An Idiot’s guide to Singapore Indians


A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on the 5 things that you should never tell/ask a Singapore Indian. That post was written largely in jest.

Today, I would like to rewrite that same post, with a slightly different intention. To create a tiny bit more awareness of Singapore Indians and what makes us tick. Teaching in a predominantly Chinese school has made me realise that most Singaporeans who do not interact with Indians on a regular basis have very many misconceptions about Singapore Indians. So here is an idiot’s guide to us 🙂

We do not speak Indian or Hindu

Whenever someone asks me if I speak Indian, I have visions of some Indians tumbling out of my mouth as I speak. We are referred to as Indians because our ancestors hail from India. However, the language we speak varies depending on which part of India our roots are in. My ancestors are from Tamil Nadu, and I speak Tamil. Someone who comes from Kerala would be speaking Malayalam, and someone who comes from Punjab would speak Punjabi. However, since mainstream schools in Singapore mainly offer Tamil as a second language, many Indians, regardless of their state of origin, are able to speak in Tamil, in addition to their own mother tongue.

We do not all have accents, nor we do we shake our heads while speaking.

I have had many students ask me over the years why I do not have an ‘Indian Accent’. This is despite them knowing I am a 3rd generation Singaporean. I honestly do not understand why I need to have an accent any more than a 3rd Generation Singapore Chinese needs to have a ‘Chinese Accent.’ Having been born and bred in Singapore, It is perfectly logical that I sound Singaporean, as opposed to anything else.

Indian-head-shake

Also, we don’t shake our heads when we speak. Whenever people try to imitate Indians, for whatever reason, they end up looking like their necks came loose, and also a bit ridiculous. In fact, I don’t understand how anyone can speak like that. I tried, and ended up just feeling really nauseous.

We aren’t all from India

I particularly get this question from customer service personnel and I find it SO exasperating. Firstly, I am as Singaporean as you are and don’t like you staring at me in shock and attempting to dispute my nationality. I also hate it when I get accused by Indians from India of disowning my heritage. I am a third generation Singaporean. This means that my parents, and my grand-parents are all from Singapore. I have not even had the opportunity to visit India ever before.

Why should I identify with India more than with my own homeland?

Don’t get  me wrong. I am extremely proud of my ancestral homeland. For its rich heritage, for the beautiful architecture, for its revolutionary history, for it being the home of my religion, for the amazing food, and for Rajinikanth.

However, that is no reason for me to not be proud of being a Singaporean, or to not get angry when people accuse me of trying to negate my ancestral roots.

We do not eat curry everyday, and no, it is not unhealthy.

First and foremost,  we actually have quite a few other options when it comes to food not involving curry.

Just saying.

Also, traditionally, curry is not an unhealthy dish. Turmeric, one of the important ingredients in curry has been proven to reduce the risk of cancer and heart attacks, as well as help with digestion. It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Most curries also contain cumin, cardamon, ginger and garlic. These also have anti-bacterial properties. Studies show that garlic, cinnamon and cumin can destroy up to 80 per cent of meat-borne bacteria, while ginger can slow bacterial growth by 25 per cent. The only types of curries that are unhealthy are the ones that contain a lot of cream or coconut milk, and these aren’t the types we consume regularly, but rather only on occasion.

Deepavali is not our new year (Only applicable for Hindu Indians. Incidentally, not every Indian is a Hindu. As with every race, we could be Muslims, Christians, Buddhists etc.)

While we very much appreciate the well-wishes, Deepavali is  not indicative of the transition to a New Year. Our New Year is actually dependent on the Hindu Calendar and is celebrately differently in the various parts of India. Typically, it falls around April each year.

Yes we have names that are difficult to pronounce…

For non-Indians. We think our names are actually rather pleasant and easy to pronounce.

And no, you may not shorten our names. Ask us how to pronounce it, and we’ll teach you. If we are in a good mood, we might even teach you short forms that actually make sense instead of being offensive. We are also not all open to the idea of adopting English names to make life easier for everyone else around us. It is our identity and we would like to stick to it thank you very much.

e.g. Suresh is not Shoelace.

Kalai is not Ka-laaai.

