Guest Blogging from Singapore & Malaysia

Greetings, Mutineers. Abhi and the gang have graciously allowed me another round of guest blogging, this time from Singapore and Malaysia. As you may recall, I am at work on a photography book about the global Indian diaspora and reported from Kenya last January.

For this junket through Southeast Asia, I’ll be joined by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Sugi is Sri Lankan, a writer, and a newly elected member of the SAJA board. Her first novel, Love Marriage, will be published by Random House in April. She, too, is working on diaspora issues, especially those affecting the Sri Lankan communities around the world.

We’ll be posting here, jointly and separately, during the first few weeks of January from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and other places in between.

Tamils from India and Sri Lanka, along with Malayalees, Punjabis, and Sindhis have been in the region for a very long time, as traders even before the colonial period. In the late 19th century, Tamils were brought over in great numbers by the British as laborers in the rubber plantations and railroads (the majority of persons of South Asian origin in Singapore and Malaysia are Tamil). Singapore even served as a penal colony for Indian convicts and as a conduit for indenture, as the city was built partially on forced labor. Singapore even had its own Sepoy Mutiny in 1915. If you have been following the recent news, people of Indian and Sri Lankan origin in Malaysia have been protesting the government’s Malay-first policies. In late November, some 10,000 Indian protesters clashed with police in KL and the leaders of HINDRAF, an Indian rights group were detained. Malaysia’s prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has been making the right noises about minority rights, including plans to halt the destruction of Hindu temples, but tensions remain high and the outcome unclear.

It’s a dynamic region, one of the most culturally diverse in the world. In addition to the various South Asian communities and the native Malays, there are large and important Chinese, Thai, and Indonesian populations, a big mix of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and animists (indeed, it’s often unclear where one ethnicity ends and another begins). There’s a huge amount of money at stake. Malaysia is well integrated into Tom Friedman’s global supply chain for the manufacture of computers by American and Chinese companies. The Straits of Malacca are the most strategic choke point for the global shipping industry (piracy, terrorism). Malaysia still exports rubber and the surprisingly lucrative substance of palm oil. Plus, it makes a lot of the furniture you buy at Ikea.

South Asians have been involved in, and have benefited from, all this growth. In the next few weeks, Sugi and I will be posting about this stuff. Stay tuned.

And a personal request: we’d like to meet Mutineers in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, informally or in an organized meet-up. So if you are interested, send up a flare. You can also post in the thread I started in the SM Facebook group.

25 thoughts on “Guest Blogging from Singapore & Malaysia

  1. Yayyyy, two of my favorite “saucy” New Yorkers are guesting! This is going to be fantastic. :) Thanks, Preston and Sugi!

  2. Tamils from India and Sri Lanka, along with Malayalees, Punjabis, and Sindhis have been in the region for a very long time, as traders even before the colonial period. In the late 19th century, Tamils were brought over in great numbers by the British as laborers in the rubber plantations and railroads (the majority of persons of South Asian origin in Singapore and Malaysia are Tamil). Singapore even served as a penal colony for Indian convicts and as a conduit for indenture, as the city was built partially on forced labor. Singapore even had its own Sepoy Mutiny in 1915.

    Not to sound like a Dravidianist ideologue, but the Tamil/Andhrite influence goes back well beyond the late precolonial period to the early centuries A.D. South Indians are not a colonial imposition but rather one of the early sources of culture in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, and Indonesia

  3. This is great.

    i was very impressed with Malaysia when I was on a trip there, from a tourists standpoint it seemed to have the best ‘harmony’ with all religions being represented and many ethnicities living in close proximity. I went to see the national mosque, a hindu temple and a Chinese Buddidt temple. It’s a shame to read about the current tensions so i look forward to the blogging from within the region.

  4. Tamils from India and Sri Lanka,

    Is it not ‘Tamilians’ – I always thought that Tamils was the white man’s lazy way out. On the other hand – you are a white man ;)

    Chola kings had spread Dravidian culture in the first millenium. That may account for the Hinduism in Bali.

  5. Is it not ‘Tamilians’ – I always thought that Tamils was the white man’s lazy way out.

    Shirley you can’t be serious! Tamils is a perfectly respectable nomenclature found in reference and academic works. But Tamilian is of uncertain etymology – was it an Anglicized suffixing of Tamil, like Oregon –> Oregonian, or is it an Anglicized pronunciation of Thamizhan?

