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Singapore Se

January 2009
Singapore Se

By Zafar Anjum

Can you name a country which is the richest in its region, with Indians forming less than 10 percent of its population, and yet it has an Indian president, many Indian cabinet ministers and a thriving professional class of Indians with their own global glossies and radio stations?

It is not Dubai. It is Singapore.

That’s why it didn’t seem odd when I was recently chatting about Singapore’s Indian diaspora—new and old—with some American students in a café on Orchard Road (Singapore’s famous strip of upscale malls). These students from a college in Indiana were in Singapore to conduct research on the Indian diaspora in the island state. Why did they choose Singapore for their study? Because it is the microcosm of the Indian diaspora in a globalized city state in all its hues and colors—old and new, rich and poor, from all regions of India, and representing more or less all cultures and religions of India.

Here is a succinct description of the Indian diaspora’s situation in Singapore. This is a diaspora whose story might not have been narrated to the world, but it is a story of grit and hard work and of final triumph that needs to be broadcast and celebrated.

The Indian community

When I first arrived in Singapore a few years ago, little did I know that I was coming as a member of the “new diaspora,” that there already existed a vibrant “old diaspora” of Indians in this tiny city state, and that I was a mere speck in a phenomenon of migration that was in action for centuries. In the months and years that followed, I discovered that Indians had become a major ingredient in the racially mixed salad bowl of Singapore.

Singapore is among the world’s tiniest countries with a total land area of just 266 square miles and has a population of about 4.5 million, of which 76 percent are Chinese, 13.7 percent Malay and 8.4 percent Indian (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2005). The vast majority of the 350,000 Indians in Singapore, almost 64 percent, are Tamilian. They are followed by Punjabis, 8 percent; Malyalis, 8 percent; Sindhis 6 percent; and Gujaratis, 2 percent. Almost a quarter of the Indian population—about 90,000—are permanent residents (non-citizens) who live and work in Singapore.

Despite being a minority, Indians have achieved much to enrich Singaporean life, culture and economy. Indians can be seen in the top echelons everywhere. “Being a creative and entrepreneurial group, Indians are a great asset to our economy,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once commented on the community’s contribution to Singapore.

In politics, the community has produced many outstanding leaders. The current President of Singapore is S. R. Nathan, an Indian Singaporean. Earlier also, Singapore had an Indian President in C. V. Devan Nair (1981-1985). Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Professor S. Jayakumar, is Indian and so are two other cabinet ministers: Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. Indians are well represented in other walks of life, too, ranging from medicine and law to media, civil service and business. In fact, the proportion of Indians who works professionals, managers, executives and technicians has doubled in the last decade or so. The expat Indians have a direct hand in the recent realty boom, forming one of the largest groups to buy property in Singapore.

In the cultural space, yoga, Indian dances and Indian cuisine are exceedingly popular among Singaporeans. Indian food is as much part of Singaporean cuisine as Chinese or Malay food. Bollywood movies are a craze in Singapore, and not just among Indians. Shahrukh Khan is a household name among Malay families. He is even popular among the Chinese who like to see Bollywood films. “I really like Shahrukh Khan and I love watching Bollywood movies,” confided one of my Chinese colleagues over lunch one day. “What do you like about them?” I asked her. “I love their story lines—the family situations and the bonding between family members, the emotional scenes, the song and dances,” she said. “These are the kinds of experiences that only Bollywood movies can provide.” Touché.

Patterns of migration

Indian migration to Singapore dates back to the early 19th century, when Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post. Malaya and Singapore were sparsely populated, so the British authorities encouraged the migration of Chinese and indentured Indian labor to meet the demands of the expanding colonial economy.

The trading post also attracted Indian merchants and traders. The Chulias (Tamil Muslim traders from the coastal area) were the earliest Indian traders to come to Singapore. Another important group of migrant traders was led by Narayana Pillai, an influential figure among the old diaspora, who built the famous Sri Mariamman Temple in 1827. Next came the Chettiars, who were in the money-lending business, followed by Sindhi traders in 1860. English-educated Malayalis also headed to Singapore, giving rise to a middle class of Indian professionals. The Sikh immigration started in 1870, mainly as part of the police force and as military personnel. By 1931, Indians in Malaya and Singapore numbered over 620,000 and comprised 14.3 percent of the population.

