Column | What the Singapore archives reveal about Malayalis living in the Straits

Photo: IANS

Malayali migration to modern-day Singapore and Malaysia has not been as studied in detail as that of Tamils, primarily because the latter moved to the region in much larger numbers. However, the lands around the Malacca Straits have always been home to a thriving Malayali community. Many of us have relatives who lived in the region when it was under British rule. They speak glowingly about the warmth and friendliness of the Malays.

Beyond the oral history that is bound to be forgotten over time, one great resource is newspaper archives that have been preserved well by the government of Singapore.

The Indian Daily Mail, a paper that was published from 1946 to 1956 kept Indian immigrants up to date about the hapennings in their country of origin. Going through the archives, the first thing that strikes the researcher is how politically aware and concerned the Malayalis living in the region were about the developments in India, when the country was on the verge of attaining independence.

Protests against Travancore state

The papers had plenty of coverage about the accession of princely states to an independent India. One of the famous initial holdouts was Travancore, which, under the guidance of Diwan C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, openly stated it wanted to remain independent. The articles about Iyer meeting Pakistan-founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and agreeing to send an ambassador to the future country as well as agreeing to import rice via the Karachi port — Travancore faced major shortages at that time – sent shockwaves to the Malayalis in peninsular Malaya and Singapore.

On June 24, 1947, one L.D. Gracian sent a letter to the editor of the Indian Daily Mail with the heading ‘An Appeal to the Travancorians in Malaya.’

Little is known about this person except that he lived in Kajang in Selangor. “We impassionately appeal to the Travancoreans residing in the Malayan Union and Singapore to express through the Malayan Indian Congress their bitter condemnation of the preposterous stand taken by the Dictator Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, in declaring the isolation of Travancore from the Indian Union, when the British quit,” Gracian wrote.

Expressing support for the Congress in the princely state, he added, “We would greatly appreciate the presence of Mahatma Gandhi at this juncture.”

C P Ramaswami Iyer. Photo: Manorama Archives

A month after the letter was written to the paper, it carried a report about a meeting held at the Hindu Sabha Hall in Penang, where Travancoreans from Penang and Province Wellesley (now Seberang Perai) expressed their displeasure about the future status of the princely state. Those present at the gathering spoke in Malayalam and Tamil before passing a resolution calling for the Maharaja of the state to join the Indian Union. Their resolution was cabled to the Maharaja, Pattam Thanu Pillai -- the then president of the Travancore State Congress and Jawaharlal Nehru.

The paper even carried a report that Iyer met Mahatma Gandhi and said if the latter supported Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s demand for a Pakhtoonistan, he should support the Travancore leadership’s aspirations for independence.

A report in the Singapore Free Press in July 1947 mentioned a similar meeting against Travancore that was held outside the Hind theatre in Seletar.

Fortunately for Malayalis, both in the Straits and India, Iyer was forced to relent and Travancore signed an instrument of accession with India. From what we know of the community in Malaya and Singapore, most Malayalis stayed back but some happily returned to an in Independent India.

Syrian Christian gatherings

The media in Malaya and Singapore seemed to be particularly fascinated by the Syrian Christian community. The archives contain a lot of information about community life and celebrations.

The December 29, 1926, issue of the Malaya Tribune carried an article about the community with an interesting headline: “Travancore Syrians. A Peculiar Indian Colony.”

The article focused on the community’s annual Christmas gathering. “The Jubilee School, Klang, a private institution under the charge of Mr V.E. Chako B.A. Madras, and Mr K.C. George, was the scene of a happy gathering on Christmas Day, when over sixty guests from all over Malaya were present at a social rally of Travancore Syrian Christians,” the paper said.

The article, which was probably written by a British journalist, goes on to talk about the unique identity and characteristics of the community. It added, “Although settled for sixteen centuries in Travancore and Cochin, they claim they have in a large measure preserved their national individuality, and that though there has been inter-marriage with the true natives of the place, this has been the exception rather than the rule.”

The community’s Christmas celebrations, which expanded to include sports competitions and cultural programmes, continued to receive wide press coverage.

More research into the lives of Malayalis in Malaya and Singapore would make for fascinating reading.

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