Indians in Singapore

Once upon a time, there were more Indian than Chinese voters in Singapore. Hard to believe but true.

Indians outnumbered the Chinese when the first general election to the Legislative Council was held in 1948. Only British subjects were eligible to vote. Out of a potential electorate of more than 200,000, only 23,000 registered to vote, and more than 10,000 of them were Indians, recalled CM Turnbull in A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005.

The situation changed following the Rendel Commission recommendations when all born in Singapore were automatically registered to vote. More than 300,000 people became eligible to vote — 60 per cent of them Chinese – when there was a general election to the reformed Legislative Assembly in 1955. That was the first general election contested by the People’s Action Party (PAP). The election was won by the Labour Front headed by David Marshall, but the PAP won the next general election, in 1959, when Singapore achieved self-governance and Lee Kuan Yew became the Prime Minister.


Sir Stamford Raffles expected the Chinese to be the largest community in Singapore when he anchored at St John’s Island on January 28, 1819, on his way to set up a trading post for the East India Company. This is evident from the Raffles Town Plan, which allocated a large area southwest of the Singapore River to the Chinese.

Indian men and Indian money

Singapore couldn’t have become a British colony, however, without men and money, and approval, from India. Raffles, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra, had to sail to Calcutta and meet the Governor-General, the Marquess of Hastings, before he could set up a British settlement in Singapore.

Raffles came with sepoys of the 2nd Battalion 20th (Marine) Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry. He left Singapore after only nine days on the island, on February 7, 1819. When he came to Singapore again at the end of May 1819, he was accompanied by the Indian merchant, Naraina Pillai, and other immigrants from Penang. Raffles left again, for Bencoolen, after a month, but Pillai stayed on. Starting as a government clerk, he went into business and built the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, in 1827.

Parsi merchants trading between India and China also arrived early since Singapore was an important port of call on the trade route. One notable arrival was the Parsi Cursetjee Frommurzee who with his partner, John Little, set up a high-end store – Little, Cursetjee, & Co – in 1845. In 1853, the partners split and the company renamed John Little & Co. It had a chain of department stores in Singapore till recently.

Other early arrivals included Tamil Muslims from the Coromandel coast and the Nattukottai Chettiars, also from Tamil Nadu. The Muslims were traders and the Chettiars, traders and moneylenders.

There could have been no Singapore, as we know it, without Indians. Raffles visited Singapore for the third and last time between October 10, 1822, and June 9, 1823, and died three years later in London, on July 5, 1826, at the age of 44. In all, he spent less than a year in Singapore. However, his legacy endured. Singapore was built to his plan by his successors William Farquhar, John Crawfurd and others who followed.

Indian workers building colonial Singapore
Courtesy: NLB

And the builders were… Indian convicts. Sent from Bengal, Madras and Bombay from 1825 till 1860, they laid roads and erected buildings. North and South Bridge roads, Serangoon Road, Keppel Road, Raffles Place, Collyer Quay, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Cavenagh Bridge were all built by Indian convicts. Singapore was not only built with Indian labour; it was also sustained by Indian money. Singapore was part of the Presidency of Bengal.

Singapore was part of Bengal Presidency

Many may not know that, for a considerable time, Singapore, Penang and Malacca – the Straits Settlements – were part of the Presidency of Bengal, whose capital was Calcutta.

At its territorial peak in the 19th century, the Bengal Presidency extended from the present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in the west to Burma, Singapore and Penang in the east. (1858 map)

The reason: pure economics. Decreed a free port by Raffles, with no customs duties, Singapore attracted merchants and did more trade than other British settlements in the region. By 1825, the trade figures were Melaka $2.5 million, Penang $8.5 million, and Singapore about $22 million. But no customs duties meant less government revenue. “What revenue there was came largely from excise, collected through revenue ‘farms’, the opium one being the most remunerative. Otherwise India bore the costs,” wrote Nicholas Tarling in Colonial Singapore.

To cut the cost of administration, Singapore, Penang and Malacca were administered from Calcutta as part of the Presidency of Bengal from 1830 to 1851. The Straits Settlements remained under the control of the governor-general of India even after they ceased to be part of the Presidency.

But Singapore and the rest of the Straits Settlements ceased to be ruled from India following the Indian Revolution of 1857. East India Company rule ended in India after the revolution and the country was taken over by the Crown. The Straits Settlements also became a Crown Colony under direct British control a decade later, in 1867.

Indian success stories

Though separated from India, Singapore continued to attract merchants and workers from the subcontinent.

Indian troops continued to defend colonial Singapore even after it became a Crown Colony..

The historian Rajesh Rai in his book, Indians in Singapore 1819-1945, recalls how his grandfather, Kanta Rai, left his home in eastern Uttar Pradesh before World War I at the age of 15 to come to Singapore, where he became a successful businessman.

Similar stories abound. P Govindasamy Pillai ran away from his home in Tamil Nadu and came to Singapore in 1905 when he was 18 and became a business ‘’icon’’, notes SA Nathan in his book, Singapore: Nation Building and Indians’ Legacy. The book pays homage to eminent Indian Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Indians have always been a small minority in Singapore. By 1860, they did become Singapore’s second largest community, totalling 13,000 and displacing the Malays, according to Turnbull, but their percentage declined again.

“From being 16 per cent of the total population in 1860, and 9 per cent in 1957, the size of the Indian community shrank to an all-time low of 6.4 per cent in 1980. Since then, its size has slowly edged upwards to 7.9 per cent in 2000, to 8.7 per cent in 2005 and to its current size of 9.2 per cent,” notes Vineeta Sinha in her book, Indians, published by the Institute of Policy Studies and Straits Times Press in 2015. “The 2010 Census lists 237,473 Indian Singapore citizens, 7.35 per cent of the total citizen population, while the permanent resident figure stood at 110,646, 20.45 per cent of the permanent resident population.”

The government has sought to attract Indian professionals from the IT and finance, banking and investment sectors following concern over the emigration of qualified Singaporean Indians, says Sinha. She cites official data showing the average Indian household earns more than the Chinese or the Malay. The 2010 Singapore Census showed the following data about the median household income of Singaporeans (from work): Indians ($5,370), Chinese ($5,100), Malays ($3,844). The corresponding average household incomes were Indians ($7,664), Chinese ($7,326), Malays ($4,575).

“As a minority, Indians are also beneficiaries of the meritocratic system that has enabled many members of the community to move to the top in politics, the civil service, the military, business, professions and civic life. That they have done so without ethnic reservations and quotas speaks highly of their ability,” state K Kesavapany and Asad Latif in the book, 50 Years of Indian Community. “This system must be preserved at all costs.”

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