Nationally Speaking: Race, as told by an Indian Immigrant

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Zara Karimi (18A01A)


I remember primary school and its illustrations of Indians in social studies and health education books. I remember advertisements featuring at least one member of every race at bus stops and community centres. I remember secondary school Racial Harmony Day celebrations where my schoolmates dressed up in black t-shirts, sari fabric draped haphazardly, bindis on their foreheads. They would take pictures while doing yoga poses. I would come across their posts on Instagram, and wonder – why was it that the idea of ‘Indianness’ my peers and society held was so different from what I, an Indian, actually experienced?

In passing, I asked some of my friends what they knew about Indian people. The majority of their answers were generalizations, and it became clear that their mental image of an Indian person wasn’t any different than the stereotypes I had seen of myself: a woman with brown skin and curly black hair. She would be wearing a colourful sari and a bindi on her forehead. She would speak Tamil, celebrate Deepavali, and eat idlis and dosas. This would then be followed by a hasty “but I’m not Indian, so I don’t really know.”

An example of an Indian woman as represented by a 2015 tweet from Singtel, illustrating the common stereotype.

While the majority of the 350 000 Indian citizens of Singapore are Tamil-speakers with South Indian heritage, in addition to Tamil being one of Singapore’s national languages, Tamils only make up 6% of India’s population (2001 census). Common sense then dictates that not all Indians fall into this box. The remaining half of the Indian population in Singapore consists of many other groups, usually classified by mother tongue. Malayalee, Hindi, Sikh, Punjabi, Hindustani, Gujarati, Sindhi and Sinhalese are all listed in our Census of Population 2010. Even that is hardly an exhaustive list, with almost a quarter of the Indian population belonging to other groups.

Despite this diversity, I have seen through my experiences as an Indian-Muslim Singapore citizen that often, characteristics of Indians that we choose to portray end up being representative of only the majority, and become reductive stereotypes which we unconsciously adopt, to discriminatory ends.

In contrast, an old photo of my mother and I dressed for Eid. For the record, neither of us know how to smile.

While I am dark-skinned, I can count the number of times I have worn a sari on one hand. Instead, I wear shalwar-kameez and chudidhaar, originating from North India. I know the same amount of Tamil as most non-speakers, seeing as my mother tongue is Hindi. Being Muslim, I celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr and Bakri Eid, electing to celebrate Deepavali only with my Hindu friends. And yet, these seem to be prevalent assumptions about people like me.

If I, an Indian person, am aware of diversity within the other main races in Singapore (for example, Chinese dialect groups or Malay sub-ethnic groups), why can’t I expect the same for my race from members of other races?  

Furthermore, diversity within the greater Indian population in Singapore is only growing, with social phenomena such as the influx of transient workers from Bangladesh, as well as brain drain from Indian cities contributing largely. In theory, most people are aware that ethnicity, race, and citizenship status are disparate, but day-to-day experiences reflect a different, more complicated reality, where it is assumed that Indians are either from the South or the North, that North Indians can’t be Singapore Citizens, and that everyone is Hindu.

Take, for example, my parents’ experience moving to Singapore from Mumbai in 1996. My father, then working in the IT industry, had been offered a chance to relocate. In their late twenties, my parents made the monumental decision to live abroad. They would be leaving behind their families, friends, and the comforts of home in pursuit of something that would potentially change their lives forever.

As they looked for their first rental flat, my mother received this response from a housing agent over the phone.

“Just to check ah, you are not the dark-skinned Indian right? The owner will only rent out to the fair-skinned ones.”

Biting her tongue, my mother offered an affirmative.

“Blatant racism aside, how exactly was I supposed to explain something like that to this Chinese lady?” she would later recount to me. “Your father is dark-skinned, I am fair-skinned, but we are both born and brought up in Mumbai, where our families have lived for generations. Dark skin, fair skin doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

And she’s right. Skin colour barely scratches the surface of the identity of Indians living in India, let alone in Singapore. Being the world’s second most populous country after China, within India there currently exist two thousand different ethnic groups, four major language families, and representation of every major world religion.

To think that dark-skinned migrants are inexplicably worse than fair-skinned migrants is a gross (in both senses) misconception, and yet, almost twenty years on, this discrimination still exists in the rental market in Singapore.

You would think that only newer Indian immigrants would be affected, but this isn’t the case. These very misconceptions also contribute to racism against Indians who are naturalized Singaporean Citizens.

Just last Ramadan, my family and I attended a congregation of Tarawih prayers daily. At least once a week, without fail, someone would ask my mother and I where we were from. When we responded that we were Singaporean, their looks of surprise spoke louder than words. Clearly, because we were Indian and Muslim, we could not possibly be Singaporean since the prevalent understanding dictates that Singaporean Indians are Hindu.

To some extent, it may seem like I am making mountains out of molehills, and that is a fair criticism. Singapore has been quite successful at managing race relations relative to other countries, which can be rife with systemic discrimination against minorities to the point of violence. I am not suggesting that we destroy the current perception of Indians (or any other race, for that matter) either, but that we simply develop it to account for greater diversity. Though my experiences hardly account for all of the issues faced by Indians in Singapore, they still remain reflective of a lack of awareness, and in turn, a lack of the multiculturalism Singaporeans claim to espouse.

Our history shows this country was built on the backs of immigrants from China, Malaya, India and elsewhere, all of whom had to figure out how to get along regardless of race, language or religion. If Singapore wants to continue priding itself as a bastion of pluralism and inclusivity, we are going to have to learn how to manage our multiplicities.

Happy National Day!

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