Why always Indians?

Anti-Indian sentiment is rising in Singapore; opaque data fuels it; Singaporeans deserve transparency and inclusive public discourse.

“Oh no, we don’t mean you! We like Singapore Indians. It is the India Indians who are the problem.”
I have long heard some form of this and it always makes me a bit uneasy.

“India Indians”, for those unversed in the intricacies of ethnicity here, is our colloquialism for newer Indian migrants, to differentiate them from “Singapore Indians” like myself, born and brought up here.

Of course it’s a spectrum. I always joke with my mum, who moved here from Calcutta in 1974, that she is stuck somewhere between the two. (My dad is a third-gen Malayan, whose family moved here from Selangor in the 1950s.)

Yet that statement makes me uneasy largely because I can empathise with my fellow Singaporeans. There are many seemingly legitimate grievances here that have not been given a fair hearing.

For over a decade now I have heard complaints about unfair hiring practices and discrimination by India Indians against locals. Yet not only has the government failed to adequately address these, as evidenced by recent reports by the Ministry of Manpower, it has also been so tight-fisted with the data surrounding Indian (and other) immigration into Singapore. It is hard to tell how prevalent these alleged injustices are.

Instead of listening, many in our establishment, most recently Ho Ching, frequently respond with some elitist smear against whiny Singaporeans who apparently cannot compete in a global workplace.

One of the great ironies, of course, is that the political and civil service elite, insulated in their cocoons with million-dollar salaries and little fear of retrenchment (see Josephine Teo; see Ng Chee Meng), themselves do not face competition from migrants. Does Ho Ching face competition from the world’s best investment managers? Hmm.

So, ordinary Singaporeans have been systematically excluded from conversations about the makeup of our country—economic and demographic—about the desired rate of immigration and the kinds of immigrants we want.

This has to change.

I wanted to share some thoughts, kind of like a working doc ahead of something more deliberate.

Please share any feedback, especially if I’ve missed a key issue, will try to incorporate in a future piece or video.

1. Over the past two decades Singapore has conducted one of the world’s great experiments in mass immigration, the after-effects of which will be felt for a long time.

From 1999 to 2018 Singapore’s total population grew over 40% to some 5.6m, much through immigration.*

A quick search shows other global cities like London (25%) and New York (13%) with much lower rates.

Many tangents to this. Is Singapore the epitome of the neoliberal consensus, with a political leadership ignorantly following the diktats of global multinationals, incentivised by growth-at-all-costs? (Notwithstanding certain socialistic bents.)

Separate discussion also about Singapore’s growth drivers—infusions of capital and labour—as opposed to productivity growth, something Paul Krugman first alluded to in the 1990s I think.
We all know the stock response from Singapore’s blinkered neoliberal set: “Oh, if we reduce immigration, our country’s growth will suffer.”

Well, not necessarily. And even if headline growth suffers, it is all about trade-offs, not least to social harmony and the environment.

What other polities throughout history have experienced such population and immigration growth? Any historians, I’d love to know, so we can learn from their experience.

*Note: it is hard to distinguish organic population growth from net migration without proper immigration statistics, e.g. on naturalised citizens. If that data exist (I’ve tried looking), do share!

2. If such an experiment had occurred in any other democracy, there probably would have been have been much louder protests by now

While xenophobia must be condemned, I don’t think Singaporeans should feel overly embarrassed about where we are as a society—we remain one of the world’s most welcoming people, imo.

Remember, the PAP’s great experiment in demographic change has occured at a time when countries everywhere are facing immense tensions between, at the risk of simplifying complex dynamics, nativists and globalists.

Brexit is simply one manifestation. One shudders to think what the ground in the UK might have been like if they had experienced the same immigration rate as Singapore.

3. Political and public discourse on immigration has often been polarised, like in other countries, though it is clear that Singaporeans—at the moment—have little appetite for anything remotely right-wing.

