When I first came to Singapore in the 1980s I stared in amazement at almost everything. The sparkling clean floors, the brightly lit streets, shopping malls with silent elevators and fast escalators, the underground Metro, trees of even height, the clean hawker centres.
I was shocked that chewing gum was banned but Coke wasn't. Back home, Coke had been sent packing from India but we had Chiclets. They had just one newspaper, the Strait Times and their TV was as boring as ours. We had state owned Doordarshan, they had access to American entertainment channels.
Revisited: The demeanour of Indian tourists in Singapore has changed over the years
Rich tourists shopped at Orchard Road but Indians went to Serangoon Road where Little India was located. Small Indian shops sat stocked with random Chinese made goods. Indians bought two-in-ones (cassette player cum radio), gold (it was cheaper), audio tapes and VHS cassettes, Camay soap, talcum powder, Levis jeans, Tiger balm, Seiko watches, Samsonite suitcases, and electrical goodies. After having spent their hard earned and meagre foreign exchange, they would go eat dosas and vadas at the Komal Vilas or Woodlands. Some would even shop at High Street Plaza for cheap synthetic sarees. Nylon sarees were quite the rage, having been made famous by goes to Jayaprada and Sridevi.
In the 90s, the Indian traveller had more to spend. Post liberalisation, the upwardly mobile Indian had embraced conspicuous consumption. He had more foreign exchange to spend. Eating with forks and knives? Sure.
Chopsticks? Bring it on. He felt it strange that Singapore still had one newspaper and one TV channel and that too state owned. Chewing gum was still banned. They still had very little choice when it came to electing their political representatives. The malls in Singapore weren't as impressive. There was grudging respect by salespersons for the Indian shopper who bought without bargaining and paid in cash. He wasn't wearing safari suits and his wife was in western clothes, no longer smelling of coconut oil and talcum powder. The Indian family was ready to try out new cuisines like Thai and Malay at the food courts and it didn't matter that there was non-vegetarian food being served at the same table. This new age Indian had adapted � evolved.
With the turn of the century things have changed. India is being heralded into the world stage as the emerging super power. The Singapore tourism board is trying to attract Indian tourists who have money to spend like Chinese tourists. There are about 127,000 millionaires and 69 billionaires in India and about 350 million middle class Indians who want to travel. Singapore isn't far, it offers vegetarian food, mild climate, budget and high end shopping. Singapore is the first hop before going to an exotic location in Thailand or Malaysia. But is Singapore ready for the new Indian tourist? He is the Ugly Indian. There is a swagger of new wealth. He is boorish and rude. For every dollar he spends he demands service. He will not hesitate to snarl at even the hint of coldness from a salesperson or waiter.
He orders bottled water even when tap water is perfectly safe to drink as. He only drinks premium Scotch. The wife buys the best labels from Orchard Road while the maids accompanying the family take the Metro to shop at Little India.The family heads to the Casino to throw around some more money, and snigger that Singaporeans have to pay a 100 dollar entry fee. The high spenders stay at the Raffles hotel, spend hundreds at the spas, eat truffles and crabs and make sure they have taken enough pictures to post on their Facebook pages so that the relatives know.
But there are also the Indians who are coming in from the 'B towns'. The simple, well read Indians who are polite and reasonable. They take their young ones to the Indian National Army Memorial, the Jurong Bird Park and the Zoological gardens. They wonder at the cleanliness of public places and wish their towns back home offered the same civic facilities. They gawk at the rich fellow Indians shelling out several thousand dollars for a fountain pen or a watch. Are they from their country? And then the rich Indians turn to them and pretend they haven't seen them. Aah! Of course they are Indians from India. Those feudal guys who pretend the poor don't exist. And, so, 20 years after liberalisation gave us our new-found economic freedom and the resultant wealth, we seem to have opened up our wallets. Just not our minds.