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. It killed 33 people and infected more than 200.
“It was a very frightening time. We were all afraid of getting 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 his 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.
Sikhs formed the nucleus of the Straits Settlement security structure under the British government, with many also occupying senior positions in the military.
The exhibition’s project lead Malminderjit Singh said Singapore’s bicentennial year is a good chance to revisit the stories of Sikhs brought here by the British and who helped to shape the country many now call home.
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.
He is among 19 local Sikh pioneers featured in an exhibition to celebrate the first Sikh Heritage Day, launched by President Halimah Yacob yesterday.
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.
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.
“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.