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Indians Across Borders

March 2006
Indians Across Borders

A look at the Indian immigrant communities in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand reveals that not only do our Far Eastern counterparts have significantly different characteristics compared to Indian-Americans, but also have their subtle distinctions when compared to each other. Yet, there are common markers that bind Indian migrants everywhere in the world--things like Bollywood and bharatnatyam, curry and cricket.

In India it is quite common to club together all who have settled abroad as "NRIs" (Non Resident Indian) or "PIOs" (Person of Indian Origin) as if we are all one homogeneous community. Far from it. From Africa, USA and Great Britain to the Middle East and Far East, the Indian communities are as distinct from each other as are the host countries and regions.

For example, while assimilation (into the melting pot) may be the defining trait of "Indian-Americans", "Indians" settled in the Far East form a widely acknowledged and distinct group within their host countries. While the Indian Americans continue to stay at the top echelons of income, education, science and technology, our brethren in the Far East don't necessarily boast of such ranks as a community. On the flip side though, while in the U.S. we make pitiful attempts (of no avail) to have the president attend a Diwali function at the White House, in Singapore an Indian is at the helm of the country.

In spite of these differences, there are the common markers that tie us all as a global Indian community-- bollywood and bharatnatyam, curry and cricket, to name a few. We take a look at three immigrant communities, those in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to study the interesting subtleties and ponder on the contrasts and commonalities.

Sudhir Kamthania is a ground instructor at the Malaysian Flying Academy in Melaka. He immigrated to Malaysia less than a year ago with his wife Kiran. He misses India--both the good and the bad--but he feels he is making a greater contribution to society where he is. And he has a better standard of living. "I have more purchasing power leading to a better quality of life," Kamthania says. "Besides it isn't too difficult to find India anywhere you are."

Indian expatriates have for decades found their way to Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Many in these nations have become incorporated into the culture and fabric of the land they have adopted. The more recent immigrants still remain distinct in many respects even as they make their way through the social structure of their new countries.

Life for Indian immigrants in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand is vastly different from the life of non-resident Indians in the U.S. The Indian way of life has been intricately interwoven into the cultures of Southeast Asian countries, thanks to a history of migration from India to these countries going back a few generations. Yet, even within those three countries, the differences are evident. They represent a transforming curve of the incorporation of immigrants into a culture, with Malaysia at one end and Thailand at the other. Hindu Indians are a very tangible presence -- and a large segment of the population in Malaysia, a primarily Muslim nation. While Thailand, a nation steeped in Buddhism, a religion that traces its origins to India shows but a shadow of its Hindu legacy.

Singapore is more like the West -- and somewhere in the middle of the curve with a prosperous Indian community but known as a land of greater opportunity in general.

While Indians in the U.S. have adapted to the American way of life, in this trio of nations, Indians have introduced their way of life into the culture. They have stayed rooted in their age-old sensibilities and are recognizable as a separate entity even as they have mixed into the local landscape. In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, Indian has become another facet of the mainstream culture itself.

Malaysia--from rubber plantations to India-town

Sea-enveloped Malaysia, is famous globally for its silvery towers, the Petronas. Like most ancient civilizations, including India, Malaysia's aboriginal tribes, the Orang Asli, have over the decades made way for Chinese and Indian settlers. Indian Tamils started immigrating to the Malayan shores in the 1870s in search of work. They found work on the coastal rubber plantations. Many were disappointed in their hopes of finding a better quality of life. But a majority stayed despite being relegated to a lower social status. Gradually the second and third generations, now Malaysian citizens themselves, sought to correct the inequality. They fought for and made a better place for themselves in society. They succeeded so well that Tamil is now rampant on the Malaysian streets and Diwali is celebrated with as much fervor as the streets of India . Happy Deepavali is a prevalent salutation throughout the season.

Even so, many Malaysian Tamils still identify themselves as Indian. Hindus and Muslims alike are born into and marry within their kind, and sustain their legacies. Especially in communities like the Chettiars who were originally money lenders from Madras (now called Chennai). The Moplahs and the Marakkayars are Indian Muslims who were mainly wholesalers.

With changing times, the plantations are gone and have given way to urban townships and shopping zones, which are seeped heavily in indigenous customs as well as those of the immigrants. Melaka has Devibala shops and Penang, the celebrated India Town.

