“Faster, what colour, what colour!”
This is something that many of us are familiar with: The ‘pinching game’. For the uninitiated, this ‘game’ is initiated when one spots a man with a turban in the vicinity. One will then pinch our friend(s) and continue pinching them until they tell us the colour of the turban.
When we were younger, this ‘pinching game’ was just some harmless fun with friends. We were naively unaware of how racist the game is. We knew very little about the meaning of a turban or the people who wear one and to us, we were just poking fun at something that was unfamiliar.
However, we have grown up, both individually and as a society, to be a lot more careful around topics of race and religion. We have emphasised on the importance of respecting the Malays, Indians, even the Chinese group, and the different religions in Singapore.
There is one minority group, however, who has often gotten sidelined in our society: The Sikhs.
We see them around, but most of us have hardly mingled with a Sikh before, much less know anything about the Sikh culture. The average Singaporean would have only noticed the turban and the bearing of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ in their names, but what else?
A Peek Into The Sikh Way Of Life
I first stepped into a gurdwara (Sikh temple) last week, where I met the founder of Sikhs of Singapore, Perinder Kaur, to learn about the Sikh way of life.
Midway through the tour around the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road (Silat Road Sikh Temple), we also got to speak with Harjit Kaur, the Vice Chair of the Sikh Centre at the temple, and Baljit Singh, the President of Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, who gave us insights into what it means to be a Sikh in Singapore.
As an agnostic, what stuck out the most to me is how authentic Sikhism, the faith of a Sikh person, is. The beliefs and teachings of Sikhism are largely centered around being a good person.
In fact, in the words of the trio, being a Sikh is to be “a student of life.”
Baljit explained, “we are all on a journey, between now and the end point, and one of the things I’ve learnt [in Sikhism] is that you want to attain Mukti, salvation in your living life,” and for him, attaining salvation is simply being able to be a good person and leading a truthful life.
Teachings like the three tenets of Sikhism, act as a guideline and a conscious reminder for Sikhs to be a good person.
Sikhs believe in one God and follow the scriptures laid out by their Gurus, and it is up to every Sikh individual to interpret and follow the teachings. As such, Sikhism is a very personal journey for every Sikh.
“Each of us is on a journey at a different pace, and the accountability is in each of us to answer to the one supreme Lord.”
Interesting, although Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, Sikhs do not pray to a definite form of God. Rather, their God is an abstract interpretation of a higher force.
Thus, if you were to visit any gurdwaras, you will not find any effigies like you would at churches (Jesus Christ) or Buddhist temples (Buddha), for example. Instead, Sikhs pray to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy scripture, which contains the teachings of the Sikh religion.
The 1430-page holy scripture is so highly-revered that one does not simply buy it off the shelf at a bookstore. It is meticulously transported from India to Singapore with assistance from authorities at Changi Airport and even our local police.
“It’s almost like you’re welcoming God into your home,” Perinder mused, on bringing the holy scripture to a new home.
What Does It Take To Be A Sikh?
Like Christianity, Sikhism has its version of baptism as well. The Amrit Sanchaar, or Amrit for short, can be taken by a Sikh anytime, but once undertaken, it is a pledge to lead the Sikh way of life.
Besides the believe in one eternal God and the 10 Gurus and to follow the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, this commitment includes a firm promise to live by the 3 tenets of Sikhism, The Five Ks, and the rules of the Four Taboos and Five Vices.
The Five Ks
The Five Ks are five articles of faith worn by Sikhs and are symbolic of the Sikh culture
The Kara, is an iron bangle that a Sikh has to wear at all times, irrespective of gender. There are multiple interpretations to the meaning of the Kara. One of it propounds that the circular shape of the bangle signifies eternity, which also means that there is no beginning and end to the almighty.
The Kesh represents hair, which Sikhs believe is a gift of God and Sikhs keep their hair as a form of respect. This is why many Sikhs have a long beard or long hair.
One of the reasons why Sikhs wear turbans is also to honour this gift (of hair), and to keep it clean and neat. A turban is also part of the ‘uniform code’ and has become an identity for Sikhs. And because a turban has become a form of identity for the Sikhs, making fun of a Sikh’s turban is akin to making fun of an Indian for having ‘brown skin’, for example.
