Kolkata and Singapore


I wonder why there is no street named after Calcutta in Singapore, nor after Singapore in what is now Kolkata. For their histories are interlinked. Both were ruled by the British and share some street names. Both had Armenian Street, Synagogue Street, Elliot Road and roads, bridges and landmarks named after generals and administrators such as Clive, Dalhousie, Elgin and Outram. I say “had” because Kolkata has been renaming streets, eradicating colonial associations and honouring eminent Indians.

The renaming of “Calcutta” to “Kolkata” is part of the same decolonisation drive, “Calcutta” being the name given by the British, who anglicised the Bengali word “Kolkata” or “Kalikata”. Incidentally, Kalikata was the name of one of the three villages – the other two were called Sutanuti and Gobindapur – that merged and grew into the city of Kolkata under British rule.

Just like Singapore, Kolkata was acquired by the British East Indian Company as a trading settlement from the local Muslim rulers. Under Company rule from the middle of the 18th century, it became the capital of British India.

Singapore could not have become a British possession without support from Kolkata.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was lieutenant-governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra, had to sail to Kolkata and meet the governor-general of India, the Marquess of Hastings, before he could set up a British settlement in Singapore in 1819. As an official of the East India Company, Raffles had to seek permission from the governor-general, his superior.

Raffles arrived in Singapore with soldiers of the Bengal Native Infantry. Kolkata was the capital of Bengal and British India.

When Singapore was part of Bengal Presidency

For a time, Singapore was part of the Bengal Presidency. The reason: economic necessity. Decreed a free port by Raffles, with no customs duties, Singapore attracted merchants and in trade surpassed other British settlements in the region such as Penang and Malacca. But no customs duties meant less government revenue. “What revenue there was came largely from excise, collected through revenue ‘farms’, the opium one being the most remunerative. Otherwise India bore the costs,” wrote Nicholas Tarling in his book, Colonial Singapore.

To cut the cost of administration, Singapore, Penang and Malacca were administered from Kolkata as part of the Bengal Presidency from 1830 to 1851. The Straits Settlements remained under the control of the governor-general of India until 1867 when they became a Crown Colony directly answerable to the Colonial Office in London.

Somerset Maugham on Bengalis in Singapore

Even after Singapore ceased to be administered from Kolkata, ties remained.
Somerset Maugham referred to “prosperous” Bengalis in Singapore in his short story, P & O, included in his book, The Casuarina Tree, published in 1926. He wrote:

“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 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; 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.”

I wonder who those Bengalis were. I know there were doctors from Calcutta Medical College in Singapore and Malaysia. And there were Bengali teachers too.

The late President SR Nathan’s wife, Urmila Nandey, is a Bengali. She attended a teacher-training course in Britain on a scholarship as a young woman while he obtained his diploma in social studies from the University of Malaya and worked in the Social Welfare Department in Kedah. Although they were deeply in love, as they had to study, work and support their families, they had to wait for 16 years to get married, he wrote in his autobiography, An Unexpected Journey.

Bengalis were not as likely to emigrate as Tamils, Biharis, Punjabis and Gujaratis during the colonial era and its immediate aftermath. Myanmar probably was the only country with a sizable Bengali presence and that might have been because the country was right next door to Bengal, which, under British rule, included Bangladesh.

Well-off Bengalis went to Britain to study law or medicine but returned to Kolkata to practise their professions. Indeed, people came from all over India to Kolkata for work and business. It was a cosmopolitan city, home to Anglo-Indians (Eurasians), Armenians, Jews and Chinese.

Although New Delhi became the capital of India in 1911, Kolkata remained the commercial capital until it lost that distinction to Mumbai.

Kolkata’s fortunes began to decline after the leftists came to power in the 1967 state assembly elections, ousting the Congress. Communist agitation and militant trade unions led to industrial unrest, paralysing business and industry, driving many companies out of Bengal. Whereas people used to come to work in Kolkata, now they had to leave the city for jobs elsewhere. Bengalis began to migrate too.

Immigrants are not universally welcome, but their influence is undeniable.
The son of an immigrant now occupies the British throne. King Charles III’s father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a member of the Greek and Danish royal families. Educated in Britain and a Royal Navy officer, he became a naturalised British subject before he married Queen Elizabeth II in 1947.

Singapore, of course, is an immigrant nation. Think of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s great grandfather and the momentous consequences of his separation from his first wife.

Lee Bok Boon came to Singapore and married Seow Huan Neo, a shopkeeper’s Singapore-born daughter. Eventually, he decided he had made enough money to go back home and live in comfort. But his wife didn’t want to go to a country she had never seen. So he returned to China alone and remarried while she remained in Singapore. Her son, Lee Hoon Leong, Lee’s grandfather, worked as a purser of a ship and became a rich man. Lee himself recalled these events in his memoirs, The Singapore Story.

Now think, if his great grandmother had accompanied his great grandfather to China, would Singapore be the country we know and love? I wonder.

Migration has been changing Kolkata too. The city is no longer as cosmopolitan as it used to be. There are fewer Chinese and Anglo-Indians, many having emigrated to Australia, Canada and other countries, and hardly any Jews and Armenians. But the population continues to grow. Locals talk of people coming from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis are indistinguishable from the locals. Most of them are Muslims. West Bengal has the highest percentage of Muslims after Assam and Jammu and Kashmir among the Indian states and territories.

Indeed, it’s said no one can come to power in West Bengal without Muslim support. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost the West Bengal assembly elections in 2021 to the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a regional party which opposes Hindu nationalism.

Ms Banerjee, a Hindu proud of Bengali culture and heritage, now enjoying her third successive five-year term in office, preaches religious harmony. Her pictures are everywhere — and in some posters she can be seen, head covered, hands outspread, offering Muslim prayers. It’s a vote winner in Bengal.


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