Singapore citizen, culturally Indian

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In fact, Katijah’s second daughter Mariam is doing well at school, not least because of her energetic and warm homeroom teacher Mrs. Selvaratnam, whose life I turn to chronicle now. Mrs. Selvaratnam comes from a family who arrived in the 1920s from what was then Madras (now Chennai) in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu (Siddique and Purushotam 1984). She speaks extremely fluent English as well as her native Tamil, good Malay, and a smattering of Hokkien. Mrs. Selvaratnam’s grandmother was brought over from India as the bride of her grandfather. At the time, her grandfather was a young single man working in a community that until the 1960s had a very imbalanced sex ratio. He thus did what was common at the time and sought a wife from his own natal village, a small farming community just south of Madras. Both these grandparents were from the Chettiar jati, a caste commonly associated with money lending. The grandfather rose to some prominence in the Tamil community, becoming a journalist and subsequently the editor of one of the Tamil-language newspapers. Their son, Mrs. Selvaratnam’s father, went to what was then the University of Malaya in Singapore, to study English literature, at which a good number of Indians excelled and still do. Equipping himself with a working knowledge of Bengali, Hindi, and a little Gujarati, Mrs. Selvaratnam’s father became first a journalist and then a teacher at his old university. He was a strong local follower of Mahatma Gandhi and took a keen interest in Indian politics. Eventually he married a woman whose family had settled in Singapore but was of Jaffna Tamil descent (the north�ern Tamil-dominated zone of what is now Sri Lanka). One of their children, Mrs. Selvaratnam, followed in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in attending the university, moving on to the Institute of Education, and then marrying a rising young Indian lawyer. Mrs. Selvaratnam’s family illustrates one of the significant patterns of how Indians fit into Singaporean patterns of social stratification.

Whereas the Chinese profile can be visualized as a tall rectangle, with people of all socioeconomic statuses distributed more or less equally, the Malay profile is more like a pyramid with relatively few professionals and managerial workers at the top, but with a heavy distribution of working-class individuals and families at the bottom. The Indians, in contrast, have an hour glass-shaped profile with considerable concentration in lower-grade occupations such as cleaners and road sweepers and only a small middle class. But proportional to their representation in the population as a whole (6.4 percent), they have a large professional class of lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, artists, writers, and well-�educated individuals (Arumugam 2002; Sandhu and Mani 1993). The Selvaratnam family demonstrates this pattern very clearly. Even in India the family had been well off and, although not Brahmins, they are highly educated: both boys and girls are literate in Tamil and many of the boys in English as well. Although the family remains Hindu, many of the Singapore Tamil community are Christians. Entirely comfortable in English, Mrs. Selvaratnam and her family can negotiate Singapore life with ease. Educated and well traveled, politically astute, settled in Singapore but having cultural roots in south India, the Selvaratnam family is entirely cosmopolitan in public settings. Although they have Chinese, Malay, and European friends, at home the family largely observes certain Indian practices. They are vegetarians, and the females invariably wear either the sari or the northern Indian Punjabi pantsuit. For the Selvaratnams there is a fairly big divide between pub�lic and private lives. Although they would not entirely reject the idea of their children marrying non-Indians, Mr. and Mrs. Selvaratnam would much prefer that they wed other Indians of similar caste background rather than non-Indians or Christian Indians. But as one of their daughters has been dating a young European expatriate, they might have to confront the reality that caste and ethnic barriers have weakened considerably since their generation was their children’s age.

 

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