Indians in Malaya

A peek into a 1969 book by PROF KERNIAL SINGH SANDHU for some insight about Sikhs in Malaya and Singapore.

| Indians in Malaya | Malaysia | 22 June 2017 | Asia Samachar |
Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement (1786–1957) By Kernial Singh Sandhu

By Kernial Singh Sandhu | Indians In Malaya |

It will be remembered that the aim of this work is to make a study of some aspects of Indian overseas migration to, and settlement in, Malaya with special reference to the period of British rule. The size of the Indian population in Malaya, the wide historical and spatial scope of the subject, coupled with the limitations of data and the availability of time and space, dictated concentration on the barest essentials of the topic. The purpose of this concluding chapter is to review the general characteristics of the Indians in Malaya and to summarize some of the more salient tendencies apparent within the community.

The situation of Malaya astride Asian lines of commerce and communication, makes it the focal point of Southeast Asia. Thus control of Malaya was essential to any power aspiring to dominance in Southeast Asia. This fact was recognized not only by the early Indianized and Malay empires but also by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and Japanese who followed them. Consequently external influences, particularly Indian, British and Chinese, have figured prominently in the political and economic evolution of the country, giving it a civilization and an economy that is essentially foreign.

Malaya’s contacts with India go back to the pro-Christian era, when commercial motives, it appears, first brought Indian traders to its shares. These occasional trading voyages soon became firm commercial and social ties and, through intermarriage and cultural assimilation, gave rise to a number of city-states and an indigenous civilization which bears the stamp of Indian influence in almost every aspect. These were the halcyon days of Indian influence in Malaya, for with the rise of the Malacca Sultanate and the arrival of European powers, particularly the British, the whole position was altered. In contrast to their earlier countrymen who represented a powerful and respected commercial, economic and political force. the Indians who now flocked into Malaya were chiefly illiterate labourers.

SEE ALSO: First job in Malaya 

SEE ALSO: Sikh immigration to Malaya

This transformation took place as British power was established in both India and Malaya and the economics of the two countries subordinated to imperial needs, which in practice entailed, inter alia, the curbing of large-scale Indian enterprise in India on the one hand and the encouragement of large numbers of cheap, docile, Indian labour to work the Malayan plantations and government projects on the other.

This labour movement was perhaps unique, in that it incorporated adaptations of both the indentured system of lndian labour recruitment prevalent in the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius and southern Africa, and the basic ingredients of the kangani, maistry and garden sirdar system of labour recruitment of Ceylon, Burma and Assam respectively. In addition it included such other methods of formal and informal recruitment as assisted voluntary and free immigrants and a variation of the Chinese credit-ticket system of immigration.

With the possible exception of events in Burma and southeast Africa, the non-labour movement of Indians into Malaya was the largest single exodus out of India. These immigrants came as shopkeepers, tradesmen, clerks, professional elites and potential policemen or militiamen. They sought to cater for the special needs of their countrymen or hoped to find opportunities in the expanding economy of the country. This latter movement continued long after labour immigration was stopped by the Indian government just before World War II, but in a gradually decreasing volume following immigration restrictions imposed by the Malayan government in the post-war period. It was this section of the Indian immigrants which appears to have first sunk its roots in Malaya, thus beginning the stabilization of the local Indian population. In contrast, until only recently the vast majority of labourers formed a transitory floating population which has been coming and going since the beginnings of modern Indian migration, the volume of the movement depending principally on the economic conditions in Malaya.

The Indian population increased steadily, through immigration until, the 1930s and later through natural increase, following the improvement in the sex-ratio and the general stabilisation of the community. Most of the Indians in Malaya are now locally born and are multiplying at a. fast rate. If the present trend continues their numbers are expected to pass the 2,000,000 mark by 1987.

With stabilization, changes have also taken place in their occupational structure, urban-rural ratios and settlement patterns. Following the Indian government’s ban on unskilled labour emigration and the spread of education in Malaya, the proportion of labourers in the Indian population has been steadily declining. For example, it is estimated that less than 60 per cent of the economically active Indians were labourers at the beginning of 1967, compared with more than 80 per cent in the 1920s. This trend will probably continue as the majority of the younger-generation Indians appear to prefer clerical, technical, commercial and professional occupations.