Kannan is not Ka-naan

I know of people whose names have been mispronounced to the point where it is offensive, and this mutilation of their names is unfortunately stuck with them for a long long time. Many of us, after a while, stop bothering to correct people, for it is too much of a hassle. But honestly, no one should have to answer to a severe contortion of their names.

We are not halal

It really is quite weird to have to tell people that I, a person, am not halal. With reference to food and drinks, the term refers to food that is permissible for Muslims to consume. So a person cannot be halal. Also, not all non-Chinese have to eat halal food. If an Indian is Muslim, then yes, he or she would consume halal food. However, if an Indian is a Hindu or Christian, they would be subject to restrictions imposed by their own way of life.

We aren’t smelly, nor are we kidnappers

I have encountered people who are shocked that I smell nice. This makes me wonder what they have been taught about Indians for them to be surprised that we actually do not smell like garbage trucks. Just like everyone else, we shower twice a day, sometimes more, we use perfumes, deodorants and all of that stuff. I also have people who have openly confessed that they were brought up being told that if they do not eat, the apu neh neh will catch them and take them away. Most of us actually have real jobs, and they do not involve kidnapping children who refuse to eat their meals. Please stop misappropriating our existence to feed your children.

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72 thoughts on “An Idiot’s guide to Singapore Indians

      1. I think Dave misinterpreted the part where it talks about Deepavali being new year for the Hindus.

        I am a north indian and my new year is the day after deepavali. So when someone wishes my happy new year on deepavali, i say thanks.

        Like

    1. I might be wrong but, I think what she meant was that Deepavali as a festival being confused for the Indian New Year is a situation only applicable to Hindu Indians.

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  1. So much truth. You would think people and their mentality would have advanced as quickly as our country has but no. You still get this line of racial slurps happening. So yes, thank you for this and thank you for just putting it out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a Singaporean Indian currently studying in Sydney and unfortunately, i experience the exact same thing here as well. Although some things don’t apply ( Ie. people thinking we are smelly or kidnappers), it is still very distressing for me to dispute my nationality with Indians from India. Every single time one of my friends ( who is from India by the way) point out that, “my grandparents are from India, so therefore I am from India” I start to wonder if there is a word or phrase that will set us (Singaporean Indians) apart from the Indians from India when I try to explain my identity. Thank you very much for this post as it made me feel that I am not alone

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, I am a first generation Singaporean (born and raised here). I have explained over and over again that I am not from India and Singapore is my home to various people throughout my life and still doing so. I am sure my granddaughter who is a 3rd Gen, will face the same when she starts school and work I guess…. Haiz…. Really like your article. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am amazed that even after reading this article, u can actually say this…. why dun u look around n point that to a fellow Singaporean Indian. .. am sure it may get into ya head with a familiar personality voicing to u than a stranger like me…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Zo Sai,

      The oil you refer to is coconut oil, which the Western world is now adapting for its health and beauty enhancing properties. Whilst its fragrance is an acquired taste and perhaps not suited for applying in public, it is one’s prerogative to do so. Just as Indians tolerate the unpleasant smells of sweat and certain foods emanating from people, I suggest you try giving them a similar amount of respect.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Yes it’s the coconut oil. Take note, it’s smell as spread wide enough that westerners are yearning to try too. Stench as you may thought carries the most nutrients in it.

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    4. All a question of perception really. When I was little quite a few older Singaporean Indians always described Chinese food as smelly and the poor Chinese as uneducated peasants. In converse, those same Chinese described us as smelly and untrustworthy. Same same. I’m a first generation Singaporean Indian Catholic with a white man’s name and I live in Perth. When I miss Singapore I crave bak chor mee. Don’t play play. Incident on the road? I swear in Hokkien! Huat ah!

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  4. Hello! Just a bit of a correction, halal doesn’t necessarily only refer to food or drink items; it could easily refer to one’s actions, deeds etc. as well. Of course, that being said, it would not be appropriate to label a person as ‘halal’ or ‘haram’ 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kudos to u for putting this article up….just to share what i m experiencing
    My grand daughter who is 5th generation Sporean is badly bullied in school. The children call her black, smelly, dirty, apu neh neh, tell her not to come close to them n ostracise her during group work, etc.
    When she complains the teachers do nothing about it n she is branded as complaint queen.
    I m wondering what kind of values their parents have imparted to their kids and what misconceptions about Indians they have given to them.
    I m grateful u wrote this article n hope it sets the minds of other races right about what n who Indians are..
    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Jo, please do connect with your grand daughter’s teacher or School Heads to bring up this issue. No child should be put through this type of treatment especially when the new Citizen and Character Education (CIVICS N MORAL EDUCATION) has topics on understanding others.

