Doubly minoritised: Indianness in Singapore and xenophobia as racism

Academic Views / Wednesday, October 12th, 2022

Sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu explains the challenges ethnic Indians face in claiming legitimate belonging to the Singapore nation. This is an abridged version of her chapter in a new volume, Brown is Redacted: Reflecting on Race in Singapore, published by Ethos Books.

In May 2021, an Indian woman was brisk walking to work one morning, her mask pulled away from her mouth and nose to allow her to breathe. When asked by a passer-by to pull her mask up, she explained that she was exercising. Without warning, she was kicked in her chest and fell to the ground, while racial slurs were hurled at her. The 55-year-old woman was shaken and injured. She was attacked ostensibly because she was seen to be in contravention of laws in Singapore that mandated the wearing of masks in public spaces when not eating or exercising. This incident, directed at an ethnic Indian person, was the second that same month directed specifically at members of an ethnic minority group. The first had involved a Singaporean man confronting an Indian family at a park bench, shouting vulgarities at them while accusing them of spreading the coronavirus in Singapore and loudly goading them to “go back”. Looking beyond the horrors of physical and verbal attacks in a city-state that is cited as one of the safest and most cosmopolitan in the world, the racialised nature of these public encounters are significant.

These attacks came as the Delta variant of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly across the city-state, a mutation that is believed to have emerged from India. Along with news of such violence directed at ethnic Indians, there were also calls to ban travel from India. On one hand, we can see this as an expression of xenophobia that has been brought on as a result of pandemic-induced anxieties. In this way, it can be seen as similar to attacks that Asian-Americans faced in the United States during the early months of the pandemic. They can be perceived as the latest iteration of a longer trend of marginalisation that this community has had to endure, where they have been portrayed as not belonging to the nation, as perpetual immigrant outsiders. However, looking at these discriminatory acts not just as xenophobia, but also as indicative of how boundaries are racialised within and  beyond the country, may provide additional insight into what this social phenomenon signifies for everyday definitions of the nation and multicultural politics of the state.

This chapter suggests that the racial tensions that have emerged and become heightened in Singapore during the pandemic have exposed the increasingly exclusionary nature of national belonging in the city-state. It also provides evidence of how the racialised immigration regime has exposed cracks within Singapore’s multiracial definition of the nation. As this chapter will go on to demonstrate, the interplay of factors of race and immigration status has impacted the ethnic Indian population of Singapore in unique and significant ways. This intersectional analysis reveals the limitations of assuming race as a singular and constant entity. Where race, colour and immigration status define individuals within the social realm of the nation, the destabilisation and reinterpretation of those categories against official narratives blurs boundaries in terms of who belongs and who cannot.

This chapter is based on in-depth interviews with Indian migrants who have moved to Singapore in the last decade and an online ethnography conducted by the author and research assistants between 2020 and 2021.

Intra-ethnic tensions

Singapore’s multiracial population has grown rapidly in the last 30 years. This increase is primarily a result of immigration, as birth rates in the city-state continue to decline. Large scale immigration, although conceived along existing racialised lines, has not necessarily led to problem-free integration. Scholars have, in fact, identified the emergence of tensions within groups racialised as homogeneous.[1] Within the Indian community, cleavages have formed along lines of socio-economic status, language groups and regional identities. Rather than reflective of any demographic reality then, the label “Indian” in Singapore is a “racial formation”,[2] designed to reflect specific and often stereotyped physical characteristics, abilities and moral dispositions. This does not represent the heterogeneity of ethnic Indian identities and lived experiences, but instead allows for the construction of a Singaporean national identity that draws on selective aspects of those racial formations.

A CNA report of the incident described above.

Taking a closer look at one of the public displays of xenophobia described in the opening of the chapter, we can make the additional observation that the Singaporean man who was hurling abuse at the Indian family on a park bench was, in fact, himself ethnically Indian. This is not an isolated example of intra-ethnic tensions within the Indian community in Singapore, but perhaps the most transparent. The lack of interaction and palpable tensions between local-born and ‘new’ migrants are due in part to the sense that an older, local-born, predominantly Tamil and South Indian community with working-class roots is being displaced by the higher caste, wealthier North Indians with fewer loyalties to a nation that they did not help build. Despite some affinities to religion, food and culture, national differences are often invoked as a means of distancing one group from another.

For recent Indian migrants such as interviewee Akshob, 38, who has been in Singapore for the past 3 years, such intra-ethnic tensions are embedded in everyday life routines. He describes how it is Indian Singaporeans, more than Chinese or Singaporeans of other ethnic groups, who hesitate to interact and form friendships with him:

So, the guy who I told [you about] earlier—the guy with the dog in the lift—that was actually an Indian immigrant, or Indian-origin Singaporean. So, even I felt that at some point in time, even they are [the ones who] actually hesitate to talk with us. At the same time, I feel so many Chinese-origin people are happy to interact with Indian people or Indian immigrants. But that kind of attitude, I have not seen in Indian origin people, never, even in my community service. There were many Indian-origin people [there in community service], but they were not actually talking with me and at the same time, Chinese people were talking with me. I find [it] a bit surprising, but that is the truth.