Ironically the division now is between early immigrants and recent ones. Namodar Chettiar is one of the "original" immigrants. His loyalties sit firmly with his adopted country. "We may be Indians at the core but our loyalty is with Malaysia. We share more similarities with our Chinese neighbors than we do with recently relocated Indians," Chettiar says. "Especially since the newer immigrants come from everywhere -- Bombay, Delhi."

While the early settlers feel more a part of the local culture, newer immigrants feel they have more of an elite status. "An immigrant Indian is treated with a bit of respect compared to a Malaysian Indian," says Venugopal Pashupati, an aviator and recent immigrant. Whether they call themselves Indian immigrant or Malaysian Indian, Indians now make up one of the largest population group -- about 10 percent. Chinese and Malays are the other two major groups.

Dressed in Malayan tie-and-dye fabrics, Indians in Malaysia are as much a part of the national canvas as any other citizen. Even the Indian tourist has reason to feel at home in tourist hotspots like Langkawi. After all, he could be just another Malaysian. There is even a conscious and ongoing effort to further diminish the inequities between Malaysian-Indians and other ethnic groups. A vocal spokesperson is Dato' Seri S. Samy Vellu, the Minister of Works and president of Malaysian Indian Congress, a partner in the ruling National Front Coalition since 1979. He has often raised the issues of equity ownership and more job opportunities in the public sector for Indians. Both issues were debated in the special convention on Malaysian Indians and ninth Malaysia Plan held in Kuala Lumpur in early 2005.

Malaysia's Indian connection obviously runs deep. Deeper than most people imagine. The Borneo state of Sarawak, an island that is rumored to have carnivorous plants and water guzzling shrubs was gifted to James Brooke, an Englishman who was originally Indian by birth. It was a gift for curbing a rebellion in Borneo. The people of the region paid obeisance to him and called him the White Rajah. While the days of kings and queens may very well be a thing of the past, the people find themselves enmeshed into Hindu culture.

Eating big is an Indian thing anywhere, and in Malaysia, fans of Indian foods can indulge to their heart's content. And while chaat, dhokla, dosa and chhole bhatura may not be the goodies you find on the street, gorging on treats in the streets is not an experience savored only in India anymore. The Malaysian alternatives to long-time Indian street-food favorites are, if anything, more scrumptious, if only due to the smart improvisations. Roti Canai, Ayam Tandoori and Thosai are only a few examples of the delicious counterparts to the Indian Dal-roti, Tandoori chicken and Dosa.

Even the food-buying habits are similar. Especially in the older towns like Melaka, people buy food from brightly decorated and light-studded stalls on the street, just as millions of people still do in India.

Perhaps the greatest proof of Malaysia's fascination with India is in its embracing Bollywood ? read Shah Rukh Khan. And it's leaning toward Indian classical dances like Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi. Bollywood is catching on like wildfire across the length and breadth of the nation. And while Indian immigrants in the U.S. are accustomed to the occasional blockbuster or the rare star-studded stage show making its way across borders, Malaysians -- all Malaysians are addicted to Bollywood.

Festivities and technology..Singapore

Equally historic, the islands of Singapore with their deep harbors have played a key role as a staging port between Europe, India and the Far East. Many Indian traders who came here never went back. More recent immigrants were lured by the technology-reliant economy of this highly developed nation.

Located just off the southern tip of Malaysia, mainland Singapore is only about twenty-six miles wide and fourteen miles long. Even within these small confines India has found its place in the popular Little India and the area surrounding the Mustafa Center. Both have formed a desi nucleus, where on any given day visitors can experience everything from blaring Hindi film music to Indian delicacies.

While Indian immigration to the U.S. is a recent phenomenon, Singapore's ties with the nation go back a long way. Colloquially known as ‘Sing-pura', the country's name translates to Lion City in Hindi. Singapore also has a sizable Tamil population--about 60% of Singapore's Indians. And Indian expatriates here have inspired a whole new chapter of Indian legacy within Singapore. Tamil, along with three other languages is one of Singapore's national languages. Indian heritage is also on full display in the cultural composition of the land. Classical Indian dance has traditionally been a part of the religious rituals of Singapore, and the Indians living there celebrate important Indian festivals like Diwali and Id with great pomp and splendor. Even the rare Indian festival of Thaiponggai, which celebrates the end of the rainy season, is a cause for much gaiety in Singapore.

