SINDA must stay focused

SINDA must stay focused
Former Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) president S. Dhanabalan.
PHOTO: Sinda

Mr Dhanabalan talks about issues affecting the Indian community in Singapore.

Q: Can you take us through SINDA's development and its relevance today?

A: At first, I was not very much in favour of SINDA because I felt that this was a national issue which should be tackled at the national level.

When we began to dive further into the issue, we found that Indians were very sharply divided. Those in the upper levels of society were doing really well, but a large number, in fact I would say more then 50 per cent of the lower levels, were not doing well. They may have paid lip service to education but they did not really do it.

Indian philosophy, Thirukural for example, has a lot of emphasis on education but this was not translated into daily life here.

I also think many Indians, especially the Tamils, tended to compare their lifestyle and what they could enjoy in Singapore with what their families in India were enjoying. So I remember one union leader telling me that he once spoke to a chap who was a daily-rated worker. He was also washing cars and was doing well enough to own a three-room flat. And when he compared himself to his relatives in India, he felt he was doing very well. His children were not doing very well in school. But he was not worried. He felt that they would somehow survive. He survived and when he goes back to India and sees his relatives there, he feels very great.

They compared themselves with the wrong group. They did not compare themselves with their neighbours who were Chinese. And when I, in one of my speeches, said, "look at your Chinese neighbours, learn from them", they were very upset. Because they thought I was trying to make them into Chinese but I only wanted them to learn from good examples.

So we knew something must be done to improve the education levels. And it's easier for an Indian to talk to an Indian, a Malay to talk to a Malay and say you really got to pull up your socks, you have to do this and do that. You can't tell your children to study and then you switch on the TV. How are they going to study? You've got to be disciplined. If you want your children to study, there must be certain periods in the house where the TV must not be on. You've got to deprive yourself of some of the enjoyment you might want to have.

And so we had a committee led by Joe Pillay which studied what was happening and made certain recommendations and that's how SINDA started.

I think we have made progress over the last 25 years. There is still some more room for improvment. But it's very, very encouraging to see the progress made and the involvement of the Indians who are doing better to try to uplift the community as a whole.

Q: What are some of the issues facing the Indian community?

A: Social practices like the alcohol problem, domestic violence problem. These tend to be more pronounced among Indians. Not helped by the kind of programmes they watch on TV which makes this all very much acceptable kind of behaviour. A man slapping a woman in an Indian film is nothing unusual. So you take it as a norm. And then of course the alcohol problem.

So we have to do whatever we can in order to uplift the education performance and change the social behaviour of Indians in Singapore and make sure we are respected by the other communities. In a way the sense of respect is changing, especially as a result of the new Indians coming in who are mostly professionals. So that's a good thing.

But they bring other bad habits with them which most of the Indians in Singapore have forgotten or got rid off. They have a very strong sense of caste.

Some Indians here already have a caste problem but the new Indians have a bigger problem. In fact I've heard of instances where, in major American banks, an Indian was put up for promotion by a non-Indian.

The non-Indian boss was told that you better not promote him because he's in the wealth management part of the bank and he's got to talk to other professional Indians to persuade them to put the money with you, and he's not of the caste that they will respect. So can you imagine these are people who studied overseas, outside India, who have done well and now work in an American bank and are still holding on to such caste prejudices.

And that's something that we should reject completely. But they do bring it with them. They may have lived many years outside of India but they remain very strongly caste-conscious. They will deny it. So this particular Indian was not promoted, but was given another job of a higher level which did not involve trying to sell the bank's services to professional Indians. That's something that is very disturbing.

It may even go into languages - division by languages. Whether someone speaks Marathi as against Gujarati. A Gujarati against Indians who are Tamil speakers. Tamils against Telugus and Telugus against Kannadas. This feeling is very strong in India. That's why states are getting divided. The latest is Telangana. So we must ensure that they do not bring this, what I call "primitive ideas", here.

Because it continues to deepen the practices that come from India which are not relevant to Singapore. So if they want to be a part of Singapore and be integrated, they have to get rid of this kind of thinking. They may be upset by what I'm saying, but I think it needs to be said.

I think, among the Indian Singaporeans, caste is probably much less, but it's still there. I mean I'm completely unconscious of people's caste.

And when I was president of SINDA for a few years I had a lot of staff in SINDA. It never occured to me that quite a few of them were Brahmins. But then people began to point out, why are you employing Brahmins in SINDA? I said, "Brahmins? Who is Brahmin?" And then they started giving me the names.

So it surprised me and disappointed me that they were still looked upon as Brahmins and not Indian Singaporeans. And the fact that they were working in an organisation to lift the performance of all Indians was lost on them. They couldn't appreciate that. So there is still some caste consciousness. But hopefully it's less. And that trend of becoming less and less must not be arrested or made difficult by the new Indians coming to Singapore.

Q: On Aug 4 last year, SINDA released a report on family violence in the Indian community. What are your views on this?

A: I think SINDA must be careful that it does not become distracted from its primary purpose which is to uplift the Indians through education.

That is the way to change people's life. If we get distracted by all the social problems then we will lose the focus on what is the long-term solution to this issue.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore it. SINDA is helping the women who are in this very difficult situation of husband being very violent and not contributing to the family's well-being. Some of the women leave the families. There are special programmes in SINDA to help single mothers. They may be divorced, they may not be divorced but they are separated from their husbands. But they have to find some way of earning a living and taking care of the children. SINDA is trying to help them.

People in India might be upset by what I'm saying, but I think that the Indians, especially the Tamils, must stop looking to Indian social behaviour as the pattern. They must look at what's happening around them in Singapore. But the daily feed of TV programmes, especially the cable channels, Sun TV and so on, is just a whole lot of rubbish and they are bound to be influenced by that. But the Government cannot ban them. It's for people to switch off and watch something else or do something else.

When I was an MP, I was once approached by an Indian lady who was earning a living and supporting the family by working as a bus conductor. She came to the meet-the-people session as her husband had locked her out of the house. So I asked her to wait until the meet-the-people session was over and I accompanied her to her house with my community leaders.

The husband opened the door. He was obviously drunk. And I asked him why he had locked his wife out of the house. He said, "I don't want her to work." And then he showed me a photograph of her in her working attire wearing slacks. "How can she dress like this?"

That was all he was interested in. The fact she was earning and supporting the family was completely lost on him. So his sense of values of what a wife should be is completely different from reality. He didn't appreciate what his wife was doing to help the family. He was only focused on what she wore. I don't think it was an isolated case.

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