In the 1940s, Indian nationalism in Singapore reached its peak. Indian Freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose came to Singapore in 1943 and many Indians joined his Azad Hind Fauj. During the Emergency period (the 1948-60 communist insurgency in peninsular Malaya and Singapore, most active between 1948 and 1951), Singapore imposed strict restrictions on migration. Immigration from Indians was not fully opened until 1990. The new immigrants, members of Singapore’s new diaspora, are mainly professionals and have had major impact on the demographics of the Indian community.

Paradigm shift

A few years ago, if one were asked about the Indian community in Singapore, one could have described it in one sentence: a minority of top achievers, the rest a ‘ticking bomb’ of underclass citizenry.

But today, the situation is different. While the so-called underclass has shown signs of improvement, it is the influx of white collar workers from India, encouraged by the Singapore government’s policies, that has set in motion the dynamics of change in perception. These new Indians can be seen right at the top, leading or managing companies in Singapore or working as top-notch professionals (managers, engineers, doctors, IT professionals, et al.) in global and regional companies in the island state.

The community has been so successful that last year saw the launch of India Se, a monthly glossy magazine for global Indians. Says its founder editor Shobha Tsering Bhalla, “I felt it was high time we had a magazine. I felt we had reached a critical mass and critical achievement level and they (NRI Indians or global Indians) needed their own media. They needed their own media to shout about their achievements and aspirations. Also, there was a need for that media for advertisers to reach them.” According to Shobha, the magazine is already in its second year and is doing well, reaching out not just to Indians in Singapore but to Indians in the entire Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

This year, a Bollywood radio station has been added to the bouquet of radio stations run by MediaCorp, one of the two largest media companies in Singapore. This is in addition to the Tamil radio channels that have been operating for a long time. Also, almost all major cable TV channels from India are now available to the Indian community in Singapore.

This group of new Indians has helped change the perception of Indians among members of other races in Singapore. Until now, despite producing a stunning crop of brilliant professionals, businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians over the decades, Indians of the old diaspora were usually seen as blue collar workers—and this image was strengthened by the constant inflow of laborers from India, especially the south. The new Indian immigrants, with their professional expertise and high income status, have helped transform the image of Indians in Singapore.

Until the high tech boom, the Indian labor pool was comprised principally of blue collar construction workers and domestic help. Fewer than 9 percent of Indian expats (permanent residents) in 1990 held a college degree. By contrast, in 2000 almost 51 percent of Indian permanent residents were college educated.

Singapore’s Indian citizens have noticeably lower academic credentials: fewer than 8 percent of Singapore Indian citizens have a college degree, for example. Since expat Indians account for almost a quarter of Singapore’s Indian population, the new, educated, high income Indian professionals have altered the overall community demographics in dramatic ways. In the last ten years, the proportion of blue collar workers has halved, from about 15 percent to 8 percent, whereas the proportion of professionals and managerial workers has doubled from about 22 percent to 43 percent of the total India workforce. This numerical transition has helped revolutionize the image of Indians in Singapore.

The average annual income of Indians between 1990 and 2000 grew from about US$10,000 to US$22,600—an increase more substantial in the Indian community than in any other ethnic group.

The magnetism of Singapore

Singapore is a magnet for Indians—both tourists and immigrants. More Indians are flocking to Singapore than ever before, thanks to a booming economy and its reputation as an overseas destination. In terms of tourists, Indians are the fourth largest group of visitors to the island nation after Indonesians, Chinese and Australians. In 2007, 749,000 Indians came calling as against 658,685 in 2006, accounting for seven percent of the total visitors (about 10 million).

But tourism apart, the question to ask is: Why are the new Indians choosing to come to Singapore?

I recently met an Indian neurologist who works in one of the top government hospitals in Singapore. A Tamil Muslim, he worked for eight years in Malaysia and then for about two years in Australia. Four years ago he decided to bring his family to Singapore and settle here. “Though people in Australia were nice and I had all the material comforts of life there, I was worried about my children’s future,” he said. “What kind of values will they grow up with? I wanted to expose my children to more Asian values and culture and I found Singapore best suited to offer the best of the East and the West,” he said.

