Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Growing Bengali Community in Singapore

By AKM Mohsin & Debbie Fordyce

Surrounded by a vast expanse of blue waters, Singapore is a city-state ideally situated to nourish a host of different cultures. Known as the Europe of the East, this island is the abode of people of many different ethnic groups speaking a number of languages. Among them are over one hundred thousand Bengali-speaking people working in various professions.

The number of Bengali-speaking immigrants and residents is increasing rapidly. Their growing posterity is also notable. Taking advantage of the educational opportunities in Singapore, the Bengali students are surpassing students from many other countries. The education policy requires every student to learn his mother tongue, and the Bengali community also seeks to fulfill this provision of this policy. We are proud that several enterprising people have made the praiseworthy effort of building two Bangla schools.

The Bangladeshis have established a number of organizations, including the Singapore Bangladesh Society, the Bangla Language and Literary Society, the Bangla Universal Society, the Bengali Community Singapore, the Overseas Chapter of the Institution of Engineers, and the Bangladesh Language and Cultural Foundation. The business community has recently worked to establish a long anticipated Bangladesh Business Chamber of  Singapore to support the promotion of Bangladeshi entrepreneurs.

 The Bengali speaking people of West Bengal also have such organizations: the Singapore Bengali Association and the Singapore Tagore Society etc. In spite of such a large number of organizations, we still lack schools or institutions for music or art and culture for our children. Hopefully this will soon be addressed by the local community with the aim of encouraging a love and identification with the performing arts and cultural achievements of Bangladesh.

Culture is the backbone of a community. Passed from generation to generation, it is eternal and abstract, tangible and inspiring in its expressions.  We carry our culture with us. Culture flourishes when it is encouraged through education and promoted through regular expression. If the practice of cultural arts is based on solid foundation it is never lost even when exposed to the culture of different groups. On the contrary, it becomes richer and more complex with the influence of other societies.

Cultures may be likened to a river as it flows towards its destination. It mingles with the waters of many streams and rivers but each river maintains its own features while receiving new influences and undergoing minor changes. Culture is the same. We have carried our own culture to this country, a land of different and varied people, and we shall see that it endures and thrives. 

Other communities have organizations for the dissemination of language, sports, amusement, trade and commerce in the print and electronic media. Since 2006 the Bengali-speaking people in Singapore have had a publication of their own. The Banglar Kanta is a bi-monthly periodical that brings news, culture, sports, trade and other social activities of the Bengalis living in the whole of Southeast Asia.

The mirror of a community, the fourth pillar of the modern state, envisaged in the constitution of every country, is newspaper. The government of Singapore encourages the development of language and culture of the various ethnic groups, local and expatriate, and thus supports newspapers for the different language and national groups. For a long time we Bengalis had no such newspaper. With the spirit of patriotism and nationality more publications would be appreciated and enjoyed by the Bangladeshi community.

We believe that concerted co-operation and patronage will help meet this need. Since there is no full-pledged printing press here to publish in Bengali, the work of publication is expensive and complicated. A few more periodicals would serve to bring together the expanding Bengali speaking people are living in this region.

We also welcome the new Bengali television channels, NTV, RTV, Bangla Vision, ATN Bangla and Channel I. This programming connects the Bengali community to the motherland with news, entertainment, language and culture. We fought bravely for our motherland and mother tongue, and now the 21st of February is widely recognized as International Mother Language Day. Even though Singapore does not celebrate the day on the 21st of February, it promotes the mother tongue of the various language groups through its national education. For children brought up in this multi-lingual cosmopolitan culture, having strong roots in the language and values of the country is important for carrying on the country’s traditions.

We should consider not only our glorious past, but our recent achievements as well: The whole world applauds when our brave cricketers win in triumph. The Bengali culture is praised and acclaimed together with the culture of many other countries. But in Singapore our culture is viewed less positively, possibly because the large number of migrant workers from Bangladesh. These brave men who work as labourers offer themselves, set their comforts and their family life aside to contribute to the progress of Singapore’s construction and the marine industry in the hope of providing a better live for their families. Their welfare should be given more attention in light of stories about being cheated by agents and underpaid by employers, and the restrictive measure that make job mobility and enforcement of contracts so difficult. These men should be recognized and appreciated for their sacrifice and their important contribution. Their need for integration into the Bengali-speaking community and the wider Singapore community should also be addressed.

In addition more than a hundred Bengali-speaking teachers work in various educational institutions such as Singapore National University, Nanyang Technology University and Bangla schools. There are about five hundred Bengali speaking engineers working in construction and marine engineering. A large number of professionals are serving various governments and private organizations, many of whom are members of the Business Society of Bengalis. We are a people of great accomplishment, education, and expertise, even though we may lack the initiative and funding to promote our community and traditions through a greater number of publications and activities and organisations.  The Bengali-speaking men and women who live, work, and raise their families here are especially important for maintaining the cohesion of the community, at the same time that they add to the variety of the local cultural mosaic.

We need the concerted effort, honest intentions, and the cooperation and patronage of the successful people within our society. We have achieved a great deal with the establishment of business and cultural organizations, the Banglar Kantha newspaper, and the Bengali TV channels. To give our children pride, status and dignity we must set aside our differences and build connections to form a strong Bengali culture in Singapore so that each succeeding generation will benefit from and strengthen the ties within our community. It is time for all of us within the Bengali speaking community in Singapore and Southeast Asia, from all professions and walks of life, to promote our cultural and social integrity for ourselves and our future generations.

(This article first published in 2005-2006 Edition of Singapore Bangladesh Society Magazine and re-published in Banglar Kantha Jan-Feb 2011 Issue). 

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