India and Singapore, Singapore and India

Coming back from Singapore to India, I ran smack into a reminder of how efficient Singapore is and how far India has to go to catch up. This blog has nothing to do with photography per se, but everything to do with culture, progress, social change, etc. If that is of interest, read on. If not join me again in a few days.

When I flew to Singapore, I was notified at the Indian immigration counter as I left India that a new regulation was in effect and people on a tourist visa (like me) needed to be out of India for more than two months before returning. I pointed out that I was going to Singapore for just one week to teach, then coming right back to India and the new rule would present a problem. The immigration officer told me that trips to Singapore were exempted. Since many Indians travel to Singapore, and I wanted to believe him, I took him at his word.

Sure enough, as I was trying to leave Singapore for India, the airline staff at the check-in counter reminded me of the regulation. After many phone calls to the Indian High Commission (the equivalent of the embassy,) I learned that the immigration officer in India had simply lied to me. He probably did that out of some weird Indian version of politeness where no one likes to actually say “NO.” The airline staff in Singapore was remarkably helpful and quite used to dealing with people tripped up by this very new regulation. They booked me on the next day’s flight and told me how to get the required permission from the Indian High Commission in Singapore.

I showed up at that office early the next morning, having stayed in Singapore one night longer than originally planned, to secure the requisite permissions. The system at the Indian High Commission in Singapore was unbelievably efficient and organized. I was in and out in less than thirty minutes. The staff of Indians working there was uniformly helpful, thorough and pleasant. I headed back to India annoyed at the man who had led me astray, but pleased at how well things had played out despite the one hitch.

Upon landing in India I was taken aside at immigration and reminded that I must register with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office within fourteen days. In all my previous visits to India, the regulation that was mostly enforced in terms of foreigners was the one that said we needed to register with the FRRO if we were staying in India MORE than six months. For the ex-patriots living in India who I spoke with in the past, the common way around that rule (and the requisite trip into FRRO bureaucracy) was to leave India for elsewhere in Asia for a week or two. This new regulation was obviously going to put a stop to that approach.

So, despite numerous trips to India, none of which involved a trip to the FRRO, I ended up there snaking my way through the bureaucracy. I wasted a better part of an hour on one day, just finding out what forms I needed. With the long list of required items I went back home to print out airplane tickets, photocopy pages in my passport and write the obligatory letters seeking the required permission.

With all my papers in hand, including duplicate copies just in case, I arrived at the FRRO at 9:30 am, to be in line when they opened at 10 am. In no great act of surprise, fifty people were already there! Three and a half hours later, after fighting my way through numerous lines, I had a receipt saying that I could return and get the actual paperwork that afternoon after 4:30 pm. I returned to the FRRO at 4 pm and was out of the gate, paper in hand, by 5 pm.

In India, I wasted the better part of a day (four and a half hours, not counting travel time) to get one certificate, so I could leave that country. In Singapore, the exact same government gave me similar permission in just half an hour.

Normally, I would never compare a Singaporean government office to an Indian government office. It simply would not be fair. But in this case, both offices were extensions of the same Indian government, operated by people from the same culture.

In Singapore they had a job to do and worked hard to keep me moving forward to get what I needed. In Bangalore, the job of the bureaucrats that I encountered seemed to be the opposite, to throw obstacles in the way of who ever came their way. I was fortunate that my paperwork was in perfect order. I saw numerous folks banished to another day of waiting for lack of one small stamp, signature or slip of paper.

For me, the whole experience ended up being that rare thing, a perfect apples to apples comparison. I was drawn back to the definition of culture as “learned behavior patterns” reminding me that above all else, culture is what shapes human behavior for better or for worse.

The important point is that in both places, Indian workers, employed by the same Indian government performed approximately the same job. Roughly the same people (all Indians) did largely the same work using polar opposite strategies. The collective culture of Singapore made for efficiency and the culture of India made for bureaucracy. If the Indians are serious about moving up the economic ladder, my experience reminded me just how far they still have to go.

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