Singapore Sting

Remember the time every Indian politician promised that India would be like Singapore? Remember how its former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was idolised for the very things that Indians cannot do – be disciplined? Remember the shoppers glowingly talk about walking down Orchard Street, which had a better ring to it than London’s Oxford Street, teeming with its migrants?

Migrants. Yes. There is not much noise about the report that Indians are finding it increasingly difficult to rent houses in that country.

If you are an Indian in Singapore and looking for a house on rent, it is highly likely that you won't get one. Most Singaporean landlords don't rent their house to Indians and people from mainland China. According to local media reports, many landlords are open about it. The moment they realize that the tenant is an Indian, they say sorry and slam the door. According to a report by the BBC, a quick glance at online rental listings shows many that include the words 'no Indians, no PRCs (People's Republic of China)', sometimes followed by the word "sorry".

Such discrimination is not legally permissible. As this report says, Singapore is only about migrants. So, choosing to segregate one or two groups is racist in the extreme and shows how certain nationalities are seen as better or superior.

Among the reasons cited are smelly curries and lack of hygiene. Were one to accept these as flaws if viewed from another cultural perspective, then all ethnic groups can have similar problems. Besides, these are properties to be rented, not shared. The landlord can always add a clause that after the lease period the property should be returned in the condition it was rented out in.

I have visited several parts of Singapore and there are different smells and sights, some of which I found revolting. The residents might feel the same. ‘Little India’ is not a ghetto, but a hub of activity. And there is a growing clientele for smelly curries. I did not see much hygiene in other areas, too.

Except for the main boulevards, and their antiseptic streets and obedient flowerbeds, there are patches of a grim controlled environment, with drab beige buildings where the majority of the middle-class lives. The markets are piled with natural cures in the form of walking and flying little creatures. At dinner one night at the famed Harbour Front, a congregation of restaurants from different regions, all I recall was a woman throwing up, her indulgence a murky pool on the pavement.

I know this has nothing to do with segregation; I just wanted to recount what memories can do. Should I judge a person’s nationality by a natural occurrence such as vomiting?

As almost everyone is a migrant there is no pressure to be nationalistic in the narrow sense. I read that Indians are identified as a race, too. The product of cultural synergy would be properly referred to with a hybrid term, e.g. the child of an Indian and a Chinese would be a Chindian.

Does this complicate issues for renting out houses? Would a Chindian be turned away twice, because of the Indian and the Chinese connection, both ‘not allowed’? And would a Eurasian be more acceptable, because the ‘euro’ factor would take away the curry smell?

There are indeed some Indians who have done well for themselves, and many are second and third generation. Their legacy includes contributing to the country. But, then, can any society survive without its labour and its white collar workers? They may not live in homes where the spluttering seeds in oil reach out, but each day they keep the wheels lubricated for things to function. Denying them space merely for their origin does not reveal a modern attitude that Singapore prides itself in.

This is a silent sort of discrimination, its impact no less damning than the violent ones in other countries.

© Farzana Versey


  1. I wonder how the Indians who can't get a place to stay manage then, just leave? I don't think its just about cooking smell and hygiene. Most cuisines that involve cooking using fire and heat cause some smell or the other. The only way you can prevent having smell in your place is not cooking at all.
    So it seems like they don't want Indians for some reason.

  2. My friend who is a native singaporean mentioned back in 2011 about clashes between chinese and Indian origin people in rental apartment complexes, with the former complaining about smelly curries and resulting in an unpleasant apartment politics. This is mostly chinese (of singaporean origin) against Indian racism.

    Here is a view of a native:


    "When the census was taken in 2011, it was revealed that only about 60% of Singapore’s population were Singaporean. The rest were foreigners. Singapore has become so open, that outsiders are getting close to outnumbering locals."


    "As the majority group, the Chinese can never comprehend that the smallest things that they say or do can mean racism. Typical stereotypes towards Malays and Indians have become “natural” to the Chinese."


  3. Sai:

    Obviously, they cannot leave. There would be some avenues. It is just how such segregations openly manifests itself.

    I did read about issues of smelly food and hygiene. If it is something more, then even worse.


    Your links suggest that there are even more sub-conflicts, and this is how the trickle-down works with racism, as with much else.


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