New Delhi: Every year in December, Satwant Singh 53, a lawyer from Singapore, closes his firm to carry out community service in Punjab, a state in northern India.
Before making the trip, he would have visited twice to scout the school and meet the principal, teachers and village elders to firm up the project.
Once the school is adopted, Singh, accompanied by a team of young Singaporeans from different ethnic backgrounds, gives a facelift to the dilapidated structures.
The team then provides resources that help students to perform better in life.
Every year, he leads a new team that helps, endures and in the process learns.
Having initiated the project in 2003, Singh has helped 16 schools in several villages — including Dembru Khurd, Bhaloor, Korewala, Mandiala, Asi Kalan and Mehma — that fall in different zones such as Chandigarh, Patiala, Ludhiana, Gurdaspur and Ferozepur.
From refurbishing laboratories and libraries to holding workshops and painting murals in classrooms, and from conducting training sessions for teachers on school management and offering toys and clothing to setting up computer rooms and donating furniture, Singh and his teams have undertaken various significant works to transform lives.
Providing an insight into some interesting aspects of his work, Singh said, “I believe there’s harmony in diversity and that’s the reason the teams comprise a mix of Chinese, Malay, South Indians and Sikhs.
“This is done for people from different backgrounds to come together and learn from one another’s culture. For those living in Singapore, Punjab can never be considered a tourist destination. In fact, I have come across people, criticising Punjab, the place of their origin, and find it very unfair. With such projects, I am trying to dispel the notions of the younger generation and making them realise that Punjab is a land of warm-hearted and hospitable people.”
The volunteers are not allowed to stay in a hotel.
Singh feels a comfortable stay will make them feel superior and arrogant and defeat the entire purpose of doing ‘sewa’ (service).
“All 20 of us stay in the village. This is deliberate, as I expect participants to be able to relate to the villagers and have a first-hand knowledge of their living conditions. They need to see how the poor survive despite meagre means and how children still excel in their studies,” Singh informed.
“The experience makes them appreciate life and the things they have all along taken for granted. They are not given the [comforts] they are accustomed to. For instance: if there’s no electricity, so be it. The water heater will not work and they have to use cold water for bathing like the villagers. Also, there’s no fast food restaurant to order food from. Lack of such facilities not only enhances their survival skills, but they also learn to appreciate life and understand the culture and habits of villagers and come back enriched,” he added.
Singh’s journey towards philanthropy began in 2000 when he came across the Youth Expedition Project (YEP), an international service-learning programme that aims to churn out self-confident youth, willing to work as a team to fulfil their role and obligations towards society. Impressed, Singh suggested to his fellow Young Sikh Association (Singapore) members that included a group of his childhood friends, to consider starting a voluntary organisation.
He explained, “We brainstormed and formed Project Khwaish, an annual community service expedition. But, as happens in any organisation, whoever opens his mouth, ends up doing the project. So, I ended up taking most of the responsibilities!”
Denied education when young has perhaps been the basis of Singh’s mission to see that other children are not deprived of schooling. Born in Malaysia, Singh’s parents and siblings migrated to Singapore in 1969. The family lived in a one-room tenement.
“We were so poor that we could afford a TV set when I was 15. Being the eldest son in a family of eight children, responsibilities fell on me when I turned 16,” Singh said.
“Though I loved to study, my father told me he could no longer support my education. Imagine, I never skipped a single day of school and was suddenly forced to discontinue my studies. I cried through the day and night unable to fathom why my life was different compared to other children,” he said.
Overcoming the initial shock, he soon landed a job as an office boy at a textile firm. Seeing his sincerity towards work and the ability to communicate with customers and selling the products, he was designated for the post of a manager within a span of two years. The young boy was entrusted with responsibilities that entailed depositing thousands of dollars in the bank on a daily basis.
Still, struggles were not over for him. In Singapore, every able male is required to do national service for two-and-a-half years. Singh joined the Singapore Armed Forces and became a physical training instructor in 1983. Eventually, he signed a contract with SAF for another six years, as he needed the income to sustain his family. He quit the job in 1992. A year earlier, he was married to a girl from Punjab and had resolved to provide better living conditions to his family. This meant resuming his studies at the age of 27.
Singh recalled, “It was a challenging time, as I still had to support the family. But, at the same time, desperately wanted to obtain a degree. Having no option, I took up law studies, without any intentions of becoming a lawyer! The purpose was to be gainfully employed and feed my family. But even while doing my postgraduate law course in 1996, I worked as a security guard from 7pm to 7am at the Methodist Girls’ School. Nothing could deter me from my goal and I was determined to succeed.”
After five years of struggle during law school, times changed. Singh became a lawyer in 1997. “I was a partner in a law firm for 13 years before setting up my own firm Satwant & Associates in 2010.”
Singh, however, never forgot the hardships he underwent and focused on how he could pay back to society. He stated, “Donating money is easy, but spending time and making an effort to touch lives is extremely difficult. That is why I appreciate what volunteers do. I implore privileged people to get up and help others now, before regret sets in.”
Satwant Singh is vice-chairman of the Board of Directors in Mercy Relief, Singapore’s independent non-governmental humanitarian charity, established to respond to human tragedies in Asia. His missions have taken him to Aceh, the Gaza border, Sri Lanka, China, Philippines and most recently, Nepal. During these missions, he provided assistance and catered to the needs of the people in the wake of disasters.