Constance Singam: The Tamil Story

by Constance Singam
The current status of the migrant workers, many from Tamil Nadu, is a retelling of the experience of the 25,000 convict labour that Raffles brought to Singapore and the Straits Settlements.
The conditions of living and working as slave labour building the colony’s infrastructure in the early years of British colonisation and the current generation of workers living in our modern, wealthy nation tells us than we are as ruthless in our exploitation of labour as the British colonisers were.
We call them migrant labour and we classify them as work-permit holders all the easier to exploit, disempower and victimize them.
It is heartbreaking to read about the conditions of living of migrant workers and how these conditions have affected, so tragically, their lives during this time of the pandemic.
Non-government organisations (NGOs) such as TWC2 and HOME had, for more than decade, lobbied the government to ensure better living and working conditions for migrant workers. Theirs were lone voices. Their voices were often silenced and attacked.
Where were the other voices, of community leaders and intellectuals and the wealthy? Where were they?
Our silence has come back to bite us during this health crisis.
It is worth remembering Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

I had promised in my blog “We were here too” (March 18th 2020) that I would write more about the Tamil presence in Singapore. There are other stories about the Tamils in Singapore.
Singapore’s connection to India and especially to Tamil Nadu and their influence on Singapore go much further back. Historians have noted that the Chola rulers were proactive, aggressively so, in extending their influence into South East Asian ports, including Singapore. The Chola dynasty was a Tamil dynasty of southern India, one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world’s history.
Rajendra Chola I, ruler of the southern Indian Chola kingdom, attacked the island in 1025, and there was another Chola raid in 1068 when the Island served as an outpost for the Sumatran empire of Srīvijaya.. All these historical references give us an indication of the significance of Singapore to the empire builders of the time.
At the end of the 14th century, Temasek fell into decay and was supplanted by the Malaccan sultanante.
There are references to Tamil (Tamil Hindu and Tamil Muslim) presence in the Sejarah Melayu (English Malay Annals), in the 14th Century.
In fact some of the early rulers of the Melaka Sultanate were of mixed race with Tamil mothers. At this period Malaya was Hindu. The early history of the Malacca Sultanate was marked by the struggle for power between the Tamil Hindus and Tamil Muslims. The Muslim faction won that struggle and led to the whole of Malaya becoming Muslim.
By the time of the Malaccan Sultanate multicultural life was part of their social world. By the 10th and through the 11th centuries Tamil Merchant guilds had established their presence in Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and Java. Chitty traders from Tamil Nadu had already settled in Malacca, married local women.
Chettis were among the better-known merchants and middle-men who operated all over south India since the prime of the Chola Empire. A new hybrid culture of the Chitty Melaka community was the result of these connections. Theirs is still a living culture.
Tamils form the majority of the Indian population in Singapore. The Tamil language is the oldest language in the world. Their culture lies at the heart of the Indian culture. I am often reminded by my Tamil friends that the name Singapura is Tamil.
This ancient historical connection has continued to draw Tamil workers to Singapore.
Our attitude towards our workers is as backward as it was 200 years ago.

Constance Singam is an author and civil society activist holding a Master’s degree in Literature, the former president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE Singapore) and has also co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in several national publications, and contributed to and co-edited several books.
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