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The Ugly Indian

By Sunanda K Datta Ray
April 05, 2003 14:59 IST
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Disregarding the invasion of Iraq, an Indian Singaporean friend with interests in Malaysia is hopping mad about the fracas over Indian information technology professionals in Indonesia and Malaysia, to say nothing about the contretemps in The Netherlands.

Three incidents in a row. You might think that Indians are being got at. Not so, says my friend. His complaint is that Ugly Indians, stalking the world as if they own it, give India a bad name.

By trying to introduce trade union blackmailing tactics into a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist society, they are also making it difficult for honest-to-goodness ethnic Indians like him to make a living.

Paying handsome tribute to India's high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Veena Sikri, for standing up to police highhandedness, and to Malaysia's acting prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, for the magnanimity of his apology, my friend warns that it would be unfair and counter-productive for India to think of reprisals.

"The story behind the Kuala Lumpur fracas is that the IT hands came on contracts negotiated in good times," he e-mails. "When the Asian financial crisis erupted, many Malaysian IT firms went under or just could not pay salaries."

"Many offered lower salaries, a very common and legal practice in Malaysia and Singapore. The Ramus and Shamus (my friend's term for Indian nationals) ganged up and retaliated by forming an expatriate cartel. They withheld labour, not realising that this automatically cancelled their work permits."

"ASEAN is not India. No ASEAN employer will tolerate lip from an employee, local or foreign. There are no real trade unions here. Even the Port of Singapore Authority workers, the torchbearers of the bold 1946 labour movement, caved in with a whimper."

"So when the IT boys got bolshie, their employer or employers retaliated by tipping off the Immigration Department. Things unfortunately got out of hand.(If the Malaysian police can get away with beating up their own deputy prime minister -- Anwar Ibrahim, languishing in jail --the Ramus and Shamus are lucky none of them got even a black eye)."

My friend says that complaints by local residents of the Palm Court Condominium, where the Indians lived, were just the pretext for what was essentially a labour dispute. But he does warn that social behaviour such as theirs is not tolerated anywhere, not even in free and easy America.

"Why didn't the Indian government threaten economic sanctions against the US when IT hands were rounded up by the Los Angeles police?" he asks.

"Perhaps some lessons can be drawn from this incident for India's footloose high-tech manpower, now travelling all over the world, with their laptops and smart briefcases (it used to be lotas, Icmic cookers and bedding rolls not so long ago)."

"These wild-eyed young men bring with them conspicuous social habits that the culturally diverse peoples of ASEAN find offensive."

"They litter, drink, and are very argumentative in societies that brook no argument from even their own nationals, let alone foreigners. Above all they are undisciplined and reflect the recent growing malaise of student indiscipline in all Indian universities. India's laissez faire democracy will tolerate such social aberrations. Other countries and societies will not."

He rightly accuses Indian expatriates of being abysmally ignorant of the region's complex history, cultures and value systems, in spite of its historical links with ancient India.

I once met an IFS officer seconded to the Singapore foreign ministry who thought Lee Kuan Yew was the deputy prime minister!

"It is their total inability to communicate with other societies that sets Indians apart from the thousands of foreign nationals working in ASEAN. Is it that difficult for Indian universities and colleges to offer short courses in Indonesian, Malay and Thai languages? Do former colonial European languages still have a stranglehold on the Indian mind?"

The conduct of some NRIs put off others too. An Indian Malaysian journalist wrote in a Malaysian paper that Andhra Pradesh IT professionals look down on local Telugus. An ethnic Indian editor in Singapore once spoke of Indian nationals here 'with their baggage of caste and class.'

A university lecturer in Singapore says that Indian students who are here on Singapore scholarships soon become 'cocky.' Another word that the locals apply to visiting Indian nationals is 'arrogant.'

Of course, many locally-born Indians, whether in Singapore or Malaysia, have chips on their shoulder the size and weight of the Qutab Minar but that is another matter.

What is of concern is that the combined effect of these reports is to queer the pitch for analysts like Michael Backman, author of Big in Asia, who believe that in the long run our NRIs will outstrip, outrun and outsmart the Overseas Chinese.

Mrs Sikri, says my friend, handled the affair with finesse. Given Malay cultural norms, Mr Badawi's apology was a tremendous gesture. That should be the end of the matter.

"Malaysia was the only non-aligned country to stand solidly behind India in the 1962 debacle with China, at a time when the Soviet Union, India's closest ally, decided to back its Communist ally." He does not mention that Pakistan snapped diplomatic relations with Malaysia in 1965 for supporting India at the United Nations, as Noordin Sopiee, the Malaysian writer and analyst reminded me once.

"Malaysia does not deserve economic sanctions for what was clearly an isolated act of police high-handedness," he says.

Then, the kicker: "Indians may want to reflect on their own police standards as well."

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