In a land they helped to build

A bevy of Indian women in saris, salwars and jeans was seen smiling in the local newspaper recently. They all live in the same condominium, reported The Straits Times. The spacious seaview apartments renting for 6,000 to 9,000 Singapore dollars – more than two to three times the median salary, earned by half the population – are snapped up like hot cakes by Indians and Indonesians who  have frequent visitors from home, said a property agent.

Singapore’s growing Indian population has returned  to pre-independence levels.  The 353,000-strong Indian community now makes up 9.2 per cent of the 3.73-million resident population, which includes Singapore citizens and permanent residents. About a quarter of the more than a million foreigners working in Singapore are estimated to be Indians, too.

Singapore has not had such a large Indian presence since the end of British rule. The Indian population dropped from 9 per cent in 1957, when it was a British colony, to as low as 6.4 per cent in 1980. The big increase occurred in the last 10 years as more skilled Indian workers and professionals came to Singapore.

Their arrival would have probably been greeted with a nod of approval by Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, whose statue overlooks the Singapore River. After all, he landed there nearly 200 years ago with a shipload of Indians.

Few remember he came on a ship named Indiana, setting out on his momentous voyage from Kolkata. Raffles left Kolkata in December 1818 and arrived in Singapore on 29 January 1819 with a retinue of about 120 sepoys and lascars, assistants and servants. One wonders how the Indians felt as they sailed across the forbidden “kala pani”. The lascars, of course, were sailors and militiamen. And Indian traders had been venturing into Southeast Asia long before the settlement of Singapore.

Singapore’s earliest building contractor was an Indian, Naraina Pillai. A merchant from Penang, he came with Raffles and built the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. The Mariamman Temple in Chinatown dates back to 1827.

The temple was bult by Indian convicts, the unsung pioneer builders of Singapore. It was they who built the settlement, brick by brick. The Istana (presidential palace) and St Andrew’s Cathedral, consecrated by Bishop Cotton of Kolkata in 1862, were their handiwork. The convicts, who started being sent to Singapore in 1825, formed the bulk of the labour force for public works. They built the earliest roads and filled up the swamps to create Raffles Place, Thomson Road and Bukit Timah, some of the poshest areas in town today.

India stopped sending convicts to Singapore only in the 1870s after a penal  colony had been built in the Andamans. The Indian convicts in Singapore and Malaysia were then pardoned off. But many of them  stayed on, marrying local women and working as builders, plumbers, tailors, printers, shoemakers, stone-cutters or doing other jobs they had learnt as prisoners.

By then, Indians were also coming to Singapore of their own free will, as labourers and traders. While the great majority were Tamils – Tamil is one of Singapore’s four official languages today, like Chinese, Malay and English – there were also Malayalees, Sindhis, Gujaratis and Punjabis.

Somerset Maugham mentions even “prosperous” Bengalis in this colourful passage, describing Singapore in the 1920s, in his short story, P&O:

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.

That Singapore is gone. Only tourists can linger at leisure on a weekday in Singapore now. But no one walks barefoot either.

Walking down Little India, sometimes I feel as if I am in the middle of an old Indian movie. The tacky two- and three-storey shophouses lining the street are a throwback to the past. But behind them rise multi-storey housing blocks where once there were cattle sheds and fields. Bullock carts once trundled along this stretch, driven by men who had probably left behind their wives in India.

Many of the foreign construction workers, labourers and cleaners to this day cannot bring their families with them. Only foreigners earning more than S$2,500 (nearly Rs 86,000) a month can apply for dependants’ passes. Singapore continues to be built, brick by brick, by men without women.

That is why the newspaper picture of the smiling Indian women was such a pleasure to behold. They exuded a happiness that is possible only above a certain pay cheque in Singapore.

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