A Sikh's spiritual journey

This week the Faith Column focuses on the Sikh religion with Harwinder Singh describing his religion

“The Lord works in mysterious ways!” declared the preacher at Piccadilly Circus. Many of you may know who I am talking about as he seems to have become a fixture of the hustle and bustle at London’s most famous intersection. Middle-aged, white and somewhat street-wise, he looks a little like Robert Redford… until you hear his voice over the PA.

When I had first started commuting into central London to gain work experience at a myriad of film and production companies, I was cold and oblivious to my surroundings. I marched along in unison with my fellow Englishmen, muttering under my breath at the tourists who slowed our pace down to their own snail-like strolling. I would never have listened, nor tried to listen to the words that were being bellowed across the traffic over a simple wireless microphone.

Five years on and although my pace has not slowed, I have begun to take in the sounds and pictures that bombard me and my fellow Londoners at every turn. This is partly due to a hard-grafted education gained from working within the media industry and in particular an independent record label where I met some amazing individuals. But it is my journey in life as a Sikh that has mostly influenced the change in me to notice the Piccadilly Circus preacher.

A Sikh is described as a student or a disciple. But a student of whom, or what? Most of us can surmise that a Sikh is likely to be a disciple of Guru Nanak, the founder of The Sikh Way of life. But as I have come to find, it is what Guru Nanak represents and embodies that the Sikh is a student of: The Truth. This should not be misunderstood as a single, righteous proclamation of divinity, rather it is a reference to that which we call existence, reality and knowledge.

Everybody and everything is subject to the same principles and is governed by the same laws, it is simply that we have found differing ways over time to interpret these. Since graduating from University I began to spend more of my time reading and understanding the Guru Granth Sahib, the scriptural incarnation of Guru Nanak.

Little by little (sometimes merely a word at a time!) I have begun to recognise and practise Guru Nanak’s philosophy in my everyday life. Heightening my awareness to the beautiful game that is being played out around me is one such tenet that I have managed to harness.

Today, it is amazing to think that I had spent so many teenage years in slumber. My eyes were open and my ears could hear, but I was not listening nor was I able to see.

There is a wondrous thread of Divinity that weaves its way through our lives and our paths if we could just take the time to notice it. In my understanding, noticing precedes appreciation, which itself is a fore-runner for realisation.

If that is the case, then there are many stages of enlightenment that I am yet to achieve. Ten years from now, I will look back at this moment and wonder how I could’ve been so presumptuous to believe and write as I have done! With time comes experience and greater learning. Truly, the Lord does work in mysterious ways, but perhaps one day I will understand what those ways are and they won’t be so mysterious then. But as the Piccadilly Preacher, I along with the rest of the World continue to declare my knowledge and perception of reality as it is today. If I learn from it, then it has been worthwhile.

Harwinder Singh is a 26-year-old Law graduate turned film and TV producer. He is also a record label boss. Born in the UK to Punjabi parents, he been practising and studying the Sikh Way of Life for about 20 years.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.