As with Akshob, many Indian migrants speak of forming better friendships and social networks with non-Singaporean Indians who do not see them as competitors for the space of the ‘Indian’ within the state’s CMIO framework. Existing divisions within the Indian community are further complicated by the different waves of migrants to Singapore—with older migrants resenting newer waves of Indians, citing closed networks and segregated residential communities as examples of their refusal to integrate into the Singaporean core mainstream.[3]

The label of ‘Indian’ in Singapore is fraught for both Indian immigrants and the local-born. Vishal, a 29-year-old researcher who has been in Singapore for 4 years, describes how the same category takes on different meanings in different contexts, making it difficult to claim an affiliation despite affinities:

I would like to identify as Indian, but I do not know how much Indian I am here. Because being an Indian in India and being an Indian in Singapore is completely different. It is probably different kinds of experience. So here in Singapore, I will identify myself as an Indian immigrant. From my experience, if I am putting myself into that Indian community, I do not belong there. I will always belong in an immigrant community.

Expecting Indian migrants and immigrants to assimilate into a pre-existing category is also complicated by the discrimination Indian migrants face because of their characterisation as an undeserving community given special privileges through free trade agreements (FTAs) with the Indian State. These FTAs are erroneously perceived to facilitate the easy hiring of Indian migrants by companies and multinationals based in Singapore, thereby displacing deserving Singaporeans from such jobs.

Politicians as well as the media have identified what has been termed the rising “anti-CECA”[4] sentiment as problematic and related to rising levels of xenophobia against Indian migrants. However, much of this resentment is not just directed at Indian immigrants, but also at the government which is seen as giving preferential treatment to this elite group over the ‘average’ Singaporean. In conceptions that see the country’s resources and opportunities in finite terms, local commentators perceive themselves as losers in a zero-sum game.

Anti-immigrant sentiment directed against Indian newcomers has placed local-born and Indians from older waves of the diaspora in a tricky situation. The dangers of misrecognition — because of a shared phenotype like skin colour or other shared characteristics like language — means their chances of being mistaken as a non-Singaporean are heightened. Many Indians feel as though they must make extra efforts to mark themselves as ‘local’ and distance themselves from immigrant co-ethnics. However, despite these extra efforts, some feel their acknowledgement as equally deserving members of the nation is limited by their position within a rapidly shrinking minority.

Xenophobia as racism

The most visible forms of xenophobia in Singapore are typically in online spaces of chatrooms, blogs and social media feeds.[5] While the discourses embedded in such public posts have been well documented, here we are interested in how they are perceived by Indians at whom they are directed. These sentiments make new immigrants feel unwanted and impede integration efforts by the state, as such exclusionary discourses pervade everyday life for many Indian migrants. These are the words of Gaurav, 35, an Indian migrant who moved here 5 years ago:

The other thing is, if you read any online forum or post, for example, Facebook posts of CNA or the Straits Times, and if you see the comment section, there will be lots of bad comments on Indians particularly…. More than that, you can see a lot of comments against Indians about giving us jobs, offering the models to India, and allowing Indians to come to Singapore, etc. In our friend circle, we decided that we are not going to read any comments and we stopped [doing that] actually…. this experience actually hurts you. You feel that we do not belong to this place.

However, xenophobia is not just limited to the online sphere, and cannot be avoided for many Indian migrants as they pervade key institutions of everyday life in the city-state.

Housing is an area where both migrants and citizens face discrimination. – Photo: Silvester

Ethnicity determines access to housing even for migrants in Singapore, despite not being subject to the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) that regulates the numbers of each ethnic group in each housing development board (HDB) building and neighbourhood. For foreigners ineligible for homes from the state and forced into a rental market, discrimination happens in more informal ways. Exclusion is often regulated by real estate agents and justified under the discourse of ‘preferences’. Here, the stereotype of Indians as smelly and dirty is widened to encompass the middle classes, a stereotype that is often only attributed to working-class, low-wage South Asian migrants; their bodies seen as sullying the domestic space of the non-Indian home. The “curry incident”[6] of 2011 can be seen as another example of this. Vishal describes the kinds of systemic discrimination that is now widely known and reported in the rental market:

It is the same in housing. There are many HDB owners who specifically tell that they do not prefer Indians. That is a very common situation in Singapore. Not only I have experienced this but a lot of my friends have also experienced this. That is a very common thing. We do not get worried about this [anymore], it has become a condition in our mind that this is the default situation [here]. We do not worry about that anymore.

Indian men face an additional layer of discrimination where dark-skinned males have historically been associated with licentious and uncontrollable sexuality that is threatening to women.

On the other hand, many Indian female immigrants expressed how grateful they were to live in a city where women could travel on public transport without fear of (sexual) violence and where public spaces were safe for women and girls. However, this very lauding of safety is due to a strong rule by law that many described as possibly imposed against foreigners like them. In the words of Keerthi, 32, who has been in Singapore for 11 years and is currently applying for permanent residency:

They have rules and regulations even for immigrants. If you make some mistake, there are fines to pay. It is good and that is why it is safe here… It is their country, we are foreigners. They have their own rules, we should not dictate. We just live in this country, so we have to follow rules.

