Indian national Avijit Das Patnaik is still maintaining that an image he shared five months ago, showing a Singapore flag being ripped up to reveal an Indian flag, was a piece of art that was open to interpretation.
Formerly a member of DBS Singapore’s Consumer Banking Operations Team, 45-year-old Patnaik posted the contentious image to 11,000 member-strong Facebook group ‘Singapore Indians & Expats’ on the occasion of India’s 72nd Independence Day on 15 Aug 2018.
In his post, Patnaik wrote “Phir bhi dil hai…” – a term which refers to the title of a 2000 Hindi movie, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, which translates into “Still my heart is Indian”.
The backlash against Patnaik was so severe, with the police getting involved as well since treating the Singapore flag with disrespect is an offence here, that Patnaik had to delete his social media and online networking accounts.
DBS Singapore also responded to public outrage and revealed that it had “counselled” Patnaik. DBS Singapore earned widespread criticism from Singaporeans for not taking harsher action against Patnaik, with several locals threatening to close their bank accounts, that the Singapore lender later said that Patnaik has left the organisation.
Speaking about the incident to Channel NewsAsia in a recent interview, Patnaik said that life has been difficult in the aftermath of his post.
The consequences have reportedly been “devastating” for Patnaik and his family, who face the prospect of leaving Singapore where they have lived for the past decade. Despite sending his resume to 2,500 employers, Patnaik remains jobless and the family have listed their Sengkang executive HDB flat on the market while they contemplate what to do next.
Revealing that he even considered suicide in his lowest points so that his wife and two children could collect insurance and continue living in Singapore, Patnaik lamented: “I feel like I have committed the greatest crime of the century. If you Google my name, there are more hits and searches against my name than against leading terrorists and scamsters.” He added:
“I can never imagine disrespecting any country or any religion. If you look in my house, you will see Chinese decorations. You will find many Muslim things. We visit mosques. We celebrate Chinese New Year every year, including doing ‘lo hei’ within the family. That’s how we’ve brought our kids up, that you must love every nationality, every race, every religion.”
Patnaik’s wife expressed support for her husband and said that he did not mean to disrespect Singapore. She chimed in:
“These are the kind of values with which we are bringing up our children, and suddenly to see what their dad has been accused of, which they know is not true … I know when he posted that forwarded picture what his intentions were, and (what) his interpretations were.”
Although he reportedly regrets upsetting so many people, Patnaik maintains that he thought the image was “socially acceptable” when he posted it and that he still thinks the “image was a piece of art that was open to interpretation.” Pointing out that there is a website that produces and sells such images, he said:
“On the day that I posted, I was sort of declaring that my body is Singaporean, only my heart remains Indian. That’s the interpretation that my friends have, and that day, I was actually saying yes, my body is now Singaporean.
“Even if you see the website’s definition, there is no malice in that picture. It says I live in Tanzania but my body belongs to Estonia, something like that. It is an interpretation of art, and if we go like this, we are leaving no room for the interpretation of art. Anybody can get offended by anything today.”
Patnaik also “junk sites” for falsely reporting that he had been arrested and making him look more culpable. Although it is true that police reports were lodged against him, the police decided to issue a stern warning to Patnaik, in consultation with the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
Patnaik said that he thought the issue would blow over, but he has not been able to find a job five months after the incident:
“I thought there is light, there is clearly light, but the fact is that over the next three or four months I realised that the decision (to be given a warning) doesn’t mean anything for me on the job front. Every discussion ends the moment they ask ‘What is your reason for separating from your last job?’.”
Calling an expat’s job his “lifeline,” Patnaik lamented that an international job search also proved fruitless since the news of his post has reached “as far as South Africa, the United States and Dubai” thanks to the power of the internet.
He adds that he is not looking for a job that would cause his family to live “hand-to-mouth” and that he is looking for a role that suits his experience. His wife cannot work to support the family since she does not have the required qualifications to land a teaching job here.
The family is now deciding on their next move and are considering moving back to Mumbai. Although he feels that their “lives have completely fallen apart,” Patnaik expressed his love for Singapore even after all that’s happened:
“Why would I adopt a son here? Why would I not have a home or retirement funds anywhere else in the world? Why would I try to give back by teaching financial literacy in schools and helping construction workers to write letters?
“We so deeply love the country. We always wanted to be here. We never intended anything like that…I still feel this is the best country in the world.”
Read the full CNA interview here.