A recent call to make Little India more organised has elicited a spirited response from locals and heritage experts. Their reaction attests to the enduring role which the historic cultural enclave plays in the contemporary sense of Singapore as an inherited home for all its races. The sights and smells of the area convey the agency of place in the nation's engagement with its past. An expert makes the crucial point that heritage derives its value from what is important to locals. In turn, tourists are drawn to what they believe locals themselves consider to be authentic heritage. Thus, local perceptions and practices ultimately can help to make or unmake the appeal of a cultural enclave to discerning tourists. What is not cherished locally cannot be meaningful globally, at least not for long. Identity cannot be reconfigured at will and convincingly. It must be a lived reality.
Little India is authentic on the whole because it is messy in part. Take that seamless connection away, and its spatial integrity could fall apart. Hence, well-intentioned suggestions on redeveloping the area must take into account the need to preserve its historical character, which continues to blend in well with its concrete role in the economic and cultural life of Singapore. The enclave is a thriving and vibrant destination for locals, who visit it habitually for shopping and religious purposes. Tekka Market and Mustafa Centre are everyday names, not only for Indian Singaporeans but also for other Singaporeans who are more than comfortable with partaking of the varied offerings of an India within Singapore. This combination of heritage and functionality gives Little India its identity and its claim to an ineradicably tangible place in the Singaporean social imagination.
It is precisely because of this local authenticity that tourists visit Little India for a glimpse of the Singaporean microcosm of South Asia. Admittedly, the five-foot way in Serangoon Road gets crowded at times, but that proximity itself recalls and replicates the ambience of a time when cattle and men shared the area cheek by jowl. Certainly, issues of traffic safety emerge when large numbers of foreign workers from the subcontinent congregate in Little India on weekends, or join locals on festive occasions. However, adroit crowd-handling can and does keep swelling numbers in control.
What would be dangerous would be to organise life in Little India - or in the other ethnic enclaves of Chinatown and Kampong Glam - so that it becomes a clinically manicured experience. Gentrification, in particular, would rob the place of its soul. Of course, it is important to ensure that environmental standards, particularly cleanliness, do not slip behind the national norm. However, the spirit of the place must survive any form of well-intentioned development because, once the soul departs, the body will wither away.