By Karminder Singh | Tribute | Malaysia |
If indeed the test of a truly great man lay in his simplicity and humility, Master Pritam Singh passed with flying colours. He once reminded me that humility was not about thinking less of oneself – it was about thinking of oneself less. He was a good man, simple and humble to the core just as much as he was awakened and enlightened in Sikhi and Gurmat. It is the nature of things that goodness, simplicity and humility are deeply susceptible to mis-interpretation and Master Pritam Singh did not enjoy immunity in this regard. Yet, those who knew him intimately could not have known him for being anything but his true self.
What appealed to me most about him was the way in which he blended humour with his down to earth nature and his big heart. Our friendship of 40 years could not have lasted without his classic sense of such a mix. The setting of one display of such a mix was the langgar hall of a local gurdwara. As I placed my empty plate on the long bench and sat next to him he told me “Karminder Singh, one look at you, it appears that there is a famine in the world.” My retort was one that only his big heart could embrace. I said “and one look at you Master Ji, it appears that you are the cause of that famine.” He roared out a laughter that brought the roof down. Everyone turned to look. There was silence for 2 seconds. Embarrassment was what I felt, but he had none of that. He turned to me and said: “You just added two months to my life.” I told him and “You just took away two from mine.”
Our professional interaction began with our work in the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (SNSM). He was elected Jathedar and he appointed me the secretary. He did not get my consent for the appointment. I went up to him asking to remove me with the justification that I was not even an ordinary member of the Sabha. How could a non-member become the secretary? I asked him. He asked how I was able to function as the Editor of the The Sikh magazine for some years prior to my appointment as secretary. I told him Jathedar Jai Singh (late) appointed me and he never asked if I was a member of the Sabha. And Pritam Singh replied in his classic self: “I am not asking either.”
We sat down for tea in the langgar hall after the elections and he told me he had dreams for the Sabha, ideas that must be implemented and projects that must be carried out. He needed someone with an outside-in approach and my non-membership was therefore an asset. He said too much was lacking and too many things were broken. There had to be more than just organizing mini and major gurmat samelans (Sikh camps) and feeling good about them afterwards.
Sabha did not have an office then. We owned a house in Selayang, but it was used as the residence for the Sabha’s two full time parcharaks and their families. All of Sabha’s files were kept in Seremban, which was the home of the former secretary. Sabha’s inventory was stored in a room in Klang gurdwara. Sabha’s Punjabi typewriter was kept in someone’s house in Ampang. The vans were parked in a local gurdwara. The Sabha Shop operated from one of the vans. One wondered how an organization could function in such a dysfunctional disarray.
Master Pritam Singh wanted a proper office – fully equipped with a computer, printer, a photostat machine, a binder etc. He wanted that office to house a library. He wanted the Sabha to employ a full time administrative assistant. He wanted The Sikh to be printed in full colour and sent out regularly as four issues per year. He wanted a permanent Sabha shop where our youth could come and purchase material related to Sikhi. He achieved most of it within the first few months. Five hundred books on Sikhi arrived from India. A computer complete with a dot matrix printer was purchased. He managed to convince a local businessman to donate a brand new photostat machine. Recording equipment for recording ragis and parcharaks was obtained. A multi copier cassette machine worked non-stop to churn out hundreds of cassettes that were sold at cost price in the Sabha Shop. The Sikh magazine achieved its four issues per year and maintained its record for the entire duration of Master Pritam Singh’s term as Jathedar.
Impressive progress indeed for a simple, humble and behind-the scenes kind of a school teacher. He then started thinking of buying a property within Petaling Jaya or Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, for use as Sabha office. It became a reality in the form of the Bangsar Sabha House during his second term.
Master Pritam Singh had a desire to re-set the direction and goals of the Sabha. He was not happy that the Sabha was an insular, inward looking, samelan preoccupied organization. He told me we were cheating the Sikh youth of Malaysia out of an opportunity that was owed to them by people of our generation. He felt the cheating lay in the fact that everyone believed the Sabha was indeed taking care of major Sikh youth issues – when in fact it was only helping with the tip of the iceberg issues. He wanted to make the Sabha an effective organization where the youth turned to as the first resort for not just their issues and challenges, but also to contribute towards fellow youth. He wanted the Sabha to venture into education, community cohesion, career development for youth, and even the provision of scholarships.
Getting the Sabha on track and in line with his vision proved to be deeply challenging. He told me privately that he feared that the structural and logistical successes that were achieved would prove futile if the direction of Sabha remained stuck in the old mode. The Exco came across as deeply divided into cliques and groups with competing loyalties. Some members operated like independent warlords – even collecting money under the name of the Sabha for their own pet projects. Weekly meetings saw lots of bickering, arguments and petty squabbling that sometimes descended into a total breakdown of the agenda.
This is where I realized that the goodness, simplicity and humility of a human being is deeply susceptible to mis-interpretation – purposively or otherwise. Master Pritam Singh’s simplicity was taken by some as the trait of a simpleton. His humility was seen by some as a weakness in leadership. And his goodness of heart abused at least by those for whom these mis-interpretations served their cliquish agendas.
He was very much aware of it all. He told me once in his typical metaphoric style: “I attend these weekly meetings riding a motorcycle all the way from Batang Berjuntai, Selangor. People need to see the man, not the motorcycle.” He added that the Sabha employees – Bhai Sarjit Singh (late) and Hardev Kaur saw the man that was Pritam Singh but much of the Exco did not. Given that all his proposals pertaining to the direction and goals of the Sabha were presented by me – in writing and orally, it was inevitable that some of the politicking that was aimed at Master Pritam Singh spilled over to me.
By the end of his second term, we realized – or at least I realized – that the Jathedar’s desire to re-set the direction and goals of the Sabha was not going to be achieved. Most in the Sabha Exco were comfortable with the status quo. After one particularly ugly, chaotic and disturbing Exco meeting, he invited Sarjit Singh, Hardev Kaur and myself to a movie treat in the theatre. He laughed heartily at every piece of comedy, asking me why I wasn’t laughing. It was difficult to fathom the kind of big hearted, generous and jovial man he was. I told him after the movie that I would want to be excused from his third and final term in the Sabha. He told me his motorcycle would continue to ply the roads between Batang Berjuntai and Kuala Lumpur for another year.
Our latest and final interactions were during the meetings of the Dharm Parchar Committee of the Malaysian Gurdwaras Council (MGC). His understanding of Sikhi, Gurbani and Gurmat was astounding, and he contributed a great deal towards the workings of the committee.
I will forever remember him fondly as a man with saintly qualities and a humanitarian disposition. May his loved ones be blessed with strength and courage to bear their pain. Goodbye Master ji, you will be dearly missed.
AKHAND PATH: Commencing 4pm, 22 April 2021 (Thursday) to 24 April 2021 (Saturday) at Gurdwara Sahib Tatt Khalsa Diwan, Kuala Lumpur. PATH DA BHOG: 3.30pm-4pm, 24 April 2021 (Saturday) followed by Kirtan Darbar form 4pm-6pm. For the link for live stream of the Paath da Bhog and Kirtan Darbar, click here.
Sikh thinker, writer and parcharak Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston), is a retired Malaysian civil servant. He is the joint-editor of The Sikh Bulletin and author of The Hijacking of Sikhi. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Former Naujawan Sabha chief Master Pritam Singh will be missed (Asia Samachar, 12 April 2021)
Master Pritam Singh: Jovial, humble but nurturing (Asia Samachar, 16 April 2021)
Master Pritam Singh (1941-2021), Past Jathedar of Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (Asia Samachar, 21 April 2021)
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