But when they are not celebrating Holi or Diwali, Indians in Singapore are "regular guys." Not necessarily part of the higher echelons of the economic classes. Even at a cursory glance, the difference between the education level and professional competence between Indian Americans and Indians on this side of the globe are very evident. Indians in Singapore routinely perform menial tasks like hygiene workers in public places, hotels and malls.

Though, this scenario is fast changing. On-line recruiters like Jobstreet.com and Monster.com have opened up numerous avenues in Singapore for India's educated, highly skilled workers. And it is this section of the Indian presence that has dramatically impacted the status of Singaporean Indians. The number of the white-collared workers that include managers and technicians has doubled from nearly 22 percent to 43 percent. This has vastly changed the perception of Indians in Singapore.

In April 2004, India's renowned Delhi Public Society -- one of the most sought after schools in India started operations of an international school in Singapore.

But to generalize that all Indian immigrants here are vastly successful would be a major misconception.

There are few who have risen to great heights. Among them is Sellapan Ram Nathan, a Singaporean of Indian decent, who is the nation's president. Builders like A. Vijaratnam the engineering brain behind Singapore's Changi International Airport and Port Authority of Singapore is another example of the academic and leadership acumen of Indians in this fair Asian city. Then there is Anshuman Gupta, director of Singapore-based Strontium Software is one of Singapore city's successful residents. His life revolves around his office, golf and vacationing with his wife. "Singaporean Indians can be broadly categorized as the very powerful and progressive few and the old-world conversationalists who are waking up to the reality of progress and success," he says. "Generally speaking however, even though it is only four hours away in airtime, Singapore is a world apart from the Delhi that I left behind."

There's plenty in Singapore to feed the Indian tourists' hunger for shopping as well. As Lim New Chian, deputy chairman and chief executive of Singapore Tourist Board pointed out in March 2004 at the opening of their regional office in New Delhi, Indian visitation to Singapore has increased two-and-a-half times in a decade. In 1995, 188,000 Indians visited Singapore making India the 12th largest origin market. By 2004, India was the sixth largest market of visitor origin.

And with its smorgasbord of shopping options from electronic products to cosmetics to sporting goods, Singapore is a definite shopper's paradise. The well known Mustafa market is known to be the haven for rare Indian goodies. From spices to gourmet foods and rare herbs, almost anything that is hard to find in neighboring Malaysia and Thailand can be found under a roof in Singapore.

Like Malaysia, the Indian presence in Singapore is gradually coming into its own with progress within the community. The opening of the Singaporean shores to new immigrants especially the tech-geeks and the management wizards has added to this progress. Add to that the business travelers, the annual shoppers and the tourists and you cannot help but meet fellow Indians at just about every turn in this tiny island nation.

Thailand--ancient legacies

Perhaps the most interesting study among all three nations is Thailand, a country that traces its religious origins to India. In Thailand's religious legacy one finds a confluence of India and China. Thai court culture is also founded on the basis of Buddhism and Brahmanism , both of Indian origin. King Ashoka of India converted to Buddhism in 262 BC. He sent missionaries to neighboring countries of Burma, Sri Lanka and Siam (now Thailand) to spread the message of enlightenment. Even today wandering monks seeking alms is a common site on the street of Bangkok.

Thailand has embraced Buddhism like no other country. A little less than 95 percent of the country is Buddhist.

But very little of the Indian migrant experience is visible in Thailand. Indian immigrants make up only 11 percent of the minority groups. Places like Bangkok are still home to Indian traders who immigrated to Thailand years ago. But in older cities like Nakhon Pathom -- home to the tallest Buddhist monument in the world ? there are very few Indians. Phuket, like Malaysia's Penang and even more than Singapore, is a traveler's paradise. It offers tourists, many of who are from India everything from pristine, aquamarine beaches, luxuriant natural beauty, and a city that successfully straddles the past and the present. Indian travel to Thailand is so frequent that in July 2005, Indian Airlines increased the number of flights between Thailand and India by 24 to 51 flights a week. It is now the largest provider of air services between the two countries.

In addition to the beaches, the many monasteries, temples and shrines that dot the landscape also attract a lot of tourists. The Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the rare architectural structures in the historic towns of Sukhothai and Aytthaya are only counting a handful. With its spicy lemongrass cuisine reminiscent of Konkani delicacies and its enchanting especially at night -- riverboat tours to temples, Thailand is a fascinating destination, even though it is not the first choice for the contemporary Indian immigrant.

