Chettiars



The Chettiars are a subgroup of the Tamil community originating from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India.1 Historically, the Chettiars are most commonly associated with the moneylending profession.2 There is still a small Chettiar community in Singapore today. Most of its members are professionals with only a handful still involved in the moneylending business.3

Historical background
The Chettiars originated from an area known as Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state.4 Although popularly known as Chettys or Chettiars, this group is more formally referred to as the Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarathars.5 Nattukottai means “people with palatial houses in the countryside” while Nagarathars refer to “city dwellers, traders and temple-based people” in Tamil.6


The early origins of the Chettiars are shrouded in mystery given the scarce historical records. The Chettiars claim to have originated from the ancient kingdom of Chola the existed between the 10th to 12th centuries.7

Present-day Chettiars can trace their roots to the 96 villages that originally made up Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. These villages were organised under nine main temples. These temples served as the clan centres, which were the main social and cultural spaces in the lives of the Chettiars.8 Each of these nine temples may have overseen a number of smaller temples established in the Chettiar villages.9

The term “chettiar” is a caste label.10 Historically, the Chettiars were marked by their distinctive clothes, jewellery as well as their profession.11 The Chettiars were traditionally merchants and traders in precious stones12 but later became involved in banking and moneylending activities.13 Their role in finance expanded with the growth of British colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Many Chettiars emigrated from India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma (now Myanmar) and Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) as the British expanded their presence in the region.14

Chettiars in Singapore
The first wave of Chettiar immigrants are believed to have arrived in Singapore in the 1820s.15 They established their businesses in the Singapore River area (notably along Chulia Street and Market Street)16 in close proximity to the trading houses and government offices. Their clients included small businesses, labourers, hawkers and plantation owners.17


Borrowers who loaned small amounts from the Chettiars had to sign a promissory note. Those who took loans for larger amounts had to provide some form of collateral, such as jewellery or a title deed. Interest was charged on the amount borrowed and the rate of interest was listed in the promissory note.18

The Chettiars generally conducted their businesses in kittangis (which means “warehouse” in Tamil), which were usually shophouses. The Chettiars would set up their offices on the ground floor of a kittangi. As Chettiars usually operated individually, each had his own safe and wooden cupboards for conducting business. A Chettiar moneylender usually sat on the floor and worked from a small wooden desk. There were also no partitions to separate the various Chettiar moneylenders as they had their own designated spots for doing business.19

While some of the Chettiars ran their own moneylending businesses, others were agents who worked as employees for the owners of moneylending firms.20 They were paid a salary and bonuses, depending on the profits made by the business. Each agent represented his employer and was only contracted for a specific period of time. Before an agent’s contract was up, the employer would send a newly appointed agent to understudy him. Once his contract had ended, an agent would seek employment with other firms.21

A Chettiar’s financial training would usually start in his childhood, where he would learn the theory of banking and accounting from family members.22 Boys as young as nine years old were rigorously trained in mental arithmetic and even taught to do mental calculations in fractions. They would go on to serve their apprenticeship at various Chettiar firms once they reached their teens.23

Social life
The Chettiars worked and lived in the kittangi. While the ground floor of the kittangi served as their offices, the upper floors were used as residences.24 A caretaker took care of the kittangi while cooks provided the meals.25


Most of the Chettiars who came to Singapore did not bring their whole family with them. While some came alone, others brought their sons along with them. The boys were to become apprentices of the business.26 It was only in the 1950s that Chettiar women began arriving in Singapore in large numbers.27

The Chettiars are a religious people. They are devout Hindus and would typically visit the temples almost daily to offer their prayers. They would also volunteer their services to the temples during Hindu festivals such as Thaipusam.28

The Chettiar community in Singapore established the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (also known as Chettiars’ Temple) at Tank Road in 1859 to provide a place of worship for the Hindu deity, Lord Muruga. The temple has undergone various redevelopment works over the years and is managed by the Chettiars’ Temple Society, which is headed by a trustee who is assisted by representatives from the various kittangis.29

Decline of the moneylending business
The Chettiar moneylenders were considered a major player in the banking and finance sectors of early Singapore. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were more Chettiar moneylending firms than there were banks.30


The moneylending business started to decline in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression, stricter legislative control over moneylending activities and the participation of other groups, such as the Sikhs, in moneylending.31 The Japanese Occupation (1942–1945) also brought about a steep fall in Chettiar moneylending activities due to the instability of the Japanese currency and rampant inflation.32

