From Indian spices, flower garlands, chunky gold jewelry, street food, modern restaurants serving both South Indian vegetarian and North Indian tandoori dishes, colorful sari shops to majestic Hindu temples, boutique hotels to sprawling departmental stores that are must-visit for every Indian tourist’s itinerary – Little India in Singapore is not only an experience for the senses that reminds one of a bustling Indian bazaar with its back alleys and mazy nooks and corners – except everything is squeaky clean, orderly, and the food hygienic.
Considered one of the unique places to visit in Singapore, Little India is a buzzing ethnic district that shows off the best of cosmopolitan Singapore’s vibrant Indian community that has kept its tradition and culture alive in this showcase city-state.
With its colorful murals and street art on centuries-old buildings that have been allowed to remain as a monument to Indian heritage, this enclave stands apart from the horizon-spanning vista of glass-and-steel towers, glittering malls and ultra-modern cityscape that exemplify Singapore.
The history of this enclave – which has the oldest Hindu temple built by early immigrants dating back to 1855 – is unique too. In 1840, Europeans lived here mainly as the place boasted of a racecourse. Eventually, cattle trading started here. It soon became a mostly Indian trade as traders hired Indian migrant workers.
Indians started settling on the island after the British founded modern Singapore in 1819. As at that time, the British outlined settlement along ethnic lines, so the Indians started settling in this district – which offered an array of Indian-origin products – as an “Indian sector.” As the migrant population grew, it began to attract more Indians from the nearby areas.
Initially, the Indian population was primarily young men who came here as laborers, soldiers, and convicts. By the mid-20th century, the Indian community – with ethnic Tamils from Tamil Nadu – grew in numbers. As immigration policies were liberalized to attract foreign professionals to boost the size and skills of the local workforce, many well-educated Indian professionals settled in Singapore. But one thing that they steadfastly held on to was their culture, customs, traditions, and religion. Not only did the Indian culture endure, but it also evolved and flourished over almost 200 years.
Today, there are approximately 650,000 people of Indian origin in Singapore, comprising nearly 10 per cent of the country’s six million population and thus making them the third-largest ancestry and ethnic group in Singapore. In 1990, the Indian diaspora comprised only seven percent.
Preserving Indian culture
Indians have been part of Singaporean society for centuries. In fact, Singapore traces its origins to two Sanskrit words – ‘Singha’ or lion and ‘pura’ or city.
The Indian Singaporeans have preserved their Indian culture and have amalgamated it with Singapore’s multiethnic culture. At the same time, their talents, capabilities, and professionalism have given them leadership positions in many areas, including public life and business.
They are now in better economic positions and are working in banking, finances, and IT industry and have made a considerable contribution to Singapore’s economic development. According to the Economic Times, the proportion of Indian professionals in Singapore has doubled from 13 percent to 26 percent between 2005 and 2020.
Recognized as a leading scholar in the field of Indian diaspora and heritage studies, Rajesh Rai, Associate Professor and Head of the South Asian Studies Programme at National University of Singapore, in one of his interviews has said that the “Indian diaspora in Singapore has a unique place, compared to any location in the world.
“We are heterogeneous ethnically and linguistically comprising of Tamils and non-Tamils, Hindi speakers and so on. We are also multi-layered; our history dates back centuries and comprises people who have come recently. So the diaspora is extremely complex,” said Rai, who has authored and edited several major works, including Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City.
Today, Indians in Singapore are a well-to-do community and politically well-represented, he added. “I think by most markers, Indians in Singapore have done very well,” he was quoted as saying by ConnectedtoIndia.com.
Singapore had an Indian-origin president, deputy prime ministers, foreign ministers, several members of the cabinet, opposition leaders and many Members of Parliament. “We have established political participation. We have a place in the politics of the country,” he added.
Language is something that has helped Indian Singaporeans to keep their ethnic identity close to their hearts. It has also helped them to bond as a community. Tamil is one of the country’s four official languages and is taught as a second language – English is the first – in most public schools. The other two languages are Mandarin and Malay.
Moreover, Tamil content – produced locally or abroad – is available free-to-air and on cable, televisions, and majorly promoted on radio channels, theatres and bookshops, and even in temples. Even announcements in the metro are made in Tamil too.
The credit also goes to Singapore’s bilingual policy that helped generate the love for their native tongue among the younger generation that also helped them connect and gave them a sense of belonging.
According to a 2017 Channel News Asia (CNA)-Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey on ethnic identity found that 81.3 percent of Indians aged 21 to 25 regard speaking, writing, and reading in Tamil and other Indian languages such as Hindi and Malayalam to be important Indian identity markers. Even more, 84.4 percent found that it is essential to transmit their children’s writing and reading skills in their ethnic language. While CNA is a media company, IPS is a think tank within the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore.
While Singapore’s bilingual policy might be a key driver of this attitude, another substantial reason for this love of language, especially amongst youths might be the sense of belonging that speaking a common ethnic language offers. Even the road and traffic signs are in Tamil. Moreover, cultural and literary events are organized that promote Tamil and Indian culture.
The survey also found that most Indians espouse the values of multicultural and pluralistic Singapore and love the idea of Singapore being a melting pot of different cultures where it is possible to integrate and mix with different races, cultures, visions, ideas, and identities. It helps not only to co-exist but also to mingle and blend.
All this also helped Indians to practice their religion.
According to the 2020 census, five percent of Singaporeans have declared themselves Hindus. For them, their religious beliefs and customs are very close to their hearts – no wonder the Lion Country boasts of over 30 Hindu temples and organizations.
The festival, especially Diwali or Deepavali, is observed as a public holiday, and Pongal, is celebrated with religious fervor. The Singaporean government had to announce crowd control measures at Little India in the lead-up to the festival of light on November 4 this year to prevent overcrowding amid rising cases of COVID-19.
The popular precinct comes alive as it is decorated with street lights every Diwali and Pongal, the most important harvest festival celebrated by Tamils in January.
Little India got a major boost when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 dined with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the famous Komala Vilas, one of the oldest restaurants established in 1947. His visit is considered as one of the biggest highlights in Little India’s recent memory.
One of the places that throw light on how the Indian culture has thrived and flourished in Singapore is the Indian Heritage Centre in Little India. The four-story building is considered to be an iconic and sustainable building that blends both traditional Indian as well as modern architectural elements. The façade is inspired by baoli or Indian stepwell. The Centre seeks to celebrate and help the younger generation to appreciate the Indian culture. It was opened by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2015 and offers year-round exhibitions, programs, and activities to promote greater public awareness and appreciation of Indian heritage, arts and culture.
The ability to cook ethnic food using authentic species and herbs and learn Indian dances, music, and art is another binding factor for the Indian community. There are many cultural institutes and organizations that impart knowledge to those keen to keep their tradition alive.
It is not that the Indian community has not played any role in influencing the culture of Singapore. One of the most powerful impacts of Indian culture can be seen in the food. As food is cheap, most Singaporeans eat out rather than at home, and Indian restaurants are some of the most popular. Interestingly, many spices used in Indian cuisines have become a common ingredient in Singaporean food.
It’s no wonder that Indians feel very much at home in Singapore. Not only the island state has become one of the most preferred tourist destinations as a shopping paradise – Indians are considered among Singapore’s best buyers – but is also considered one of the best countries to live and work for Indians.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.