Please see my thoughts about the changes in The Workers’ Party manifesto and Tan Jee Say’s platform in this note.

4. Public discourse on immigration is toxic and polarised partly because of the government’s hoarding of demographic, immigration and workplace statistics.

Why do Singaporeans resort to guerrilla research on the Internet, the scouring of LinkedIn pages and corporate bios?

Well surely the main reason is that we just don’t have the proper data. In the absence of this, people fall back on anecdotes and approximations.

Where is the granular data about Singapore’s foreign population, everybody from contract workers to permanent residents? Which countries do they come from? What industries do they work in? What are their starting and average salaries? Etc.

How many citizens are naturalised every year in Singapore? Which countries do they come from? Do we give preferences to migrants from some countries? Why?

These are essential data points for research on everything from labour market dynamics to identity and integration.

Has there been high immigration from India to Singapore since CECA was signed? Without data, nobody can tell.

The government hoards this data and then whines when ordinary Singaporeans draw conclusions based on anecdotes or inaccurate data.

Perhaps even more comically, the government regularly tries to redefine or reframe numbers to sell a message: the current favourite is the effort to bundle citizens and PRs together as “locals” in manpower statistics—remember, when The Workers’ Party Pritam Singh asked Chan Chun Sing this very question in parliament in January, his answer included: “What is the point behind the question?”

Dear Beng, the point is that Singaporeans deserve to know about the makeup of our country. And we shouldn’t have to rely on a f#*king parliamentary question for basic data.

Remember that even discussing basic immigration numbers is a risky endeavour in Singapore: in July the Singapore establishment, through Peter Tan, our ambassador to Japan, effectively called me a liar for repeating in 2020 the same data point (that the local-born population is in the minority) that I had published in 2012 in an article for the Institute of Policy Studies.

This hoarding of data is not just disappointing, but immoral. Because it leads to toxic public discourse. The PAP should be ashamed of itself.

5. Why always Indians???

Now even if we set aside the Mustaq Ahmads (Mustafa), Piyush Guptas and Anjula Thomases of the world, it should be obvious that India Indians have and will forevermore contribute lots to Singapore.

(That last one, by the way, is my mum, who is—horrors!—yet another Indian doctor. Lucky she never force me.)

So the question has never been if Indians are welcome here but whether the recent rate has been too high.

What is “too high”? Subjective, surely, though critics point to several things.

In the workplace, there are numerous stories of India Indians giving preferential treatment to their buddies for recruitment. Which in turn leads to entire teams or departments or floors in corporate Singapore dominated by India Indians.

The retort I often hear from India Indians is that they are better than Singaporeans, i.e. got there on merit. Possibly, they claim, because the role requires interactions with India. India Indians often claim that Singaporeans are spoon-fed and spoiled.

Singaporeans also allege that India Indians have a reputation for trading in fake certificates and degrees and inflating their CV achievements.

Is there any truth to the above? Proper investigations, relying on good data, are needed.

Meanwhile, in society, there are several critiques of India Indians that are unique among foreigners.
The first is that they are cliquish, which manifests itself most obviously in the formation of an upper-class ethnic ghetto along East Coast, from Tanjong Rhu to Waterside and beyond.

This cuts at the very heart of what it means to be Singaporean, feeding the sense of ethnic and class injustice.

While the vast majority of Singaporeans are forced to live in integrated public housing neighbourhoods, upper class Indian migrants seemingly do not. Is ethnic integration only for “heartlanders”?

Of course, there was nothing deliberate about this, more a natural concentration one finds in many parts of the world. The private markets do not face the same forced integration quotas, themselves based off an antiquated CMIO model. But never before, I don’t think, has independent Singapore faced such an apparent ghettoisation of a large swathe of land. Edit: The concentration could indeed be prompted by racism against all Indians, local and foreign, in the private rental market.

(My own view: yet another reason to ditch the CMIO model and forced integration. It is paternalistic, reductive and irrelevant in a global city.)