After the war, the decline of the Chettiar moneylending business continued. This was due to a combination of various factors, including stricter government policies concerning moneylending, immigration and employment practices. The growth of the industrial and banking sectors also contributed to the decline of moneylending.33 In particular, stricter policies in post-war Singapore towards moneylending activities were believed to have dealt a severe blow to the industry. In the 1950s, for instance, a new ordinance was enacted that required every moneylender to be registered and licensed. They were also to be subjected to official supervision.34 Revisions to the Moneylenders’ Act in the 1970s enforced more stringent rules on the moneylending business.35 These regulations probably forced many Chettiar moneylending firms out of business.36

By 1981, there were only seven registered Chettiar moneylending firms still operating in Singapore.37 Many of the surviving Chettiar moneylenders conducted their business activities at 238, Serangoon Road or near the Chettiars’ Temple at Tank Road.38

Contributions
The Chettiars have been credited with aiding the expansion of economic development in Singapore, Malaya and parts of Southeast Asia during the colonial period.39 In particular, Chettiar financing enabled the growth of the agricultural, tin mining and shipping industries as well as the general small trades.40


Notable personalities41
K. Shanmugam: Lawyer turned politician, member of the People’s Action Party. Political appointments held include that of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law.42

V. R. Alagappan: Owner of the Taste of India restaurant chain.



Author

Jaime Koh



References
1. Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. vii. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE)
2. 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)
3.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 377. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. vii. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE)
5.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. vi. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE); Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 5. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
6. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 377. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
7.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, pp. vii–viii. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE); Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
8.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. viii. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE); Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
9.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI); Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. viii. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE)
10.
Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 197. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
11.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, pp. 264–271. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE);
Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 197. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
12.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, pp. 229, 264. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE)
13.
Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 197. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
14.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, pp. viii, 264. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE); Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 197. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
15.
Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
16.
Vasoo, S. (1997, August 9). Moneymen of Market Street. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, pp. 19–21. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
18.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 23. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
19.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, pp. 19–20. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
20.
Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 203. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
21.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
22. Evers, H-D. (2000). Chettiar Moneylenders in Southeast Asia. In D. Lombard, D. & J. Aubin (Eds.). Asian Merchants and businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 204. (Call no.: RSING 382.095 ASI)
23.
Muthiah, S., et al. (2000). The Chettiar heritage. Chennai: The Chettiar Heritage, p. 54. (Call no.: R 954.089 CHE)
24.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 29. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
25.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
26.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
27.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
28.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
29.
Chettiars’ Temple Society. (2013). History of Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Retrieved from http://www.sttemple.com/sri-thendayuthapani-temple/history-of-st-temple.html
30.
Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
31.
Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK); Brown, R. A. (1994). Capital and entrepreneurship in South-east Asia. New York: St Martin’s Press, pp. 177–178. (Call no.: RSING 338.040959 BRO)
32.
Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, pp. 6, 23. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
33. Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
34.
Money lenders still hold off. (1959, September 17). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35.
Moneylenders must now keep daily cash book. (1972, December 4). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36.
Thinnappan, S. P., & Vairavan, S. N. (2010). Nagarathars in Singapore. Singapore: Navaso Pte Ltd, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 THI)
37. Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, p. 7. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK)
38.
Ng, G. (2005, June 12). Need $10,000 in a hurry? Check out these options. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39.
Brown, R. A. (1994). Capital and entrepreneurship in South-east Asia. New York: St Martin’s Press, p. 173. (Call no.: RSING 338.040959 BRO)
40.
Evers, H-D., & Pavadarayan, J. (1987). Asceticism and ecstasy: The Chettiars of Singapore. Bielefeld: Forschungsschwerpunkt Entwicklungssoziologie, Fakultät für Soziologie, Universität Bielefeld, pp. 5–6. (Call no.: RSING 305.89141105957 EVE STK); Brown, R. A. (1994). Capital and entrepreneurship in South-east Asia. New York: St Martin’s Press, p. 180. (Call no.: RSING 338.040959 BRO)
41.
Ng, M. (2010, December 21). Book on origins of money-lenders. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42.
Government of Singapore. (2013). Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law Mr K Shanmugam. Retrieved from http://www.cabinet.gov.sg/content/cabinet/appointments/mr_k_shanmugam.html




The information in this article is valid as at 10 December 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
Trade and industry
Commerce and Industry
Economy