The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Snoots, adventurers, misfits and kindred souls
Tribal loyalties

Class is a topic that crops up perennially in all emerging societies. But the particular form the argument has taken in Singapore, though camouflaged in other idioms, suggests the need to reconsider measures that encourage divided loyalties in India’s diaspora.

The controversy about expatriate Indians not mixing with local Indians was sparked by two ethnic Indian members of Singapore’s parliament who had received complaints about this exclusiveness. What might have been a sensible discussion of differences and commonalities became a slanging match when an expatriate wrote in a local paper that Indian-Indians “are better educated and wealthier, on average, than Indian-Singaporeans.” His conclusion — “Our lifestyle is better, totally different and even enviable” — went beyond snobbish offensiveness to stupidity,

It was also untrue. Rich Indian-Singaporeans may not compare with the Ambanis, but are richer than expatriates who would hardly seek employment abroad if they were already wealthy. The two bungalows that an Indian-Singaporean, who didn’t quite rank as a local Lakshmi Mittal, sold for $17 million each (then about Rs 34 crore) 12 years ago were just a part of assets that few expatriate Indians can match. The latter are not in the category of absentee Indians who remit funds from the Bahamas, Switzerland and the Channel Islands to hold the ninth position amongst Singapore’s property-buyers.

Singapore is middle-class India’s mecca, served by dozens of connecting flights. It offers academics, accountants and engineers jobs. People lower down the scale enjoy popular package tours. Big firms send deserving agents and dealers to Singapore on paid holidays. It’s become so passé that even FM radio no longer plays a once-popular Bengali song about “that Singapore trip”. When Indian tourists ranked as the second-highest spenders, after South Africans, it was mainly because they bought inexpensive goods in bulk for friends or resale in India.

J.R.D. Tata may have popped across for chats with Lee Kuan Yew, but really rich and powerful Indians don’t visit Singapore except occasionally on quick trips to clinch a deal or review a project. They might import furniture from Singapore and orchids from Bangkok, but spend their leisure in Europe. Their children go to American universities.

Indians from India are in Singapore to make a living from what Singaporeans — Chinese, Malay and Indian — have achieved. They cannot apply to the last group the social yardsticks that might seem appropriate in India. They cannot afford to be snooty.

The blunt claim of being superior was all the more surprising because the preferred style in India, especially among those who are trying to climb the greasy pole (Singaporeans call it “upgrading”) is obliquely to belittle elitism. The practice is most common in one particular aspect of Indian, especially Bengali, life: parents who make a show of parading desi credentials, mocking anyone who can be accused of cultural estrangement, inevitably make a tremendous effort to ensure their offspring are not only English-speaking but flaunt as sahebi an accent as possible. Some parents, too, attempt the transition.

It is not surprising then to find some dissimulation in Little India (a metaphorical, not geographical, entity) this side of the Bay of Bengal. It is the dilemma of all immigrants until, like Americans, they can snap the cultural umbilical cord. That means affirming a brand new identity and being able to view the mother country with total detachment. Visiting Britons do not look for commonality in the United States of America. Nor are self-confident Americans upset if British visitors do not identify or fraternize with them.

That is how it should be. Welcoming Indira Gandhi in 1968, Lee Kuan Yew said the people she saw might “look like Indians, speak like Indians, but are no longer Indians”. Born and educated in Singapore, they had developed a different consciousness. Again, that is how it should be. Perhaps it is so in some cases. But there would have been no anguish and grievance if it had been generally true. The very fact that some local Indians feel slighted about Indian-Indians allegedly ignoring them is a giveaway.

The story is told of two Englishmen aboard the Queen Elizabeth on the three-day crossing from Liverpool to New York. On the first day, they looked at and appraised each other. On the second, they said good morning. They might have spoken on the third but it was time to land. That measured approach meant neither placed shared nationality above other criteria. The “People Like Us” syndrome is all about body language, attire, accent, the small and seemingly insignificant attributes of personality, mattering more in determining social intercourse.

It is not confined to the English. Anyone who rises above the primary tribal loyalties of race, religion, caste or language automatically sorts, sifts and seeks out kindred souls among strangers. That is the only way of discovering and establishing lasting criteria for a relationship. There are no obstacles to communication if, ignoring race, one thinks of individuals. A man’s a man for a’ that.

The metropolitan French accuse Quebecois of being caught in a time warp of language and lifestyle. So were the Malaysian Telugus who delighted P.V. Narasimha Rao with lullabies crooned over his cradle but long forgotten in India. There’s no harm in that, provided they also move on with surrounding reality. But time warps can imprison simpler Indian-Singaporeans in the assumptions and prejudices their parents or grandparents brought with them. Perceptions of the old country can be limited to the milieu their ancestors escaped.

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to generalize even about a small community of 400,000 Indian-Singaporeans, 64 per cent of them Tamil, because it covers an enormously wide spectrum of education, income and sophistication. Admittedly, too, social faultlines exist in all communities. Some of my Chinese-Singaporean students at the School of Communication and Information told me they did not know any government-subsidized flat-dwellers until they had to do the military service that is compulsory for all boys.

Recipients of Singapore government scholarships to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are said to form the nucleus of an emerging new elite. They are called “scholars”, other university graduates being “commoners”. Of course, this nascent class system is based on meritocracy but, then, so was Britain’s hereditary aristocracy…to start with.

The ultimate in scholar snobs told me solemnly within a few minutes of introduction that he was descended from royalty in two Asian countries. “Only two'” exclaimed another Singaporean when I mentioned the encounter. “He usually adds that his wife is related to European royals!” I must hasten to add that this is a unique instance and can be ignored as the personal fetish of a man who is more Indian than Singaporean. By and large, Singaporeans don’t look back.

What matters more to India is how overseas Indians perceive themselves. The present controversy suggests that despite what Lee told Mrs Gandhi, many Indian-Singaporeans still see themselves not only as Indians, but as continuing victims of prejudice their ancestors suffered. When a British-Indian official gave me a tongue-lashing at Heathrow for a minor infringement, a Caucasian friend observed smugly she was getting her own back.

Some overseas Indians still need India: an elderly Sikh told me after Pokhran-II that although he would never go back, a nuclear India strengthened his position in Singapore. That might explain the tenacity with which Indians in French Reunion resisted official efforts to stamp out their customs and practices. Now 30 million overseas Indians can enjoy People of Indian Origin cards. Soon, they might have dual passports. It’s convenient for them and useful for India’s exchequer, but no one can pretend these expedient devices are creating a new breed of global citizens. What they may be doing is to encourage rootless adventurers with flag-of-convenience passports instead of tokens of nationality and a coming generation of disoriented misfits.

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