When I first boarded the Metro train in Singapore, I was quite surprised to hear the announcements made in Tamil. I mean, I had heard from friends and family that Tamil is widely spoken in Singapore and that many Indians lived there peacefully. But my curiosity as to how the Indian community came to be such an integral part of Singapore, grew more and more. I was constantly haunted by many questions. Who were the first Indians to settle in Singapore? Why did so many Indians migrate to Singapore? When did this migration happen? How did the Indians influence the history, economy, and the culture of Singapore to an extent that it is one of the most developed countries in the world today? I needed answers.

Luckily, when I was strolling my way around the Tekka Centre, I met a bunch of grandpas who were sitting around a table and having a hearty conversation over a cup of coffee. I couldn’t resist myself and went over to them and said “Hi!”. Soon, I found myself seated with them and casually chatting up with them. They were explaining to me about the latest attractions in Singapore and what I can do as a tourist while I’m there. They were sweet enough to offer me a cup of coffee or a cold drink of my choice but I had to insist them otherwise because I had just had a hearty breakfast. As we conversed more and more, I asked them if they could suggest any interesting place in Little India apart from the usual tourist spots and fortunately, they suggested that I visit the Indian Heritage Centre. Little did they realise that they had actually shown me the path to all the answers that I was looking for. Soon, I found myself time traveling back to the 1st Century A.D as I paved my way into the various galleries at the museum.

This post is a short account of my understanding of the history of the vast Indian community in Singapore as witnessed at the Indian Heritage Centre. I hope you like it.

Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore
Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore

Early Contact Between South and South-East Asia (1st Century A.D – 19th Century A.D)

Interactions between the South and South-East Asian countries existed even before the British started colonising these countries. For example, during the Pallava, Chola, and Pala periods, India had extensive connections with the Central Java, Khmer, Funan, Champa and Sri Vijaya kingdoms of South-East Asia. Religious interactions between the two regions existed as a result of maritime trades, monks, missionaries and political emissaries. The proof of trade is evident in a piece of Tamil poetic work called Pattinappaalai written during the Chola period which narrates the trade activities between Kalagam (in Kedah, Malaysia) and Puhar, in Tamil Nadu.

Hanuman from Ramayan has Been Depicted in Various Plays in South-East Asia
Hanuman from Ramayan has Been Depicted in Various Plays in South-East Asia

Who Were the First Indians to Arrive in Singapore?

As is evident in the previous paragraph, religious interactions existed even before the European colonisation, but the actual migration of Indians started during the colonial period. The first Indians to arrive in Singapore were a lashkar (army unit) of Indian soldiers of the Bengal Infantry who accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. This was the dawn of the Indian immigration to Singapore.

Mass Migration of Indians During the British Colonisation

When the British colonised the Indian subcontinent, they started sending Indian convicts to Singapore to build roads and government offices. Subsequently, Indian businessmen, civil servants and teachers flocked to Singapore as it developed into one of the busiest port-cities in the region. With them, they brought their diverse socio-cultural practices and values unique to their regions of origin.
Also Read: Chetti Melaka: Stories of a Unique Community in Singapore

Buddhism was Widely Followed by the People in South-East Asia
Buddhism Which Originated in India was Widely Adopted by the People in South-East Asia

The Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore

When India was fighting for her independence, the Indian community in Singapore played a major role in helping her battle the struggle. When Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore in 1943, men, women and children alike volunteered themselves and contributed resources to the cause of India’s freedom. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose organised a public ceremony at the Cathay Building in Dhoby Ghaut where he encouraged women to join the army and established a women’s regiment known as the Rani of Jhansi which joined him in the fight against the British in Burma. Soon, Singapore fought its own independence in the year 1965 and even there, Indians played a major role in its battle for freedom.

A Sculpture of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian Heritage Centre
A Sculpture of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian Heritage Centre
Women who Joined the Army for India's Independence
A Magazine Featuring a Woman who Joined the Regiment for India’s Independence

Indian Pioneers in Singapore

Singapore has witnessed commendable contributions from the migrant Indians who have pioneered in the field of literature, art, dance, science and music, to name a few. Naraina Pillai was the first recorded Indian brick business owner and the first Indian contractor in Singapore. He is also the man behind the construction of the great Sri Mariamman Temple which served as a refuge for Indian immigrants and is today gazetted as a National Monument. G Sarangapany was another pioneer who was a strong proponent of education. He established the Tamil Murasu, a newspaper for Tamil readers and launched an English daily called The Indian Daily Mail.

Today, globalisation has led to the migration of many more Indians to Singapore and multiculturalism is at its peak. I have never seen a country as harmonious and as united as Singapore where every culture is deeply revered irrespective of its origin. And I feel extremely proud that there exists such a country in the world today, where my people have played a significant role in its growth and development. Jai Hind!

Cover Photo - Indian Community Singapore

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