Until 1947 little more than a third of the Indians were urban dwellers, but by 1957 more than 47 per cent were living in urban centres of 1,000 or more persons. Today, the proportion of such urban dwellers in the total Indian population is estimated to be well above 50 per cent. If this rapid rate of urbanization is maintained, and there is no reason to believe that it will not be, Indians might well rival the Chinese as the community with the highest ratio of urban dwellers.

Kernial Singh Sandhu, author of Indians In Malaya

The social and cultural status of the Indians has undergone a marked change, particularly in the post-war years. Improved labour legislation has provided better housing and other social facilities for the labourers while the generally increasing prosperity of the community as a whole, and the decision of many members of the community to make Malaya their home, has made more money available for better schools, clubs, asramas, temples and other public buildings. The settlements, too, have changed, not so much in basic pattern but in degree of nucleation; The already high degree of concentration of pre-war days was accentuated by the regroupment and relocation programmes of the Emergency in post-war Malaya. Although the Emergency has officially ended this pattern is not likely to change because the existing New Villages and larger regroupment units already form the nuclei of future urban centres.


The role and character of Indian participation in the political life of Malaya has also undergone some remarkable changes. Indians have for quite some time taken a part in local politics out of all proportion to their numbers. This has been particularly so since World War II.  Prior to this they had little political interest in Malaya, their activities being largely oriented towards their mother country, with which they retained strong economic, political and sentimental links. Consequently most of their political organizations were just pale reflections of the Indian National Congress. This India-orientation of the Indians in Malaya was strengthened by periodic visits of Indian leaders such as Pundit Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Srinivasa Sastri. It was finally brought into the open with the establishment of an Indian National Army (I.N.A.)1 in Malaya, following the defeat of the British by the Japanese in the Malayan campaign.

Between 1942 and 1945 thousands of Indians volunteered to join the Indian National Army, under the command of Subhas Chandra Bose for the purpose of fighting for the independence of India. In addition, Indian Independence League organizations were established in all leading centres in Southeast Asia to recruit men, collect funds, and generally coordinate the independence movement.

Men and money poured into the independence movement on an unprecedented scale from all over Southeast Asia. particularly from Malaya, the headquarters of the movement. Although it is true that some of the volunteers joined the independence movement for safety, better rations or for want of something better to do, the majority appear to have been genuinely inspired and patriotic. They regarded themselves as the vanguard of the liberation movement and Subhas Chandra Bose as the veritable Messiah come to lead them, with Japanese help, to the completion of the Indian struggle for freedom from Britain.

Many regiments of the Indian National Army fought bravely and with distinction on the Burma Front while the Tricolour was formally hoisted on Indian soil, at Madawk, in eastern Chittagong, in May 1944. These successes, however, were short-lived. The whole independence movement collapsed following the surrenders of the Indian National Army and the Japanese and the death of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1945. Shortlived though the Indian independence movement was in Malaya and the rest of Southeast Asia, its repercussions were nevertheless far-reaching in both India and Malaya.

In India members of the Indian National Army were acclaimed as national heroes. The Indian National Army became the rallying point of the Indian people and the Congress and helped to precipitate the final surrender of British power in India on 15 August 1947.

In Malaya, the independence movement, particularly as manifested in the Indian National Army and its achievements, fired the imagination of Indians and wrought a tremendous psychological revolution in their minds. Down to the humblest labourer they felt confident of themselves and proud of being Indians.


