SINGAPORE: “I feel like I have committed the greatest crime of the century.”
Avijit Das Patnaik looks baffled as he utters these words, as if he is still trying to make sense of what has happened in the five months since making headlines for sharing an image - created by someone else - on social media of a Singapore flag being ripped to reveal an Indian flag.
“If you Google my name, there are more hits and searches against my name than against leading terrorists and scamsters,” the 45-year-old tells Channel NewsAsia.
The consequences of sharing the image on a Facebook post in August last year have been devastating for the Singapore Permanent Resident, who is originally from India: He’s now jobless and he, along with his wife and two young children, will now likely have to leave the country that's been their home for the last ten years.
Their HDB flat is now on the market, and all that is left is for it to be sold.
Any potential buyer will be greeted first by Chinese New Year decorations hanging on the door, which the family liked enough to keep from last year’s festivities.
Inside, more such decorations are in the living room, along with Christmas posters on the wall that nobody has got round to taking down quite yet. A home-made sign of his and his wife's name is displayed proudly above the dining table.
LOVING EVERY NATIONALITY, RACE AND RELIGION
The former vice-president at DBS has now been branded a “troublemaker" by some, he points out, but his fervent desire is clearly to explain how he is sensitive to being a foreigner living in a country he says he loves.
“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,” he says.
His words spill over one another as he tries to explain his affection for Singapore and its cultures.
His wife, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Patnaik, chimes in to support that sentiment.
“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,” she says.
HIS BODY IS “SINGAPOREAN”
So what did he want to convey with that now notorious Facebook post, which so many people found insulting and offensive?
“On the day that I posted, I was sort of declaring that my body is Singaporean, only my heart remains Indian,” Mr Patnaik says. Over the years, he says, his friends from India have felt that he has completely changed and "become loyal to Singapore".
“That’s the interpretation that my friends have, and that day, I was actually saying yes, my body is now Singaporean,” he adds. He thought it was “socially acceptable”.
Still, that was not how many people interpreted it, and over the slightly more than one-hour interview, as he describes in detail life after the incident, his mood changes. At first, he seems hopeful that his family's life in Singapore can be rescued. Then he becomes deflated as the reality sinks in that his situation may not change. Finally, resignation seems to set in.
THE CLICK THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE
It all started on Aug 15, when the former DBS employee posted on Singapore Indians & Expats, a Facebook group with 12,000 members, the image that was already circulating elsewhere on social media.
Netizens seemed to rise in near unison to decry the image as disrespectful. He was shocked by the uproar, but was then faced with an even bigger problem than the online criticism. He was suddenly jobless.
While Mr Patnaik does not go into detail on the circumstances of what happened, DBS said at the time he had been counselled and that he was “no longer” with the bank. It said it “strongly disapproves of such actions by our employees”.
He regrets upsetting so many people, but he maintains that the image was a piece of art that was open to interpretation. There is a website that makes such images and sells them and all he did was share it, he points out.
“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,” he says.
But maybe misinterpretation was not the issue, he says. Sitting on the yellow sofa that fills the living room of his executive flat in Sengkang, Mr Patnaik leans forward as he starts on an issue which he believes is the real problem.
“It was only when certain ‘junk sites’ came out, and gave a very different twist to it (that the problem started). They said this guy has been arrested, and he has created this pic. From there, the problem started, and it was based on false reports.”
Such reports stoked the emotions of an already angry online crowd as an arrest would have made the whole issue more serious and made him look more culpable, he explains.
In fact, he was investigated by the police and given a stern warning.
THE HUNT FOR A JOB
“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,” he says.
He remains jobless despite seeking employment relentlessly. He estimates that his curriculum vitae would have reached about 2,500 potential employers.
“Every discussion ends the moment they ask ‘What is your reason for separating from your last job?’.”
Even looking for a job overseas has been difficult, with news of what happened reaching as far as South Africa, the United States and Dubai. The moment a potential employer looks him up, there are only negative things that turn up, which makes it harder to get a job in another country, he says.
“For an expat, his job is everything, his job is his lifeline."
He has been looking for a position for someone of his experience, and said he would not opt for a job that would leave his family living a “hand-to-mouth” existence. When asked if his wife could work and support the family here instead, he says she had previously tried applying for jobs as a teacher but was unsuccessful as she does not have the required qualifications.
CONSIDERING SUICIDE AT HIS LOWEST
Things have not been easy for the children as well, with their photos being circulated online and their friends approaching them to ask if their father has been arrested.
It was with all this in mind that, at his lowest point, Mr Patnaik considered committing suicide so his wife and children could get insurance payouts and continue living in Singapore.
“Our lives have completely fallen apart,” he says. He adds that he wakes up sometimes not knowing what to do the entire day.
To get himself out of a rut, he has taken to writing and has produced two books on Amazon on football and budget travel.
WHY WOULD I ADOPT A SON HERE?
Even as he struggles to deal with his unemployment and judgement by friends, family and strangers, he frequently questions others’ logic that he was being disrespectful as he was aware that this could jeopardise his life in Singapore.
His rattles off a series of rhetorical questions to try to highlight his commitment to Singapore.
“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?”
Such questions are borne out of exasperation, that his actions and words before the incident are unknown to his critics, and would probably make no difference in their eyes.
He and his wife openly marvel at how safe the city is for women, including for his 12-year-old daughter, who travels alone by train.
"We so deeply love the country. We always wanted to be here. We never intended anything like that," he says.
Their nine-year-old son, who they adopted in 2012 after his previous adoptive family was forced to give him up after just a month, wants to join the army when he grows up.
Mr Patnaik says that the siblings have friends from the neighbourhood they meet and play with on a daily basis. This is home to them, but that may have to change in the near future.
They have not decided on their next move, but returning to Mumbai, where they are from, is an option. It is a difficult choice for him, as they had wanted to live in Singapore “forever”.
However, he takes heart in having friends and family who have stood by him and who believe that his intentions were not malicious. His remaining time here may not be long, but he is unwavering in how he sees Singapore.
“I still feel this is the best country in the world,” he says.