Then, there is the Kanga, a small comb that Sikhs keep in the hair (within the turban). Likewise, it signifies discipline and cleanliness.
Sikhs also carry a Kirpan around, which is a dagger and a symbol of the Sikh’s sovereignty, pride and dignity. It also signifies a Sikh’s duty to defend the weak and helpless from any injustice. In Singapore, there are regulations in place for safety, such as a limitation to the size of the dagger (up to six inches long).
Lastly, the Kashera, which is a pair of ‘baggy shorts’ that signifies ‘self-restraint’ and falls in line with one of the Four Taboos (adultery).
The Four Taboos & Five Vices
In Sikhism, Sikhs are supposed to steer clear of the four taboos and five vices.
The four taboos in Sikhism are: No adultery, no cutting hair, no intoxication (cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol), and no consumption of meat that is slaughtered or prepared in a religious manner.
Lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego makes up the five vices.
Although these are taboos and vices laid out by the faith, almost all of these (besides the one about hair and meat) are temptations that all of us face in life. These ‘rules’ are pretty much guidelines to help one become a better human being.
With that said, what I respected the most is how honest and real Harjit was when she spoke about these commitments.
“Having said that, it’s not like you have taken Amrit (baptism) and you’ve become perfect, It’s a promise. I have taken Amrit but I can still get angry. It is something that I’m still working on.”
Being A Sikh Is Also About Being Selfless
Besides those core teachings, there is another prominent trait of Sikhs, which is their concept of Sewa (selfless service).
It is mentioned in Gurbani, that Seva (service) can be done by “tan, man, dhan,” which breaks Seva into three types: “Physical service, mental service, and monetary service.”
This ethos is so strong among Sikhs that it is literally what keeps the gurdwara running.
Harjit shared: “[The gurdwara runs] totally on the basis of sharing, hundred percent. With everything, the building, the food, the provisions for Langar (food), the upkeep of the place. Anytime we want to change the carpets or the lights, people donate wholeheartedly. Everything.”
Considering how expensive it must be to run a temple and how small the community is in terms of numbers, I was surprised to learn that all seven gurdwaras in Singapore are fully supported by donations. This takes into account the supply of free meals at their Langar hall every day, which is open to anyone and everyone regardless of race or religion.
“The people that you see in the kitchen are all volunteers who come down to cut the vegetables and prepare the rations for the day so that the community kitchen is kept running. This is basically the essence of the religion, to serve without any inhibitions.”
There are also many regular volunteers who do different types of Sewa for the temple and the community. Even Baljit and Harjit, who both hold positions of authority in the gurdwara, are volunteers themselves.
In fact, the temple board faces a ‘happy problem’ of regular volunteers refusing to accept plaques for their years of service, because “they said they don’t do the service for any sort of appreciation or recognition.”
Keeping The Faith Alive
There are about 12,000 to 15,000 Sikhs in Singapore today, which makes up only 0.26% of our population of about 5.8 million. That possibly makes Sikhs a minority among the groups of minorities in Singapore.
Despite the size of the community, I have, through the two hours spent at the gurdwara, realise how much they have to offer to our society. For example, in the recent incident where local influencer Sheena Phua called two Sikh men “obstructions”, the Sikh community could have easily hit back with criticisms. But the youth from the Young Sikh Association invited Sheena to the Gurdwara, showed her around and shared the beliefs of Sikh faith with her.
Perinder explained, “But you look at the bigger picture: What do you want to do? Do you want to stay angry or, moving forward, do you look at it as an opportunity for you to actually engage? As a community, we took a very important stand that we would not react with anger. Rather, educate, not hate.”
This is where a platform like Sikhs of Singapore comes in to raise awareness and bridge the gap, through sharing stories of the everyday Sikh and to address common misconceptions among Singaporeans.
In a country like ours where we are so multiracial and multicultural, this is so important: The empathy and patience in being able to take a step back to re-evaluate how we deal with or even react to any racially or religiously sensitive situation.
It’s hard in practice of course, but as with the teachings of Sikhism, it is something that will do all of us good to strive for.
Baljit shared that 550 years ago, their first Guru made a very apt comment about how there is no separation between different races or religions, because at the end of the day, we are all the same. It’s all about humanity.
“We don’t identify people by their faiths, we identify that every person is a human being.”