However, over the last two decades the position of Indians in Malaya has undergone a number of fundamental changes. In the first place, it will he recalled, there has been a stabilization of the Indian population, more than two-thirds of which is at present estimated to be Malayan-born. Secondly, though many Indians still retain their emotional ties with India, actual contact with the country has been diminishing. This has been illustrated by the decreasing frequency of visits of ‘Malayan‘ Indians to India, a tendency accentuated by the disruption of shipping during the war and the large increase in the deck-passage fare (more than double) between Malaya and India since the Japanese occupation. Thirdly, many Indians in Malaya, following the independence of India, were hoping to acquire dual Indian and Malayan citizenship so as to enjoy the benefits of both. This idea was condemned not only by Pandit Nehru but also by the Indian government, which made it quite clear that all Indians outside lndia must decide either to remain lndian citizens or become citizens of the country where they lived, preferably the latter, and that no dual citizenship would be allowed. Faced with the alternative of remaining aliens in an independent Malaya, most or the Indian have decided in become Malayan citizens, an opportunity opened to them following the liberalization of the country’s citizenship laws in 1952 and 1957 which allowed non-Malays to become citirens of Malaya provided they fulfilled certain requirements. As Malayan citizens, they now occupy a position that seems to be increasing in importance in the political life of the country.

The Indians form an important minority in a plural society pre-dominantly Malay and Chinese. The political role of the Indians appears to be assuming increased importance, as they are wooed both by the Chinese and Malay leaders in their bid for political power. The 4,480,000 Malays are citizens of the country by law. Only about three-quarters of the 4,520,000 Chinese are estimated to be citizens at present. The position of the more than 1,000,000 Indians in this respect is virtually the same as that of the Chinese in that about three-quarters of their number are Malayan citizens today. The Indians, however, are increasing at a faster rate than the Chinese, thereby increasing their relative voting strength and future representation in the government.

The distribution pattern of the Indian population and its economic concentration in plantation agriculture, Malaya’s chief industry, also have important political implications. The large Indian concentrations on estates, lying as they often do between the major rural and urban concentrations of Malay and Chinese populations respectively, may have the power to act either as unifying or separating agents or to remain neutral. In the economic sphere, through their strong position on estates as administrators and labourers, now organized into powerful trade unions, they have the means to make or mar the country’s economy through its major primary product and chief item of export.

Since 1946, the Indians have had their own communal political party, the Malayan Indian Congress (M.l.C.). In conjunction with the United Malays’ National Organisation (U.M.N.O.) and the Malayan Chinese Association (M.C.A.) it forms the Alliance Party, which not only successfully led the Independence movement in the Federation (States) of Malaya but also is the present (1967) governing party of that country.  In addition, Indians provide the top echelons, and the bulk too, of the trade-union leadership of Malaya while they are also members of the important non-communal, multi-racial political parties of the country; for example, the Labour Party on the mainland and the Peoples Action Party and the Barisan Sosialis in Singapore. It appears that, in contrast to their earlier role as birds of passage in temporary exile from their village hearth, the Indians are becoming increasingly Malayanized, and it seems likely that as they tend to identify their interests with the future of the country they will assume an even greater role in its politico-economic development.


It remains now to summarize briefly the manifold ways in which the Indians, directly or indirectly, have influenced the adaptation and moulding of the overall Malayan environment.

The fact that Malay culture bears the indelible imprint of the Hindu and Buddhist era of the first millennium A.D. has been sufficiently stressed and need not be repeated here except to state that it was during this period that there evolved the nagara, the city-state focused on a new feature of the Malayan landscape, the town, from which subsequently were to develop the territorial states and thalassocracies whose conflicting interests comprise the main theme of pre-European Southeast Asian history. Under the Indianizing influences, local society and landscape underwent a remarkable change. succinctly summarized by Paul Wheatley as

. . .the change from tribal chief to god-king, from gerontocracy to sultanism, from consensus to hereditary charismatic authority inherent in manifest divinity, from pawang to ‘brahman’, from head-hunter to ksatriya, from primitive tribesman to peasant, from kampong to nagara, from spirit house to temple, from reciprocity to redistribution. in short from culture to civilization…2

There is little direct evidence in the present-day Malayan landscape of the Hindu and Buddhist era of its history. However, the indirect evidence as manifest in the Malay cultural landscape and way of life is abundantly clear.

