Indians in Singapore

The proportion of Indians in Singapore has increased to pre-independence levels. The 353,000-strong community makes up 9.2 per cent of the population, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.

We are referring to the 3.73 million resident population, comprising Singaporeans and permanent residents, and not the 4.99 million total population, which includes foreigners.Indians made up 9 per cent of the population in 1957 but declined after independence in 1965. They dwindled to 6.4 per cent in 1980 before beginning a slow recovery. They made up just 7.9 per cent of the population in 2000. Then came the big jump, to 8.5 per cent in 2005, and they have kept on growing.

Of course, the number of Indians in Singapore has been growing all this time. But if you look at the figures, you will notice how small the growth was until 1980. The Indian population increased from 125,000 in 1957 to about 146,000 in 1970 and was only 154,000 in 1980. Then it grew to 194,000 in 1990, stood at 257,000 in 2000, and crossed 309,000 in 2005.

The data in the chart except for 2009 is taken from a Singapore National Library publication, Biblioasia, published in October 2007. It can be found here.

There have been Indians in Singapore ever since it became a British settlement.

Records show 132 Indians in Singapore in 1821, two years after the settlement was founded by Stamford Raffles.

Raffles arrived in Singapore in January 1819 with about 120 sepoys and lascars, assistants and servants.

He was accompanied by Narayana Pillay, an Indian trader from Penang.

Pillay built the Mariamman temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, in 1827.

The temple was built by Indian convicts. They also built St Andrew’s Cathedral.

The cathedral was first built in 1837, but, twice struck by lightning, it was condemned as unsafe. The present building was consecrated by Bishop Cotton of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in January 1862, according to the cathedral’s website.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama notes the Indian convicts’ contributions to early Singapore. He says the East India Company began transporting convicts to Bencoolen in Sumatra in 1788 and to Penang in Malaysia in 1790. From 1825, Malacca and Singapore also became convict stations. In 1847, there were 1,500 Indian convicts in Singapore, according to newspaper reports.

Indian convicts made up the bulk of the labour force for public works in Singapore until the early 1870s when India started sending them to the Andaman islands instead.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama writes:

Over the years many Indian convicts, released in the Straits at the end of their term, married local girls and settled down.
By 1873, the 1,100 convicts remaining in Singapore and Malaya were pardoned unconditionally, and eventually dispersed. Instead of returning to India, many with savings went into business and bought landed property, some sought employment with the Public Works Department (PWD); others worked in trades (plumbers, tailors, printers, shoemakers, stone-cutters, quarry blasters etc) they had learnt while in gaol.
They built some of the most beautiful buildings, some still in existence today: the Istana and St. Andrew’s Cathedral; they built Singapore’s early roads and filled up swamps to create Commercial Square (Raffles Place), Thomson Road and Bukit Timah. They were stone cutters for Horsburgh Lighthouse, Raffles Lighthouse, and labourers for construction work in early Singapore’s defence works.

There were also Indian immigrants who came of their own free will. Singapore’s National Heritage Board in a web page on the Indian community notes their various occupations:

• Agriculture: farmers, planters, cattle and goat rearing, cattle traders, horse trainers, milkmen, plantation workers

• Civil servants: teachers, clerks, government officials, policemen, soldiers (sepoys), doctors, lawyers, etc

• Commerce: goldsmiths, money-lenders (Chettiars from Tamil Nadu), shopkeepers, fortune-tellers, snake-charmers, garland-makers, washermen (dhobies), hawkers, etc.

• Construction: bricklayers and construction workers

• The arts: musicians bringing with them their own traditional instruments, dancers bringing with them traditional principles of dance, sculptors, performers, etc.

• Transportation: coolies, boatmen, and bullock-cart drivers

Indian settlements

The National Heritage Board web page on the Indian community notes:

Early Indian immigrants settled mainly in Chinatown areas (Market Street or Chulia Street) and Shenton Way areas (north bank of Singapore River)…However as the population grew, new areas had to be found to house them.

Many ethnic Tamils moved to Little India, says Wikipedia, adding Serangoon Road dates back to the 1820s:

Indians congregated here from 1826 to work in the brick kilns and cattle industries situated here. The kilns were discontinued in 1860 and the cattle sheds were removed by the municipality in 1936.

A History of Old Little India notes:

Serangoon area was an attraction to settlers because of the presence of rivers and where gambier, nutmeg, coconuts and even rice were grown. When agriculture failed, cattle raising became the most important occupation of the Indians because of abundant water and grass…
Besides cattle-rearing and related activities, wheat-grinding, sesame oil presses, rattan works and pineapple preserving factories became an economic feature of Serangoon area.

The National Library article recalls:

When the British established a military base in Singapore after 1920, they built a naval base in Sembawang and an airbase in Changi. Many Indians were employed to work in these bases, and as a result, settled in the surrounding villages…Hence Sembawang became the third area of Indian concentration.
Another area of Indian concentration was the High Street area, which was occupied by Sindhi, Gujarati and Sikh cloth and electronics merchants. A few of the merchants also based themselves around Arab Street. Indians were also prominent in the areas around docks and railways at Tanjong Pagar. The latter group comprised mostly Tamils, Telegus and Malayalees.

Because of the Indian presence, Singapore also became embroiled in the Indian freedom struggle. The Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose recruited soldiers in Singapore and Malaysia during World War II, notes Wikipedia in an article on Indians in Singapore.

1915 Singapore Mutiny

Wikipedia also recalls the 1915 Singapore Mutiny during World War I. About 850 Indian soldiers, mostly Muslims, from the 5th Light Infantry Battalion, which arrived from Chennai, revolted following rumours they would be sent to fight against Turkey. The mutiny, during Chinese New Year celebrations in February, lasted seven days before it was put down by the British with the help of soldiers from Japanese, French and Russian warships.

The Wikipedia article on Indians in Singapore also explains why the community declined between the 1960s and ‘90s. It says:

One reason was the withdrawal of British military forces in the early 1970s, which led to the repatriation of many Indian base workers. Another factor was the retirement of older men, who chose to return to families in India. Meanwhile, post-1965 immigration restrictions ended new migration from India. Furthermore, there was a rise in the emigration of Indian Singaporeans to the West in the late 1980s.

The National Library article says:

According to the population census of year 2000, the highest number of Indians (43.3 per cent) was employed in professional,technical and managerial occupations. This is more than double that of 1990, where only about 22.3 per cent of Indians were employed in such jobs.

This year’s census will show if the figure has risen with the influx of the new citizens — Indians who have become Singaporeans in the last decade.

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