Sunday, November 22, 2015

My love affair with Singapore and why Narendra Modi's visit here makes me uncomfortable



I visited Singapore first in 2008 when a dear friend, then a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School put me in touch with another dear friend, then the Head of the Department of the Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore.

I was on sabbatical from Purdue University in the US and this was the first time that my spouse, who was then in India, and I would spend time together starting our family.

These were six months of joy and wonderment. Six months of experiencing cultures, diversity of voices and traditions, and confluence of ancient traditions.

We were expecting our first child then, and the six months flew by in a flurry. I cherished every bit of those six months in Singapore. I fell in love with the city, its Chinese New Year and Hari Raya and Thaipusam.



The colors, aromas, and confluences of Singapore felt a welcome break from the monolithic culture of the US where I never really fit in, after having spent a decade there.

Singapore and its culture of syncretism stayed in my heart, and when the opportunity arrived for us to teach at the National University of Singapore, we took it up with great joy and anticipation.

These three years in Singapore have only reinforced my love for this space as a confluence of many cultures, many traditions, many ways of life. I understand the essence of Singapore as the kind of multiculturalism that is a celebration of difference, the intermingling of faith traditions and ways of being.


Singapore and its cultural syncretism feel like home to me. It reminds me of the India I grew up in, the India that celebrates differences and creates dialogic spaces for many worldviews to come together. It reminds me of the idea of India, where I as a Hindu grew up amid Eid and Christmas celebrations of neighbors and friends.

Yet, it is this idea of India that is in question today as the government ruled by Mr. Narendra Modi silences dissent, harasses activists, and remains largely silent about the increasing intolerance toward minority communities in India. It is this idea of a syncretic India open to difference that is increasingly in question as the Hindu Right takes center stage in Indian public discourse.

Mr. Narendra Modi's visit to Singapore is being advertised as the gateway to new economic possibilities. What however these advertisements hide is the growing climate of intolerance in India and how that fundamentally differs in its essence from Singapore, the Singapore I have come to love.