What the doctor said underlines what is unique about Singapore: in terms of infrastructure and comforts and conveniences, it offers facilities at par or even better than what is available in most Western countries. At the same time, an atmosphere of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, curated by the government and grassroots organizations, provides the cultural nest to immigrants. The presence of a notable Indian diaspora makes the new immigrants immediately feel at home.

“Long-term economic prospects predicated on good government and security—this is Singapore’s sweetest siren call for foreigners,” said Shobha Tsering Bhalla, who came to Singapore in 1986 and has now taken up Singapore citizenship. “Singapore’s delicious and diverse cuisines, its verdant parks and efficient transport system are just the icing on the cake.”

According to Shobha, her businessman husband swears by Singapore. “Where else in the world could you do business like in Singapore?” he says. Singapore’s smooth, efficient and transparent business atmosphere was critical in their decision to put down roots in Singapore, especially for an Indian family that had seen life in places like the U.K., Russia and Egypt.

For India-born Manpreet Singh, formerly the CEO of Mindshare Singapore, the decision to become a Singapore citizen was simple. “During a discussion with my Portuguese girlfriend, she asked me: ‘So, where do you want to settle down?’ The answer came as a flash—Singapore. I have been here for ten years and there is no better place I can think of to stay than Singapore,” he told a Singapore newspaper. Singh, who has lived in Hong Kong previously, became a Singapore citizen in 2005.

Singapore’s new citizens come predominantly from Southeast, South and East Asia. Indians form a significant part of this group. The Singapore government is also trying to boost the country’s population by inviting more migrants to work and live here. According to government estimates, some 2 million more migrants are expected here over the next 40 to 50 years—boosting Singapore’s population to 6.5 million.

The gulf between the old and the new diaspora

However, the influx and the success of the new Indians has also created a gulf, a divide, between the old and the new diaspora.

Writing about one of his recent visits to Singapore, diplomat and columnist Shashi Tharoor note in The Hindu: “I was struck, during my one-week visit to Singapore, by the frequent references my friends made to the existence of an expatriate-Indian/local-Indian divide. There seems to be little mixing between the two groups—Indians from India still see themselves essentially as expatriates and have few friendships with local Singaporean Indians, other than the affluent elite amongst the latter. This is a particularly Singaporean problem with few parallels elsewhere, because other countries with long-established Indian populations, like Fiji, Mauritius or Guyana, do not also have a significant ‘new’ Indian expatriate community. Because the expatriate community is large enough to be socially self-sustaining, there seems to be little social contact with the ‘locals.’”

Shobha Tsering Balla tries to explain the new and old Indian divide in these terms: “The new Indians are a light cut above them (the old diaspora), educationwise, exposurewise, in terms of thinking, because they all come with degrees. Many of the Indians here never got a chance to do their degrees. They suddenly started feeling threatened [by these developments]. Indians have started to come in with so much more education levels and on a much higher salary, living in better housing, educating their children in better schools.”

“There will always be a divide between the new and old Indians in Singapore and it is not something that has been artificially created,” adds Shobha. “It just the natural dividing line like in any other immigrant society. If you go to the U.K., there will be a dividing line between the just arrived immigrant and the Southall U.K. Indian. That may not be as pronounced as the dividing line between a new immigrant and a Serangoon (the Indian enclave in Singapore) Indian. It is so natural. It is language, dress and food [that creates the divide]. If these factors are common, then references to context are easier.”

But Shobha thinks there is a way out. “This gulf can be narrowed as we mix socially, as we start working together and inviting each other to our houses, as we start forming relationship, she says. “I think ten years is too short a time to gauge that. But this is possible if both sides made a conscious effort [to mix] with each other.”

Tharoor also suggests a similar approach: “The key to a solution may lie in the expatriates ceasing to be expatriate and making Singapore their permanent home, at which point certain common elements may well come to the fore. But I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it.”

Even if the new and old Indians may not be mixing that frequently for now, the old Indians are surely mixing with other races in Singapore—and a good indicator of this trend is interracial marriages: Last year, interracial marriages accounted for 16.4 percent of about 24,000 marriages, compared to 8.9 percent in 1997.

