Indians in Singapore


Dr Rajesh Rai’s welcome new study weaves together a host of fascinating stories of the Indian diaspora in a colonial port. Rai traces the histories of Indian migrants lured across oceans and seas by the forces of exploitation, adventure, poverty and greed. His protagonists are indentured labourers, diviners of Indian nationalism breaking free from British rule, Parsi opium traders, sepoys and lascars far from their former homes, Tamil Muslims who establish Singapore’s first vernacular press, Indian and Chinese secret societies living separate yet parallel lives, often collaborating with each other when their interests coincide, and many more. Colonial Singapore was a microcosm of India’s diverse cultural background and landscape.

One fascinating story that Rai brings to the fore is the experience of Indian convict labour in Singapore’s economic development process. Singapore was chosen as the site of a penal settlement from 1824 till 1860 when the transportation of convicts to Singapore ceased. From the earliest years of the colony, the British colonial administration relied heavily on Indian indentured or convict labour to build the infrastructure so essential to a port city serving a vast hinterland. Even after administration of the Straits Settlement was transferred in 1867 to the Colonial Office, Indian workers recruited mainly from the Madras Presidency remained instrumental in developing essential public works island-wide. These experiences reveal continuities between the present and the past.

Rai also touches on the long-standing and diverse Indian commercial presence in Singapore, not surprising given its status as a global trading hub. Before the advent of European banks later in the nineteenth century, Indian merchants and money-lenders were the main sources of credit and banking. Rai presents arresting, if brief, vignettes of several colourful Indian merchant communities in Singapore, including the South Indian Chettiars, a money-lending-cum-trading caste, and the Parsis, a small but powerful business community.

Given the prominence of Indian merchant communities in Singapore from the earliest years of the colony, I had hoped to learn more about the richness and heterogeneity of their commercial activities and networks and how they adapted and responded to momentous economic, social and political events over time. It is particularly apt to recall the professional and commercial durability and versatility of Indian merchants at a time when indigenous Indian business groups, after many years of hibernation, have initiated the process of reclaiming their place on the global stage.

Indians in Singapore and the Malay States were drawn into the orbit of the Indian independence movement. When Indian independence leader Pandit Nehru visited Singapore in May 1937 he reminded Indians in Singapore that their future was “intimately and irrevocably bound up with the future of India”. As Rai makes clear, the story of Indians in Singapore was shaped by political developments at home. Indeed, his study departs from earlier accounts by enmeshing the story of Indian political activity in Singapore, particularly during the Japanese Occupation, with the general history of Indians in Singapore, subjects that are often treated separately.

The position of Indians in Singapore underwent considerable upheaval during the period of Japanese Occupation. The Japanese Occupation ushered in a new and fascinating episode in India’s struggle for political freedom from British rule led by the charismatic nationalistic leader Subhas Chandra Bose. Branded a “Japanese Stooge” by many compatriots, Bose receives a fairer trial from Rai who points to the difficulties he faced in dealing with the Japanese Imperial Army. From 1942 till 1945, Singapore emerged as the nerve centre for the Indian Independence League (ILL) and the Indian National Army (INA). Indian patriots who rallied behind Bose fared far better under the Japanese than those Indians who remained loyal to the British.

Even so, Indian independence leaders in Singapore were appalled by the indiscriminate bloodletting by Japanese soldiers and grew increasingly concerned about Japan’s possible intentions for India. Later, at the trial of INA officers after the war, several claimed that they had thrown in their lot with the Japanese in order to stem possible excesses in the event of a Japanese invasion of India. While it is difficult to be precise on this point, I suspect the reason the vast majority of Indians fell in behind the INA and IIL in Singapore was from a fear of Japanese reprisals rather than any deep-seated attachment to Indian nationalism.

Indian emigrants and sojourners have been coming to Singapore ever since it was founded in 1819. While Indian diasporas in other former colonies grew out of movements associated with post-WW2 decolonization, for Singapore, Indians moved here as opportunities expanded and contracted both before and after WW2. This remains a distinguishing feature of the Indian diaspora in Singapore. Rajesh Rai’s compelling account of Indian communities as shapers of Singapore’s identity from 1819 to 1945 deserves a sequel covering the post-war and post-imperium era. I hope it will be written with as much conviction as the first instalment.

Rajesh Rai. Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.


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