Indian Heritage and the History of Singapore (Part 1 of 2)


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Indian Heritage and the History of Singapore

Like other forms of heritage in multicultural Singapore, the Indian heritage has been an integral part of the cultural landscape here. With the opening of the new Indian Heritage Centre in Little India alongside the SG50 celebrations, it is an opportune time for all Singaporeans to learn more about the Indian cultural heritage, as tied to the history of the Indian community here.

Museums are not merely collections of artefacts with precious historical or artistic values. They also provide spaces for contemplation, where we get to imagine the past lives of people from all ranks of society, from traders and guards to rubber plantation workers. By studying attires, tools and documents that bear witness to the lives they once lived, one learns to appreciate their contributions to the prosperity of Singapore.

The Indian Heritage Centre not only features all this, but also highlights important figures in the history of Singapore and the Indian diaspora, among them G. Saranapany, the founder of Tamil Murasu, and Rabindranath Tagore, the poet laureate.

The long road of how Singapore developed as a migrant society may incidentally be gleaned just from the history of its newspapers. The first Tamil newspaper known in Singapore was Tangai Snahen in the 1870s, published by the same company for Jawi Peranakan, an early local Malay newspaper. It reflected the emergence of a Tamil-Malay community. In 1920s, with a new trend of migration from India, the Tamil Nesan was founded, reflecting a support for the Indian National Congress along with emphasis on a Tamil Hindu identity. Tamil Murasu, founded in the 1930s, was linked to the Tamils Reform Association initiated by Sarangapany and others, under influence of E.V. Ramasamy’s Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu. Singapore also once had a Malayalam newspaper, Kerala Bandhu. from the 1930s to 60s.

In comparison with their Chinese counterparts, Indian associations in Singapore have tended to be smaller due to distinctions of caste and faith, according to the historian Sunil Amrith. But it is also due to the migrant labour system and close watch of colonial authorities that the Indian community did not seem as well organised. As he argues in a recent publication, Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities (2015), Indian labourers were sent on British ships to work on European-owned plantations in Malaya, whereas most Chinese migrant workers enjoyed relative freedom working for enterprises owned by Chinese elite businessmen, giving them more possibilities of going from rags to riches.

Migration patterns of workers from India are also reflected in the cultural manifestations of Indian temples here, which have become part of the diverse heritage in Singapore. – Wong Chee Meng

(to be continued)


Sunil Amrith (2011) Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunil Amrith (2015) ‘Connecting Diaspora Histories: Indians and Chinese in Colonial Malaya’, in Jayati Battacharya and Coonoor Kripalani eds, Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities: Comparative Perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; New York: Anthem Press, 13-23.

John Solomon (2012) ‘The Decline of Pan-Indian Identity and the Development of Tamil Cultural Separatism in Singapore, 1856-1965’, in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:2, 257-281.

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