They came, they participated and they were not disappointed. This perhaps best summed up the reaction and feeling of the more than 60 participants who attended the seminar on “Leadership in the Sikh Community: The Road Ahead!” held at RELC on 15 May 2004.

Organised by YSA, the seminar aimed at examining Sikh leadership at the community and societal levels so as to address the challenges faced by the Sikhs and map out plans and strategies so that we continue to strive and progress as a community and as part of the larger Singapore society. At the same time, the seminar provided the participants with the opportunity to share their views on leadership in the Sikh community and their future hopes in this regard.

Kicking off the presentation, Assoc Prof Tan Tai Yong, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, provided an external perspective on the challenges facing the Sikh community and how its leaders would have to address them. He traced the origin of Sikhism and stated that the challenges faced then were of a different nature – one that involved the survival of the faith. For example, the emergence of the Khalsa was the outcome of social, religious and political upheavals of the time. The Sikh leadership triumphantly met each and every challenge that came their way. These included the emergence of the Singh Sabha and the Akali movements.

Tai Yong also stated that the challenges facing the Singapore Sikh community must be seen from the viewpoint of a diasporic community and the key issue was that of identity. Should it be a religious or an ethnic identity? He opined that identity evolves over time and any religion must be adaptive to such changes. The leadership must not dilute or dismantle the identity. However, trying to define and articulate it becomes a challenge for the leadership. Tai Yong touched on three elements of the Sikh identity. Firstly, is Punjabi still critical in Sikh identity? How many Sikh children speak Gurmukhi? Does this mean that there needs to be a compromise, with the education system placing more emphasis on English, Maths and Science? Secondly, the Khalsa is historically defined. Can there be leeway for differences in today’s context? Thirdly, in defining and teaching the Faith, we need to see it as being in a situation far more removed from its origin.

Mr Hernaikh Singh, Senior Director at the Singapore International Foundation, then spoke on leadership in the Sikh community from the viewpoint of one who has been involved in various Sikh institutions. In his presentation, Hernaikh made some observations about the current state of leadership such as the emergence of political leadership, absence of woman leadership, general apathy among young Sikhs, new challenges facing the Sikhs and few key players. He also provided some suggestions on addressing some of these concerns and these included changing mindsets, proactive and greater outreach efforts, sharing of leadership and greater complementary efforts.

Rounding up the presentation, Assoc Prof Kirpal Singh from the Singapore Management University spoke on the issue of leadership and national identity. He pointed out that the concept of what makes a good leader and leadership is changing. What was good yesterday may not be good today and what is good to one person may not be good to another. He examined the four key tenets of a leader. Firstly, qualifications – what are the qualities of a Sikh leader and can a non-Sikh be a leader of the Sikh community? Secondly, charisma – are there charismatic leaders in the Sikh community? Are they stretched? Thirdly, earnestness and sincerity – how do we gauge this? Are there sub-clauses in the desire of leaders to want to come forward? Fourthly, moral integrity – is there greater focus on professional integrity than on moral integrity?

Kirpal highlighted four challenges for the Sikh community. Firstly, Sikh complexity – we are still regional based and we tend to suppress our identity. Secondly, our attitudes towards women, Sikh who have cut their hair, etc., – we tend to marginalise them. Thirdly, outreach efforts – are we making enough efforts to make others in society understand us? Lastly, matching ideals to reality – are we guided by a past which may not be relevant today? How do Singaporean Sikhs differ from those in Amritsar and does this create a tension?

He concluded his presentation by examining four factors that would have an impact on the issue of leadership and identity. Firstly, the home – are we nurturing our children to be the leaders of tomorrow? Or is the focus simply on a good education? Secondly, the school – is the Punjabi language producing leaders for the community? Or is it simply making them literate in the language rather than educating them in Punjabi? Thirdly, the workplace – how do we manifest the Sikh culture and values at the workplace? Do we stand up to these values? Lastly, the social/civic spaces – Are we able to handle the discrimination and taunting? Do we stand up and fight or do we simply walk away?

The participants appreciated the fact that the speakers were frank and candid during the presentations as well as during the discussions that followed. The comments from the floor were equally frank and vocal. The issues raised ranged from the Sikh identity in today’s context, Sikh leader vs leadership in the Sikh community, the evolution of the role of the Sikh women to the importance of substance over form. Many of the participants felt that, as the faith teaches us, we should look at leadership from the heart rather than the mind.

The seminar certainly showed that the participants were concerned about the Sikh community and wanted to play an active role in ensuring that we, as a community, continue to progress and prosper.

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