SINGAPORE - You may call it the Little Red Dot.
Some prefer to refer to it as the Island Nation. Others proudly call it the third richest country in the world.
But for 73-year-old Krishnasamy Vithalingam, Singapore has and will always be best known as a "country of immigrants".
"That's its defining character," Mr Krishnasamy, the president of the Singai Tamil Sangam (STS), told tabla!, adding that there are very few people, if any at all, currently living on the island who can call themselves its original inhabitants.
Which is why the cause of the immigrants and helping them integrate into the larger Singapore society is a cause so close to his heart. And for Mr Krishnasamy's efforts in helping new immigrants unite with local communities in Singapore, he recently became the first non-Chinese to be given the Friend of Immigrants Award by Chinese association Hua Yuan. He was selected from hundreds of nominees by a panel of judges which included academics and Members of Parliament.
Mr Krishnasamy has been a part of STS since 1964 and has held various posts in the organisation, all the while playing a crucial role in its initiatives.
The association was then known as the Tamils Reform Association (TRA) and was formed in 1932.
Mr Krishnasamy came to Singapore in 1961 from Malaysia, where he was born, as a new recruit in the British Royal Air Force. His family traces its origins back to a village near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
He soon joined the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, which was later split in 1972 to form Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines (SIA).
Mr Krishnasamy continued to work in SIA in its communications and later administration department for the next three decades, retiring only in 2003.
However, all along he has been an active member of various committees like the Trade Union Movement, Singapore Airlines Staff Union, Jalan Besar Town Council and Jalan Besar Citizens' Consultative Committee and championing social causes. He helped form the Tamils Representative Council Multi-purpose Co-operative Society, the council's economic arm which offers low-interest loans to its members.
He said his family is a perfect example of integration and coming together of different cultures. "My son is married to a Chinese, while my daughter is married to a Muslim," he said.
The award from Hua Yuan recognises his efforts to help newcomers mix with Singaporeans through various arts and cultural activities. These include hosting cultural events and encouraging newcomers to take part, providing financial help and engaging them in two-way interactions.
One such initiative is the introduction of silambam classes at the STS building on Kampong Kapor Road. Silambam is a weapon-based martial arts form which traces its origins to Tamil Nadu.
The classes are taught by a master from India, Mr Vinoth Kumar, who is now a permanent resident.
They are at tended by Singaporeans, newcomers and even foreign workers. These students are then called to perform at functions around Singapore.
Mr Kumar, who is a software professional, came to Singapore in 2004. He has been training in silambam since he was eight years old back in his hometown near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.
He told tabla!: "One of my masters from India was teaching at STS when I first came to Singapore. I joined him as a student. When he left, I approached Mr Krishnasamy and asked whether I could take over the classes to which he readily agreed."
Mr Kumar holds a black belt in the martial arts form. He said being able to pursue his passion and teach more people has given him a lot of satisfaction.
"I am really grateful for the support, warmth and welcome I have received from STS," he said.
For Mr Krishnasamy the highlight of this initiative is the foreign workers who come to learn the art form. "It is a good way to learn a new skill for them and bond with the locals," he said.
STS also works closely with Maya Dance Theatre, a seven-year-old company started by Mr Krishnasamy's daughter Kavitha Krishnan, who is its creative head. The Maya Dance Theatre is a recipient of the National Arts Council's SEED grant for 2012-2015 and is also supported by the Lee Foundation, Singapore International Foundation and the Arts Fund. It specialises in Asian and contemporary dance forms and has many newcomers in Singapore as its students.
Ms Krishnan told tabla!: "We work with STS, drawing inspiration from Asian traditions and aesthetics. We have collaborated with STS on various international projects, for instance in Dubai and at the Bangkok Festival last year, taking our unique art forms to these places."
STS has also provided financial assistance and support to newcomers and budding artists like Mr Umashankaran of Aadhii Designs.
Mr Umashankaran, now a permanent resident, came to Singapore in 2002 for work. However, a year later he decided to pursue a communication design course at Lasalle College of Arts. STS gave him a low interest loan to help him pay for the course fees. Today as the director and graphic designer of his company, he is running a successful business in communication design.
"The loan was very helpful at the time," Mr Umashankaran told tabla!.
STS also introduced an avenue where newcomers can suggest ideas on events that they would like to see introduced or participate in. The purpose behind this initiative is to let newcomers have a say, help them participate and empower them to become strong members of the community.
While Mr Krishnasamy appreciated the recognition he received from Hua Yuan, he said what would make him really happy is to see more hands of friendship extended to newcomers.
"We must remember that they come here to work for Singapore. They are doing their jobs away from home, trying to make a living. However, often they are alienated. We need to change that mindset.
Because they will then form their own groups. Not get a chance to mix at all with the locals and hence never understand the Singapore society and culture.
"Our job as an Indian community is to bring together all Indians, irrespective of where they are from, how long they have been in Singapore. And then work together with other communities for the larger good of Singapore," he said.
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