Singapore's Indian immigrants: How are they integrating?

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Shoppers browse through a market specially set up for Deepavali in Little India, Singapore, on October 19, 2006

Of all the hot-button issues in Singapore today, immigration may be the most emotive. With immigration comes the even more important question of integration: do newcomers fit in?

The issue of integration in the Indian community is seen as contentious enough to be specifically called out as an issue by respected former MP Inderjit Singh.

Yahoo Singapore’s conversations with native Singaporean Indians, grassroots leaders, academics and new immigrants from the Indian community, confirms how hot a topic this is.

Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University Eugene Tan says Indians have always been heterogeneous and divided along class, language and sub-ethnic lines. He says, “The new arrivals from the Indian diaspora have rejuvenated the differences within the Indian community, refreshing the previously eroding divides along class, language and sub-ethnic lines.”

Prof Tan adds that there’s also a socio-economic divide between foreign-born and local-born Indians, given that many of the former group are high-skilled professionals who have found a “niche area” in industries such as finance and IT.

He says, “The foreign-born Indian community has been relatively more successful compared to the native-born Indian community. This has generated, we hear, the superiority complex the foreign-born Indians tend to possess, whether deliberately or otherwise.”  

Leaders’ concern

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh says a lot more time needs to be spent trying to integrate the Indian community, adding that effort needs to be “on both sides”.

Singh told Yahoo Singapore new immigrants - whether they are Indians or Chinese from China – are culturally different from Singaporeans and many did not integrate fully as their numbers are large enough “for them to keep among themselves”.    

Singh was elaborating on a Facebook post he made after the General Elections, where he said local Indians have been impacted by immigration policy and that integration hasn’t been successful.

A Singaporean-born Indian speaks 

Part of the temple facade at the historic Sri Mariamman temple.

Singaporean housewife Mahita Vas, 53, feels there is a class divide among new citizens of Indian origin, which goes back to money and position. 

Recalling her days working in an advertising firm with colleagues from India, Mahita says those from the middle class and below try harder to integrate.

“I thought the office was better because of them – they were smart, funny, open, warm.  A number of them married Singaporean Chinese women. They are committed (and) they make the country a better place.”

Mahita contrasts this with a former neighbour of hers who gained citizenship and owns landed property here, but is now based in India.

“When I asked if his children, who were studying in the (United) States, would come back, he said to me with such disdain,  ‘Are you kidding me?’

That was when I felt so angry that citizenship was given so easily. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of such an attitude. Some of these rich people, they really have zero class. ”

However, Mahita stresses integration is a two-way street, suggesting that the problem could be because locals aren’t welcoming enough.

“How are they going to integrate if we don’t invite them to lunch, or open our doors to them?” she asks.

Immigration numbers

A vendor sells sari ahead of Deepavali at Little India in Singapore October 31, 2013. The Hindu community will celebrate the Festival of Lights known as Diwali or Deepavali, on November 2. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: RELIGION BUSINESS TEXTILE)

According to a 2015 government report, 50,202 new citizens and permanent residents (PR) were minted last year.

34.6 per cent of the new PRs and 38.5 per cent of new citizens came from Asian countries outside of Southeast Asia. A breakdown of the new residents by country was not available.

The plan is to continue taking in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens per year, to “keep our citizen population from shrinking”. Since 2009, about 30,000 new PRs have also been taken in annually, in order to keep the PR population stable at between 500,000 and 600,000.

Authorities, says Prof Tan, must be “even more careful and robust” in granting citizenship to applicants. He says, “We need to focus more on evidence that an applicant is fairly integrated or shows a desire to be integrated into Singapore society, our way of life, and our core values. Otherwise, it's counter-productive. And the next generation might just emigrate if they do not feel that they belong here.”

Different mindsets

People shop for vegetables at a wet market in the Little India district of Singapore on August 14, 2014

Puran Kaur and Ricky Saturam, both 53, own Bollywood club Moshi Moshi. They interact regularly with foreign-born Indians thanks to their business, and because Saturam is actively involved in grassroots community work.

Saturam says many “talented Indians” choose to migrate to Singapore over other countries like the United States, attracted by the food, lifestyle, education system and even the lack of “Indian politics”.  

He says, “To them, Singapore is the place to be, they have everything they need here. It’s a different breed, and we are getting the best kind of Indians. We need such talents, but the challenge is also for them to integrate.”

Touching on his grassroots work with new citizens, Saturam says certain cultures need many things explained to them as they “don’t understand”.

“At the end of the day, we tell them, you choose this country. So you must understand the laws and the culture, and racial harmony.”

Saturam feels a certain amount of “friction” with born and bred Singaporean Indians is inevitable, “The Indians that are coming over now, they are all graduates and well-to-do…while on the Singapore side, the level of education and wealth varies.

So as compared to our forefathers, integration will take more time. Back then, we were all developing together. We need a certain level of understanding, appreciation and patience.”

