching part time in Rafﬂes Institution (1966-1968) and completing his national service (1969-1971), Bhajan taught at Rafﬂes Institution for another year. He eventually obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History and a Master in Education from the University of Singapore. Following this, he was promoted to Principal of Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School in 1981 and later of Si Ling Secondary School in 1984.
Prior to Bhajan’s arrival, Si Ling Secondary School was notorious for its many gangsters and absentee students. Many of the students with problems came from broken homes or were abused. Bhajan realised that imposing harsh treatment would further alienate these students. As such, he placed emphasis on rewarding good behaviour and positive change. He realised that these students just needed someone to care for them and have faith in them. Bhajan’s different approach towards the students was successful. Within four years, he had gotten rid of most of the problems and restored a sense of pride in the school. Where once it was regarded as a backwater school, it was now a better-than-average neighbourhood school.
Engaging Sikh Youth
Using this same approach, Bhajan moved on to helping the many Sikh students in Si Ling Secondary School. Some students came from broken homes while others had parents addicted to alcohol or narcotics. Bhajan assisted as many as he could. During this time, he noticed that many Sikh youth could no longer identify with their Sikh culture. They were staying away from the gurdwaras (Sikh temples), and consuming alcohol and drugs. Bhajan decided to bring together a group of Sikh professionals to look into this issue.
In 1989, Bhajan was approached to take up the position of Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board (SAB). He was encouraged by his colleagues to take this appointment as an opportunity to connect the younger Sikhs with the older Sikhs and to see them work together. Bhajan had the honour of being Chairman of the SAB twice from 1989 to 1995 and 1997 to 2003. After taking up the appointment, Bhajan embarked on a large scale campaign to educate Sikh youth on Sikh values through Punjabi education.
Bhajan pioneered two Sikh organisations, the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation (SSEF) and Sikh Welfare Council (SIWEC) during his tenure as Chairman of the SAB. The SSEF was established to organise the teaching of Punjabi as a mother tongue on a large scale as well as helping to standardise the content of what these students studied so as to improve grades amongst the students. As the SSEF was being set up, Bhajan approached and persuaded the various gurdwaras to move the Punjabi education from their premises and set up a professional school. Four schools were planned – North, East, West and Centre. In March 1990, the Punjabi school system was established and the Singapore Khalsa Association eventually moved the management of its Punjabi school to the SSEF in 1995.
In 1995, Bhajan was instrumental in setting up SIWEC to look after the welfare needs of the Sikh community. In this respect, he relied on his experience as a member of the task force which set up the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA). This Council provides ﬁnancial help to the needy and aids Sikh families with problems. It was through these measures that Bhajan was able to improve and strengthen the ties that bind the Sikh community together. As his primary focus was to aid and improve the immersion of the Sikh youth into their culture, Bhajan personally oversaw the SSEF as Chairman from 1989 until 2013 and served as Vice Chairman of SIWEC from 1995 to 2014.
I would like to convey my personal and the government’s appreciation to Bhajan for his dedication and commitment as well as his invaluable contributions which he rendered as a member and Chairman of the SAB. Under his leadership, the SAB has done a fabulous job and achieved the following – establishment of the Sikh Resource Panel, setting up of the SSEF, running of Punjabi language centres and formation of the SIWEC.
Under Bhajan’s chairmanship, the SAB has also managed to mobilise the various institutions and organisations to work together for the common good of the Sikh community and to contribute to national interests.
-Mr Abdullah Tarmugi Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (1994-2000) Singapore
Engaging the Government
Bhajan also understood the importance of working closely with the Singapore government so as to bolster both the Sikh image and the image of the nation. The ﬁrst Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, did not want Singapore to go the way of other countries, where racial lines were drawn. He wanted the different races and religions to work together in harmony. In 1990, the government assembled the various leaders of the religious communities to legislate religious harmony in order to safeguard the many faiths of Singapore. Mr Lee was impressed by the Sikh doctrine and decided to include Sikhism as one of the ﬁve main religions of Singapore when the Religious Harmony Bill was enacted in 1992.
In the post-September 11 era, the government was alarmed that religion could fan fanaticism and lead to terror attacks in Singapore. A conference was called and all the grassroots and religious leaders were assembled along with the Cabinet. As Chairman of the SAB, Bhajan addressed the attendees and stressed that Singapore could not link faith to terrorism. Any terrorist or fanatic followed no faith and his or her acts could not be linked to any racial group. His statement was so well-received that then Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, requested that he repeat those same words during an interview with the Prime Minister’s Ofﬁce. He managed to convince the government that the Sikh lifestyle was beneﬁcial to the well-being of the nation due to the concept of service and sharing. Bhajan also served on the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony for a period of 22 years from 1992 to 2014.
Bhajan is a man of relentless determination. His latest accomplishment of introducing a common syllabus with the same textbooks for the various Indian minorities under the umbrella of the Board for the Teaching and Testing of South Asian Languages (BTTSAL) is the ﬁrst of its kind in the world and paves the way for further excellence in the education ﬁeld. Bhajan set up the BTTSAL and serves as its founding President.
Bhajan knew from the start that if he wanted to serve the community and nation, he had to prepare for challenges. When asked about this, he said: “When you are doing it for the nation and the community, nothing is too hard. I believe that the harder the challenge, the greater the accomplishment.” With this motto, Bhajan continues to seek ways to further the interests of the Sikh community in Singapore.
Jagrup Singh; a leap of faith takes him to the Singapore armed forces (Asia Samachar, 23 August 2016)
Davinder Singh; Singapore’s first Sikh parliamentarian (Asia Samachar, 20 August 2016)