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Book review: The Rising of India

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Bhanoji Rao reviews a new book looking at the emergence of India and the Indian communities in East Asia.


Rising India and Indian Communities in East Asia

Edited by K Kesavapany, A Mani and P Ramasamy,
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,

From its inception, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies [ISEAS] had, as part of its overall thrust and activities, a fair amount of focus on India. Notably, in 1993, ISEAS brought out Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, edited by the late Professor K S Sandhu and Professor A Mani. That book of 1008 pages had the aim of examining “the degree of assimilation and integration of Indians in Southeast Asia with the surrounding communities…” (p. xix). Brunei, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were covered in the discourse.  
Coming 15 years after the earlier work, the volume under review has fewer pages but has the East Asia reach, covering China, Hong Kong Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, in addition to Southeast Asia. It has two distinct sections, one providing a macro picture in 10 chapters on Regional and Historical Perspectives and the other covering Country Perspectives, with 25 chapters organised as follows: Malaysia – 7, Singapore -5, China, Japan and the Philippines – 2 each and all others – 1 each.

The distinguished authors (33 of them) and editors are drawn from various countries and nationalities. This and the East Asia reach are important achievements of the present volume.

The first chapter raises an important question and provides a pertinent comment: “What is the meaning of “rise of India”? Politically, India might only exert a mild influence. However, economically and especially in the development of the software industry, India is expected to have a great impact. … No other Asian group has mastered the … software industry like the Indians” (pp 7-8).

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Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are concise and yet illumining sketches of Indian immigration from the colonial era to the present. As indicated in Chapter 4 (p 68, Table 4.2), in 11 of the 15 countries/economies of East Asia, the Indian population (2005 estimates) as a percentage of country populations was negligible. Relatively high shares were noted in respect of Singapore (9.7 per cent of total), Malaysia (7.3), Myanmar (5), and Brunei (2.3).

The remainder of the first part (chapters 5-10) is generally about the post-1991 economic reforms in India and its ‘look east policy’ as the backdrop to the emerging economic, social and cultural interactions between India and East Asia.
The chapters in the second part should in fact be divided into two groups: one group referring to economies where Indians have a significant presence and those with relatively little presence. The chapters in the first group have much strength in pointing out the contributions of the Indian community to the countries of residence/settlement. The essay on Brunei, for instance, points out how Indians “as sojourners and as a community have contributed to Brunei Darussalam for a hundred years since 1906” (p190).  

The seven chapters dealing with Indians in Malaysia cover a broad canvass, from economic achievements and political participation to self-help groups and Hindu resurgence. In many ways it would seem that the Indian population is lagging behind as illustrated by some of the indicators. The percentage of the labour force with tertiary qualifications in 2004 by ethnic group was 17 per cent for Indians as against 21 per cent each for Malays and Chinese (p332). In the civil services of the country, 77 per cent were taken by the Malays, with Chinese and Indian shares being 9 per cent and 5 per cent respectively (p383). Over half the Indian students go to Tamil medium schools, a considerable proportion of which have inadequate physical infrastructure and manpower. The State does not seem to bother about enriching the facilities and manpower in those schools.

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In Singapore, where an active immigration policy has attracted not only the highly qualified but also the skilled and unskilled (maids, for instance), a high 34.3 per cent of the Indian labour force had university degrees, in contrast to the 28.4 per cent in the total labour force (p587). As for school education, Indian students have not yet caught up with the Chinese students in terms of performance (p607), but thanks to the efforts of the State, all ethnic groups have witnessed improved performance and one could hope for the convergence of the performance levels.      

In the case of Myanmar, there is hardly any data on the relative well-being of the Indian settlers. Based on what little evidence can be gathered, the slim chapter of 12 pages has some findings. “Most educated and enterprising Indians have left. … A few are in the education and medical professions. Very few are in the government service…” (p492).

The essays in respect of economies with relatively low proportion of Indian population are just as interesting as the others. Whether it is about the Indian maids in Hong Kong or businessmen in Taiwan and Indochina or the professionals in Japan, the chapters have added fullness and lustre to the total work.   

In closing this short review, we note that, India has still a long way to go in terms of demonstrating manufacturing competitiveness, infrastructure excellence and significantly reducing inequalities in human capabilities across its people. That achievement, if ever feasible, will set the tone to establish a strong Indian influence, by proving that a free-wheeling multi-party democracy too could deliver development to an erstwhile colonial state.

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Prof Bhanoji Rao is a Visiting  Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

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