In addition to a strong self-policing of behaviour, many migrants also reported feeling that they were often subject to greater scrutiny of their behaviour in public. It is with heightened intensity and frequency that this mode of policing is enacted on racial and ethnic minorities. This sentiment is echoed by Jayshree, a 33-year-old Permanent Resident (PR) who first moved to Singapore as a university student:

I read about these external incidents where there was a case that one guy did not wear a mask and he happened to be an Indian so one guy reported him. Another guy kept a bag on a nearby seat on MRT and did not let other people sit. So, they kind of bashed that guy up. It is very common in Singapore—the social policing—and if it happens to be a minority race, I think, it [gets] escalated very fast.

Many other ethnic Indians, both local-born Singaporeans as well as foreign-born ‘expats’ echo this same sentiment. In recent years, and particularly with the onset of increased restrictions on travel and public gatherings that have emerged with Covid-19, ethnic minority Indians have been subject to increased scrutiny of their everyday behaviour in public spaces. This increased surveillance and policing acts as an enforcement of what are perceived as standards of civic behaviour and national identity.

Behaviour and actions that are seen as not conforming to a perceived national ideal are then used as evidence of foreignness. As geographical boundaries tighten, the symbolic boundaries of the nation also seem to be constricting and concurrently, the ways in which belonging can be established are becoming increasingly narrow.

‘Skin’ or colour has emerged as an expedient basis on which discrimination is based. Skin colour, in the absence of secure modes of determining who is ‘local’ or not, has become a convenient marker of outsider status within a context where the lines between citizen and foreigner, belonging and estrangement have become blurred. Rakhi, an Indian migrant-now PR who moved to Singapore 9 years ago, describes how the incident of the Indian woman who was physically attacked because of her perceived race, nationality or ethnicity is unjust:

Somebody who has been living here for so long and did [not do] anything wrong to someone, [and it happened to her only because of] how she looks. She might be a Singaporean and have not gone to India her whole life. It has not had to be like this. [sic] She was born and raised in Singapore and how somebody can come and basically say bad things to her. It [shows] that somebody can do this to someone [even though they are Singaporean]. They may not have any connection [with India]. I think, based on your colour and looks, somebody should not come and say that you are Indian [and you did this and that]. That lady may not be Indian at all, so their judgement is based on the [colour] and the way she [looks]. I think that is wrong.

Within a context where the descriptor ‘Indian’ is even used as a racist slur, asking someone if they are ‘Indian’ is an act not just of racialising but also of determining their worth within the space of the nation. The colour of one’s skin inscribes that worth on the body.

Rising xenophobia, coupled with a racialised immigration regime and integration policies have left limited positionalities from which ethnic minority Indians can claim legitimate belonging to the Singapore nation. Going full circle back to the incident discussed in the opening of this chapter, the injured woman subject to the racist attack is reported to now be “afraid of taking a walk in her own country.” As this chapter has illustrated, others labelled as Indian are also feeling their lack of cultural rights within the nation, and will take their next steps with much trepidation.

  • Laavanya Kathiravelu is a sociologist who writes about migration, race and the metropolis. She is author of Migrant Dubai: Low wage workers and the construction of a global city.

Brown is Redacted is an anthology of critical essays, creative non-fiction and poetry edited by Kristian-Marc James Paul, Mysara Aljaru and Myle Yan Tay, and published by Ethos Books. This excerpt is published in AcademiaSG with the publisher’s kind permission.

[1] Laavanya Kathiravelu, “7. “What Kind of Indian Are You?”: Frictions and Fractures Between Singaporean Indians and Foreign-Born NRIs,” in Navigating Differences: Integration in Singapore edited by Terence Chong (Singapore: ISEAS Press, 2013), p. 110–126; Brenda S.A. Yeoh & Weiqiang Lin, “Chinese Migration to Singapore: Discourses and Discontents in a Globalizing Nation-State,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 22(1) (2013), pp. 31–54. Doi: 10.1177/011719681302200103

[2] Michael Omi & Howard Winant, Racial formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[3] Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho & Laavanya Kathiravelu, (2021) “More than race: a comparative analysis of “new” Indian and Chinese migration in Singapore,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(4) (2022), pp. 636–655. Doi: 10.1080/01419870.2021.1924391

[4] Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. This agreement is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Singapore and India. The clause that is typically objected to within this agreement is one that allows for more transparency and expediated migration for certain Indian professionals.

[5] Catherine Gomes, “Xenophobia online: unmasking Singaporean attitudes towards ‘foreign talent’ migrants,” Asian Ethnicity, 15(1) (2014), pp. 21–40. Doi: 10.1080/14631369.2013.784511

[6] Jean Montsion & Serene Tan, “Smell this: Singapore’s curry day and visceral citizenship,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 37(2) (2016), pp. 209–223. Doi: 10.1111/sjtg.12143