Bengalis in 1920s Singapore

I am glad that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the Global Indian Diaspora Conference this morning. His presence there while Singapore officially went into recession underlines the deepening ties between the two countries.

India too is caught in the economic turmoil.  Indian banks from tomorrow will be allowed to keep just 7.5 percent cash in hand, down from 9 percent. It’s the steepest cut in the cash reserve ratio in India since 2001, reports Bloomberg, releasing 600 billion rupees ($12.2 billion) into the financial system.

But this post is about what the Prime Minister said at the conference. The full speech can be read here. I only wish to draw attention to this remark he made:

Many early Indians started out here as humble labourers and plantation workers, but succeeding generations have made their mark in government, business and the professions.

That is only part of the story, passing over details like this: Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore with soldiers from India. But anyone can learn that from a history book.

What’s more interesting to me is this Singapore scene painted by Somerset Maugham in his short story, P & O. It appeared in his collection of short stories, The Casuarina Tree, published in 1926. He mentions “sleek and prosperous” Bengalis. Where did they go? Maugham captures the buzz, but it’s a totally different Singapore:

Mrs Hamlyn lay on her long chair and lazily watched the passengers come along the gangway. The ship had reached Singapore at night and since dawn had been taking on cargo; the winches had been grinding away all day, but by now her ears were accustomed to their insistent clamour. She had lunched at the Europe, and for lack of anything better to do had driven in a rickshaw along the gay, multitudinous streets of the city. Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in the towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English, in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air. The rulers of these teeming peoples take their authority with a smiling unconcern.

Published by Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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