Singapore Days, Part I

I wake to the sound of tennis balls, the sound of leisure. For New Year’s, Singapore went shopping, worshiped, and celebrated, making very little mess in the process.

Hindus, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, went to the temples here, some dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century and earlier. Families arrived in private cars and taxis, the women bedecked in silk and jasmine. Laborers came in the backs of flatbed trucks fitted with benches to seat them. They smashed coconuts and prayed for good fortune.

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Earlier, they had shopped at Mustafa’s—a postcolonial Marks and Spencer, the Walmart of the East—jammed with every conceivable consumer good: electronics, South Asian and western suitings, cosmetics, jewelry, luggage, appliances, fruit, dry goods, DVDs. The store in Little India is itself a little India and larger than the Little Indias in most non-Indian cities.

Tourists enjoyed the spectacle. The Australians wore shorts and sipped Singapore Slings in commemorative glasses at Raffles Hotel, a colonial-era shrine to steamer trunks, Noel Coward, and Dicky Mountbatten. The daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman married a wealthy Chinese businessman and had her photo taken in the courtyard of the Empire Cafe.

Singapore goes about its business, which is business.

Elsewhere, at the Malaysian High Commission, in a leafy residential neighborhood, Seelan Palay, the 23-year-old grandson of a gravedigger, stages a one-man hunger strike to protest the detention, in Kuala Lumpur, of the five leaders of an Indian minority-rights organization.

Photo above, smashing coconuts at the Ceylon Temple.

More pictures below.Photos by Preston Merchant

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Reflection of the Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

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Preparing for puja at Veeramakaliamman

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Tourists at Veeramakaliamman

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Veeramakaliamman

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Courtyard of the Raffles Hotel (photo by V.V. Ganeshananthan)

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In the Raffles Hotel Museum (photo by V.V. Ganeshananthan)

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Mustafa’s

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Garlands in Little India

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Little India

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Jewelry store, Little India

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Veeramakaliamman

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Vaibhav on New Year’s Eve

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Musical chairs on New Year’s Eve

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Ganesha gallery at the Ceylon Temple

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Seelan Palay outside the Malaysian High Commission

26 thoughts on “Singapore Days, Part I

  1. Preston,

    Thanks for showing these pics, i always wondered how the singapore indian diaspora was like, and the pictures give me a rough idea. Happy new Year

  2. Singapore is a brutal dictatorship. In addition to suppressing political dissent, the government actively participates in ethnic manipulation. For example, neighborhoods are always planned so Indians comprise no more than 25% of an apartment complex. The Strait Times is propaganda mouthpiece of the corrupt regime of Lew Kuan Yew. As in Malaysia, there is a great deal prejudice against Indians in Singapore.

    Read a bit from a

    http://singaporedissident.blogspot.com/

    Search google with Singapore dictatorship.

  3. When he was Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, I believe Chandra Babu Naidu sometimes expressed the desire to make Hyderabad India’s Singapore. V V Varaiya’s comment (above) reminds me that in ancient Greece, Sparta too, the rival of democratic Athens, valued very strict discipline.

  4. striking travelog.

    I am impressed by the Veeramakaliamman temple. Reminds me of the originals in chidambaram and madurai. anyone in the know if the sg version is similarly cast of stone or if it is a plaster and brick rendering? also, i never got around to getting an answer to this but they didnt have enamel based paints in the years gone. how did the temple builders color the stone and keep the colors vivid over the years.

  5. Thanks for the great photos!

    how did the temple builders color the stone and keep the colors vivid over the years.

    Constant repainting, I think. All those pure-white stone Greek and Roman temple ruins were once colorfully painted too, and needed constant upkeep.

  6. 6 · Nina P said

    repainting, I think. All those pure-white stone Greek and Roman temple ruins were once colorfully painted too, and needed constant upkeep.

    i see. thanks for the pointer on the greco-roman architecture. i’d be curious tho’ how they created these brilliant blues and pinks in the (relatively) older times. paintmaking is a pretty deep science. making a paint that would stick to stone and be resilient against heavy rains and the Indian/mediterranean sun is no trivial task.

