Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the 550th Birthday Celebrations of Guru Nanak on 10 November 2019.
Chairman, Coordinating Council of Sikh Institutions,
Mr Baljit Singh, President,
Central Sikh Gurdwara Board,
Mr Heng Chee How,
Senior Minister of State for Defence,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Sat Sri Akal. Thank you for inviting me to be part of the 550th birthday celebrations of Guru Nanak, here at the Central Sikh Temple.
Today’s event is particularly special because we are also commemorating our bicentennial year. This is an opportunity for each community to look back on its history, and reflect on how they have become part of our Singapore story.
Contributions of the Sikh community in SingaporeThe first Sikhs came to Singapore after the British founded a trading port here in 1819. Your forefathers came in search of a better life for themselves, and their families. Life was not easy. They did not know what to expect, and they did not have a lot. They worked hard and earned an honest living, sharing what they had with family, friends and neighbours.
Over the years, the Sikh community has progressed with Singapore, and made significant contributions in diverse fields. Quite a number have distinguished themselves in their chosen professions. For example, the late Dr Sarban Singh was the first Sikh local medical practitioner in Singapore; the late Justice Choor Singh was a judge of the Supreme Court; Mr Jarmal Singh captained our national rugby team when it was awarded Team of the Year in 1978; Mr Karan Singh Thakral, is a successful entrepreneur and is currently our non-resident Ambassador to Denmark; and Professor Berinderjeet Kaur is one of our leading mathematics educators, helping to nurture the next generation of math teachers. She does all this while also chairing the Singapore Khalsa Association Ladies Wing.
Besides personal and professional achievements, the Sikh community has also been generous in serving those in need – not just within your community, but beyond. This spirit is an embodiment of Guru Nanak’s concepts of langar – equality and service to all through provision of free food at the temples, regardless of race and religion; and sewa – selfless service, where an individual works for a common cause without expecting to be rewarded. These teachings remain deeply-rooted in the Sikh community, and continue to be key pillars of the Sikh faith and way of life in your everyday lives.
The Langar Outreach programme is a good example. It is a collaboration between Sikh temples and non-profit organisation Willing Hearts. Every day, Gurdwaras prepare fresh vegetarian meals, which are then delivered by volunteers to needy families all across Singapore. Notably, both volunteers and beneficiaries come from different races and religions. In addition, as part of year-long celebrations to mark the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak, the Sikh community also launched the Sewa Pledge Initiative. Under this ground-up initiative, you have collectively pledged to contribute 550,000 volunteer hours. This is especially impressive for such a small community. Many Sikhs, of all ages and backgrounds, have generously volunteered their time and effort, in activities ranging from helping out at homes for the aged, to showing appreciation for migrant workers. You have made a big impact, and I am confident that you will achieve your target by the end of the year.
Both the Langar Outreach Programme and the Sewa Pledge are also reminders that no act or contribution is too small, and that everyone can do our part to make a difference. In fact, this is the spirit of our Singapore Together Movement. For our people to partner with each other and the Government, in an expanded democracy of deeds, going beyond giving feedback and ideas, to taking concrete action to help those around us. I hope that more Singaporeans will be inspired by your example to embrace the spirit of partnership and service, and work with each other and across communities to build a better Singapore.
Helping to foster racial and religious harmony
Another key contribution of the Sikh community is in promoting racial and religious harmony. You actively participate in MCCY’s BRIDGE 1 initiative, which promotes a deeper understanding on racial and religious issues through engagement and dialogue. Earlier this year, in conjunction with our inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies, all seven Sikh Gurdwaras, along with 250 other religious organisations, also affirmed our shared Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony.
The Sikh community has also been very welcoming to those of other religions, taking the initiative to create opportunities for others to learn more about your culture. One notable example is the gracious way in which the Sikh community responded to a young lady’s Instagram post in September. Many netizens had reacted angrily to her post, because they felt that she had been insensitive and disrespectful towards the Sikh community. But instead of taking offense, the Young Sikh Association chose to reach out to the young lady. They invited her to spend the day with them to learn more about Sikh beliefs, traditions and culture. Together, they visited this very temple, which is also known for regularly hosting visitors to give those outside the community a chance to learn more about the Sikh faith. Through this response, you turned a potentially divisive incident into an opportunity to deepen mutual understanding and respect. Your thoughtful actions are commendable.
The Sikh community also organises festivals regularly, which are open to people of all races and religions. For instance, Our Tampines Hub played host to two-day Sikh Heritage Day celebration in June! For those who are younger, or young at heart, the Young Sikh Association’s annual racial harmony football tournament has also been a fun way to get to know people from different backgrounds. In recent tournaments, each team has had at least three members from different ethnic groups or nationalities. There is nothing quite like bonding together over a shared love of sports, and I hope this tournament continues for many years to come!
And earlier this year, the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board and the National University of Singapore also launched the NUS Visiting Professorship in Sikh Studies, the first of its kind in Asia outside of India. This Professorship will not only enrich the global body of academic work on Sikh heritage, but also deepen our appreciation for the contributions of the Sikh community in Singapore.
Over the last 200 years, the Sikh community has contributed greatly to Singapore, guided by the teachings of Guru Nanak, and your core beliefs of hard work and selfless service. These are values that should inspire and motivate not just the Sikh community, but all Singaporeans. If we keep true to these values, I am confident that the Sikh community, and Singapore, will continue to do well for many years to come.
I wish you a very pleasant evening. Thank you.
1Broadening Racial & Religious Interaction through Dialogue and General Education
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