Tamil community



The Tamils make up the largest segment of the South Indian community in Singapore.1 Originating from the present-day state of Tamil Nadu in South India as well as northern Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), many Tamils came to Singapore during the 19th century as labourers and traders. Today, the Tamils make up about five percent of Singapore’s population.2 The majority of Tamils are Hindus, although there are also Christian and Muslim Tamils.

Historical background
In the early colonial period, the Tamils were sometimes referred to as Klings (or Keling) in reference to Kalinga, an ancient kingdom in South India where most of the Tamils originated from. Many Tamils consider this term as derogatory or racist in connotation. Some Tamils were also known as Chulias (also spelt Chuliah).3 More specifically, Chulias referred to the Tamil Muslims from South India.4


The first Tamil on record to have arrived in Singapore was Naraina Pillai (also known as Narayana Pillay), a government clerk from Penang. Pillai came to Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles during the latter’s second visit to the island in May 1819. An entrepreneur at heart, Pillai decided to settle in Singapore and started several businesses, including the island’s first brick kiln. He also established Singapore’s first Hindu temple, which is now known as the Sri Mariamman Temple.5

The Tamil community in Singapore grew steadily. By 1860, there were about 13,000 Indians on the island, most of whom were South Indians. The Indian community was then Singapore’s second largest community after the Chinese.6


At the time, members of the Tamil community lived close to their respective places of work. The Tamil Chettiars (money changers), shopkeepers and boatmen congregated in the area around Chulia Street and Market Street (what is today Raffles Place) while the labourers tended to live near the docks and railways where they worked. A group of Tamil shopkeepers established their businesses in an area around Serangoon Road that later became known as Little India.7

Tamil language education was provided in Singapore from as early as 1834. The Singapore Free School opened a Tamil class, but it was discontinued a year later due to a lack of suitable textbooks. Other attempts to start Tamil classes largely failed, either due to a lack of suitable teachers or interest from the Tamil community.8


Two Anglo-Tamil schools were established in 1873 and 1876 respectively to teach English through the use of Tamil. However, the schools gradually switched to English as their medium of instruction.9 Although Tamil-medium schools were introduced again in the 20th century, they eventually closed as parents chose to place their children in English-medium schools instead. The last Tamil-medium school, Umar Pulavar Tamil School, closed in 1983.10

Occupations and trades
Most Tamils who came to Singapore in the 19th century were labourers. They came either by way of the kangani system, in which an employer paid his Tamil foreman to recruit labourers from his home district, or by the illegal coolie trade.11 The colonial government preferred labourers from the Adi Dravida (untouchable) caste as they were relatively cheap to hire and considered easier to manage than Chinese labourers.12 The Tamil coolies generally worked at the docks and railway stations.13

Small groups of Tamils came to dominate certain trades. The Tamil Chettiars (also spelled Chettiyars) made a living as financiers, moneylenders and commodity traders.14 On the other hand, the Tamil Muslims worked mostly as shopkeepers, retailers and office peons.15 A group of Tamils from Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) served mainly in the colonial civil service in positions such as teachers, doctors and administrators. They were able to find employment in such positions because of their ability to speak both English and Tamil.16


Religious and cultural associations
One of the earliest Tamil associations was the Tamils Reform Association (TRA), which was set up in June 1932 by a group of reform-minded Tamils who wanted to raise the socio-economic status of their community.17 The TRA played a key role in educating the Tamil community. The association’s weekly bulletin eventually evolved into the Tamil Murasu, the first Tamil daily newspaper in Singapore. The paper was taken over by the Singapore Press Holdings in 1995.18 The TRA was renamed in 2001 and is now known as Singai Tamil Sangam.19


Various voluntary organisations have been established over the years to look after the Tamil community’s social, economic and educational welfare. Many of these organisations have become affiliates of the Tamils Representative Council (TRC).20 The TRC was founded in 1951 by local Tamil leader Govindasamy Sarangapany with the aim of uniting all Tamils and Tamil organisations regardless of their religious affiliations.21

There are also several government-sponsored organisations that oversee the welfare needs of the Tamils and the Indian community at large. These include the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), the Hindu Advisory Board (HAB) and the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB).22

Cultural practices

As the Tamils are of different castes and have different religious beliefs, one of the unifying elements of Tamil identity is the language. During the 1950s, there was a flowering of Tamil language and literature with a proliferation of social organisations that promoted Tamil language and culture. The Tamil vernacular press was also influential in establishing the Tamil language as a key aspect of Tamil identity.23

The Tamil language is taught in government schools as one of the recognised mother tongues of the Indian community. It is also one of the four official languages in Singapore.24

As the majority of Tamils are Hindu, they celebrate many of the significant Hindu festivals such as Thaipusam and Theemithi. During Thaipusam, devotees carry pots of milk or the kavadi, which is a semi-circular structure made of wood or steel that is decorated with flowers and peacock feathers and carried by devotees on their shoulders. These acts are done to seek blessings from the Hindu deity Lord Subramaniam (also known as Lord Murugan). Theemithi, which means fire-walking, is a ritual in which devotees walk over coals of fire to get blessings from the Goddess Draupadi.

