Indians in Malaysia

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Aradhana Takhtani, July 7, 2023: The Times of India

A vessel carried by early Tamil settlers to Malaysia
From: Aradhana Takhtani, July 7, 2023: The Times of India

The memory is lodged in Rajo Kuppan’s mind and is perhaps the starkest. On Tamils’ migration to Malaya during the British rule, the 69-year-old remembers vividly his paternal grandmother’s stoic face and matter-of-fact retort as to why they left the shores of India to settle in an isolated rubber estate in Teluk Intan, South Perak, in an unknown foreign land. 

“Grandmother told me a life that holds a promise, however bleak and afar, is more sensible and worth risking than perishing in one’s motherland,” says Rajo, a practicing advocate in the bustling megapolis of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In Rameswaram where his grandparents lived, poverty had struck hard. By the 1920s, the British had depleted the treasury of the Madras Presidency and peasants, workers and artisans who were paid by the Presidency lost all means of livelihood. 
Leaving behind the death and obscurity staring at them, thousands of Tamils, including Rajo’s grandparents, made journeys to the northern part of Peninsular Malaya. “They, however, did not leave two things — their doggedness to survive and their Tamil roots,” says Rajo.

A little over a century earlier, in 1786, when Francis Light established a trading post in Penang, he brought in labourers from China and India to clear the jungle terrain, as the indigenous population was averse to doing arduous tasks. The arrival of Tamil workers during that period was spontaneous with no planning, unlike in the latter part of the 19th century. 
The Chinese, who until then had formed the backbone of British existence in Malaya, were fast emerging as a predicament. They strong-armed the British for higher wages and also displayed worker solidarity. It was then that Sir Frederick Weld, governor of Straits Settlements, suggested bringing workers from India as they were “an easily governed race”.

In his book, The Malaysian Indian Dilemma , Janakey Raman Manickam writes that “the arrival of the Indian labour force into Malaya was to meet the political and economic aspirations of the British” and that the migration was a well-orchestrated plan by the British.

At the beginning of the 20th century, with the British replacing sugarcane and coffee plantations with rubber, the demand for migrant workers saw a boom. In 1907, the colonial government of Malaya set up the Tamil Immigration Fund and became involved in recruitment.

The Tamils worked in the plantations and built bridges, roads, railways and government buildings and most important, built and sustained their Tamil identity in this new country. At the Persons of Indian Origin International Festival in Malaysia in June, an exhibition depicting the history of early migrants showed that first Thaipusam celebration was held in 1800 in Penang and in 1827 the Tamils built the Singapore Mariamman Temple.

Francis Light brought in labourers from China and India to clear the jungle terrain, as the indigenous population was averse to doing arduous tasks

Sashidharan Santhesegaran, secretary general of Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin, Malaysia and the organising secretary of the festival says, “When migrants first came to the estates, they expressed to their European masters that they could not function without their temples. Soon almost every estate would have a space earmarked for a temple. ”

The temples played a more significant role than as just a place of worship. “The practice of worshipping Muniandy, the protector god in the estate, gave the labourers an abiding faith in staying a close-knit community, whatever the circumstances. Around this rose a specific pattern of society, which worked on three levels, namely, helping each other in all matters; following one’s religion; and maintaining family unity and ties,” says Rajo.

“This culture, along with the rules and administration of the estate led to the formation of a controlled community,” he says. Any dispute between workers was resolved through the 3pm rule wherein the people involved had to appear before the supervisor at that time.

“The Tamils carried their values and cultures from their villages to this new country but had to fight hard to preserve them,” says NS Rajendran, adjunct professor of education, University of Cyberjaya, who served as the first director general of the unit for the socio-economic development of the Indian community in the prime minister’s office, Malaysia. “In the late 19th century when the Tamils landed here, they sought temples to be built and Tamil education," he says.

In the 1850s, the Tamil workers voluntarily set up Tamil schools in the estates for their children but the standard of education imparted was not on par with other schools. Some teachers were brought from Madras while some educated senior managers at the estate also served as teachers. 

At the beginning of the 20th century with the increase in influx of migrants there came a demand for Tamil schools. The British then made an enactment stating it was not the responsibility of the government to provide basic education to the children of plantation workers.

“There are narratives, though not in records, that the labourers continued to give a hard time to the estate owners to get them to set up schools for their children. They believed that the Tamil schools would be the best safeguard of their cultural identity,” says Rajendran.

Finally, in 1920, for the first time, an ordinance was passed that the estate owners had to provide a primary Tamil school in the estates if there were a minimum of 10 students between seven and 12 years. The momentum did not stop there. In 1939, the Tamils came out on the streets demanding more schools and better higher education for the Tamil people. 
By 1957, Malaysia had more than 800 Tamil schools, which in the past few years has witnessed a decline with lack of funds and an overarching political theme interfering with education, not being the least of them.

Malaysia’s newly elected prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who enjoys widespread support amongst the Tamils, has been talking of a “realistic strategy” in repairing and expanding Tamil schools, with the argument being that those with fewer than 15 students must be discontinued.

This would lead to closure of more Tamil schools, fear the community leaders, and indirectly impacting Tamil language and culture. However, the “reformist” PM, continues to be seen as a ray of hope by Tamils in multi-ethnic Malaysia witnessing a sharper political discourse post national elections. Though Tamil, their Malaysian identity is unshakable.

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