Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. It is a great privilege for me to share Singapore’s experiences on a topic of significant societal relevance.
Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi asked during his speech at the Inaugural Address this question and I paraphrase here, “As the generations change, to what extent would a person of Indian origin feel the Indianness in him?” This issue touches on some pretty fundamental questions important to policymakers at the macro-level and to parents at the micro-level.
- When considering this issue, there are different approaches that different countries have taken:
- A new national culture. Heritage is of less importance.
- Space for everyone to preserve and practice, while a national identity is forged.
From India’s perspective: how does India engage these different approaches and what can India do to help promote Indian heritage and culture in countries which would like to proceed? I will come back to this question after I share with you some aspects of the Singapore experience.
The Singapore Experience
Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen has cogently argued in his path-breaking and persuasive book, “Identity and Violence”, that the hope of harmony lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the sheer diversity among the human race. The Singapore Government adopted a practical approach in dealing with the different ethnic groups in Singapore. Viewing heterogeneity and openness not as weaknesses but as strengths, the model that Singapore uses can perhaps by visualised in the form of “overlapping circles”. Each ethnic community can be envisioned as a circle. What the Singapore government tries to do is to maximise the area where the circles overlap. This area is where all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or culture work and play together. It is an open and meritocratic playing field where English is the common language and there are equal opportunities for all. Equally significantly, we do not try to force the different circles to merge together. None would want to lose their cultural heritage in the building of a common Singaporean identity.
- The Singapore experience:
- Civilisations: Chinese, Malay and Indian
- Strength in diversity
- Much debate and angst over whether the Government should try and meld all the different ethnic identities into one single Singapore identity. Should a national culture be evolved?
- But Singapore's approach: We recognise that for most people, ethnicity is a concept that is both primordial and basic. Each and every ethnic group wants to have its own unique voice heard and respected. We seek to preserve and strengthen each heritage while creating a sense of nationhood, Singaporean but with a proud Indian, Chinese and Malay heritage.
- Tamil is an official language: 60 per cent of the Indian population.
- Compulsory to learn mother tongue
- Twelve years
Preservation of language: which language?
An ongoing task that requires constant attention from the Singapore Government. The language policy, for instance, is not static and it is constantly being fine-tuned. Recognising the increased diversity in the Singapore Indian community, the Singapore Government has in recent years facilitated the incorporation of vernacular languages into the national education curriculum. For the Singapore Indian community, this means that parents have a choice to select Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu to be taught to their children as the Mother Tongue instead of Tamil. This will help to ensure that the younger generations of ethnic Indians in Singapore retain the gateway to connecting with their historical heritage, values and traditions.
- Main challenges:
- English, Mathematics and Science
- Mother Tongue seen as not important
- Indians - minority in most of the 110 countries. Sometimes a very small minority as in Singapore, with the Indian community making up about eight per cent of the Singapore population
- Social pressures on minority culture: world over to assimilate with the majority
- Even greater pressure: McDonald culture, the all pervasive American culture
- Quite frankly, up to about five years ago:
- Culture preserved through parental and governmental efforts
- But on a long term basis: unsustainable
- Lies in the soft power projection of India - economic progress and concommitment increase in international prestige
- In soft power alone without economic power - probably not as effective
- Whether your child is growing up in Surinam or Singapore - if India is economically successful, it would be more attractive and its cultural appeal is greater
- This has happened with China
- Rush to learn Mandarin
- For good business reasons
- Not only the Chinese
In the slipstream of economic progress, culture and heritage will spread, pride in it high among Chinese citizens
A similar movement is happening with India: more Singaporeans are looking at things Indian, wanting to do business in India, learn the language and understand the culture
What can India do to help in preservation of culture and language?
So what can India do? I will share with you three thoughts.
First, basically: [a most unemotional, dry, logical answer]: do everything to grow the economy and become a global economic powerhouse: soft power projection, cultural appeal and preservation of heritage will follow. [Singaporeans - economics come first. Indian heritage and Singaporean DNA]
The extent to which the Overseas Indian community maintains its native language and culture ultimately depends on India’s image abroad. The presence of a powerful and confident India on the world stage would inevitably increase the allure of the Indian cultural traditions and language. This is not only in the utilitarian sense - with investors seeking economic opportunities in India learning more about its culture and customs to better navigate the business environment. More importantly, the litmus test behind the allure of India’s soft power is when foreign nationals - the Indian disapora included - embark on journeys of self-discovery of India’s ancient history of culture and civilisation. More than a millennium ago, India was the world’s leading economy. Many travellers had came from near and far to India’s many centres of learning to study urban planning, irrigation, artisan manufacturing, art, literature, religion, mathematics and even surgery. In short, ancient India had exerted an extraordinary economic, intellectual and cultural influence over the rest of the world. More importantly, this was an influence that was almost entirely expressed through peaceful means. The decision by the Indian government to set up cultural centers in major cities represents a positive step in seeking to revive that “Golden Age” of India as a leading civilisation in the world.
- Greater projection of Indian culture abroad
- Second, in a corollary to that: project symbols of Indian culture in various countries.