    /avoids the ambiguity by calling himself a Tam.

  6. Is it not ‘Tamilians’ – I always thought that Tamils was the white man’s lazy way out.

    I think Tamils is the term of choice in Singapore. As for Tamilian, that is anglicized too. The true word in Tamizh would be Tamizhan/Tamizhachi, which I guess could be written in the Tamilan as well, but no ‘i’.

    Hey, I’ve always wondered why the Brits never used the spelling Tamir. The way they would pronouce Tamiran would have been close to perfect!

  7. Is it not ‘Tamilians’ – I always thought that Tamils was the white man’s lazy way out.

    I think the correct umbrella term is Madrasi.

  8. 10 · Rahul said

    Is it not ‘Tamilians’ – I always thought that Tamils was the white man’s lazy way out.
    I think the correct umbrella term is Madrasi.

    No, it’s Idli-wada. I keed. I keed.

    Having stayed in Malaysia for couple of months and a couple of weeks in Singapore, it’s amazing that how tolerant they are. They have a hugely diverse population, almost as diverse as Indian, and yet they manage to be much more tolerant of each other than Indians are of each other, and somehow each culture has managed to keep their identity.

  9. I would love to know how the Indian population is integrayed among different professions in these countries? And, at first glance, does the Indian pop. appear middle class, affluent , etc.?

  10. Hey, I’ve always wondered why the Brits never used the spelling Tamir. The way they would pronouce Tamiran would have been close to perfect!

    Holy conjoined twins, Batman!

    Actually I have advised my non-Tam friends to pronounce “Tamiran” with an exaggerated “r” sound, like how some people say “Warshington DC”. Then I found that Tamiran could be a multivitamin tablet. The last straw was when a (non-desi) friend of mine, whom I was teaching how to make sambar, got confused between “tami[l|zh|r]an” and “tamarind”. “So, oh, OK, it’s called Madras sambar because you add Tamirand to it, I see”. Aiyo only.

  11. Welcome to Singapore, Preston! How long are you in town for? You are welcome anytime for a drink or a chat. Happy to chat about Indians, photo.net, Singapore or indeed anything at all…

  12. Shirley you can’t be serious! Tamils is a perfectly respectable nomenclature found in reference and academic works. But Tamilian is of uncertain etymology – was it an Anglicized suffixing of Tamil, like Oregon –> Oregonian, or is it an Anglicized pronunciation of Thamizhan?

    My understanding is that Tamilian is an anglicized form of Tamizhan. I still cant accept that ‘Tamils’ is a valid word. Any citations. I dont suppose Fowlers would be of help in this case.

  13. Pagla@11

    Having stayed in Malaysia for couple of months and a couple of weeks in Singapore, it’s amazing that how tolerant they are. They have a hugely diverse population, almost as diverse as Indian, and yet they manage to be much more tolerant of each other than Indians are of each other, and somehow each culture has managed to keep their identity.

    Wow. I have lived my first 23 years in India, such a diverse place and amazing to see the tolerance. I have not seen a Hindu stabbing a Muslim or a Muslim throwing a bomb into the temple. Amazing to see the tolerance .. isn’t it.

    One more thing. Malaysia is just 60% Muslims with 40% non-Muslim and yet it is an “Islamic country”. Compare it with India being 80% Hindus. Do you accept it if tommorrow BJP wins and adds “Hindu country” to the constitution. And BTW read this news report.