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  6. This is hilarious! A good friend of mine is a 2nd gen Indian and we were both aghast to hear someone commenting to her one day “you mean you do not eat curry everyday?”. Oh, the sheer ignorance.

    Thank you for the lovely read!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What’s surprising is that despite the many years of amalgamation with other races in Singapore, people have so many misconceptions. I’m Sindhi (North Indian) and only speak Hindi. If I had a dollar every time someone asked why I don’t speak Tamil, I’d be a billionaire.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Absolutely – I am Bengali and speak both Bengali and Hindi, but I have, on way too many occasions, been told that I am ‘not Indian if (I) don’t speak Tamil’.

      By non-Indians.

      The sheer gall.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Think it’s important and worth highlighting that you are not a Singaporean Indian, but merely Singaporean. If some day India and Singapore allowed dual citizenship you could be called Singaporean Indian, but that’s not the case today.

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      1. To be called “Indian” you have to be of Indian nationality. There is no race or ethnicity that is called “Indian”. If you want to classify based on race, the closest would be “Dravidian” (since you mentioned you speak Tamil).

        This might seem like semantics and I’m not trying to belittle your great article (with some very valid points), but part of the reason there is such a stark separation between races is because they continue to be defined based on their ancestry.

        Look at it this way, if you got US citizenship would you call yourself Singaporean Indian American?

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      2. Yes! Absolutely you are. But you are not “Indian”.

        Again this is purely semantic, but so long as Persons of Indian origin are called “Singapore Indians”, you will never be seen as purely Singaporean. For example, the MP Murali Pillai is being called “the first Indian MP to stand in an SMC”. However, he is not Indian, he is Singaporean.

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      3. Most definitely. The classifications had a purpose when the different races had to be separated, but today they are anachronistic.

        Let me give you an example of why I think this kind of classification is particularly galling. I am Indian (from India), my wife is Singaporean. She was born and raised here. When we tried to rent a place last year this is what happened:
        Realtor: What nationality are you?
        Me: I’m Indian, my wife is “Singaporean”.
        Realtor: What kind of Singaporean is she
        Me: Singapore Singaporean
        Realtor: No like what race?
        Me: I don’t know, she’s born in Singapore – so I guess “Singaporean”?
        Realtor: No, is she Indian?
        Me: No, she’s from Singapore!
        Realtor: Where are her parents from?
        Me: Bangladesh, but they’re also Singaporean
        Realtor: Oh so she’s Indian?
        Me: ….
        Realtor: Sorry the landlord does not want to rent to Indians…

        So despite her being Singaporean (and her parents being originally from Bangladeshi) she somehow became Indian (and discriminated against).

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  9. I really like your post, obviously nothing to contest about what you’ve said as they’re all facts, but I think we need to move further and beyond this. I think people shouldn’t have to be provided a guide or an exhaustive set of rules to follow in order to ‘not upset’ a group in society. We need to preach and affirm equality as a fundamental tenet of our society, such that finding out how to respectfully engage another person of different beliefs, race or religion is is a singaporean value is naturally expected of in every person within our society.

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    1. I fully agree with u. I think while people need to make it a point to engage people of different racial and religious groups, part of this process would be awareness. I honestly dont think most people are racist or malicious. They just simply do not know. And this is understandable in the Singapore context where not all of the 70% can be expected to come into contact with perhaps the 10% of us to find out more. So thats why the post 🙂

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  10. Thank you. Jut love your article. A voice for every Indian Singaporean. I even have English name so that no one can miss pronounce my lovely tamil name anymore… 😊

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  11. Loved your post . Being from India and married to a Singaporean Indian ( 4th generation) i truly understand this . I can add one more point as my husband say . Even india did not exist as a country when his forefathers came . So he prefers to say Singapore – tamil/ telugu . Yes he does not have a clue about Cricket 🙂

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  12. Thanks for your post. I can so relate! Ignorance cuts many ways. I’m an ethnic rojak 4th generation Singaporean (and super proud of it) and depending on the time of day (or some other factor I’ve yet to discover) or a person’s inherent biases, I often pass for a number of ethnicities. Can’t tell you how many times Singaporeans and others have said, “oh you can’t be because you look “.

