Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Descendants for the most part of immigrants who arrived during the colonial period, this minority according to Statistics Singapore accounted for about 8.8 percent of the population in 2006, or almost 450,000 people.
While convenient, the term ‘Indian’ is a generic which is hardly accurate for the minority, since the only thing members in this category have in common are their origins from the British colonial empire which now make up Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. In religious terms, 2000 census figures show that while the majority of ‘Indians’ are Hindus (just over 55 percent), a significant percentage are Muslims (around 25 percent), Christians (12 percent), and Sikhs (5 percent). In cultural and linguistic terms, almost two-thirds of Indians are of Tamil ancestry, which explains why Tamil is one of the country’s four official languages. In addition to Tamils, other groups subsumed under this category include Punjabis and Malyalis (about 8 percent each), Sindhis (6 percent), and Gujaratis (2 percent), among others.
The arrival of the Indian minority to Singapore is part of the British colonial legacy and begins in the 19th century when the Straits Settlements (which included Penang, Singapore, and Malacca) was considered to form part of British India until 1867. Indian labourers and migrants were thus brought in in large numbers to occupy various functions: in 1901 they numbered about 120,000 in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, and by 1947 this had mushroomed to about 600,000 for Malaya and Singapore. The British colonial authorities tended to use different Indian groups in specific types of activities or parts of the Malay Peninsula: for example, Tamils tended to be employed on rubber plantations, though Sri Lankan Tamils tended to occupy the positions of clerks and junior civil service positions in government departments, while Sikhs would frequently work in the army or police.
Because of Singapore initially being ruled by British colonial authorities from Calcutta, and because of its relative geographic proximity to Malaya, the largest groups of Indian migrants until the mid-1900s were from South India, and in particular the Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam minorities. The Tamils’ homeland in India was in turn the closest to Malaya, and perhaps partially because of this they became by far the largest Indian group in Singapore.
Given their large proportion of what became to be known as the Indian community after Singapore’s independence, it is the Tamil language which became one of the country’s four official languages: as most Tamils are Hindu, Deepavali also became a national public holiday.
Indians have in general been well represented in most sectors of society in Singapore since independence, though in more recent there has emerged a trend by which well-qualified Indian Singaporeans have in the last 10-20 years begun to emigrate to English-speaking developed countries such as Australia.
Indians continue to be overall well represented in political, judicial and some of the higher education and technical fields, generally slightly above their proportion of the population. As with the Malay minority there continues to be concern over the Singaporean government’s favouritism towards Mandarin and ethnic Chinese SAP schools.
Updated June 2015