Harbans Singh: Singapore’s interfaith torchbearer

Perak-born Harbans lives and breathes Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) where he has served as President

| Singapore |  13 Oct 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Harbans Singh
Harbans Singh

It is very difficult to get Mr Harbans Singh PS to say much about his personal contributions to the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO). This is largely due to the fact that he prefers to speak about the organisation and its values and significance. Immediately, one can begin to see that this man lives and breathes the IRO. Ultimately, it does not really matter that he does not say much about his own efforts and achievements because they are slowly revealed without him having to do so.

When Harbans was approached for an interview for this article, he suggested that it take place at Ba-Alwie Mosque on Lewis Road. One would immediately be puzzled with this suggestion since the interview is with a Sikh representative for a book about the Sikh community. The second surprise came when he proposed that it take place over lunch at the mosque. The reason became quite apparent soon after. The Imam of the mosque, Imam Habib Syed Hassan Alatttas, is Harbans’ dear friend. This was to be the first inkling that the presidency of the IRO was much more than just a post for this man. It actually is a way of life. The interview was peppered with anecdotes from the Imam on Harbans’ invaluable contributions to the organisation and Singapore.

The 86-year old, who has stepped down as President of the IRO, is still very much an indispensable member of the organisation. The veteran member of the non-government organisation is still held in high regard by his colleagues. As the Imam alluded to, Harbans has the ability to bring people together. In an organisation such as the IRO, where there are representatives from so many different groups, much of their undertakings are based on consensus, which does not always automatically occur. Harbans’ biggest contribution to the IRO is his patience and his ability to be a unifying factor. There are “many different groups with different thinking. If someone goes astray, he puts that person straight. Other people are afraid to speak but he is direct.”

SEE ALSO: Malaysian university sacks lecturer responsible for slides mocking Sikhs, Hindus

SEE ALSO: Harbans talks to Singapore Buddhist group

Even today, Harbans continues to be active in the IRO. He is the Chairman of the Prayer and Blessing Committee. It comprises a team of religious leaders that conducts prayers and gives blessings at important events. These prayers are requested by various organisations for a variety of purposes, ranging from the exhumations at Bukit Brown to the F1 Grand Prix races. The religious leaders pray for safety, humanity and concerns of individuals who work in these places. These sessions are not directly for religious concerns or for any commercial purpose. Harbans is easily recognisable from photographs of inter-faith leaders conducting prayers at significant events that occasionally appear in the newspaper.

However, there is also an equal chance that you will not recognise him because this prolific religious leader is so humble and self-deprecating that he seems to prefer working behind the scenes without much fanfare. According to the Imam, “Harbans just does work quietly…but the results speak for themselves.”

Apart from conducting prayers and blessings, one of the main activities Harbans is involved in is giving talks on the Sikh faith as well as religion in general. The motivation for this is based on his personal ambition to ensure that people understand Sikhism.

On board the train in Vatican City
On board the train in Vatican City

During the interview, Harbans showed a photograph of him smartly dressed and seated on a train with an ‘Assisi 2002’ pin smartly pinned to his blazer. He then excitedly explained that this photograph was taken on the train in the Vatican City and the Pope was on board as well. What he failed to mention until further prodding was that representatives from the Vatican had actually reached out to the IRO and sent a personal invitation in Harbans’ name. When prompted, he revealed that a representative from the Vatican had heard him speak at another interfaith event in Taiwan some time earlier. Impressed and in agreement with the values and ideas that Harbans expressed while conducting his seminar, a personal invitation was sent to him to be part of the Day of Prayer for Peace in the World held in Assisi in 2002. Such is the extent of the recognition he has received in his field of work.

Harbans is an amazing gentleman who is truly likeable, patient and yet firm. A natural leader who leads from the back, he is never wasteful with words or emotions. His vast array of life exposure and experience, along with his conviction and commitment to social causes, has benefitted both the Sikh community in particular and society in general. He has travelled widely to participate in international conferences and present on Sikhism and inter-faith activities in Singapore, Asia, Europe and the United States.
Despite his age, Harbans still serves society actively and tirelessly, and with great spirit, including the Inter-Religious Organisation. He is highly respected by the Muslim community and the other faiths in Singapore. His values and qualities are admirable, and he is clearly a unique role model for the next generation in more ways than one.
-Mr Syed Hassan Alattas Imam and Head Ba’alwie Mosque, Singapore

The foundation for Harbans’ attitude towards religion and how one’s faith in his own religion could be strengthened by respecting and co-existing with the faith of other religions was laid early in his childhood through people with “strong characters” who had a significant influence on him.

Harbans was born in Perak in 1930 and spent his early years in Malaysia. At the Tatt Khalsa School in Kuala Lumpur, he had a teacher who created a lasting impression on him and whom he says made him the person that he is today – humble but spirited. He would have continued to have a Punjabi medium education if not for the disruption to his education by the Japanese occupation. After the war, Harbans restarted his education at a Methodist institution, which was the equivalent of the Anglo Chinese School in Singapore. Harbans was an over-aged pupil and, despite winning the science prize at school, his form teacher decreed that he should read Bible studies. Although, at the time, he may not have fully appreciated what he was doing, this was an unintentional boon for him. Now, as a member of the IRO, he is able to not only discourse on Sikhism, but also see parallels between Sikhism and Christianity. According to him, the Maryada [Sikh Reht Maryada, SRM], which is the Code of Conduct for the Sikhs, states that one must know enough about other religions before one can critique or appraise them.

Harbans is well grounded in the principles he preaches and constantly uses his own life as an example of how learning about other religions only brings good things. Having studied in Methodist schools in his youth, he came to see that religion is only about one thing – being
good generally. He explained time and time again that the IRO and the activities it carries out are one way of allowing people to understand the values and teachings of each religion so that “we can understand them and they can understand us.”

Harbans Singh at one of IRO meetings - PHOTO / IRO WEBSITE
Harbans Singh at one of IRO meetings – PHOTO / IRO WEBSITE

On a basic level, Harbans’ embodiment of mutual understanding, trust and friendship between two different religious factions is apparent from the sentiments and anecdotes that the Imam and Harbans express about each other. With utter sincerity, Harbans highlighted the recognition received by the Imam at the National Day awards this year. However, he did not even once bother to draw a parallel of any kind and state that the PBM at the end of his name on his name card stood for Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star). On the other hand, the Imam continued to stress on Harbans’ important contributions to society and the IRO. Despite the immense hospitality and helpfulness of the Imam throughout the duration of my visit to the mosque, the extent of Harbans’ relationship with the Imam became most apparent only after lunch when Harbans, in his typical understated fashion, casually mentioned to me that I was probably the first woman who has ever had lunch in the Imam’s private room where he lunches with a carefully curated set of his friends. Only then did the extent of their friendship hit home for me. It also was perhaps a reflection of the ease with which Harbans is able to relate to the different groups of people in Singapore. He treats everyone equally.

Harbans has truly found his calling with the IRO. It gave him the opportunity to speak about Sikh values on a national and international platform and share the beauty and peace of Sikhism. This year, the 66th IRO Day, was held in the Istana for the very first time, in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday. Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong attended the event. During his address, the Prime Minister stated: “The IRO symbolises the ideal of religious harmony”. The same certainly applies to Harbans.


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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  1. Sardar Harbans Singh is well known till China ,great Sikhi knowledge and also down to earth. He must be 88 now not less. MGB him chardi kelaa.
    Balwant Singh Jakarta

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