Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trying to Smell, the Smelly and the Downright Odious

This week has been a week for me to indulge in all things Indian. It started on Good Friday when I started working for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Alumni Association’s PANIIT APAC 2012 event in Suntec City and it ended last night when I went out with a New Year function for the Nepali Community in Khantipur Restaurant in Little India.

Both these events were an eye-opener into the world of global migration. My Singaporean friends, especially my local Indian friends will undoubtedly hate me for this but being with both communities helps one to understand the issue of “foreigners” much better.

The PANIIT APAC 2012 event was an adrenalin rush. It was a high-powered and high-profile event. The four “stars” were the President of Singapore, the former President of Singapore, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and the Second Minister of Home Affairs. The only event that I’ve been involved in that had a higher level group of dignitaries was the visit of Crown Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006.

That, however, was an official state visit, organized by the Saudi and Singapore governments. This event by contrast, was a mere alumni association meeting. What made the Singapore Government provide so many high level dignitaries to grace an alumni association of a university that none of our ministers attended?

The answer is simple – it was about the global shift of economic and social gravity from West to East. The people involved in the PANIIT event were high powered professionals working for multinational corporations like CISCO and Energizer or from the significant Indian IT companies like Polaris or entrepreneurs who had started software companies in Singapore like Optimum Solutions. The Alumni who were invited to speak read like the who’s who of Indian industry. You had people like R.Gopalakrishnan, Director of Tata Sons, Ananath Krishnan, Chief Technology Officer of Tata Consultancy Services and Arjun Malhotra the co-founder and Chairman of HCL and Headstrong. You could say that the guest had influence over companies with a combined revenue equivalent to the GDP of Singapore.

When you look at things this way, the obvious conclusion is that India is rising and Singapore wants to a rising India to be one of the engines of economic growth. The days when Lee Kuan Yew looked upon India has a noisy third-word mess have long gone. With the Western World in in economic malaise, the Singapore government is especially welcome to capital coming from India and Indian professionals bringing their skills to Singapore.

On a personal level, working with this group was an energy rush. You can’t help but feel the energy coming from a room filled with highly educated and successful people. My personal experiences are such that I’ve founded that the Indian Expatriates tend to be the BEST educated and most intellectually stimulating of the groups that I’ve encountered in Singapore. I suspect the well brought up Indians are trained with the same methods that the British used back when the British had an empire (which the Brits neglected through 1960 wishy-washy liberalism).

The IIT crowd would be welcome in any country that they visited. Until this recent event, the event was held either in India or the USA. Despite all the talk about “brining jobs home” in an election year, America is well aware of the benefits of welcoming a bunch of highly educated and well to do people.

While Singapore was pulling out all the stops to welcome the chaps from the IIT Alumni Association, we have been host to people from the other end of the social scale. We don’t admit it but there is an army of barely educated Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Singapore doing all the work that we the people won’t do.

If you make a trip to Ministry of Manpower’s Foreign Manpower Division, you’ll see the way that the Singapore Government views these people – they’d rather not. If you want to be nasty to anyone, it’s always easiest to be nasty to this group. Having sympathy with them is akin to dying of AIDS.

Let’s start with the fact that the average worker is paid something as generous as S$30 a day for a 12-hour work day. They often come home to a bed space, which they pay anything from S$180 to S$300 a day for. If you take into consideration their living space and what they pay, you’ll find that the worker pays more per square foot than most luxury condominiums.

When a worker is injured, he is expected to wait for a period of anything up to 11-weeks before he gets paid. When not working, the guy is not paid and when if he has to audacity to work without permission from the Ministry, he can fined up to S$5,000. In short, the average worker is placed in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation.

Despite this, the locals couldn’t give a shit about people in this end of the social scale. Many regard them as a nuisance. We are happy to accept Indian and Bangladeshi workers cleaning up our shit and we think of the work they do as a favour that we do for them. A Bangladeshi worker has a cup of tea at the void deck and it’s a decline of society, a few barrow boys get pissed, beat up a few people and it’s just a minor one-off incident. Talk to enough local Singaporeans about Indian and Bangladeshi workers and they’ll tell you about drunks sleeping on the street. How true is this prejudice?

I do accept that the worker crowd can get rowdy. However, I’ve NEVER seen them get any more rowdy than the Barrow Boys after a few cold ones. I don’t blame them for getting rowdy. If you worked a 12-hour day, six days a week, you would want to let go at least once a week. Contrary to what the media headlines might tell you, this crowd has never been what you’d call a “troublemaking” crowd.

If you look at migrant communities throughout the world, you’ll find that they are generally more law abiding than the natives. I guess you could call it a knowledge that you’ll be on the wrong end of things if the police get involved. As such, these communities develop a system to take care of issues before any one decides to bring in the cops. Whenever tensions rise, a group of guys will bring parties apart to cool things down.

I look at the migrants that I know. I take one of oldest and best friends, Bijay, the Nepali Naan Maker. He came to Singapore more than a decade back. He served his National Service and has worked hard in the food and beverage line. Hang around Bijay or his friends and you’ll find that what they basically want is a small space to work hard and build a life, either with a simple job or by starting a small business. Bijay has settled here and after fathering two- daughters, he’s now about to become a father of a little boy. His wish is simple – to make his boy a more educated version of him. If you look at how Bijay has pulled himself up in the world with limited education, you can imagine how much more someone like him could do with more schooling.

Ironically, the locals who complain about migrants tend to be amongst the biggest causers of social problems. Bijay is a first class character, who is impossible to dislike. By contrast, you have members of the Pundek Family who think nothing of sponging off their friends and family. Macha Pundek was especially good at the job. He had the audacity to ask his former brother-in-law for a $2,000 loan about two-years ago. To-date the said former brother-in-law has been paid back with promises of when he’ll be receiving $10 as well as a request for more money. He mysteriously quits his job whenever the former brother-in-law ask for his own money back.

So let’s look at things this way. We will always want the guys from the IIT crowd. They have the money and they have professional skills. We will not admit it but we need the likes of the Nepali and other South Asian workers. They clean our crap and they do it pretty loyally. Now, ask ourselves, if we need the likes of Macha Pundek who thinks nothing of trying to cheat people into buying him and his equally obnoxious buddies the next round of booze.

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