What’s the story of the tiger in the lion’s den? The story of the Indian diaspora in Singapore is one of opportunity envisioned and grabbed with both hands. Great strife led to great success; where does the community go from here? Is there scope to grow still?
India, especially the kingdoms of South India, has traded with South East Asia for centuries. Singapore, a small country of relatively recent origin, has its share of Indian émigrés. In a short span, these people have made remarkable success in their adopted country. But all isn’t rosy.
In the beginning…
The first immigrants into Singapore were probably South Indian Chulia Muslim merchants, who arrived in the late 19th century. The first significant batch of Indians entered with Stamford Raffles in 1819: soldiers, clerks and servants.
People were scarce and immigration was encouraged. Narayana Pillai, a prominent member of the diaspora, imported a large number of Tamilians in 1827. The Chettiars from Madras and Sindhis from Western India followed the Tamilians soon.
How the diaspora grew.
Through the 20th century, indentured laborers were shipped in. Most of these were from Tamil Nadu. After the ‘Kangana’ system was scrapped in 1915, the diaspora expanded to include Sikhs, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Malayalis.
During WWII and up to Indian Independence, patriotism was at its peak, and, following Subhash Chandra Bose’s visit in 1943, several joined the Indian National Army. After the war, Singapore, facing insurgency, imposed curbs on immigration. Despite this, Indians escaping persecution in Malaya found a home here.
The exciting 90s.
Immigration remained low till the IT boom of the 1990s. This opened a new, exciting chapter in Indo–Singaporean history. Unlike the past, educated professionals arrived and quickly made a mark. They earned well, contributed significantly to the society and integrated with ethnic Chinese and Malays. They’ve involved themselves with education, politics, business and government.
The situation today.
Indians today are the second largest ethnic group, and by far the most successful. However, Singapore seems to be maxed out, immigration is dropping off. The original Singaporean–Indians remain poor, unable or unwilling to lift themselves up, and cross-cultural marriages bring problems of their own.
Is the golden age of Indians in Singapore finished? Can the community’s leaders work on inclusive development to empower the original settlers, while attracting more talent from back home? Can the cultural issues be ironed out?