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Cultural differences: Within Singapore’s Indian community, a clash between the old and the new

The expatriate Indian is often perceived as pushy and aggressive and coming in with a strong sense of entitlement.

My friend Mary and I are conduits into each other’s worlds. For Mary, I am the typical North-Indian expatriate and Mary, a third-generation Singaporean Indian, is my guide to local courtesies and savoir-faire. We revel in these differences between us, often seeking them out to discuss and dissect over coffee. Over one such catch-up she shared with me stories of the Singaporean parishioners leaving her church.

“Why,” I ask?

Mary explained that the reasons are many. Some members may prefer the shorter services that other churches offer as well as the more contemporary worship forms. But she cited some social reasons, one of which refers to the sense of discomfort due to the increasing numbers of foreigners coming into the church. “At the social level, there is almost a hollowing out of the core,” she said. “Events are perceived to be run by people who are not locals.”

Mary’s church in Singapore owes its allegiance to a community in India (the priests still come from India) but within that structure, parishioners like Mary are trying to retain and strengthen a Singaporean core.

But Mary says her family will never leave the church. “I feel responsible,” she said. “My grandfather was involved in setting up this church. It’s my church.”

Here come the Indians

If you’ve been in Singapore long enough, you will see that Cherian’s experience and her outlook are commonplace, and growing. Declining birthrates have fuelled a wave of immigration through the 2000s, bringing in the “foreigner vs the locals” issue.

India and Singapore share a close economic relationship, in part crafted by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong through bilateral treaties that allowed Indian companies and people easy access to Singapore through the 2000s. Between 2000 to 2010, the number of Permanent Residents (a Singaporean version of the American green card) from the Indian community has doubled, from 16.6% to 31.7%.

Each newcomer brings his or her own bag of culture – language, rituals of worship and behaviour – creating challenges of social cohesion in a country that prides itself on its pluralistic and multicultural nature.

Lee Wei Fen, a business anthropologist who has studied the complicated relations between the Singaporean-Indian community, said: “In a city where Indians are not just a minority at 9% within the cityscape, but also perceived to exist along a North and South Indian divide, the boundaries between who is local and foreigner are not easily defined by language or even the amount of time lived in Singapore.”

Wei Fen’s research looked at the issue of local vs foreigner in two temples in Singapore. A particular anecdote in her research highlighted the sense of displacement a member of the Bhojpuri-speaking North Indian community felt in recent times because of an increasing number of new migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India.

“Their reflections revealed the past memory of an ideal community defined against the present; a changed landscape they attributed to the arrival of foreigners,” explained Wei Fen.

Reclaiming control

This unease between local and foreigner can play out in strange ways.

In April, a news blog in Singapore carried a piece titled, Singaporeans Take Back Mandarin Gardens from Indian Expatriates.

Mandarin Gardens is a private condominium in East Singapore that has been dubbed Mumbai Gardens because of the vast number of Indians living there. East Singapore is popular with the Indian expatriate community, many of whom have rented or bought homes in the area.

The post stated that Singaporeans had fought to reclaim control of the condo during the Annual General Meeting because of problems with the management that was dominated by Indians. It reported that at the Annual General Meeting held in April, “Singaporean owners turned up in force and badly defeated the Indians.”

The examples of mismanagement cited include: “proposed to have an Indian cricket pitch for Indian kids”, “attempted to kick out Thai Pan Restaurant and replace it with an Indian restaurant“; and “organised Deepavali celebrations from condo fund to let Indians enjoy.”

The management of Mandarin Gardens declined to comment for this piece.

Changing face of Indian diaspora

How do we explain what’s going on here?

In part, the Tamil hegemony that defines Indianness in Singapore may be threatened.

Singaporean poet Aaron Maniam’s poem, Pantun for a Drink Seller at Newton Circus, encapsulates this sentiment beautifully. These are the first four lines from the poem.

“What kind of Indian are you?’

'Apa macam punya mama?’ he said.

I had stammering Tamil, two words of Urdu,

It seemed hard to get round his head.”

The poem is about an interaction between Maniam and a Tamil drink-seller.

Maniam, a Singaporean civil servant with a half-Pakistani, half-Malay mother, and a half-Indian, half-Eurasian father who converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism, is Indian in appearance. When Maniam said he did not speak Tamil well, and all he had was “stammering Tamil and two words of Urdu,” the drink seller responds, “Apa macam punya mama?” What kind of Indian are you? The subtext: What kind of Indian does not speak Tamil?

Sure communities such as Sikhs, Gujaratis and Sindhis form a part of the Indian diaspora in Singapore, but the overwhelming majority in the city-state has always been Tamil, a community of traders and workers that migrated from India and northern Sri Lanka in the 19th century.

In fact, the Tamil language is one of the four official languages of Singapore along with Mandarin, English and Malay.

“For long Indianness in Singapore was strongly defined by Tamilness,” said Rajesh Rai, a historian at the National University of Singapore. “Today Dravidian consciousness has to negotiate, even struggle, with alternative notions of Indianness.”

Perceived cultural differences are exacerbated by socio-economic inequalities.

The new Indian migrant is often professionally qualified and in well paying jobs in IT, and banking and finance. “The extent of income inequality amongst the Indian community is the highest as compared to other major ethnic communities such as the Chinese and the Malay,” said Rai.

Norms of behaviour are often a problem.

The expatriate Indian is often perceived as pushy and aggressive and coming in with a strong sense of entitlement.

In 2013, a play, We are like this only, poked fun at exactly this. The two main protagonists were Mrs Bhalla, who’s a caricature of the stereotype of North Indian, arrogant, undisciplined, and Kalaichelvi, a Singaporean Tamil teacher.

The teacher questions Mrs Bhalla on behaviours such as jumping taxi lines. “The Singaporean asks Mrs Bhalla, what possesses you to behave like this? Why inculcate this Indian jugad mentality in our society and pass it on to our children?” said Subin Subaiah, founding member of HuM Theatre, the production company that produced the play.

Mrs Bhalla returns in a sequel to the play in 2016. This time she questions the Singaporeans on what she needs to do to fit in? Why don’t you come to me and invite me to your homes, she asks her Singaporean counterpart?

The answers she gets should be interesting.

Corrections and clarifications: This story was edited after publication to remove some details at the request of the author.

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