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  India   All India  27 May 2018  Of desi food, clubs and cricket in Singapore’s ‘Little India’

Of desi food, clubs and cricket in Singapore’s ‘Little India’

Published : May 27, 2018, 11:57 pm IST
Updated : May 27, 2018, 11:59 pm IST

The current president of the club is an Indian, Sher Baljit Singh, who runs his own successful property business.

The Singapore Cricket Club, which was established in 1852
 The Singapore Cricket Club, which was established in 1852

Recently I was in Singapore for a day-long visit and came to know much about the country which has a strong Indian diaspora. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Singapore in the first week of June 2018. India was the second nation to recognise Singapore after its independence in 1965. India has a strong connection with Singapore in terms of diaspora and people-to-people contact. In fact, there is a “Little India” within Singapore.

In one of his visits to Singapore in November 2015, to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, Mr Modi was in the news for his surprise visit to Komala Vilas, a modest no-frills Indian restaurant in Little India set up by Rajakumar Gunasekaran. Mr Modi had dropped in at this Serangoon Road eatery for delicious thosai with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching, much to the surprise of the crowds. The wefies and selfies of the two Prime Ministers dining at the Indian eatery in Singapore went viral on the social media.

Mr Rajakumar’s grandfather had started Komala Vilas with three outlets and a sweet shop in 1947. It is now quite like an institution for vegetarian food on the Little India culinary scene with simple meals accompanied by traditional Indian drinks — sweet yoghurt lassi, mango lassi and lime juice.

I must thank Maneesh Tripathi, group CEO and executive director of Singapore Electric Vehicles for being my host and showing me around. Mr Tripathi is a Pan-IIM member and his company is a first commercial electric fleet company based in Singapore. His company aims to revolutionise public mobility by introducing zero emission and environment-friendly vehicles in Singapore.

One of the most famous institutions in Singapore is the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) that was established in 1852. It is a premier sports and social club in Asia and the second oldest club in Singapore located on the south end of the Padang in Singapore’s central business district. The current president of the club is an Indian, Sher Baljit Singh, who runs his own successful property business.

The club has witnessed many highs and lows of Singapore’s modern history. It is surrounded by many historic buildings which include Raffles Hotel, St Andrew’s Cathedral, City Hall (on the steps of which the Japanese surrendered to the British in 1945), the Old Supreme Court (now the National Gallery Singapore), Old Parliament House (now the Arts House), Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall, and Empress Place Building (formerly government offices and now the Asian Civilisations Museum).

The club’s beginnings were quite humble, with the first 28 members in 1853 being mostly men working in the British business and mercantile community, mostly as clerks. The membership had grown to almost 400 in the 1880s and was seen as a social feather in the cap, not only by the businessmen who founded the club but also by the power brokers and decision-makers in the government. Membership of the club had reached 878 by 1914. Today SCC has over 4,000 members.

If you think the club is all about cricket, you’d be wrong. Though it has cricket to its name it is more of a social club now with not much of cricketing to be seen. Today rugby, football and hockey are played at the SCC. The club also has facilities for squash, tennis, lawn bowls, billiards and snooker. Right from the beginning, it was not all about cricket. A popular event almost up to World War I was the SCC annual sports and the SCC athletic sports were an integral part of this programme up to 1900. World War I affected Singapore sports badly (although the crown colony was not directly involved in the conflict) and the supply of sporting “manpower” was sharply reduced. Cricket suffered in particular and in 1922 the club was unable to make up a full team to send to play in Hong Kong.

Cricket was played on the Padang as early as 1837, only 18 years after Sir Stamford Raffles founded the settlement of Singapore in 1819, but it was not until 1852 that first meetings were called to discuss the formal establishment of a cricket club. There have been no fewer than three clubhouse buildings on the Padang, the first erected some time in the 1860s and the second in 1877. The third pavilion, which forms the core of the present clubhouse building, was built in 1884. It was extended in 1907 and the northern and southern wings that we see today were added in 1922.

In 1927, Charles Gordon Macartney and his Australian cricket XI visited the club. Macartney’s team, which included eight Test cricketers, actually lost one match, against Malaya. On February 15, 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and most Europeans who had not escaped were interned. The club was closed for the duration of the war.

Even after Singapore was liberated in 1945, it was clear that life in the crown colony would never be the same again. The Singapore government in 1962 insisted that all clubs in Singapore maintain at least 50 per cent Singaporean membership. Prime Minister Lee made his first official appearance at the club in 1963, when his wife presented the Lee Kuan Yew shield to the club’s ladies’ hockey team. He returned in 1970 to accept the honorary title of “Visitor” to the club.

At present, of the many restaurants and bars at the Singapore Cricket Club, the Deli restaurant offers Hawker food by night with popular Indianised menu offering roti, parantha, vegetable dhall, mutton curry, chicken curry, mutton satay, chicken satay, dal makhani, tadka and others. Chef Afrin has his own dishes to offer like spicy mutton paya, masala gravy, plain thosai with sambar and chutney.

One amazing fact about SCC is that during the Singapore National Day, the club lays a layer of concrete flooring by removing grass for the festivities. After the National Day event is over, the concrete is removed and the area restored to its lush green grassy lawn.

SCC reminds me of the Indian Gymkhana Club of London where the NRIs throng in large numbers. The Indian Gymkhana Club also has an interesting history and has many things in common with the Singapore Cricket Club like cricket, sports, Indian cuisines and share of local politics when it comes to managing the affairs of the club.

Indian food has now become so common in Singapore that many of the restaurants have elaborate Indian menus, vegetarian and non-vegetarian and people have plenty to choose from. Talking of Singapore, I always remember Punjab Grill, the excellent Indian restaurant of celebrity chef Jiggs Kalra who is commonly referred to as the czar of Indian cuisine and the first Asian to be inducted in the International Gourmet Hall of Fame. Somehow, the Indian overseas food joints are getting savvier and popular each day.

The writer is a social and cultural activist based in Kolkata, and a frequent international traveller

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, singapore, komala vilas, singapore cricket club (scc)