| Singapore | 5 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |
Although Mr Surjan Singh was born in Amritsar in India in 1931, he spent most of his growing up years in Raub in Pahang, Malaysia. There, he lived a fun and happy childhood in his village until the Japanese Occupation in 1942. Schools were forced to teach Japanese, which the local teachers were incapable of doing so. Surjan subsequently did not go to school and his education was interrupted for about five years. He took his GCE ‘O’ Level examinations in 1952 and obtained a Grade 1 Certificate.
Surjan’s father was an ambulance driver in Raub. Surjan took the initiative to come to Singapore to join the Teachers’ Training College in April 1953 and graduated in August 1955. He took his GCE ‘A’ Level examinations in 1956 and Standard Three Malay in 1964. He then enrolled as an external student with the University of London and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Economics and Geography) in 1971.
Surjan held various significant positions throughout his teaching career. These included Senior Subject teacher for Geography at Queenstown Secondary School, Senior Subject teacher for Economics at Raffles Institution and Senior Head of Student Affairs at Raffles Junior College. Surjan left the teaching profession in 1986 when he 55 years old.
Surjan’s innate desire to contribute to society extends well beyond the years he devoted to his teaching career. He became involved with probationary work as he wanted to help those at risk and wayward youth. There were not many probationary officers during that time. Surjan joined the ranks of the second batch. In fact, while he was still teaching, he became a Volunteer Probation Officer (VPO) in 1972 and was put on the job placement committee where he would find and match jobs for delinquents placed under his care. He juggled probationary work and teaching – a testament to his desire want to contribute to society.
One of the cases he handled as a VPO and which remains etched in his mind is that of a young Indian boy on whom he also wrote a case study. Caught for committing a petty crime, the boy was placed under Surjan’s care and he had to counsel the boy and help him find a job. He spent a considerable amount of time with the boy and forged a bond with him. Surjan managed to find him a job as a ship electrician. Surjan did not stop there. He learnt that the boy’s older sisters were unemployed and clearly not the best of role models while their father had a drinking problem. Despite it not being his responsibility, he found employment for the oldest siblings in Yaohan. She became the first Indian to work in a Japanese retail store. The effort by Surjan helped turned their fortunes around and they are doing well in life now.
The second memorable case that Surjan handled was when he joined the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) as a counselor and Volunteer Aftercare Officer (VAO) in the Sikh Aftercare (Counselling) Services. He eventually became the Secretary of the organisation. The case involved a young Sikh boy who had just finished his national service and was served a drug consumption conviction by the courts. He was placed in the SANA Sikh Aftercare (Counselling) Services under the care and guidance of Surjan. He counselled the young Sikh and found him a job as a relief teacher as the young Sikh had academic credentials. However, his job stint did not last long when another Sikh VAO breached confidentiality and leaked that the young Sikh was a former drug user. Surjan was terribly upset. In Surjan’s words: “Confidentiality is something every probation officer needs to respect. It is crucial because it allows for trust to be built” (1). After investigation, the VAO was dismissed by the SANA Sikh Aftercare (Counselling) Services.
Surjan continued counselling the young Sikh who had found employment as a food inspector by then. Surjan found out that the boy’s elder sister was unemployed despite being educated. Surjan helped to secure a job for her. She worked hard and eventually settled down in Australia where she got a job as an education officer. She then brought her younger brother to Australia and he completed his Bachelor degree there. From what seemed to be a dark and destructive path into the life of drugs, Surjan managed to help the young Sikh turn over a new leaf. For his voluntary work in the area of probation, Surjan was awarded the Pingat Bakti Masyarakat (the Public Service Medal) in 1994 (2).
Surjan’s exemplary work in community service saw him receiving a Certificate of Honour for Outstanding Services to the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association and, thereafter, becoming the Chairman of the SANA Sikh Aftercare (Counselling) Services as well as a member on the SANA Board of Management till 1997. His dedication as one of the longest serving VPO was recognised at a Ministry of Social and Family Development Volunteer Awards ceremony in 2014 where Surjan was lauded for 42 years of outstanding volunteer service (3).
Surjan also offered his services to the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) as a member initially and then Vice Chairman of the Case Review Panel – a role he held for five years. In 2013, he received a platinum award from SINDA for 20 years of service.
Surjan also joined Woody Lodge, a home for destitute persons, as counsellor in 1990 to counsel and help Indian lodgers. At the request of the Superintendent of the Lodge, he organised conversational English classes for interested lodgers. In appreciation of his work there, Surjan was awarded a certificate for being an Outstanding Volunteer in 1996 by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.
Surjan believes that giving back to society has enabled him to lead a happy life. “People must aim for peace and happiness, especially in today’s world where society has shifted towards materialism.” (4) On his definition of happiness, Surjan shared his wisdom: “It is a state of mind and that of managing expectations”. (5)
Apart from community work, Surjan takes great joy in writing books and articles, several of which have gained national attention and review. He has written about 50 articles as well as authored five books. He is a regular contributor, since 1991, to the monthly magazine publication, The Sikh Review, which is based in the city of Calcutta, India. One of the his publications, They Died For All Free Men, (6) was supported by Singapore’s National Heritage Board and Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, launched it in April 2003.
Surjan’s love for imparting and sharing knowledge with others is exemplified in his book, Mythological and Other References in Gurbani. It is a pursuit to arouse one’s interest into understanding the mystical references and genuine words of wisdom found in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book.
Being an educationist, Surjan has an in-depth capacity for research and the ability to convey abstract concepts through expression in simple language. This is indicated in his book, Saluting Sikh Soldiers of World Wars I & II, where he has meticulously, and with intense dedication, compiled a comprehensive list of Sikh Soldiers who died during the two wars.
Surjan turned 84 years old in this jubilee year and currently spends his retirement years continuously reading and writing. He and his devoted wife spend a considerable amount of time with their children and grandchildren. On how he would like to be remembered:
“I do not think about that. Everyone is here in life for a different purpose and I try to fulfill mine by giving back to society.”7 And he has indeed given so much back to Singapore society in the last four decades.
1 Interview with Mr Surjan Singh, July 12, 2015.
2 The Pingat Bakti Masyarakat was instituted in 1973. The medal is awarded to any person who has rendered commendable public service in Singapore or for his or her achievement in the field of arts and letters, sports, the sciences, business, the professions and the labour movement. See http://www.pmo.gov.sg/nationaldayawards.
3 David Ee, MSF Volunteer Awards – Volunteer lauded for 42 years of service, The Straits Times, February 22, 2014.
4 Interview with Mr Surjan Singh, op. cit.
6 This book is a dedication to the memory of the brave Sikh soldiers who died during World War II defending Malaya. See http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg.
7 Interview with Mr Surjan Singh, op. cit.
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