18 JANUARY 2016: The Sikhs make up the smallest community of Indians in Singapore. They first arrived in Singapore as part of the sepoys, servants or convicts of the British East India Company.
The term “Sikh” originally referred to the followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The word was derived from either the Sanskrit words “sisya” or “siksa”, meaning “disciple” and “instruction” respectively, or from the Pali word “sikkha”, meaning “training” or “study”. Today, the term “Sikh” is used to refer to a person who follows the teachings of the Ten Sikh Gurus.
Sikhs in Singapore have been largely recruited by the Police and for undertaking security work. They’re often dubbed as fearless and brave. An ancient people with a rich heritage have also contributed a great deal to Singapore’s progress and as they march forward they also look back to gain strength from their history. Still this may prove a struggle for the younger generation.
Rajeshpal Singh Khalsa, vice president of the Sikh Centre, points out that it depends on family background. “Children that come from families who provide the background, teachings and exposures to Sikh history, values and customs have less of an issue,” he says. Conversely, those who do not have this exposure have a much stronger sense of disconnect. For those who have grown up with the connection, their cultural identity is strong.
“Sikhs are a minority in Singapore,” explains Nirmolak Singh Bajaj, who has just completed his national service. “Because of that, many Sikhs, old or young have been bullied due to being outnumbered or because the offenders are not knowledgeable of our religion.”
For Bajaj, it is very important that the cultural connection is not lost, and that traditions are continued. As he explains, “We can show that we are united.
“Otherwise we become a laughing stock, and that we ourselves don’t respect our own religion. We do not take it seriously, so why should others?”
Bajaj says that he has no sense of disconnect, nor any difficulty with keeping in touch with his roots.
Not all younger Sikhs share his thoughts however. Manick Kalra, an electrical engineering and business student at NUS, is clean-shaven and does not wear a turban. When asked his ethnicity, he first answers Singaporean, then Northern Indian. Punjabi even comes before he calls himself Sikh when asked.
“I am proud of who I am,” Kalra explains, “but my connection to my ‘roots’ in this sense is weak.”
He says that the reason why he is clean-shaven is because of his father, who also made the decision to forgo the turban. “In the environment he grew up in and even today people with turbans are discriminated against everywhere.
“Perhaps he did not want me to face that.” Even his name, traditionally spelt ‘Manik,’ was changed to Manick at the behest of his father so it could be shortened to ‘Nick,’ Kalra explains. He believes this was all done to give him opportunities where his ethnicity might have denied him.
For Kalra, not wearing a turban or shaving your beard is not a sign that you have abandoned your culture. “A big part of Sikhism is questioning rituals, and not just accepting what you are told to do.” He admits that he is not sure why he does not follow the customs, but defends his right to not have to openly show his cultural affiliation.
This unwillingness to wear the traditional Sikh motifs, for the older generation, can be seen as more of a desire to fit in. Khalsa is somewhat sympathetic to this issue. “If you are more concerned with fitting into society and your groups, then it's difficult because right at the start you are perceived as different and alien from others.”
He does however think that is it not difficult to adhere to the cultural norms being Sikh entails. “If you want to live a life that uplifts humanity and yourself and you want to use the Sikh tradition as a discipline to pursue this, it's as easy as pie because you love it.”
Is it so easy though for the younger generation to keep their cultural identity? Inderjit Singh, businessman and former Member of Parliament for Ang Moh Kio GRC believes it is a common problem. “In these times it has become increasingly difficult for any race or religion to get the younger generation connected to their heritage, culture and religion.”
He points to the influence that western media has in the country, and that traditional means of teaching children about their roots cannot compete. New means of education must be found. Singh strongly believes that being aware of one’s cultural heritage is what defines an individual, especially the core values, which “make our societies strong.”
This is what Khalsa has been pushing within the community. “We pay particular attention to the youth to keep them engaged and slowly to let them explore their roots through Programmes and experiences,” he says.
On 11 January, The Straits Times profiled the work of Amardeep Singh. The former credit card executive published last month a 500 page tome on the history of Sikhs in Pakistan called Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan. The desire to have a sense of connection with the past is strong with certain members of the Sikh community.
It bears repeating that the Sikhs are a proud people. And why wouldn’t they be? Check out what Singh means — most male Sikhs adopt the term “Singh” (meaning “lion”) as part of their name, while most female Sikhs have the name “Kaur” (meaning “princess").