The big challenge for Little India

6.9 million people by 2030 – this was the projected population gure released by the Singapore government upon unveiling the Population White Paper in January 2013. Amidst declining birth rates, an ageing population and shorta- ges in the workforce, a key strategy to be adopted would be to increase the percentage of foreign workers (National Population and Talent Division, 2013, p.6). It is hoped that controlled immigration would reap substantial bene ts in terms of an increased talent pool, a larger market and better business oppor- tunities (Chia, 2015). At the same time, imperative to overcoming the nation’s demographic challenge is ensuring a strong Singaporean core and a solid national identity – a “good home” (National Population and Talent Division, 2013, p.2). Translating this national roadmap to reality, however, might prove to be a dif cult task. The Population White Paper triggered national backlash, with competition for jobs, housing and living space being among some of the key concerns raised by citizens. Others have pointed towards mounting social tensions and a diminishing “national soul” as a cause for concern (Sim, 2013).

Issues of immigration and the tensions that accompany it are not unique to Singapore. An increase in global flows and movement of people have led to both place and space taking on different meanings. Similar ‘crises of home’ are also experienced by America and Western Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, native Dutch feel increasingly alienated in their own country owing to a ‘stolen home’ taken away by an influx of immigrants (Duyvendak, 2011, p.84). In Singapore, the height of tensions between immigrants and locals occurred in 2013, during Singapore’s rst riot in over 40 years. Triggered by an accident involving the death of a migrant worker hit by a bus, rioting ensued in the neighbourhood of Little India – vehicles were torched and civilians were injured (Lim and Sim, 2014). This incident brought to fore issues of home and belonging, and once again sparked a nationwide debate on the place of migrant workers in society.

Duyvendak (2011, p. 83) relates this phenomenon to the problematic confla- tion of ‘haven’ and ‘heaven’. Home that is lived as a ‘haven’, in private, poses no problem. Yet, dif culties arise when home lived as a ‘heaven’ in relation to the public sphere, especially at the level of the nation-state. It is not possible for an individual to feel at home at all places and with all people, because fundamentally, feeling at home is an exclusive and discriminating emotion. Morley (2001) further argues that the home, the neighbourhood and the nation are intimately intertwined, with each space conditioning the other. It is perhaps pertinent then, to examine ‘home’ and ‘feeling at home’ at the more fundamental level of the neighbourhood, where tensions between competing notions of home are perhaps more apparent. Through the case study of Little India, a neighbourhood where the ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ converge, this essay seeks to answer the research question: how stable is the private ‘home’ in the neighbourhood of Little India? It is argued that in the contested landscape of Little India where a strong insider-outsider dichotomy exists, the idea of a private home – or the ‘conventional’ home – is highly unstable. Perceptions of home, the spatiality of home and privacy of home are all being challenged. The neighbourhood of Little India is rst briefly introduced. Following this, the ways in which home is contested and negotiated in Little India is discussed, and interventions aimed at reconciling divergent meanings of home are proposed. It is hoped that the interrogation of the politics of home at the scale of the neighbourhood can shed light on the issues of home and belonging that countries and states are grappling with at a broader scale.

High-rise Housing Development Board (HDB) flats mark the quintessential Singaporean home. Over 80% of the population reside in these public housing flats, and home ownership rates stand at a high 90% (HDB, 2015). Most neig- hbourhoods in Singapore comprise residential areas, both public and private, accompanied by facilities and amenities that service the town, including community spaces, shopping centres etc. However, marked by the presence of both residents and other ‘visitor’ groups, the historic district of Little India is a neighbourhood unlike any other. Locals reside mainly in the three main resi- dential areas within the neighbourhood, namely the HDB estates at Tekka Mar- ket, Kerbau Road and Rowell Court (URA, 2016). However, besides residents living in these dense, built-up HDB flats, Little India is also an established “Indian community space”, housing a high concentration of Indian-themed retail and services, ranging from garland makers to provision stores (URA, 2016). This is one major pull factor contributing to the influx of foreign workers, mostly from South India, that visit Little India over the weekends (The Straits Times, 2013). For them, Little India serves not only as a gathering point, but also as a location where specialised services such as fund remittance are present (Chang, 2000, p.349). Recent estimates have placed the number of migrant workers that visit Little India over the weekends at over 30 000 on Sundays (The Straits Times, 2013). This close proximity of these two groups, the sheer number of migrants moving in and out of the neighbourhood, and the sharing of spaces and facilities within Little India invariably shapes Little India into a contested landscape where different notions of home meet and are negotiated or contested.