- Share with you Singapore’s experience
- Following the signing of an MoU on the arts in 1993, there have been four Executive Programmes (EPs) to implement such cooperation and a fifth one is now under negotiation. There are also relatively active exchanges at the agency level.
The National Archives of Singapore (NAS) has established a strong working relationship with the National Archives of India (NAI). In 2003, they held a joint exhibition on the Indian National Army at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). NAS installed a leaf casting (conservation) machine at NAI and provided two rounds of technical training on archival conservation to NAI staff in 2005. The NAS has also established a good working relationship with India’s National Film Archive and Directorate of Film Festivals. NAS established ties with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library during the visit by its Director in October 2007.
In 2000, then-President K R Narayanan unveiled three Indian temple stone sculptures at the ACM. That was the first time India had given a long-term loan of artifacts to any country. It was also the first time Singapore had received a loan of artifacts offered on a goodwill basis by a foreign Head of State. To date, Singapore has signed three loan agreements with India. India also loaned ACM several artifacts from India for an exhibition on Nalanda which was held in conjunction with the East Asia Summit in November 2007 and drew about 70,000 visitors.
The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) is in touch with the National Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi to do a large-scale exhibition in 2008 that will explore relationships between Indian and Southeast Asian art and develop new insights into the cultural encounters between the two sub-continents. SAM held an exhibition from November 2007 to January 2008 to showcase over 40 works by Indian artists, and 21 artworks loaned from Indian agencies and art galleries. The National Arts Council (NAC) has invited Indian artistes to every Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore Writers’ Festival. The NAC has also been bringing in folk arts groups from various parts of India for its Festival Village and other programmes. DesignSingapore (DSg) Council is keen to broaden design collaboration with India’s National Institute of Design (NID) to include exchanges of exhibitions and design research. NID is also keen to collaborate with DSg to set up of a design centre in Singapore as a hub for Singaporean and Indian designers to meet and exchange knowledge.
In 2003, together with India’s Department of Culture, National Books Trust, National Library Trust and Children’s Books Trust, the National Library Board (NLB) jointly organised an exhibition on Indian books and publications for children in Singapore at the Asian Children’s Festival. The NLB would like to develop a Tamil and English collection on India’s social, cultural, economic and other areas. It has plans to set up a strong Indian collection in the new National Library. The NLB is also keen to explore digitising Indian historical materials, especially those that have linkages to the Indian presence in Southeast Asia in earlier centuries and official records on Singapore during the Straits Settlements days.
In recent years, Singapore artists have participated in key Indian events. In 2002, artist Tan Swie Hian visited India under the Distinguished Visitor Programme, while sculptor Han Sai Por and curator Tay Swee Lin participated in the 11th Indian Triennale in New Delhi in 2005, where Han won an award.
Nalanda project: significance goes beyond Singapore. It reaches out to East Asia as a whole. Indian government is planning to rebuild the University into a centre of civilisational dialogue. Use Singapore is a nodal point. East and West meet there. US, UK, Europe, East Africa, Korea, Taiwan, ASEAN and Japan are other areas with millions of visitors. Over 3600 Indian companies have set up there. Capital market access. And over [250, 000] Indians have moved to Singapore. India can successfully connect to the world by tapping such key nodal cities.
- On Singapore’s part, we have been planting the seeds of deeper engagement with India. We have hosted the World Sindhi Conference, World Malayalee Conference and, more recently, PBD Singapore. We see such platforms as excellent opportunities to gather people of Indian origin from around the world, to exchange views and ideas, and find new areas and projects for collaboration. We are also encouraging our universities and think-tanks to undertake further research and promote a fuller understanding of the Indian diaspora. We are planning to set up an Indian Heritage Centre, which will trace the history of the Indian diaspora in Singapore and how the Indian community has contributed to Singapore’s development. The National University of Singapore has published the Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora in 2006, which has been well received internationally. Its success has inspired the Institute of South Asian Studies to set up a South Asia Diaspora Network. These moves will help to develop Singapore as a centre for
networking and scholarship on the Indian diaspora.
- Third, India is full of archaeological and historical places of interest. Also the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism: great interest to great swathes in the Far East - including China and Japan. [the tourism potential is enormous]
- Needs to be made more accessible and visit has to be a pleasant, informative experience. If enough is done, tourism figures will explore. Every visitor is a potential ambassador of Indian culture.
At present, to visit several of these places, using a recurrent theme in Hindu philosophy and Puranans to draw an analogy of this experience.
Idea of Penance: you have to persevere, go through a long and arduous journey with extreme discipline and then you are rewarded by the divine. Visiting some such places of interest has reminded me of that idea of penance. But most of us are humans, weak of flesh and weaker in spirit, who prefer the modern conveniences even in ancient historical places. We are not Karnas or Arjunas who can sit absolutely still while being painfully bitten or stand on one leg for too long.
The treasures of India can be made more fully and freely accessible to the vast majority of the world. When that happens, allied with economic progress, we will not need to be talking about preserving Indian culture and heritage. It will happen by itself.
- Interviewed by The Hindu before I left, I spoke about economic progress. It is a fact. There is an unstoppable momentum. Likewise, the projection of culture will grow. The real question is at what rate that will happen?