The second common complaint is that India Indians are arrogant, particularly to local Singaporean Tamils. Now there are too many criss- crossing lines of ethnicity, religion, class and caste, even within the Singaporen Indian community, to get into here. This is clearly a broad generalisation. But it is one I often hear.

The third is that India Indians, because of their rose-tinted view of the PAP and its achievements, and their garrulous trumpeting of “The Singapore Model”, actually end up downplaying some real problems that Singapore Indians have long faced in this country. (When will India Indians stop comparing Singapore to India? Delhi is not a benchmark for us.)

Electorally, India Indians who become naturalised citizens are believed to be an important part of the PAP’s secure immigrant vote bank.

For sure, some India Indians are the PAP’s biggest cheerleaders, they’ve drunk the Kool Aid, completely oblivious to facts and realities; this is the “Singapore was a swamp in 1965” set of people. I was aghast in 2015, following LKY’s passing, when I heard on television P Chidambaram, a former Indian minister, saying that LKY had transformed Singapore “from a fishing village”.

But this characterisation (rose-tinted) is also unfair and incomplete, because some of the most ardent and intelligent critics on Singapore I’ve listened to are India Indians, even if not all feel comfortable speaking publicly. Our public discourse would be greatly enhanced by incorporating their views. These are people who recognise, among other things, the very real issues of racism that exist here, perhaps because they have themselves felt it.

Finally, the fourth is that India Indians have been opportunistically using Singapore as a stepping stone to other countries. Part of this story, apparently, is the supposed absconding before National Service requirements. Again, I’d love to see the data.

6. Global city vs Sovereign State

Singapore is the world’s only global city cum sovereign state. One might argue that all our contemporary problems could be analysed through this tension, especially immigration.

Global city: welcome the world’s best. Sovereign state: protect citizens.

So, even if India Indians did earn their positions in Singapore through merit, is that how a small country should function? Should every position in every industry in Singapore be open to talent from everywhere?

For many Singaporeans, it is hard to escape the feeling that the PAP is in the process of creating a winners-take-all Elysium, where a class of natural aristocrats from around the world lords over a local Singaporean mass that cooks them cheap hawker food.

7. What is the role of culture and identity?

Is there an essential Singaporean culture? And should migrants, especially naturalised citizens, have an obligation to embrace it?

This is perhaps the most contentious topic, partly because it energises the bases of far-right parties all over the world. It is also one that is a bit more nuanced for a global city such as Singapore, constantly buffeted by the world’s cultural winds.

Yet it is also one, given identity issues everywhere, that we must discuss. Singapore the global city may not give two hoots about a common culture and identity. Singapore the nation state may have to. (A piece I wrote in 2012, The End of Identity?)

Does holding a Singapore passport make one a Singaporean? Or just a Singaporean passport holder? Is there a difference between one’s bureaucratic identification and one’s cultural?

Does it matter how many generations I’ve been here? Why do I feel the need to tell you, dear reader, that my mum was born in India but my dad is a third-gen Malayan?

I think at some level we all get trapped between these questions.

Over the past ten years whenever I meet an India Indian, they are often at pains to tell me how long they’ve been in Singapore.

“Oh early 2000s”.
“Oh I actually first came in the 1990s.”
“All my children were born here, you know?”
So on and so forth.

I often smile uncomfortably. And inside I worry about this genealogical competition, this “I’ve been here longer” one-upping of each other.


Lest it gets lost in my ramblings, the most important point is this: Singaporeans deserve transparency and a more inclusive public discourse on immigration.

Singaporeans must decide what the future Singaporean looks like. Not the PAP. Not Big Business. But ordinary Singaporeans. We need to democratise the immigration debate. It can no longer be an elite discussion. Ordinary Singaporeans must be equipped with the data and vocabulary to discuss immigration.

The only way to get societal buy in for immigration and multiculturalism is to get people engaged in the debate.