In the heterogeneous and highly diverse neighbourhood of Little India, the meaning of home has transformed from from one that is personal to one that is relational. Against the backdrop of globalisation and increased mobility of people, familiarity of place alone is not enough for natives or locals to feel at home, or for one to assert an ‘insider’ status. Rather, how comfortable one feels at home is increasingly contingent on the behaviour of other people who have disrupted this familiarity of place (Duyvendak, 2011, p.30). The idealised view of home as a haven – which is safe, secure and private – could then come under threat (Duyvendak, 2011, p.38). In Little India, the neighbourhood is increasingly perceived to be unsafe and dangerous, especially in the aftermath of the Little India riot.

In a joint interview with a mother and grandmother who were watching over their children at the playground, they responded:

“If we have groceries or have to go out, we always go in pairs at least, and we will take a big round to avoid the foreign workers. We actually do not go out at all on Sundays because it is just too crowded. There are too little places we can go to eat around here without having to go over to the other side (Serangoon Road).”

In this case, the presence of ‘others’ molds one’s perception of home, and diminishes one’s ability to feel at home. Feeling at home then becomes highly selective and exclusive, in two aspects. For one, feeling at home could be a zero sum game, where people can only feel at home if others continue to exist as outsiders (Duyvendak, 2011, p. 30). When asked about their plans for the future, residents who have stayed in Little India for ve years now have decided that enough was enough:

“We’re moving out already! We can’t take this anymore.”

Secondly, in dealing with the presence of migrant workers, residents have chosen to avoid going out or sharing public spaces with the workers, especially on weekends, unless it is absolutely necessary. This has caused feeling at home to take on a temporal element, where residents selectively feel at home. This transition of home from being personal to relational has implications on how home is being thought about. Home can no longer be perceived and experienced in isolation, but rather it is done so in terms of dialectics – what belongs and what does not, what is inside and outside, and who can be called ‘we’ as opposed to ‘others’. (Duyvendak, 2011, p. 31).

In Little India, tensions between locals and foreign workers have also led to the redrawing of the spatial boundaries of the private home. As the spatial boundaries of home are challenged, contestations over what is considered public spaces ensue. Duyvendak (2011, p. 121) notes that there is a marked blurring of boundaries between the private and the public spheres. In Little India, this tension has very visibly been mapped onto the urban landscape. Home then, can no longer be viewed in terms of rigid boundaries that sepa- rate ‘haven’ from ‘heaven’. Rather, as these boundaries become increasingly porous, home should be reimagined in terms of networks and social links with the ‘outside’, and with an extroverted sense of place (Massey, 2007, 154). As Easthope explains, “While homes may be located, it is not the location that is home” (2004, p. 136). In Little India, a key source of tension stems from competing claims to place and space. Property rights form the basis of residents’ claim to call Little India their home, and residents further stake their claim to place by extending the private sphere of the home to the rest of the community (Chang, 2000, p. 362). No longer does a liveable private home suf ce, but quality of living in the communal home is equally important as well. Residents feel that some foreign workers have made themselves ‘too much at home’, and have intruded the common areas of public housing estates, such as at void decks and at playgrounds. As a result, residents have shown much disdain towards the noise, rowdiness and littering that result from the activities of the workers (Chang, 2000, p. 357). In an interview, one resident expressed dismay over the aftermath left by workers in the void deck: