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The poor rich NRIs

October 14, 2006 06:23 IST
On the eve -- literally -- of departing for a third stint in Singapore, I looked up its demographic statistics. They confirmed what a British population survey indicated recently - Indians are on the march.

Yet, as Jews have known throughout history, no ethnic minority can afford obvious prosperity. Only the other day, Singapore's Former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, provoked angry protests abroad by claiming that Chinese settlers were being "systematically marginalised" in neighbouring countries. That could be termed as the wages of success.

A Thai diplomat told me gloatingly that Singapore's Temasek Corporation had gained nothing from paying $ 1.9 billion for Thaksin Shinawatra's Shin Corp because the share price had nose-dived following the Bangkok coup. Thailand's acknowledged 8 per cent Chinese (many more Thais have Chinese blood) control 80 per cent of its wealth. Indonesian Chinese (like the Salim group) account for under 4 per cent of the people but control more than 75 per cent of assets. The 2 per cent Chinese in the Philippines own 70 per cent of the riches.

East Africa taught Indians the hazards of wealth. The BBC highlights another dimension in Mauritius. I have heard British interviewers provocatively ask indigenous Mauritians if they don't think a succession of ethnic Indian prime ministers a tad unfair. British constitution makers tried to ensure that could never happen in Fiji. When it did, Fijian chauvinists staged a coup against the government's first Indian head.

There isn't a cat in hell's chance of an Indian -- not even a third generation People's Action Party loyalist — occupying that position in Singapore. In fact, an Indian in Number 10 is more likely. But it's interesting that thanks largely to migration from here -- not itinerants like me but settlers -- Indians, who constituted 8.7 per cent of Singapore's population last year against only 7.1 in 2000, are better educated than most and are becoming better-off too.

Thirty-one per cent of Indians have at least polytechnic qualifications against 27 per cent Chinese and only 8.6 per cent Malays. The achievement is even more credible when one considers that the previous figures were 20 per cent for Indians, 21 for Chinese and 4.9 for Malays. Faced with frequent Pakistani demos to Capitol Hill, India's ambassador to the US once wished his community included more demonstrative taxi drivers and fewer highly qualified academics. But that is not a disqualification in Singapore where demos are unknown.

"The increase in proportion of Indian university graduates was partly due to the inflow of Indian permanent residents with university qualifications," the census report noted. Some 60 per cent of Indian permanent residents in 2005 were graduates, up from 51 per cent in 2000. One meets engineering graduates who have been invited to Singapore and assured of walk-in interviews where they can easily find jobs; they are then given resident status.

Thanks to education, Singapore's average monthly household incomes rose from $4,940 in 2000 to $5,400 last year. With all races enjoying bigger pay packets, it rose the highest for Indians — from Rs 206,613 to Rs 234,352. The Chinese saw their average monthly household wages grow by Rs 18577 to Rs 255,095, while those of Malay households rose from Rs 142,726 to Rs 155,866. If you wish to compare averages, the monthly household income for the Chinese increased between 1990 and 2000 from Rs145,581 to Rs 236,472. The comparative figures for Malays were Rs 101,766 and Rs142,635. And for Indians Rs 129,541 and Rs 206,432.

Of course, there are many more Chinese billionaires living in sprawling air-conditioned villas with private pools and driving around in swanky chauffeur-driven cars. There are also many poor Tamils with hardly any education. But times are changing and IIT graduates who seek greater opportunities than are available in India, but cannot or will not go to the US, and therefore settle for Singapore, may be the catalyst of change.

Not that Singapore is all bliss. The local buzz is that Indians are welcomed to distract attention from far greater numbers of Chinese migrants and, even more, to balance Malay Muslims with their high birth rate. Some local Indians speak of a glass ceiling. A Tamil girl I knew migrated to Australia because, she said, all the most eligible Indian boys look for Chinese brides. There's a local variant too, of the pecking order which in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, places Western expatriates at the top and Indian labourers at the bottom. But for all that, Singapore is a comfortable place for an Indian though I am not sure I would like to live there forever. But then, I wouldn't like to live forever anywhere outside India.

Power play: More on Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation's shenanigans. My latest bill shows Gross Amount Payable as Rs 140, Rebate at Rs 1.24, but Net Amount Payable also as Rs 140! If that did not stand arithmetic on its head, the note below reads "You will lose the rebate and will have to pay the Gross Amount after Due Date."  The Due Date is today. No doubt CESC's literary spokesman will have a long and convoluted explanation that will leave everyone even more thoroughly confused but unconvinced.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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