    My name and surname are massacred daily too, and all sorts of assumptions are made about all sorts of everything.

    It used to annoy me – ESPECIALLY when the ignorance came from fellow Singaporeans (not necessarily those in the ethnic majority … ignorance knows no ethnic boundaries) who should know better. But I’m not too fussed anymore. Some people are idiots and I ignore them. Some people are just unconsciously ignorant. With them, I just take it as an opportunity to share information about what being Singaporean means to me and that the great thing about this country is how we are different and yet the same.

    Diversity rocks. This isn’t Utopia and there are attitudes that still suck, but it’s home, and it’s pretty darn good.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow amazing clearly explained and in a polite manner really facts! Just facts haha cool that was really a great explanation awesome just no words to describe this blog 💪👍

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  14. I think with the mispronunciation of names, we can all give and take a little 😉 I have a Chinese name that seems impossible for anyone to pronounce… even my own relatives. I get called Shoe Shine, Susan, etc. If someone from another race finds it easier to modify my name, I embrace it and we all laugh about it. Just like how Murali Pillai has adopted the name “ah Mu” for his election campaign. Sometimes I find it’s quite an endearing act when someone wants to give you a nick name!

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  15. I really found the last part really hilarious….kidnappers?…but I can relate to everything written in this article. When I am in Singapore, my name usually is mispronounced as ‘u-sa’ as it was in China. When I lived in Sydney it was mispronounced as ‘usher’. But I never let it go without correcting them because my name not only reflects who I am but also my heritage and culture and I am really proud of that!
    Secondly, the conundrum of being Indian by origin but Singaporean in outlook. I am a 3rd generation Indian but I found that I am alienated from Indians who are from India in some areas. I have friends from India with whom I share some interests but not all. When I was living in China, the compound where I lived had 15 families from India. Though they were very friendly I did not share any common traits with them. They had a different education system, their common language was Hindi ( which they would speak most of the time-making me feel left out), their festivals were unique to them (Holi), their food was another story completely.
    What I am trying to get at is this. Though I looked Indian ( some still question me on that), I hardly had any commonalities with Indians from India. I felt more at ease with my Chinese friends from Singapore as we ate chicken rice and reminiscence about food/culture/schools back home. I am Singaporean through and through…but sometimes I do feel like a second class citizen in my own country….just saying!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Usha, I am a third generation singaporean too however, on the contrary I was born in India. Having lived most of my teenage life here and growing up here, I have the exact same sentiments as you. Sometimes it feels like, we never really got started.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Majority ” Chinese ” or “white” privilege still permeates in most of society depending on where you live .

    We need to publish this as required reading in nursery/ primary / secondary /tertiary institutions.

    Maybe just maybe we will have more people who are better informed.
    Maybe they will understand their own country Alot more.

    Till then we nod smile and carry on.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I think your article highlights some great areas where people are not well informed about singaporeans of indian descent. Also quite funny in parts.
    It’s great to spread awareness of cultural differences and so on.

    I will say that there should be some understanding from both parties though. I travel the world and my name is often mis-pronounced or changed to suit the language. In addition I get people assuming I’m a stereotype of the country I’m from (Britain).
    But none of these things bother me at all, because it’s just a case of a lack of understanding/education.

    I think that as long as the intent is not malicious, that people should not get upset by any of these things.

    If we simply react angrily towards someone who basically doesn’t have experience of our own background, and can’t take it light-heartedly, it will only leave a worse impression of your people that you want to represent.

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    1. I do get where you are coming from. I think it would be counter productive to call someone who makes these comments without awareness a racist or to get angry with him/her. However, I also strongly believe that where possible, awareness should be raised.

      Living in a diverse society such as Singapore, it is only right that all parties make an effort to share about their way of life, as well as to make an effort to find out more about others so that interaction is more meaningful.

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  18. ‘apu neh neh will catch them and take them away’ wow never heard this one before,really sounds ridiculous and funny😂

    Like

  19. Well written and on point. We have all faced these things at some point (& still do). And your post on teachers was nice too

    Keep it going 🙂

    Like

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