Given the fact that Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore and that Tamils form the largest ethnic Indian group in the city-state, it’s easy to overlook the island’s strong Malayali heritage. Keralites, however, have been a part of Singapore’s ethnic mix long before a wave of young professionals from Kerala started immigrating there in the 1990s.
The results of the 1947 census on the island revealed that Malayalis formed 16 per cent of the Indian population. The first modern wave of immigration from Kerala to the island is believed to have begun in the 18th century. When the British set up naval and military bases by the Malacca Straits many Malayalis rushed there to seek employment opportunities.
The Malayali community has met with much success in Singapore over the last two centuries. The Singapore Malayalee Association was established as far back as 1917. The association, which was originally called the Malayali Samajam, was the first of its kind for the Indian community in Singapore.
When the association celebrated its centennial three years ago, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long praised the role of the Malayali community on the island. “The Malayalees have long embraced and celebrated diversity. Counting Hindus, Muslims, Syrian Christians, and Roman Catholics in their midst, they are a fine example of turning diversity into strength,” Lee said. “The Malayalee community has shown how we can turn diversity into our strength. Singapore needs to do the same on a national level with our different races and religions.”
The community celebrates its high achievers such as former president Devan Nair and chief justice Sundaresh Menon, but there are hundreds of lesser-known success stories of people who migrated to Singapore. M K Menon, who was better known by his pen name Vilasini, lived in Singapore for almost 25 years. Although he is best known for Avakasikal, the longest novel written in any Indian language, his Niramulla Nizhalukal is considered a precious piece of literature for Singapore Malayalis. The book, published in 1965, looks at the lives of Malayalis on the island during the Second World War.
In From Kerala To Singapore: Voices From The Singapore Malayalee Community, Anitha Devi Pillai and Puva Arumugam record over 100 personal narratives of Malayalis who immigrated to the island from 1900 to 2016. The narratives that come with old photos, family memorabilia and even detailed family trees are a fascinating look at the community.
A distinct identity
Reaching out to a wider readership with their book, Dr Pillai and Dr Arumugam touch upon the distinctness of the Malayali community. One can reach a conclusion that a larger number of immigrants from Kerala were well educated and spoke good English, factors that helped them get white-collar jobs and live an upper middle class existence. There have also long been grievances from the Tamil community that Malayalis tend to bring relatives and friends from Kerala and help them get jobs that may have otherwise gone to poorer Tamils.
There are about 27,000 Malayalis in Singapore, but with the exception of a new wave of professionals in fields like information technology, Malayalam does not seem to have bright prospects. Malayali poet and teacher M K Bhasi’s website gives a very good account of Malayali life in Singapore over the ages.
A Malayalam daily survived in Singapore for almost five decades. According to Bhasi, Malaysia Malayali (originally Kerala Bandhu) started publication in 1939 as a weekly in Malaya. It later moved to Singapore and was at one time, the only Malayalam daily published outside Kerala. “The gradual dwindling of the Malayalam speaking readership forced the paper to cease publication in 1988,” Bhasi wrote.
Without formal education in Malayalam for the younger generation, it is next to impossible for any similar initiative to ever take root on the island. Even as the community tries to put Malayalam in the formal educational curriculum in Singapore, the Singapore Malayalee Association, the Malayalam Language Education Society and several volunteers are trying to ensure that the younger generation formally learns the language. Perhaps the Kerala Government’s Malayalam Mission could be roped in to come to the aid of the language in Singapore. It would be a great way to build ties between Kerala and a powerful potential investor.