    I guess this forum is too northindian centric. i wish there were some more tamils on the forum to talk about this but i’m sure they got better things to do like accounting and programming and making money.

  7. for khoofia:

    IN Greco Roman times artists used mixtures of encaustic (probably rich in bee wax), mineral pigments (iron, copper, manganese oxides) and tempera

  8. Thank you, Preston Merchant, for sharing your photos and your stories. It gives someone like me the opportunity to get to know another way of living. Would you be willing to say how you got into your vocation of photographing the diaspora? or…Did I miss that post?

    p.s. an article for khoofia about the ancient Egyptians paint techniques

  9. This was a great post. My camera decided not to collaborate on my 2 day visit to Singapore on-route to India in Nov, and hence I have no pictures but coincidentally enough, I visited all the places in you pictures. I can still recollect the noise, smell and sounds.

    Had my share of experiences getting lost in Mustafa’s :) , but the best part was tiffin at Komala Villas. Spent many summers in Singapore as a child, know only a few people there now. In some ways its as close to living in India and SL as someone may ever get.

  10. “Garlands in Little India” brought back nostalgic memories. By any chance, did you see rose garlands? Thanks for the pictures.

  11. Preston & V.V., great photos and reporting! Did you get a chance to interview Seelan? I’d be very curious to know more about his goals (and his impressions of the Nov. 25th protest).

    Khoofia (#8):

    I guess this forum is too northindian centric. i wish there were some more tamils on the forum to talk about this but i’m sure they got better things to do like accounting and programming and making money.

    Do you really get the impression this forum is north-centric? I don’t share that opinion at all. At least one very active blogger here and several of the regular commenters are southies. I only comment sporadically, but I’m most definitely not busying myself with accounting or programming or — least of all — making money when I’m not here ;-) . Alas, I don’t know much about your paint-making question, though, and I doubt most of the other southies here do….. I can tell you that Malaysia and Singapore are full of these temples that look exactly like the ones in India (yes, I know, a highly specialised and nuanced architectural analysis there :-) ). The temple ruins in the Bujang Valley in the north of Malaysia date from the 5th century A.D., and even some of the “modern” ones are over a hundred years old — not ancient in the grand/Indian scheme of things, but old enough. Unfortunately, the number of Hindu temples in Malaysia is significantly smaller now than it was even a year ago — the government has been tearing them down with no concern whatsoever for historic preservation.

  12. Do you really get the impression this forum is north-centric?

    it was a weak prod to get someone to answer me question, brownef. i do not have enough breadth of knowedge to comment on the bogs eanings. i just reaized, there’s a arge piece of toast sitting under the key between the k and the ; – the toast i am eating with my eft hand, hence you dont see any uppercase etters. how quaint and mystica.

  13. 11 · bess said

    p.s. an article for khoofia about the ancient Egyptians paint techniques

    thanks bess. i oved the description here. i fee quite smart aready and wi reproduce for genera consumption.

    The ancient Egyptian artist used six colors: black, white, red, green, yellow and blue. The pigments, ground with a pestle, were mixed with water and glue, gum or egg as a binding agent. Each color had a symbolic meaning, and the gods were often depicted with different skin colors. Black, representative of death and night, was derived from carbon compounds like charcoal and soot. White, a reference to omnipotence and purity, was created from chalk and gypsum. Artists mixed red, a symbol of life, victory, anger and fire, by combining naturally oxidized iron and red ochre. Green, symbolic of vegetation and new life, was created by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium or derived from malachite. Natural ochre, oxides and orpiment (arsenic trisulfide) were all used to make yellow, like the sun and gold, eternal and indestructible. Blue, symbolic of the sky and water and used to reference the Nile, is often visible on temple ceilings. Artists created blue paint by mixing iron and copper oxides with silica and calcium.
  14. khoofia, was it toast topped with purple star thistle honey? Now that would be quaint and mystical.