    Hindu woman loses fight against Shariah divorce .. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia’s highest court on Thursday rejected on technical grounds an appeal by an ethnic Indian Hindu woman to stop her Muslim convert husband from seeking a divorce in the Islamic ‘Shariah’ court, while upholding the man’s right to change the religion of their youngest son. 29-year-old R Subashini’s petition was rejected by the Federal Court as she had filed it within three months of the conversion of her husband, Saravanan Thangathoray alias Muhammad Shafi Abdullah, 32. Her lawyers said she will again file the petition in the high court to meet the legal requirement that it should be filed three months after the conversion. Subashini is not opposed to divorcing her husband, but she wants the procedure to take place in a civil court. The Federal Court said her Muslim convert husband had a right to approach the Shariah courts. It also upheld his right to convert the couple’s youngest of the two sons to Islam. Saravanan claims the elder child had already converted to Islam with him. The judgement further said that both civil courts and Shariah courts have equal status in Malaysia. A clear picture of the ruling would emerge after a full reading of the verdict, lawyers said. Nik Hashim Nik Abdul Rahman, the presiding judge of the three-member panel, noted that “civil courts continue to have jurisdiction, notwithstanding his (the husband’s) conversion to Islam… A non-Muslim marriage continues to exist until the High Court dissolves it.” Subashini, a former Secretary, had appealed the Court of Appeal’s 2-1 majority decision on a March 13 ruling that her husband could go to the Shariah Court and commence proceedings to dissolve their marriage. The appellate court held that the civil court cannot stop a Muslim convert from going to the Shariah Court to dissolve his marriage with his non-Muslim spouse or from initiating proceedings relating to custody of their children. Subashini had brought her appeal to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court in an attempt to reverse the Family Court’s decision to set aside her ex-parte injunction to temporarily prevent Saravanan from commencing proceedings in the Shariah court over their marriage or conversion of their younger son. Subashini married Saravanan, also an ethnic Indian, in a Hindu wedding in 2002. The couple’s sons, Dharvin and Sharvind, are now aged 4 and 2 respectively. Saravanan converted to Islam in 2006 and informed his wife, who attempted suicide and was hospitalised. When she returned home, Saravanan had left with Dharvin, the elder child whom he claims has also converted to Islam. Saravanan filed for divorce and custody rights over the children in a Shariah Court in May 2006, and the right to convert Sharvind, the couple’s younger child. This right was upheld by the court on Thursday.
  14. Pagla:

    Do you think having “Hindu courts” in India on the lines of “Sharia courts” in Malaysia would contribute to the “tolerance” in India like you see in Malaysia?. Would you ming being an advisor to the government of India in such matters?. You can take “2 months” trips to Timbuktu, Greenland and other exotic places and come back and report on the tolerance practised there compared to what we have in India. :-)

  15. Interesting post. I like this Malaysian group Yogi B and Natchatra. They have an album called “Vallavan”. I admit that my Tamil is not the best, but just listening to them rap in Tamil is so much fun. Yogi B recently took this 70s Tamil film song called “Engeyum Eppothum” and really turned it on its head. I’d like to buy the album but it doesn’t seem to be available for sale anywhere apart from Singapore/Malaysia.

  16. Wow, enjoy your visit to my (homeland) neck of the woods! Be sure to eat as much as you can all the time, it is the Singaporean way, lah. Then go shopping. check out Haji Lane for the independent stuff. Oh yes, you must try and catch Kumar, the acerbic drag-queen stand-up comic; usually at The Monkey Bar. Will blow your mind!!!!

    As for how tolerant Singapore is, that’s an interesting nation-wide social experiment that we are still living out today. You should check out “AirConditioned Nation”by George Cherian ( I think that’s right) for starters.

    Looking forward to your continued blogging from the Lion City and beyond!

  17. As far as tolerance in Malaysia, I have this to add.

    I worked with an intern and a student from Malaysia in late 80s. SHe was studying in a US university and was a daughter of a Judge in Malaysia. She was of “Chinese” ethnicity.

    She told me that it was a difficult life for non muslims. That there was widespread discrimination against Tamils and that they were converting rapidly because of that.

    She also told that her father was being forced to learn Malay at this late stage in his career. I don’t know much about Malaysian history, so I am not sure why her father was being forced to learn Malay when he likely was in his 50s, but her body language and what she told me made it clear that her father did not have any choice and was very unhappy about it.

    She also told that she had come to the US to study because they wanted to immigrate because of the discrimination.

    She told me that Tamils were a lot worse off than “Chinese” people. That there was an active campaign to treat the “BhumiPutras” in a more “equal” manner. When I posted a query on the UseNet about what Malaysians think about discrimination, several Indians from Malaysia implored me not to post such queries, lest the government found out.

    The way the peaceful demonstrators have been treated in a supposedly democratic country, being accused of being terrorists and all, confirms the experience of my Malaysian colleague.