Finally, as mentioned, I’ve just banged the above out, and posted them now without asking my usual second and third readers. Apologies for errors. Really just want it to be a conversation starter.

I’m in discussions with several people about putting out something more deliberate on racism and xenophobia.

Do tell me what I’ve missed.

Top picture: Chandipur Beach, Orissa, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to anywhere. It overlooks the Bay of Bengal, which some early migrants to Singapore must have sailed across.

CORRECTIONS: Following comments on Facebook by Rohan Mukherjee, I have added in a short note about discrimination against Indians in the rental market; and in point 2 I have changed “riots” to “much louder protests” as perhaps it is going too far to imply violence in that hypothetical scenario. Thanks Rohan.


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Post-script, Aug 25th 2020

Thanks to everybody who contributed to the discussion thread on my post titled “Why always Indians?” You gave me lots of information, much through direct messages and e-mails, still coming in.

One issue of importance to local Indians is caste consciousness. To what extent has supposedly high recent migration from India affected “casteism” in Singapore? (The relative lack of is something Singaporeans have long celebrated.)

On discourse, I was actually trying to just have a conversation like I would, coffeeshop style, with readers, so I can collate new thoughts and ideas for a more deliberate piece. There are early discussions on a five-part podcast series on Population, Immigration and Racism. Watch this space.

As expected, somebody on the right criticised me for having a pro-India agenda masquerading as a pro-Singapore agenda. For over a decade now I have been called a pro-India commentator. I think it’s because I openly discuss prejudice and discrimination against minorities in Singapore, including the PAP’s racist policies.

Well, I want the best for all groups, obviously. It pains me to see the mistrust and suspicion between Singaporeans and India Indians (and others). With better data and a more inclusive dialogue about immigration, and with more societal buy-in, all groups will be better off.

A bit more surprising was some on the left criticising me for apparently perpetuating racist stereotypes about India Indians and thus unwittingly fuelling xenophobia as well as racism against Indians at large.

(“Left” and “Right”, of course, are somewhat arbitrary labels.)

I took these a bit more seriously. On the one hand, I think people should feel free to openly discuss perceptions and stereotypes about groups and investigate the roots of them. Racial and religious discourse has been muted for too long. Too many Singaporeans feel unable to broach these topics. The process is essential to building bridges.

On the other, the conversations must be handled with care and sensitivity, and with the right framing of issues. All of which I probably lacked in my haste. So, my apologies for any unintended “stirring of the pot”.

Do in particular read the comments left by Jolene, Kokila, Rohan on a thread started by Suraendher. I don’t share all their concerns, but it’s always good to check yourself.

I know some in Singapore worry about the importation from the West of perceived excesses of the left, for instance excessive political correctness and a liberal intolerance of speech. Yet the much greater danger, I think, is the importation of the excesses of the right.

Xiaxue, remember, has effectively built a media brand that is reminiscent of those on the far-right, the nutters who trade in social media outrage, who believe that “freedom of speech” should protect their racist, xenophobic vitriol as well as their demonisation of anybody who dares question racial and social injustices.

So it’s good to discuss prejudices, real and perceived, in society, I don’t think we should shy away, uncomfortable as it is. This includes any discrimination by Singaporeans against Indians, in the rental market and elsewhere. It also includes any discrimination by India Indians against Singaporeans, in the workplace and elsewhere.

But it’s also good to keep improving our methods of discourse. I’ll try harder.

14 thoughts on “Why always Indians?

  1. An intelligent and clear article on issues that have Singaporeans, PRs, anyone who lives here whether on a temporary or permanent basis. As you and others have pointed out, until data is in the open domain for discussion, debate, what have you, there is no way to resolve these issues which week eventually threaten the fabric of our society. When will the ruling elite ever trust the people to have a say in our future? Time to stop this paternalistic behaviour!

