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Food For Thought - What Kind of Indian Are You?


What Kind of Indian Are You?

Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu

Migration on a global scale has become a part of our contemporary life. And it has become inevitable that people migrate to countries like Singapore that do not have the fertility rates necessary to keep the population from diminishing. Immigrants face many challenges in adapting to their new environment. Also, the next challenge is to integrate with the local community as they begin to take root in the new soil. In the last quarter of a century, when migration from India to Singapore has increased significantly, the local Indian – new Indian  nexus has faced, and continues to face, many challenges. Dr Lavanya Kathiravelu, who has explored the issues and frictions of local Indian – new Indian integration in Singapore, has given an interview to The Serangoon Times (March 2021). We have summarized some excerpts from it here - for your food for thought.

Definition of social integration

Social integration can generally be defined as how well individuals or communities fit within a society – in terms of adapting to its norms, values and structures. Practically, learning the lingua franca of the host society, being part of its education system and workforce are also strong ways in which integration can be facilitated. Developing friendships and social connections either through joining local institutions such as places of worship or civil society groups have also been used to measure integration. 

Immigrant integration in Singapore  

I think Singapore has fared very well in comparison to other countries. There has been no violent conflict that has erupted and in general things function smoothly day to day. Singapore’s unique challenge may be not to take this for granted and paper over existing frictions that exist below the surface but acknowledge and address them. As my research, as well as that of others shows, assuming that a shared ancestry or broad ‘racial’ identity will mean seamless integration into an existing ethnic group is problematic. The absence of social integration means that some groups may feel less loyalty or belonging to the nation, and I don’t think that is an outcome that is desirable if we want to build a cohesive nation. My chapter in the book ‘Navigating Differences – Integration in Singapore’ (edited by Terence Chong, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020) outlines the lines along which significant tension exists within the community and interested readers can refer to that for examples. 

Is integration an issue only for first generation? 

I don’t think we can assume that it is an issue for all first-generation immigrants either. Some people integrate quicker and better than others, so we must be careful about making generalizations. Most research in the field of migration points to better integration into the host society of second and subsequent generations. However, there are prominent exceptions, especially in cases where structural constraints like race and class discrimination don’t allow for communities to be accepted into mainstream society. People’s exhibition of different cultural practices is just one way in which boundaries are drawn between communities and hierarchies articulated. Socio-economic status, religion, language and place of birth all also generate divides. This is also true within the Chinese community in Singapore. We should also not assume that there are no divisions and hierarchies within the Singapore-born Indian community. 

Perception of India and its impact on integration 

Some Singaporeans, not just local Indians, do think of India as a “third world” country with worse standards of hygiene, productivity and gender equality. This results in stereotyping of NRIs and does affect social networks and relationships that could be built between these groups. There is a lot of common ground – shared language, religion and food in many cases. As well as a shared desire to contribute to the nation and build stronger culture within the Indian community. I think we should, however, start with the assumption that people of different national backgrounds will invariably have differences and work to find ways to live together despite them. 

Does striving for meritocracy affect integration? 

I can’t really comment on this as I haven’t done research on how meritocracy impacts social integration. But Singapore, like many other countries around the world, values highly skilled migrants. So that is a global trend where countries compete for top talent. Surveys have shown that the ability to speak English is rated as important in social integration. Singlish use is also seen as an important in signifying Singaporean identity – and so a lack of proper use of Singlish could mean not embodying “Singaporeaness”. However, linguists have shown that there are different varieties of Singlish and so expecting one standardized use of it is also problematic. 

Perceptions on Race and the Contact Theory

There are many factors that contribute to facilitating integration. It is a process that takes time and work from both sides. I have suggested in my previous work that perhaps it is time to rethink racial categorizations in Singapore, as they no longer signify what they used to. This would be my recommendation. Contact theory assumes that the more contact in terms of everyday interactions you have with people who are different to you, the less you will harbour negative attitudes towards them. In Singapore, this seems to have largely worked with the enforced mixing of different race groups in HDB estates. In providing more opportunities and encouraging casual and everyday interactions between local-born and immigrants, this could also have a positive impact on social integration. 

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