The passing of the Hindu-Buddhist millennium and the emergence of a new force, Islam, stimulated further changes in the landscape. The new faith proved a powerful factor in the moulding of the cultural landscape. To every kampong and town it gave a mosque or surau and the sekolah agama, and into nearly every Malay holding it introduced a potential for subdivision and fragmentation, only checked by legislation in some states in the present century.

With the advent of the British, the role of the Indians as catalysts took on a new direction and emphasis. A new genre of Indian immigrant-Ramasamy, the labourer. Tulsi Ram, the convict, Bhai Singh, the policeman, Maniam the technical assistant and Pillai the clerk-arrived in the country. Quite apart from seeing such uniquely Indian features as the much decorated Hindu temple, ‘banana-leaf’ vegetarian eating shops and asramas  firmly established in the Malayan landscape, they witnessed the passing of huge tracts of jungle and swamp and the emergence in their place of the softer, more regular lines of plantations; footpaths and aerial ropeways give way to bridges, railways and macadamised highways; atap and kajang kampongs and rumbustious and rowdy mining shanties give way to orderly and thriving towns and metropoles. In short, they saw the transformation of a swamp-infested, hostile, jungle sparsely populated by Malays, into a highly developed agricultural landscape of interlocking cash and subsistence economies with immigrant and indigenous peoples all linked together and served by a network of communications together with marketing and distributing points. Such transformation is almost without parallel. Nearly all this change took place in the course of less than a hundred years and much of it through manual labour. Virtually nowhere else in tropical pioneering has such a feat been accomplished through such methods and on such a scale and in so short a time.

In this metamorphosis the Indians played an important role. They were the principal labourers and security guards and, together with the Tamils from Ceylon, the main administrative and technical assistants. At the same time Indian financiers and entrepreneurs, quite apart from their own direct contributions, were the saviours and grub-stakers of many a latter-day Chinese millionaire, successful British planter and Malay aristocrat. Perhaps the most eloquent memorial to the pioneering efforts of the Indian, Chinese and other immigrants in Malaya is the country‘s present position as one of the best developed and richest independent nations of Asia.


1Only a brief account is possible here of the Indian National Army and its allied organisations that sprang up in Malaya and the rest of Southeast Asia during the Japanese occupation. What follows is based largely on Desai (1946). Singh (1946). Khan (1946), J. S. Jessey (‘The Indian Army of lndependence, 1943-1945’, B.A. Honours Academic Exercise, History Department, University of Malaya. Singapore. 1958), Office of Strategic Services (R. & A. No. I595: lndian minorities in Southeast Asia: The background of the Indian Independence Movement outside India, mimeo., Washington, D.C., 1944), Toye (1959)  and Mahajani (1960), who between them give a fairly detailed account of the subject.

2Wheatley, 1964a, pp. 42-3.

Source: Indians in Malaya: Immigration ad Settlement 1786-1957, Kernail Singh Sandu, in the chapter Epilogue. The book discusses the Indians who lived in Malaya and the effects of their presence on Malayan social and economic development between 1786 and 1957, the period of British rule. Prof Kernial examines in detail the character and flow of Indian immigration during its main fluctuating periods; from about the 1790s to the 1930s and from the 1930s to 1957. The book is one of the authoritative sources for Indians in Malaya and Singapore. Originally published in 1969, it was based on a wide variety of sources, including the official and private records of the Indian, Malayan and British governments.


Sikh immigration to Malaya (Asia Samachar, 11 May 2017)

Best known Sikh geographer in Asia in 20th century (Asia Samachar, 27 Oct 2019)


