Dawn of a new ‘seva’ (community) era for Singapore Sikhs

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By Suresh Nair

THE Singapore Sikhs have plenty of reasons to hold their turbans high as the new season dawns on a new chapter for the Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA).

Structurally, the re-opening of the SKA clubhouse, after a major upgrading costing $12 million on December 30, marked a landmark for further bondings in education, culture, sports and social within the community and integrating with the multi-racial Singapore community.

The Singapore Khalsa Association’s (SKA) building at Tessensohn Road was constructed in the late 1960s as a focal point for the educational, cultural, sporting and social needs of the Singapore Sikh community.

According to SKA President Mohinder Singh, until the early 1990’s, the building was mostly used for classes to teach the Punjabi language for young Singaporean Sikhs. On weekends the SKA auditorium hosted both Sikh and non-Sikh wedding ceremonies.

“The need to rebuild the aging SKA building was imperative to meet the new challenges of the community, especially the younger generation,” he says. But the challenges of keeping the escalating maintenance costs of a 45-year-old building while continuing with activities conducive, safe and inclusive setting were glaring realities which his committee faced.

Formally opening the new clubhouse, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam praised the “extraordinary spirit of the strong and united Sikh community, with a distinct sense of ethnic identity”.

He noted that the modern generation, with a multi-racial concept in mind, continues to do what the early Sikh pioneers and community leaders in devoting their energy and efforts to nurturing and sustaining the rich Punjabi culture and Sikh traditions that they had brought with them from the Punjab.

“They rallied the community to build and maintain Sikh temples, teach the Punjabi language, and pass on traditional values to the younger generation. As a result, the community has preserved and developed its heritage while maintaining and growing its links with other Singaporeans,” he adds.

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Specifically touching on the spirit of “seva” (community spirit), DPM Tharman praises:  “Your religious philosophy and culture emphasise mutual help, respect for others, and community service or ‘seva’. The practice of open kitchens at all Sikh Gurdwaras, where anyone is welcome for a meal, is exemplary. More Singaporeans are also participating in the annual Vesakhi Mela which celebrates your vibrant cultural heritage, and reinforces our multicultural ethos.”

The history books tell the real story, says the DPM of how the SKA started from humble beginnings. In colonial Singapore in the 1930s, locals were not welcome in the established clubs on the Padang. Undeterred, a group of young Sikh schoolboys started a makeshift club in a wooden hut at a playing field near Sungei Bendemeer.

Chairman of the SKA Building Organising Committee, LTC (Rtd) Charanjit Singh recounts how over time, membership in the club multiplied, and the activities grew. He adds: “With the strong support of the community, a permanent clubhouse was eventually established. Successive Sikh leaders have continued to work hard to establish the SKA as a first-class institution providing excellent social, educational and recreational facilities for the community.”

GROUND-UP APPROACH

The new season brings refreshing hopes after a “ground-up approach was taken and a retreat organised to harness our members’ and the Sikh community’s views on the future role of the SKA to and the facilities required”.

He says: “The extensive feedback received was channelled to engage our community leaders and building consultants to finalise the design brief before calling for tenders.”  The budget-prudent renovations took place between November 2014 to November 2016 when members had to bear with an extended period when functions and activities could not be hosted here.

DPM Tharman singularly noted that the SKA has adopted a wholesome Singaporean approach and reached out to other groups and promoted inter-racial harmony. “The SKA has collaborated with community organisations to organise social and sporting activities. It has also opened up its activities and programmes to more Singaporeans of other races,” he praises.

Mohinder Singh says a “growing number of non-Sikhs are already associate members of the SKA” adding that “we’ve evolved into a meeting place where Sikhs can meet and mingle with non-Sikhs, socialise, and make friends across racial and religious lines”.

The new-look SKA now advocates the government’s policy on building the country on a different model: One based on multi-racialism and meritocracy; a country where every Singaporean regardless of race or religion is an equal to his fellow citizen.

The six-storey building now stands out as the pride of the Balestier Plains, which also includes the Singapore Indian Association (SIA), Singapore Chinese Recreation Club (SCRC) and Ceylon Sports Club (CSC).

The key features such as two ballrooms, one with an enlarged floor space for larger banquets; three new lifts; new offices; a dance studio; new function rooms; and a gymnasium with glass walls. Toilets for the disabled and ramps have been added. More reception spaces can now be found outside the ballrooms, thanks to semi-circular extensions. A roof-top activity area overlooks the Balestier Plain fields.

SYSTEM OF MERITOCRACY

Sikhs in Singapore have distinctively thrived under our system of meritocracy, notes Mohinder. The first wave of Sikhs came to Singapore in the last quarter of the 19th century. They were mainly policemen and watchmen recruited from India to help maintain law and order here.

Over the years, Sikhs have taken advantage of the abundant opportunities to move up in society. Today, Sikhs can be found in all the professions. Many occupy senior positions. Many have distinguished themselves in public service, in government or the armed forces.

Despite being a very small minority community in Singapore, Sikhs have been able to succeed in their respective career choices, a testimony to the benefits which our meritocratic system has brought to every single Singaporean.

Mohinder emphasises: “Closely linked to the ideal of racial harmony is the fundamental principle of meritocracy and equal opportunity for all. As a multi-racial society, we are made up of several ethnic and religious communities. No society can discriminate in favour of any ethnic or religious group and avoid deep trouble.”

Also at the Friday event were prominent Sikh politicians, even from the Workers’ Party in Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC Pritam Singh and the former MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Inderjit Singh.

SKA General Manager Albel Singh, a retired SAF lieutenant-colonel who significantly was among the first to register for National Service in March 1967, feels the $12 million upgrades will see the Sikh community rising like a proverbial ‘Phoenix’ to be truly branded Singaporean with more activities for the younger generation in education, culture, sports and social.

“We’re already seeing more “non-traditional” use of its facilities,” he adds. “Prior to the renovation that began in November 2014, the SKA site was primarily used for Sikh weddings and receptions. While weddings continue to be popular for 2018, there are also bookings and enquiries for annual general meetings, bazaars, group programmes, meditation classes and fashion shows at the association.”

Perhaps the best example of multi-racialism in the new-found Sikh spirit can be seen with the Lee Foundation contributing $1.2m towards the efforts of the makeover of the new builiding.

Mohinder notes: “The Lee Foundation was also the major donor in the 1960s for the original building, and this time again donated generously. We have named the second storey hall “Lee Foundation Hall” to show the Sikh community’s gratitude to Lee Foundation for its substantial donations and unwavering support over the years.”

Keen to view or patronise the new-look Singapore Khalsa Association along Tessensohn Road, off Balestier Road: Please click: www.singaporekhalsa.org.sg

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