  15. i’d be curious tho’ how they created these brilliant blues and pinks in the (relatively) older times. paintmaking is a pretty deep science. making a paint that would stick to stone and be resilient against heavy rains and the Indian/mediterranean sun is no trivial task.

    I don’t think people have found that out yet, atleast in India. A guide told me at the 1500 year old Kailasanathar temple in Kanchipuram (see the picture in the link) that it has not been figured out what is used to color the sculptures. So the sculptures are deteriorating, it’s a pity.

    http://outdoors.webshots.com/photo/1399097829074389251zrIxba link

  16. Hey, Preston: So good to see your blog entry and photographs. I remember travelling in the region as a child, with a week in Singapore. I was 10, but listened as my teenage siblings got increasingly exasperated and got into vociferous arguments with pals there around their general passiveness (remember, we were coming straight from good ol’ anarchic India.) HOwever, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the sense of order and neatness of the place. We rounded off the trip with a couple of weeks in Malaysia, where chaos is pretty close the surface, but the bhoomiputra approach made representation a moot point for people of India origin. Hope you’ll tell us more about Seelan Palay some time. Lovely pix, as usual!

  17. 3 · V V Varaiya said

    Singapore is a brutal dictatorship. In addition to suppressing political dissent, thegovernment actively participates in ethnic manipulation. For example, neighborhoodsare always planned so Indians comprise no more than 25% of an apartment complex. TheStrait Times is propaganda mouthpiece of the corrupt regime of Lew Kuan Yew. As inMalaysia, there is a great deal prejudice against Indians in Singapore. Read a bit from a http://singaporedissident.blogspot.com/ Search google with Singapore dictatorship.

    The reason why there is quota in public housing in Singapore has nothing to do with keeping minorities down – in fact it is the opposite. When Singapore became independent from Malaya, there were a lot of racial riots in the country. Races lived in their own communities and were segregated. As a measure to decrease racial tensions, the government required a quota based system for government housing. This is based on the breakdown of race demographics within the country. Indians only compromise about 8-9% of the population.

    Malaysia’s problems with Indian minorities is very different than Singapore’s. Singapore tries to advocate a secular, equal society (of course this isn’t always possible). Malaysia has always put Malay’s rights above other minorities, which is one reason why Indians are fighting back in the country.

  18. Singapore tries to advocate a secular, equal society (of course this isn’t always possible)

    My impression is that the equality is somewhat superficial; the same racial divisions and prejudices exist, but they’re informal, unspoken and wallpapered over by official policy. A friend resented it so much that she left to come to the west.

    I visited once and was struck by how underdeveloped the ‘brown’ area (around Mustafa’s) was compared to other parts of the city which seemed overwhelmingly chinese in makeup…it seemed that there was significant socioeconomic stratification along racial lines

    Singapore definitely has serious flaws but looking across the way at Malaysia shows you how much worse it could have been…extending that, look at Sri Lanka, a country that was ahead of Sgp/Sk/Taiwan 50 years ago in every category…imagine how things could have been had its leaders adopted a more secular, egalitarian outlook on independence rather than a divisive, vindictive one?

  19. Brilliant photographs! Your amazing photos and post make me wish I could visit Singapore.

    Although I have never been to Singapore, friends and relatives (who have visited the place) describe some portions of that country are like a “sanitized, cleaner version of India”.

  20. My impression is that the equality is somewhat superficial; the same racial divisions and prejudices exist, but they’re informal, unspoken and wallpapered over by official policy. A friend resented it so much that she left to come to the west.

    There is an important difference…Malaysia is majority Malay…whereas Singapore is majority Chinese. Indians are about 10% (or slightly less) of both.

    friends and relatives (who have visited the place) describe some portions of that country are like a “sanitized, cleaner version of India”.

    I can vouch for one thing…you can get excellent Tamil food in Singapore.

  21. Singapore is no better than Malaysia when it comes to discriminating against Indians. It’s just that there are no OFFICIAL policies that do that, but it happens quite openly.