  2. with low birth rate, no pro family programs, high cost of living, tru blu singaporeans will be displaced within 2 to 3 generations. the nwe singaporeans after a long stay would surely delve into politics.as their numbers increase, they may even form their own political parties, not necessarily the same ruling party. new changes will surely take place.
    our grandchildren, great grand children will be second class in their own country. this will include those from the governing class of today. their descendants may not enjoy the same singapore as today.
    sad and frightening.
    in the same manner, the original inhabitants of the island was displaced by a migrant population from late 1950s to the 1970s. so the 2050s will see another change in demography.a consolation is that some new migrants are saying that they will be PR but not citizens as the place is too small and too expensive. they will go back to their homeland when old or in many cases, they would apply for migration to the white lands.
    sad and disgusting

  3. Can someone also write something on China Chinese ?
    I am Singapore Chinese sandwich by China Chinese and India Indian . . .
    . . .Kor C M

  4. sentient and lucid . Thanks Sudhir. Everyone with eyes would have noticed all the proliferating bumps under the rug. Lifting the rug takes courage, and a number of brave people have, but that is the easier part of the challenge. What to do with what is found has confounded mankind since the first dude left his cave for another. Philosophers, sociologists, politicians, economists etc. may all have different takes at different times but it has always been about this epochal question; You and I, who are we?

  5. With this influx of Indians and Tecno Chinese from abroad. The job market and minium wage for Singaporean is at at all time low. Take the minimum wage for the last 30 years or even the last 10 years after our locals have upgraded themselves, the minimum wage has never improved. A graduate and a odd job worker pay is at a same sorry state, with 10 to 12 hrs of work daily. Overtime is controlled, you are not allowed to work extra to earn extra. The system pays you in of in lieu instead of lieu in pay. Your have to work the maximum work hours designed for that fixed minimum wage.
    WHY! WHY! WHY!

  6. To exist in peace, happiness and harmony, rather than be a winner in a zero sum game, that is my wish.
    Contribution instead of competition..

  7. I believe there are more China Chinese in Singapore now and we should consider stopping that too, or it will be better to bring in more Indonesian Malay’s as they are the original native owner’s of Singapura …………….

      1. Learn from history bro…Singapura was part of Rhiau islands …The Foreigners create this borders ….tru the Anglo Dutch Treaty signed in 1824 ..

  8. We seriously need a stronger alternative voice
    in parliament other than the ruling party so that the voices of the PEOPLE , representimg the interest of the mass rather than an elite few can be heard.

  9. A topic of great interest.
    I have experienced the Singapore Indian versus New Indian divide and seen it in action despite the fact that I have tried hard to build bridges.
    Yes. Dialogue is certainly needed not a myopia. But I suspect its also a class divide.

  10. I think this is a phase compounding by the depression caused by the pandemic. I am pretty sure Singapore would have another bogey-demographic to go after during the next election cycle. That being said, the anti-immigrant vitriol in Singapore is very mild compared to other developed economies.

    The important part missing from your analysis, Sudhir, is the fact that the Indians in India or even most Indians here don’t really care about this. Most Indians that come over to Singapore don’t see this as a permanent home. They might work 2-15 years but most eventually leave for greener pastures. Integrating into predominantly Chinese society is quite difficult for most of them. And finally, Singapore is a tiny place, many, there are many opportunities globally.

    I don’t think data is not a fix-all for this issue, although transparency could possibly help, statistics can be manipulated in so many multiple ways. I am not sure if there will ever be an acceptable level of transparency for these issues. To fight this issue the focus should on developing local talent that can compete so firms don’t feel a need to hire foreigners.

    That being said, Singapore and Singaporeans will need to choose if they want to remain a global hub and increase its prominence or slowly dissolve in obsolescence. If the former is the choice, it needs to remain very open and not only educate its citizens but help them to excel while providing easy access to foreign labor. I believe this is what the government is planning to do. This is the only way out of this.

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