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  1. ISEAS LIBRARY – Biographical Notes
    Kernial Singh Sandhu (1929 – 2 December 1992) – Academic/ ISEAS Director
    K. S. Sandhu was born to a Sikh family in Segamat, Johor in 1929. A keen sportsman, Sandhu played hockey for the Johor state in his younger days. In 1954, Sandhu began his tertiary education at the University of Malaya where he eventually received a first class honours degree. There, he studied under Paul Wheatley who would later become a close friend and collaborator.1
    Sandhu pursued his Masters at the University of British Columbia under a Canadian Council Scholarship.2 Subsequently, he studied under Professor Sir Clifford Darby for his PhD at the University of London. His doctoral thesis was published as Indians in Malaya: Some aspects of their immigration and settlement by Cambridge University Press in 1969.3 After graduation, Sandhu did teaching stints at the universities of Malaya, Singapore and British Columbia.4
    On 1 July 1972, Sandhu was appointed the fourth director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). He was the first Asian director of the Institute as well as the longest-serving director, leading the Institute from 1972 to 1992.5 From the start, Sandhu’s aim was to develop the Institute into “the foremost centre of its kind in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s leading institute devoted to advanced quality research on the region”.6
    During his tenure, Sandhu made great strides in enhancing the reputation of the Institute and promoting the cause of Southeast Asian studies in general.7 He actively sought funding from governments and organisations for research fellowships and programmes.8 In 1987, he wrote an important letter to Dr Tony Tan, then Minister for Education, and eventually won critical funds and support for the Institute.9 Among his staff, Sandhu was known for being a humble, selfless and a caring boss.10
    Sandhu built up the collection of the ISEAS library and pushed public education through publications, seminars, discussions and conferences.11 Significant publications included Southeast Asian Affairs, an annual review of significant events and trends by Southeast Asian scholars (initiated 1974) and Contemporary Southeast Asia (initiated 1977), a journal first started to disseminate ISEAS research findings.12 By the time of his death in 1992, Sandhu had nurtured ISEAS into one of the most successful research institutions in the region.13

    Even with a heavy schedule as director of the Institute, Sandhu continued to be active in research, editing and writing. His major publications include Melaka: the transformation of a Malaya capital c.1400-1980 (1993, with Paul Wheatley), Management of success: the moulding of modern Singapore (1980, with Paul Wheatley) and Indian communities in Southeast Asia (1993, with A. Mani). 14
    In 1985, Sandhu received the Public Administration Medal (Gold) from the Singapore government.15 On 2 December 1992, Sandhu died after suffering a sudden heart attack.16 He left behind his wife, Swinder Kaur.17
    1 Derek da Cunha, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 14, No. 4 (March 1993); Wheatley, Paul, “Kernial Singh Sandhu”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1993).

    2 “A Canadian award for Malayan”, The Straits Times, 25 September 1958; Derek da Cunha, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 14, No. 4 (March 1993); Lim Pui Huen, P., Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: a commemorative history, 1968-1998, Singapore: ISEAS (1998), p. 86.
    3 Wheatley, Paul, “Kernial Singh Sandhu”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1 (March 1993); 4 da Cunha, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu”.
5 Chew, Cassandra, Light on a hill: The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute story, 1968-2018, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (2018), p. 43.
    6 4-point plan to build study institute, New Nation, 4 October 1972; Chew, Light on a hill, p. 43.
7 Lim, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 17.
8 Lee Kim Chew, ISEAS: studying Southeast Asia, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (2015), pp. 28-29. 9 Lee, ISEAS: studying Southeast Asia, p. 64; Chew, Light on a hill, p. 45.
10 Chew, Light on a hill, p. 48.
11 Lee, ISEAS: studying Southeast Asia, p. 61-62.
12 Lee, ISEAS: studying Southeast Asia, pp. 29, 33; Derek da Cunha, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 14, No. 4 (March 1993).
13 Lee, ISEAS: studying Southeast Asia, p. 64.
    14 “From colony to NIC: New book will tell how Singapore did it”, The Straits Times, 12 January 1989; “ISEAS now ready for role in public education”, The Straits Times, 14 November 1989; Lim, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 86.

    15 “Goh Keng Swee heads National Day honours list”, Business Times, 9 August 1985.
    16 Derek da Cunha, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 14, No. 4 (March 1993); Chew, Ernest C.T., “Obituary: Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (March 1993).

    17 Chan Heng Chee, “In memoriam: Professor Kernial S. Sandhu, 1929-92”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol 14, No. 4 (March 1993).

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