Medical worker in thick of Sars battle among those featured in Sikh exhibition

As a unit nurse manager at the Communicable Diseases Centre in 2003, Mr Harbhajan Singh was on the front lines of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic that swept Singapore.
As a unit nurse manager at the Communicable Diseases Centre in 2003, Mr Harbhajan Singh was on the front lines of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic that swept Singapore.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - During the first two days, there was no sleep and no going home.

As a unit nurse manager at the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC) in 2003, Mr Harbhajan Singh was on the front lines of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic that swept Singapore, infecting more than 200 and claiming the lives of 33 here.

"It was a very frightening time. We were all afraid of getting sick; our own nurses were falling sick... but I had no choice but to continue to do my best for the patients and the nation," said Mr Singh, 78.

Of the five healthcare workers who died of the contagious illness, two were among the 100 or so nurses under Mr Singh's charge.

During the first two weeks of the national crisis, which he describes as the most challenging of his life, the CDC bore the brunt of the load despite being ill-equipped.

It was the support of colleagues and his faith that got him through, said Mr Singh, a Sikh.

"My religion teaches us that we must do what we can for others, we must come out to help whenever there is a disaster," he said.

With 60 years of experience, Mr Singh is the longest-serving nurse in the National Healthcare Group. He continues to work part time at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he began his career at 18.

Mr Singh is the only nurse to receive the hospital's title of Emeritus Fellow, an award usually given to doctors. He was also a finalist for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year in 2018.

 
 

He is among 19 local Sikh pioneers featured in an exhibition to celebrate the first Sikh Heritage Day, launched by President Halimah Yacob on Saturday (June 8).

Visitors to the two-day exhibition at Our Tampines Hub will get a taste of traditional Sikh food and music, and can take part in activities such as learning to tie a turban.

Mr Malminderjit Singh, the event's project lead, said the community's first organised outreach event aims to promote greater understanding of Sikh heritage and tradition, as well as highlight the contributions of its members to the building of Singapore.

It was organised as part of year-long celebrations to mark the 550 birthday of the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak.

Many people may lack an understanding of who Sikhs - a "minority within a minority" in Singapore - are, said Mr Malminderjit Singh, 40. The local Sikh community numbers about 12,000.

While more young people are choosing not to don the turban that serves as a physical identifier for Sikh men, the practice remains an important part of self-identity for many followers, he said.

"The turban also helps ensure that a Sikh's unshorn hair is kept neat and it is also to help easily identify a Sikh, so it is more than a religious headgear.

"Sometimes there is a bit of a misperception that we may be aggressive, perhaps due to our distinct and imposing physical presence. But Sikhism is a peace-loving religion that came about in India as an advocate for equality," said Mr Malminderjit Singh.

Sikhism, founded in the 15th century, originated in the Punjab region in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.

Apart from helping to share Sikhism's customs and heritage, the exhibition also showcases the contributions of Singaporean Sikhs in fields ranging from politics to academia and sports.

Aside from Mr Harbhajan Singh, other prominent figures featured include former Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh and ex-Nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin, who blazed a trail for women as Singapore's first female orthopaedic surgeon and was a founding member of the Association of Women for Action and Research.

"Despite being a very small community in Singapore, we've played a significant part in contributing to society here, and are very much a part of the social fabric," said Mr Malminderjit Singh.