Lessons in Little India
MR KARTHICK Muthuraman, a site engineer from a sleepy village in Tamil Nadu, replies instantaneously when we ask him why some workers acted the way they did in the Little India riot.
"There are good and bad men everywhere," the 29-year-old said with conviction, as we stood together chatting in narrow Kerbau Street.
"My parents taught me to do good, the same way your parents taught you. What they did doesn't mean that all of us are like that."
His comments, among the many we heard during several hours spent trawling Little India to understand foreign workers' sentiments last week, left a deep impression on us.
Many workers' values and feelings, as we were reminded through Mr Karthick, transcended race and nationality. They felt strongly about how they were perceived. Many just wanted to earn an honest living in Singapore and avoid trouble.
In the aftermath of the riot, we had wanted to understand how, living thousands of kilometres from home, these Indian and Bangladeshi workers coped without their loved ones close by, and what the Little India enclave meant to them.
The men that we met had different socioeconomic backgrounds from us and most of our friends.
We have different mother tongues. Our lifestyles and pop-culture references are different because they have less leisure time to waste on YouTube.
But their feeling of being homesick and wishing they weren't a thousand miles from home is almost universal, and something we can identify with.
Landscaper Sundaraj Arumugam's face fell when he mentioned how he had missed the birth of his first child this year, because he was working in Singapore.
His expression wasn't that different from that of one of us two years ago, when a grandfather's funeral in Singapore had to be missed because of study commitments in London.
Mr Karthick, on the other hand, has a daily ritual of calling his aunt back in his hometown of Madurai in India.
Having spent only four months in Singapore, the bespectacled man, who has a fiancee waiting for him back home, still needs a familiar voice to lull him to sleep.
"If I don't call, I cannot go to sleep," he told us.
We asked him what he missed the most about home.
He replied: "It's love. Love from my family and my friends".
For these workers, their trips to Little India are significant because the neighbourhood, with its back alleys, and familiar sights and smells, reminds them so much of home.
The restaurants sell authentic Indian cuisine, such as rice prepared without the use of rice cookers.
Shops offer tidbits from home such as pickles, and stock familiar brands of imported beer and liquor.
But, more than just having access to a taste of home, it is the gathering of close friends and relatives that provides comfort to these men after a week of toil.
As one worker put it, each week seemed to go by faster in anticipation of the coming Sunday, when they could return to their home away from home.
"Here, when I eat and talk with my 'brothers', I even ask myself: Is this Singapore or India?" said Mr Karthick.
Many Singapore students who study or go on exchange programmes overseas can probably identify with what it's like to be part of a semi-permanent, yet transient, population in a different country from the one you grew up in.
In London, where one of us studied, Sunday afternoon trips to Chinatown for a lunch of roast-duck rice was a highlight of the week.
It was also strangely delightful to see condiments such as Lee Kum Kee sauces sold in Chinatown.
These condiments brought back, even for a fleeting moment, a semblance of Singapore life that helped us cope with sudden bouts of homesickness.
Similarly, Little India, to these workers, was not just a place to hang out. It was also a temporary portal to home.
Though our cultures are different, our experiences of meeting these individuals revealed many similarities.
We had set out to find out how different these foreign workers were from us.
But, at the end of the day, we discovered a common humanity instead.
This commentary first appeared in www.singapolitics.sg