Sunday 17 June 2012

Boiling pot of races

Surprise, confusion along ethnic lines awaited new Singapore arrivals in 1993
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, Published The Straits Times, 16 Jun 2012

THE Education Ministry wanted to see me. It was late 1993. We had recently arrived in Singapore, where Singapore Press Holdings had appointed me as editorial consultant. Deep, our 14-year-old son, had joined Raffles Institution (RI). His school headmaster chuckled when I repeated the joke my colleagues told me about Anglo-Chinese School owning Singapore and RI running it. It was dated, he said. 'Now, RI both owns and runs Singapore!'

Hindi for Deep

EVERYONE said Deep's getting into RI was an achievement. An additional cause of satisfaction was that he wouldn't lose touch with India, as had seemed likely at our last stop, Honolulu. He would learn Hindi at the Sunday school that two public-spirited worthies, Mr Sivakant Tiwari and Mr Shriniwas Rai, ran just off Serangoon Road. There remained the small matter of getting official clearance to sit his O levels in a subject that RI didn't offer. I was assured it was a only a formality.

The unsmiling young Chinese lady at the ministry stared at us through gold-rimmed glasses. 'You're Indian,' she said.

Unsure whether it was a question, statement or accusation, I managed a yes. What else could we be, I wondered, not realising what a minefield the definition of 'Indian' is in Singapore. 'Then why isn't your son taking the Indian language?' she asked.

'But he is!' I exclaimed.

'He has asked for exemption from Tamil!'

At least, she didn't say 'Indian' like my university dean in England had done apropos of the compulsory foreign language.

I explained that while Tamil is an Indian language, Hindi is the Indian language. Hundreds of millions of people all over India speak or understand Hindi which shares official status with English. Then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee even addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi.

Had Bengali, our mother tongue, been available, Deep might have considered it, but Hindi would help him more at the national level. Bengalis are tucked away in eastern India, just as a few million Tamils out of a billion Indians are concentrated in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Neither language is exclusively Indian. Bangladeshis speak Bengali, though they pepper it with Persian words. Several million Tamils live in Sri Lanka. Some are Indian Tamils, though not Indian nationals. Others are Sri Lankan.

But Hindi belongs to India alone. No other country can claim it. I once asked Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the ethnic Indian former prime minister of Mauritius, if he spoke Hindi, and he replied proudly that he spoke Bhojpuri. Some Indians call Bhojpuri a Hindi dialect, but it is a standalone language for the Indian diaspora in Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago and, of course, Mauritius.

We obviously convinced the lady from the Education Ministry, because permission was given. Deep got an A in Hindi, and found it extremely useful when he was working in Delhi.

Races in Singapore

BUT other surprises awaited us. The Chinese taxi driver's response when I said I was Bengali was: 'Some Bengalis look ang moh.'

The Singaporean slang for European was new to me, but his next question revealed he wasn't thinking of Bengalis at all. Why didn't I wear a turban, he asked. It was the first intimation of a mystery that inspired protests from both Indian and Bangladeshi diplomats when The Straits Times illustrated a report on Bengalis with the drawing of a Sikh.

'I didn't know Bengalis weren't Sikhs,' apologised the Indian Singaporean journalist who handled the report.

There was more confusion when a Nominated MP wondered in 1993 why the National University of Singapore (NUS) asked prospective undergraduates of Indian origin 'to state whether they are Sikh, Sri Lankan or other Indian' in their matriculation forms. The then Minister of State for Education replied that otherwise, many Sikhs and Sri Lankans would put themselves in the rich stew called 'Others', which included Eurasians and Singaporeans who were not Malay, Chinese or Indian. However, he also assured Parliament that NUS was reviewing the categorisation to see how it could be improved.

This flexibility disappeared when it came to race. When my Roman Catholic Filipino colleague, the late Noli Galang, wrote 'Malay' for race, he was asked: 'How can you be Malay if you're not Muslim?'

His logic was irrefutable. The Philippines was named after Spain's King Philip II, so he replied: 'How can a Spanish king determine an Asian's race?'

But who's listening?

WRITING Indo-Aryan-Mongoloid (the genetic category for Bengalis) was also rejected. My race was Indian. 'That's nationality,' I protested. 'It's a political label!' But in vain.

A visit to the Sri Mariamman Temple in the heart of Chinatown during the Theemithi festival heightened my ethnic bewilderment.

I hadn't seen the ritual before because even if not actually banned in India, it's severely discouraged for being dangerous. But here were barefoot Hindus treading on a bed of red-hot coals after months of preparation with prayers and purification ceremonies. I was told the impure fail the ordeal by fire.

Suddenly a group of Chinese men appeared. They, too, were bare-bodied, but their paler skins glowed red from the heat and exertion, and they dripped sweat as they ran nimbly over the embers. In a karaoke bar some months later, an Indian Singaporean, a Tamil, was singing in Hokkien.

Cross-cultural issues

THESE cross-cultural phenomena came to mind when, researching my book, Looking East To Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India, I read of Jawaharlal Nehru saying in 1946, at Singapore's Ee Hoe Hean Club for Chinese millionaires, that the island would 'become the place where Asian unity is forged'.

Thirteen years later, in a Straits Times report on Sept 7, 1959, Mr Lee Kuan Yew predicted that 'a vigorous, vital and cultural civilisation' would emerge from the 'boiling pot' of Indian, Chinese and European cultures.

It hasn't happened yet, but may be happening. Meanwhile, there are other signs of the cultural mutation the two PMs predicted.

We dined last night in London, where I am writing this, on chicken rice, roast duck and char siew that Deep brought from Singapore, where he returned last year to work for an ang moh company after sampling life in London, New York and New Delhi. It was a change from the nonya cuisine that a new restaurant in Calcutta, my hometown to which I went back to in 2008, provides.

The world is shrinking. Knowledge is expanding. Singaporeans may still confuse Sikhs and Bengalis, but a Singaporean friend of Pakistani origin says Pakistanis are no longer lumped under 'Indian'. His identity card describes him as racially Aryan. Perhaps Indians are also now recognised as Aryan, since thousands of new expats from all over India have also brought home to Singaporeans that Tamil isn't the only Indian language.

The writer lived in Singapore from 1993 to 2008, during which he was editorial consultant at Singapore Press Holdings, taught at Nanyang Technological University and was senior visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He was also a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

This article appears in the Singapore International Foundation's new publication, Singapore Insights From The Inside, a collaboration with the international community in sharing personal experiences and unique insights for more to know the nation and its people.

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