V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
Immigration is a hot-button topic. There are calls for foreigners to be kept out because they are seemingly taking away jobs and not contributing much to society.
But it is important to remember that Singapore is a country of immigrants. While the government and most Singaporeans make a genuine effort to welcome immigrants and make them feel at home, the question of why Singapore needs new citizens and what they bring to the country continues to rear its head often.
Stories of Integration: 30 Singaporeans who made an impact, a book conceptualised by Mr Prakash K. Hetamsaria and written by Ms Vandana Aggarwal, addresses this issue.
Launched on Oct 17 by Senior Minister of State for Transport Chee Hong Tat, it aims to make people aware of foreigners' contributions to Singapore's development and serves as a tribute to 30 first-generation citizens who are giving back to society.
"It is our hope that the book will be a small step forward in bringing about an integration of hearts and more appreciation and respect for each other," said Ms Aggarwal.
The historian, archivist, education consultant and freelance journalist decided to write the book as "it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the efforts and story of people who have left their birth countries and set down roots in a foreign land".
"They have contributed meaningfully to Singapore's development and feel proud to be Singaporeans," said Ms Aggarwal, a permanent resident who came to Singapore from New Delhi in 1994.
Mr Hetamsaria has been involved in the Integration and Naturalisation Champions initiative - which welcomes and invites new citizens and PRs to join grassroots activities to expand their social network - for the past eight years. He felt it was important to project the journeys of 30 naturalised citizens who have integrated into Singapore society.
"When you move to another country and want to settle down and make that country your home, you not only learn and adopt the norms and values, but you also need to integrate with the local society and contribute for the betterment of the country," said the chief financial officer in an international trading company.
Singapore's history is closely intertwined with immigration - many forefathers of today's generation of Singaporeans were originally from the Malay peninsula, the Indonesian islands, China, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka.
As immigrants continue to arrive from different continents today, that ability to attract talent enables Singapore to forge a nimble and highly adaptable workforce for a competitive edge.
The 30 people in Stories of Integration span 13 countries, a variety of professions and all major religions - Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
"What was common among them was that they shared the same vision of giving back to Singapore," said Ms Aggarwal. It is as Mr Tony Du Zhiqiang, founder of leading regional human resources service provider Asia-Link, points out in the book: "Because we like this place, because we felt deeply for Singapore, we chose to work, learn, reside, sink our roots and raise our family here."
Among the 30 are Mr Victor Mills, CEO of Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, and footballer Aleksandar Duric, who said: "Singapore is a land of opportunity... to make it your own, you have to integrate, be a real person with real emotions."
The Indians featured range from rangoli artist Vijaya Mohan to academician Bhanu Ranjan, entrepreneur and inventor of Rotimatic Pranoti Nagarkar, lawyer and founder of itsrainingraincoats Dipa Swaminathan, marine professional Jaspreet Chhabra, eye specialist Rupesh Aggarwal, businessman Prakash Kejriwal and his entrepreneur wife Veena, theatre personalities Daisy Irani and Subin Subaiah, DBS senior executive Amit Sinha and philanthropist Rajan Jain.
"It was a challenge to write about 30 individuals and ensure that each one's voice comes through," said Ms Aggarwal, who took two years to complete the book, which was funded by Mr Hetamsaria and supported by the National Integration Council.
"Over lengthy interviews, the 30 bared their hearts on their reasons for emigrating, their efforts at deepening their roots here and their efforts at proactively engaging and integrating with the locals. While writing the book, I learnt that foreigners bring expertise, replenish the falling population and boost the economy."
The book also points out that new citizens bring with them diverse cultural traditions and value systems that enhance and enrich Singapore society.
"This book is proof it is a two-way street to being an immigrant," said Ms Irani. "The more we give to the country, the more we contribute to the community, the more we get paid back. The more united we are, the stronger we become."
Ms Aggarwal, who in 2018 published her first book Voice of Indian Women, The Kamala Club, Singapore, believes her second book is important because "stories of many of our early immigrants have not been recorded and are lost".
"I think we should record the stories of the present-day heroes before they are lost forever," she said.
lStories of Integration: 30 Singaporeans who made an impact, published by Marshall Cavendish, is available at all leading bookshops as well as Amazon SG. Price: $21.50 + GST.
"It is our hope that the book will be a small step forward in bringing about an integration of hearts and more appreciation and respect for each other."
- Ms Aggarwal