On the other hand, Thailand has embraced ancient Indian philosophy like perhaps no other country. Ramakian, one of the most important Thai literary pieces on which several cultural activities including song-dances and street plays etc are based is an epic derived from the Ramayana. Thai theater frequently uses the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Ayuthaya ? derived from Ayodhya, Ram's birthplace-- is a World Heritage Site that has temple ruins from the 16th-18th century. Burmese invaders destroyed the city in the 18th century, but it retains the beauty of its glorious past.

But despite the ancient ties between the two countries, Thailand is not considered a destination for the modern-day Indian immigrant. Part of it may have to do with lack of available opportunities, according to Dr Renu Bhatnagar, a veteran professor of Sanskrit at Delhi University who is writing a book on Thailand's temples. "Thailand may be deeply rooted in our heritage but to see it as a contemporary peer would be wrong," she says. "But, today it doesn't offer any exciting opportunity to the youth ? professionally or socially. That is perhaps why although people want to visit Thailand, they don't consider staying there a viable option."

An Indian anywhere..

Whatever their country of choice, Indian immigrants have made many contributions in various fields in their adopted homelands. Among them is literature; and the non-resident Indian has not lagged behind in this or other fields.

In Malaysia, a group of Malaysian Indian writers who write original creative works in Bahasa Malaysia have come together to form an organization called Kavyan. They write mostly in Bhasa Malaya, the national language of Malaysia, rather than Tamil or even English. The organization, also known as Sasterawan Kavyan, has contributed much to the nation's literature by way of short stories, poetry and novels. In 2003, they also set a record for non-stop 96 hours and 32 minutes of short story reading.

South East Asia's best-known literary awards, the Seawrite Awards, are fast gaining momentum as a literary benchmark at which many writers with Indian roots are recognized for their contribution. The Awards have been in existence for more 25 years now and are distributed in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Singapore. Seawrite awardees have included many illustrious citizens who have been prolific writers. Novelist Phillip Jeyaretnam, who is part British, part Tamilian, is a lawyer from Singapore. He has lauded the awards for fostering the cultural links between nations of the region.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are part of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And while the differences between Indians living in different nations are myriad the similarities are equally compelling. Some of the things that tie all Indians together are Bollywood, desi restaurants and India-towns. Singapore has a high percentage of Indian representation in politics; it has roped in superstar Amitabh Bachchan to woo Indians. Malaysia has TV channels beaming Bollywood movies all weekend long. It is also working hard to including more Malaysian Indians in the political and economical spheres.

All three nations have been historic destination for traders not just from China and India, but also Portugal, Holland and Britain. But the Indians not only traded with countries like Singapore and Malaysia, they also made it home. And in both nations, Indians remain a fundamental building block of the social landscape.

They have established their own little pockets, which for all appearances are a slice from any present-day city in India. Their Indian counterparts in America have a different standard of living --89 percent of Indians in the U.S. have high school and 40 percent of them have a Masters or a Doctorate degree. But the immigrants to these Southeast Asian nations, though gradually, are also realizing the dream of a better life. The traditional Indian philosophies like the importance of a good education as a basis for a better life remain firmly anchored in these expatriates.

Perhaps most significantly, Indians everywhere have remained, in some way or the other, connected with their homeland. Non-resident Indians are pumping millions of dollars in the economy back home. According to a World Bank study as reported at TimesofIndia.com, India received almost 10 percent $21.7 billion of $232 billion in worldwide remittances in 2005. Many Indians are trying to make some kind of contribution. People like Anand Shah, the founder of Indicorps, who left behind a life of comparative luxury in the U.S. to serve India; and Mohan Bhargava with his film Swades, which effectively demonstrates the nationalistic pull that many of us have for India are doing just that.

Generalizations about Indians are bound to be skewed because of the infinite differences within India. We remain unpredictable, individualistic, sometimes narrowly confined within our own communities, mostly assertive as a social group. What remains unchanged is the fact that it is easy to take an Indian out of India but impossible to take India out of an Indian?sari, idly, pani-puri, Madhuri Dixit, Sachin Tendulkar, BPO, Taj Mahal all of it, none of it.


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