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Singapore, a nation of hubris?

Published by PranayGupte.com on 2004-11-16

NOT so long ago, an important member of India's federal cabinet took me aside and asked why was it that Singaporeans were racist. I was floored by the question, which the official asked in all earnestness. In his long career dealing with ethnicities and communities all over the world, he said, he had never quite encountered the sheer arrogance and hubris demonstrated by Singaporeans.

"They think that they know it all," he said, noting the absurdity of a nation of four million people taking on a country of 1.2 billion people. "Even a minor Singaporean official will talk down to someone as senior as me."

I don't know if I fully agree with the cabinet official, but there's something to be said about his perceptions. Just the other day, a Chinese colleague of mine waved me away in our newsroom like one would a persistent beggar. Perhaps he did not realise the significance of that gesture when directed at a Hindu-born person like me, however secular I may be in my sensibilities.

But he repeated his gesture in a manner that was so dismissive that I then addressed him by the only appropriate response, a barnyard epithet. I was struck, not by his gesture alone - I've seen worse during a career in journalism spanning four decades - but by the expression on his face. It left no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he would qualify for what my friend, the Indian cabinet official, would most certainly call a racist.

"Racist" is a hot-button word, never to be employed lightly. As an Indian-born, US-educated journalist, I have never been exposed to racial discrimination. Quite the contrary. America - supposedly still a land of great racial divides - has been generous to me, truly a land of monumental opportunities. But I do have an anecdote or two to reveal about Singapore that suggests that some people may be regarded differently in this place.

Some years ago, a recruiter from a venerable Singaporean institution looked me up in New York, my home since I was in my early twenties. I was being offered a job, but at a salary far less than a white gentleman I knew with considerably less experience. Why was that?

"Because you are an Indian," the woman recruiter said.

"I'm an American," I replied.

"It doesn't matter what your nationality is," she said. "You are a person of Indian origin, and that's how our compensation is structured."

Needless to say, it was an offer that I had no problems refusing.

Years later, when I finally arrived in Singapore - which was some months ago - I was quite astonished to see how many non-Singaporean Indians in professional positions were serving with coolie-like servility that they would never display back at home. What was going on here?

"You have to play by the rules," one Indian colleague said. "You cannot shake the boat too much. In fact, you dare not shake it at all. The money is good here, so I can swallow an insult or two."

Another anecdote: A young editor, who hails from Singapore's intelligence services, has been consistently derisive of my own formidable and extensive record in international journalism. Being at the age that I am - 56 - my inclination is to ignore these taunts. Having an international record and reputation has a way of making oneself immune to other people's sad insecurities. In fact, some of this editor's epistles may some day find their way into one of those wacky compendiums on how not to deal with people with more experience and of other races.

But I don't think that it's just wackiness on the editor's part, nor is it simply the kind of unproductive office political plays that people holding power try to display every now and then. It's part of a broader attitude that I detect among many of Singapore's mandarins - that no one else's record or accomplishment or opinion counts but theirs. Any divergence of view is immediately regarded as subversive dissent.

This is an important point because if Singaporeans are going to be perceived as filled with hubris and an unbending my-way-or-highway attitude, it is going to be increasingly difficult for this country to attract the talent it needs to sustain its economic ambitions.

For example, I would be very curious to see how many top-notch Indian professionals in technology and the sciences actually wind up in Singapore once the ambitious Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is signed this months by Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and Manmohan Singh of India.

Why am I sceptical that there isn't exactly going to be an exodus from India to Singapore? Precisely because of what that Indian cabinet minister told me. Singapore can attract all the cheap coolie labour it might want, but the word has gotten around in the Indian professional community that this isn't the place to come for personal and cultural fulfilment.

One Indian sociologist put it very succinctly, if harshly: "Yes, Singapore will get all the white trash it wants. Yes, it will get all the brown trash it wants. Anything's better than living in villages without electricity. But it's going to have problems getting the brown sahibs it needs."

Without those brown sahibs, Singapore will lose out to its neighbours in the great globalisation game. Already, its consumer prices and cost-of-living are driving potential talent to places like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi aren't such bad places to live and work in either, especially if you are in the technology sector.

Singapore, in short, is facing severe competition, and it's falling behind already. Does that mean by calibrating its culture to be more welcoming to outsiders is the answer? It's one answer, certainly. Does that mean Singaporeans should tolerate dilution of high professional standards? Certainly not. But why would any self-respecting professional coming to work here want to compromise his own standards?

And back to that dangerous question: Are Singaporeans racist? Well, of course some of them are, just as surely some Americans are, and Australians and Argentineans. But Singapore lives in a unique fish bowl, and its own standards of economic excellence require its citizens to be more sensitive and magnanimous when it comes to dealing with outsiders. After all, Singapore has created a pretty well functioning secular society for itself - even though one might argue that, in the cultural scheme of things, Tamils and Malays play second sitar to the Chinese.

Will things change? Doubt it. I don't think that Singaporeans are wired to be anything other than what they are.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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