The Tamils also celebrate a four-day rice harvest festival known as Ponggal (or Ponggal) that usually takes place in January. During the celebrations, Tamils make pongal, a rice dish, by mixing rice, milk and jaggery (a type of brown sugar) in a new pot until it boils over as this is believed to signify prosperity.25


Another Tamil festival is Puthandu, which celebrates the Tamil New Year. This festival usually takes place in mid-April. An arrangement comprising of a mirror, fruits, a bronze vessel and lighted lamps is usually set up the night before the festival as devotees consider it a good sign to see these objects when they wake up at the dawn of the new year.26

Personalities

S. Shan Ratnam (b. 4 July 1928, Ceylon–d. 6 August 2001, Singapore): Prominent doctor in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology. He performed Asia’s first sex-change operation in 1971.27

S. Rajaratnam (b. 25 February 1915, Jaffna, Ceylond. 22 February 2006, Singapore): Journalist turned politician, founding member of the People’s Action Party and independent Singapore’s first foreign minister.28

S. Jayakumar (b. 12 August 1939–): Lawyer, academic, former politician and diplomat.29

S. R. Nathan (b. 3 July 1924, Singapore–d. 22 August 2016): Sixth president of Singapore (1 September 1999–1 September 2011).30

Places
Jamae Mosque: This mosque on South Bridge Road was established in 1826 by a group of Tamil Muslim businessmen and merchants. It stands next to the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, the Sri Mariamman Temple.31

Nagore Durgha Shrine: This shrine was built between 1828 and 1830 in dedication to a South Indian holy man, Shahul Hamid of Nagore. In the early days, the shrine served as a meeting place for the Tamil Muslim community.32

Kadayanallur (or Kadayanullar) Street: This street in the Tanjong Pagar district is named after the South Indian town of Kadayanallur where many of the Tamil Muslims in Singapore originally came from.33

Sri Mariamman Temple: This temple at South Bridge Road is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and was established in 1827 by Naraina Pillai, an early Tamil pioneer. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1973.34

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (also known as Chettiars’ Temple) and Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple: These two temples, at Tank Road and Keong Saik Road respectively, were established by the Chettiars. Both temples are currently administered by the Chettiars’ Temple Society.35



Author

Jaime Koh



References
1. Sandhu, K. S. (1993). Indian immigration and settlement in Singapore. In K. S. Sandhu, & A. Mani (Eds.), Indian communities in Southeast Asia (pp. 777–787). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 777. (Call no.: RSING 305.891411059 IND)
2. Department of Statistics. (2010). Census of population 2010 statistical release: Demographic characteristics, education, language and religion. Singapore: Singapore Department of Statistics, “Table 6”. (Call no.: RSING 304.6021095957 CEN)
3. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 73. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
4. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 124. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
5. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
6. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
7. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 96. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
8. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, pp. 532–533. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
9. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 533. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
10. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 533. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
11. Lal, B. V., et al. (Eds.). (2006). The encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 178. (Call no.: RSING 909.0491411003 ENC)
12. Lal, B. V., et al. (Eds.). (2006). The encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 178. (Call no.: RSING 909.0491411003 ENC)
13. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 96–97. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
14. Clothey, F. W. (2006). Ritualizing on the boundaries: Continuity and innovation in the Tamil Diaspora. Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 305.894811 CLO)
15. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 182. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
16. Lal, B. V., et al. (Eds.). (2006). The encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 178. (Call no.: RSING 909.0491411003 ENC)
17. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 535. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
18. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 533. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
19. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 535. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS]); Tamils Representative Council. (2008). Our Affiliates. Retrieved from Tamils Representative Council website: http://www.trc.org.sg/affiliates/affiliates.htm
20. Tamils Representative Council. (2008). Our Affiliates. Retrieved from Tamils Representative Council website: http://www.trc.org.sg/affiliates/affiliates.htm
21. Tamils Representative Council. (2008). Our History. Retrieved from Tamils Representative Council website: http://www.trc.org.sg/affiliates/affiliates.htm
22. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 535. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
23. Lal, B. V., et al. (Eds.). (2006). The encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 183. (Call no.: RSING 909.0491411003 ENC); Mani, A. (1993). Indians in Singapore society. In K. S. Sandhu, & A. Mani (Eds.), Indian communities in Southeast Asia (pp. 788–809). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 796. (Call no.: RSING 305.891411059 IND)
24. Koh, J., & Ho, S. (2009). Culture and customs of Singapore and Malaysia. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, p. 4. (Call no.: YRSING 305.80095957 KOH)
25. Indians in Singapore: A picture story: 9 June–27 July 2008 (2008). Singapore: National Museum of Singapore, p. 24. (Not available in NLB holdings)
26. Indians in Singapore: A picture story: 9 June–27 July 2008 (2008). Singapore: National Museum of Singapore, p. 24. (Not available in NLB holdings)
27. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 445. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
28. Lal, B. V., et al. (Eds.). (2006). The encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 184. (Call no.: RSING 909.0491411003 ENC); Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, pp. 443–444. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
29. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 264. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS])
30. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The Encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, pp.367–368. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS]); President’s Office. (2013). Former Presidents: Mr S R Nathan. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/mr-s-r-nathan
31. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 39. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
32. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 29. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
33. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, p. 182. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
34. Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore’s heritage through places of historical interest. Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, pp. 32, 34. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM -[HIS])
35. Chettiars’ Temple Society, Singapore. (2013). Home. Retrieved from Chettiars’ Temple Society website: http://www.sttemple.com/index.asp#



Further resources
Netto, L. (2003). Passage of Indians, 1923–2003. Singapore: Singapore Indian Association.
(Call no.: RSING q369.25957 NET)

Walker, A. R. (Ed.). (1994). New place, old ways: Essays on Indian society and culture in modern Singapore. Delhi: Hindustan Pub. Corp.
(Call no.: RSING 305.894805957 NEW)



The information in this article is valid as at 12 August 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Clans--Singapore
Ethnic groups
Social groups
Tamils

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