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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Crossing the colour bar

India will have to keep in mind racial discrimination tensions in Singapore while exporting manpower

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

"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." - Choo Wee Khiang, Singapore's ruling People's Action Party MP, in a speech in Parliament in 1992.

Last Sunday's riot in Singapore was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Such friction will persist so long as India continues to export manpower, whether tycoons who squander fortunes on weddings, scholars who win Nobel prizes or unskilled labourers who gratefully take on jobs that their hosts won't deign to touch.

True, everyone came down like a tonne of bricks on Choo Wee Khiang who apologised for his derisive comment. But other Chinese Singaporeans tacitly supported his demand for fewer Indian and Bangladeshi workers. Tan Cheng Bock, another People's Action Party politician who complained of feeling "threatened" by increasing immigration, was re-elected by the largest margin in 2001.

Singapore's race relations don't permit easy analysis. Equations include not just Chinese and Indian but local and mainland Chinese, local and Indian Indians and, of course, Malays. A popular joke had a European dignitary wondering if he had landed in India by mistake when President Devan Nair received him and presented the foreign minister, S Dhanabalan. But Lee Kuan Yew's iron discipline prevented institutionalised colour bar against short-term South Asian labourers at the bottom of the heap. Even Lee agreed there is "colour prejudice deep down in the middle strata of every population".

People react differently to discrimination. Some protest, others kowtow. I was shamed and embarrassed by another Indian whose sycophancy prompted even the Chinese to joke he would have his nose flattened and eyes narrowed if such surgery were possible. Even he confessed that his Chinese neighbours in the low-cost government-built flats that house more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans held their noses when walking past him. Chinese find Indians smelly!

Choo's comment was prompted by the South Asian crowds milling round Little India's markets, eateries and shops on Sunday evenings. There's nowhere else to go. Some workers tried congregating on the ground floor patios of government housing estates - chatting, eating, drinking beer and playing cards - but flat owners roughly drove them away. "We built those flats!" a young Tamil foreman commented bitterly.

An early instance of race tension I discovered when researching Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India was over a 1966 law forbidding a citizen's wife from returning to Singapore if she had lived abroad for five years. Invoking this regulation, the labour minister, Jek Yuen Thong, urged Singaporean Indians working at the British base which was closing down to leave for good. 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. India's high commission claimed to have acquired around then a tape of Lee ordering Indians who didn't like his policies to pack their bags and go. "We make very good suitcases in Singapore," he is supposed to have added.

But what the Straits Times called "the scent of the S'pore dollar" proved irresistible. Some 140 Indians were refused entry at Changi airport in 1985. Nearly 9,000 were arrested in 1986 and 1,750 sent back. Other governments responded with courage and dignity. While Thailand quickly repatriated nearly a thousand illegals with Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan fulminating that warships instead of passenger ships should be sent to Singapore, India's high commissioner pretended to know nothing of the arrests until Singapore officials released no fewer than 88 letters he had ignored. P V Narasimha Rao and Natwar Singh were outraged in 1989 when whipping overstayers was legalised but successive Indian high commissioners seemed strangely indifferent to the plight of the poorest of their countrymen.

Apart from some Malays, every Singaporean is an immigrant. But older immigrants resent newcomers. It's a bit like Animal Farm. Many Indian workers complain of being forced to compensate their employers for the levy on employing foreigners. Others accuse authority of turning a blind eye to illegals when major constructions have to be completed. The official population target of 6.9 million by 2030 means more foreigners and mounting resentment against them.

Executives from India and even local Indians might feel some backlash but Indian workers will bear the brunt. It won't deter them since Singapore pays so much more even for menial work. But India will have to decide whether exporting labourers and maids is consistent with the national pride of an aspiring country.

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First Published: Fri, December 13 2013. 21:45 IST