At the National Day Rally on Sunday (29 Aug), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged the existence of social frictions arise between Singaporeans and foreign work pass holders in Singapore.
“Social frictions arise because culturally, work pass holders are different from us,” he said. “They look like us, yet they don’t act like us.”
“Some work pass holders and their families bring with them social practices and class distinctions from their own countries. These run counter to the informal and equal way Singaporeans interact with one another, and that causes frictions,” he acknowledged. “Non-Singaporeans must understand how Singapore is, so that they can fit in better.”
PM Lee did not name which countries these work pass holders came from, but in 2015 during an interview with SPH, former Cabinet Minister S. Dhanabalan pointed out that new Indians from India, who are mostly professionals, bring “bad habits” with them, which most of the Singaporean Indians have already forgotten or got rid off.
He mentioned that these new Indians from India have a “very strong sense of caste”.
Mr Dhanabalan even recounted a case of caste discrimination happening in Singapore, “In fact I’ve heard of instances where, in major American banks, an Indian was put up for promotion by a non-Indian. The non-Indian boss was told that you better not promote him because he’s in the wealth management part of the bank and he’s got to talk to other professional Indians to persuade them to put the money with you, and he’s not of the caste that they will respect.”
“So can you imagine these are people who studied overseas, outside India, who have done well and now work in an American bank and are still holding on to such caste prejudices,” he lamented.
“But they do bring it with them. They may have lived many years outside of India but they remain very strongly caste-conscious. They will deny it. So this particular Indian was not promoted, but was given another job of a higher level which did not involve trying to sell the bank’s services to professional Indians. That’s something that is very disturbing.”
Mr Dhanabalan said such practices that come from India are not relevant to Singapore. “So if they want to be a part of Singapore and be integrated, they have to get rid of this kind of thinking. They may be upset by what I’m saying, but I think it needs to be said,” he spoke candidly.
Mr Dhanabalan left the Cabinet and the government in 1992. Year later, he revealed that his leaving had been due to differences of opinion with the other Cabinet members over the arrests of 22 people under the Internal Security Act in 1987. The group, many of whom were linked to the Catholic Church, was accused to be involved in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore government.
California sues Cisco for harassing American of Indian Dalit descent
What Mr Dhanabalan heard about the caste discrimination in Singapore’s workplace is not unique. It also frequently happened in other places, like in the Silicon Valley in US.
Last year, California state government decided to sue Cisco Systems Inc, accusing it of discriminating against an American of Indian descent. California state authorities said that Cisco has allowed the American to be harassed by two of its managers because he was a Dalit, a member of a marginalized group in India once known as “untouchables”.
The lawsuit stated that the American victim has been a principal engineer at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters since 2015, and that his ancestry was Dalit which is outside the Indian caste hierarchy.
Like other large Silicon Valley employers, Cisco’s workforce includes thousands of Indian immigrants, most of whom were born into more privileged groups such as Brahmin or other castes.
Former Cisco engineering managers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella are defendants in the lawsuit. They were accused of harassment for internally enforcing the Indian caste hierarchy.
The American victim later reported Iyer to human resources in 2016 for outing him as a Dalit to colleagues. Iyer allegedly retaliated against the American, but Cisco determined that caste discrimination was not illegal and harassments continued through 2018, the lawsuit stated. It was also alleged that the American victim was denied promotions working under Iyer.
A 2018 report from Civil rights group Equality Labs found that 67 percent of Dalits surveyed felt treated unfairly in their US workplaces.
India is still struggling with with caste-based discrimination even though it was banned in India 65 years ago.