A booming relationship with a growing India

Since the 1990s, the significance of the Singaporean Indian community has increased because of their strong and invaluable links with India, especially at a time when Singapore seeks to ride on India’s growth. With India opening up its economy, there is a boom in the bilateral trade between the two countries; tourism and investments are steadily growing. In fact, the Singapore government has signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India that is bringing the two countries closer than ever. Indian companies already see Singapore as a good base—1400 have set up offices here and comprise the fourth largest contingent of foreign firms.

As Tharoor observed, “What is particularly striking about this is that Singapore is perhaps the country with the greatest affinity for, and interest in, contemporary India.”

The Future

The future for Indians in Singapore is bright.

This is not just wishful thinking. Over the decades, the Indian population has grown, from about 6 percent to over 8 percent now. In terms of education, its progress far exceeds any other community’s. And the increase in Indian income is greater than what you see among Malays or Chinese. Also, as noted, there is growing official interest in India and the local Indian community. A sure sign was the mini PBD (Pravasi Bharatiya Divas) held in Singapore this October. So far, New York has been the only other non-Indian city to host this prestigious gathering of overseas Indians.

All these factors evoke a feel good attitude and optimism about Indians in Singapore. But I think their success story can be even more spectacular when the divide between the old and the new diaspora is bridged. As Tharoor puts it, plainly but so effectively, all that remains is for the two sets of Indians in Singapore to understand each other better.

Sidebar Items

Little India

Little India in the Serangoon Road area symbolizes the Indian community in Singapore. Spread over just a few kilometers, it showcases temples, mosques, malls, restaurants, small shops selling cheap clothes, electronics, flowers and vegetables, Indian magazines and DVDs. Two businesses—jewelry and food—dominate. Given the penchant for gold and silver in the South Asian community, there are dozens of jewelry shops to cater to their needs. As for restaurants and eateries, there are more than 100 to choose from.

At the head of Serangoon Road, there is the Little India Arcade and the Tekka Mall, the latter currently being redesigned and set to reopen as an electronics mall. Many foreigners visit the Little India Arcade for souvenirs, bolts of cloth, temple garlands, gold jewelry, ayurvedic medicines and spices.

On Campbell Lane, one can see shops that display Indian musical instruments, furniture and brassware. Mustafa Centre, as Singapore’s largest Indian mall, occupies 150,000 square feet and sells over 150,000 items. Open 24 hours, it is in a way the lifeblood of expat Indians in Singapore. Starting out as a small clothing store in 1971, Mustafa Centre grew to its present size on Syed Alvi Road by 1995. It packs in over 15,000 customers of all nationalities during weekends, and has an annual turnover of $302 million.

In Little India alone, there are plenty of restaurants to satisfy your appetite. The better-known ones include Komala Vilas, Delhi Restaurant, Anand Bhawan, Copper Chimney and Raj. You can go to Race Course Road for dining options like Muthu’s, Banana Leaf Apollo, Hyderabadi Biryani Restaurant and Anjappar’s. If you would rather enjoy dining in the open air by the Singapore River, head on to Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. You will find many fine Indian restaurants serving food by the promenade. If you have set your heart on savoring local dishes like Roti Prata, Murtabak, biryanis and fish-head curry, the best places in town are the Islamic Restaurant and Zam Zam on North Bridge Road near the Sultan Mosque. The choices are endless.

Religious Landmarks

The monumental Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, is on South Bridge Road in Chinatown. Originally built in 1827 (rebuilt in 1843), it is dedicated to Mariamman, the goddess of healing. There are about two dozen temples in Singapore. Little India has three major ones: Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple.

Sri Veeramakaliamman is dedicated to the goddess Kali. The temple has a huge number of her figures in various incarnations along with the figures of her two sons, Murugan and Ganesh. The Thaipusum festival is dedicated to Lord Murugan. Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple is a little further down on Serangoon Road. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his consorts. It has a wide courtyard that is used by devotees during the Thaipusam festival. The Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, which has an illuminated 50-feet high Buddha statue on Race Course Road, is also known as the temple of a thousand lights.

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