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- India must attend to the needs of unskilled labourers abroad

It’s a question of class. No trace of the anger that fuels India’s reaction to the outrageous treatment of Devyani Khobragade can be found in the response to the December 8 riot in Singapore’s Little India. Yet the episode’s cause and effect bear on thousands of poor people slaving for a living in a foreign land.

Unskilled workers in the Gulf states, Malaysia and Singapore probably send more money home than the overseas development ministry’s pampered white-collar darlings. They are also the most neglected. Their long-suppressed passions exploded when a bus hit and killed 33-year-old Sakthivel Kumaravelu in Little India. Some of the rioters had probably been drinking but alcohol usually only heightens perceptions, loosens inhibitions and exaggerates the response. The rankling sense of grievance was already there. Twenty-eight of the 35 men arrested face criminal charges and will be whipped and jailed if convicted. Another 53 are being sent back. A police warning has been served on about 200 others. The 300 affected labourers include young men who may have sold family land and their womenfolk’s jewellery to pay grasping agents in both countries and for fares, visas and work permits. Given the Singapore manpower ministry’s meticulous records, it can be assumed their prospect of future employment is bleak.

“Cane these hooligans and let them rot in jail” was a post-riot online comment. Prim and trim Singapore is terrified of public disorder. Memories of 1955 when employees of the Hock Lee bus company ran amuck and four people were killed still haunt Singaporeans. Hock Lee’s immensely rich maiden daughter was our landlady for a while and we were regaled with tales of how politicians — Communist as well as People’s Action Party — exploited the upheaval. What such disturbances say of labour management or political opportunism are Singaporean concerns. Indian interest is limited to two points. First, India must ponder on the implications of not providing a decent living at home for Indians. Second, India must cooperate with the Singapore authorities to ensure the welfare of nearly a million workers who are essential to Singapore’s growth but whose presence is grudgingly tolerated.

I once invited 15 Tamil masons working on the bungalow next door to dinner and discovered they had never entered anyone’s home. Two of my youngest guests did the washing up afterwards, the last to return from the sink nearly bursting into tears when he found someone had eaten his custard pudding which he called “butter cake”. Despite official denials, these men are often forced to compensate their employers for the levy on employing foreigners. They also accuse authority of turning a blind eye to illegals when major constructions have to be completed

They may feel less abandoned now that K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s foreign minister, and India’s high commissioner, Vijay Thakur Singh, have visited one of their dormitories. But unless accommodation has improved dramatically since my time, this one with a carrom board must be a showpiece. The official video of the occasion showed Shanmugam refusing to allay fears of a six-month moratorium on visas and a “lower intake of workers”. Ms Singh may have privately conveyed New Delhi’s concern to the Singaporean government; she might also privately have assured the workers of her sympathy. But her business-as-usual public comments suggested India’s “strategic partnership” and cooperation on “a wide range of issues” with Singapore take precedence over any interest in the well being of humble Indians without Ms Khobragade’s clout.

Official callousness isn’t new. Another high commissioner was surprised I should expect him to know the number of Indian workers. A third notoriously professed ignorance of the arrest of nearly 9,000 Indian illegals until the Singapore government released 88 letters on the subject that he had ignored. Even then, he didn’t seek details or consular access. In contrast, Thailand’s prime minister, Chatichai Choonhavan, took back a boatload of illegals, remarking acidly, “Instead of sending ships, we should send warships!” A black wreath was left at Singapore’s Bangkok embassy.

An Australian writer noted the “latent xenophobia” of a city built by immigrants. Malays (14 per cent) are the only indigenous folk and they complain of discrimination. The older Chinese resent newcomers, even from mainland China. Expatriate Indian bankers and businessmen are not sympathetic to local Indians, and vice versa. Some local Indians do occupy positions of trust and authority (a popular joke had a European dignitary wondering if he had landed in India by mistake when President Devan Nair and the foreign minister, S. Dhanabalan, received him at Changi) but if you listen to local chatter you will notice that “Singaporean” and “Chinese” are unconsciously interchangeable terms. Europeans and Americans are universally deferred to, especially by the colour-conscious Chinese. Everyone looks down on foreign workers.

I discovered an early instance of this when researching Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India. Invoking a law forbidding a citizen’s wife from returning to Singapore if she had lived abroad for five years, the labour minister, Jek Yuen Thong, urged Indians working at the British base which was closing down to go back. Their provident fund money would “go a long way... since their country of origin enjoys a lower standard of living than Singapore”, he said slightingly. Indian diplomats claimed they had a tape of Lee Kuan Yew ordering Indians who didn’t like his policies to pack their bags and go. “We make very good suitcases in Singapore,” he reportedly added.

Middle-class Indians are equally snobbish. They feared labourers “would come half-naked” to Singapore Indian Association meetings if granted membership. I found it especially shaming when my Chinese colleagues joked that a sycophantic Indian who never lost an opportunity to blame “foreign workers” for anything that went wrong would have his nose flattened and eyes narrowed if such surgery were possible. He himself told me in bewilderment that his Chinese neighbours in the subsidized government-built flats where more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live, held their noses when walking past him. Although aware that the Chinese say Indians smell, he probably hoped that grovelling would raise him to honorary Chinese status.

Singapore doesn’t allow discrimination but it’s not easy to change personal attitudes at the lowest level. A PAP politician, Choo Wee Khiang, said in parliament in 1992, “One evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around.” His colleague, Tan Cheng Bock, who complained of feeling “threatened” by increasing immigration, obviously touched a popular chord since he was re-elected by the largest margin in 2001. Choo’s comment was prompted by Little India’s milling crowds. There’s nowhere else to go on Sunday evenings. Some workers tried congregating on the ground floor patios of government housing estates but flat owners roughly drove them away. “We built those flats!” a young Tamil foreman commented bitterly.

An active cell in India’s mission to scrutinize employment contracts, watch over execution and inspect residential and recreational facilities in cooperation with the local migrant workers’ centre would do wonders. Meanwhile, India’s representatives should not forget that P.V. Narasimha Rao warned of “severe repercussions on bilateral ties” when Singapore began whipping offenders. South Block summoned the Singaporean first secretary and told him of India’s concern while Natwar Singh added fuel to fire by calling whipping “barbaric”.

Tension may increase as Singapore’s population target of 6.9 million by 2030 is realized. Expatriate executives and even local Indians might feel some backlash but India’s transient workers will bear the brunt. It won’t deter them because of what the Straits Times called “the scent of the S’pore dollar”. But India will have to decide whether exporting labourers and maids and exposing them to harsh conditions is consistent with the national pride of an aspiring country that dares to take on even the United States of America.