Kaur, his wife, says Indians are more go-getters because of the challenges they have in their “big, big country”.

“I feel like we have to step up a bit more, even in schools.

My son is doing a second language in Punjabi, and he has to compete with (foreign-born) Indians, who are much better in the language. Therein lies a little bit of competition.”

Integration policies

Devotees at the annual Pongal celebration in Jan 2015, organised by the Bukit Panjang Integrational and Naturalisation Champions. 

Social integration is spearheaded by the National Integration Council (NIC). In response to queries, a spokesman for the NIC Secretariat says that it believes integration has to be constant and pro-active as “culturally diverse” new immigrants take time to settle into the Singapore way of life.

One of the NIC’s major efforts is the Community Integration Fund (CIF), which provides co-funding of up to 80 per cent for “ground-up integration initiatives”.  Since launching in Sept 2009, it has supported over 600 projects by more than 250 organisations, disbursing $11.9 million as of Sept 2015. Projects include large-scale community celebrations and mass media projects to encourage understanding across cultures.

For example, to celebrate the Tamil harvest festival of Ponggal, the Bukit Panjang Integration and Naturalisation Champions (INCs) organised a carnival with traditional games and live animals last January. 2,000 participants – half of them new immigrants – enjoyed a cooking demonstration of Ponggal rice and cultural performances at the event. A blood donation drive was also held to encourage active citizenry. The celebration has been held since 2007.

Perumal Moorthy, 47, is chairman of the Bukit Panjang INCs.

INCs, a scheme implemented by People’s Association, are individuals who are appointed to help new immigrants fit in with the community. There were 1,300 INCs in 87 constituencies as of 2013.

The civil engineer, who came from Chennai in 1993 and became a citizen in 1998, acknowledges there is always a certain “culture shock” for new arrivals, which cause “faultlines” that community leaders are working to narrow.

“In our community, we need to focus to the next generation, because those children born in Singapore will definitely carry along our Singaporean culture,” says Perumal, who has two Singapore-born daughters.

He says many new citizens are involved in grassroots and community work because they want to spend the time and give back to society.

A Singapore success story speaks

A vendor sells festive flowers at Little India in Singapore October 31, 2013. The Hindu community will celebrate the Festival of Lights known as Diwali or Deepavali, on November 2. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY)

Parthasarathy Ramasamy, 38, hails from a village in southern India, some 350km from Chennai. A senior manager at the Yahoo data centre, Parthasarathy’s story is that of the classic immigrant-made-good, “My uncle came to Singapore many years ago. He told me that if you come here and work hard, there are a lot of opportunities.”

An engineer by training, Parthasarathy initially worked as a construction worker here before becoming a site manager. To supplement his income, he even delivered newspapers in the early morning before going to work.

Today, Parthasarathy holds a Masters degree in power engineering, which he earned from Nanyang Technological University in 2006. He also owns three mini-marts. He became a citizen in 2008.

When asked if he knows many Singaporeans, the father of two young children admits most of his friends are from India, though he has many Chinese and Malay colleagues. Are local Indians welcoming towards him? He says, “I would say 50/50. It’s not like they open hands and hug me, but they also don’t show any hatred towards me.”

While he is aware of and has attended PA community events, he says he is usually too busy with work and family to make time for them. 

Asked if he feels Singaporean, his answer is honest. He says he loves Singapore in his mind but doesn’t feel it “emotionally”.

“But I am seeing that in my daughter. I used to feel the emotion when I sang the national anthem in India, now I am seeing that same emotion (for the Singapore anthem) in my daughter.”

Integration takes time

A man walks past dresses hanging on a building wall in the Indian district of Little India in Singapore. AFP photo

Stand-up comedian Sharul Channa’s father moved her family from India to Singapore almost three decades ago when she was a month old. Now a citizen, Channa disagrees that Indian immigrants coming here in “large numbers” is what impedes integration – instead, like Mahita Vas, she thinks it is more about social status and wealth.

The 28-year-old notes, “They’re just going to integrate with the Indians around them. The old HDB Indians hang out with the new HDB Indians, the old landed property Indians will hang out with the new landed property Indians. I can’t suddenly go to Dr Modi’s house and ask, why aren’t you hanging out with me?"

Channa points to her own parents’ experience, “Over time, they realized they had to integrate with the rest of Singapore if they wanted to survive, whether it’s in business or friendship or speaking Singlish. Eventually, the new batch of Indians who are coming here every year, if they want to stay in Singapore, they will become more Singaporean than Indian, and they will encounter the same issues.” 

She adds with a laugh, “Integration will happen over time. Unless the entire of India moves here.”

(Yahoo Singapore reached out to the People’s Association and Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) for comments for this story, but has not received a response yet. Questions posed include requesting feedback to Singh’s comments on integration, how many new immigrants the INC scheme has reached out to and what other integration programmes the PA runs.)