Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> Malaysia > The Changing Positions of Two Tamil Groups in Malaysia - 'Indian' Tamils & 'Ceylon' Tamils - Clarence E. Glick

Tamils - a Nation without a State

Malaysia - மலேசியா
- an estimated 1,060,000 Tamils live in Malaysia -

The Changing Positions of Two Tamil Groups in Malaysia
'Indian' Tamils & 'Ceylon' Tamils 

Clarence E.Glick
paper presented at Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 1968

'Indian' Tamils and 'Ceylon' Tamils

Many commentators on multi-racial nations, such as Malaysia, tend to describe the interracial situation in broad generalizations about major divisions of the population, using such large categories as "Malay", " Chinese", and "Indian ". 

Anyone who studies such situations closely, however, soon realizes that these are indeed quite broad categories. The people so categorized seldom constitute homogenous communities instead, they tend to belong to sub-groups with many differences - linguistic, religious, economic, political, and educational. These differences have important effects on the positions of the sub-groups in the larger society. 

When I began to study leaders of Indian origin in Malaysia, it quickly became apparent that these intra-group differences must be taken into account. In a paper at the First International Conference of Tamil Studies, I considered some of the major subdivisions of the group called " Indians " in Malaysia.(1

In this paper I plan to concentrate on certain aspects of two sub-groups of Malaysians of Tamil origin: those who came to Malaya from Tamil Nad and those who came from Ceylon. Because they share a common cultural heritage and speak a common language, it might appear at first glance that these groups would be part of a relatively homogenous Malaysian Tamil community. But there are many differences between them that have given them distinctive positions in the developing Malaysian nation, reflected in their conceptions of themselves as separate groups and in their attitudes toward each other. The circumstances under which the two groups came to Malaya help to explain these distinctive positions.

Relation of Position to the Pattern of Migration

Although, as is well known, trading contacts between Tamil Nad and the Malayan peninsula extend back over many centuries, the period most relevant here began with the establishment of British control over Malaya, and the migration of Tamils from Tamil Nad and Ceylon. 

With the establishment of Pax Britannica in Malaya, British officials who were transferred from Ceylon to Malaya recruited Ceylon Tamils as clerks in the colonial administration and as supervisors in the construction and operation of railways, posts, telegraphs, docks, and other facilities. Several thousand Ceylon Tamils came to Western Malaya during the last quarter of the l9th century and the first quarter of the twentieth, with a very large portion of the employed male immigrants entering government service at the middle levels. Most of the estimated number of 30,000 Ceylon Tamils in Western Malaya today have their origin in the migration of this period.

Tamils from Tamil Nad began to migrate to Western Malaya in large numbers about a generation later than the Tamils from Ceylon, and relatively few of them were recruited for government service on the same levels as the Ceylon Tamils. Considerable numbers came as unskilled, manual labourers for the same government enterprises in which the Ceylon Tamils were employed as supervisors, but the largest number came as labourers for the rubber estates and tin mines, particularly after the beginning of this century. Largely as a result of this movement, the Tamils of Tamil Nad descent in Western Malaya today number about 750,000, approximately 25 times as many as the Ceylon Tamils.

Several significant differences between the two groups are associated with the circumstances under which they came to Malaya. First, the Ceylon Tamils who qualified for the clerical and supervisory roles were not only English-speaking but had some education in English-medium schools. In contrast, a very high proportion of those who came from Tamil Nad prior to World War II were illiterate and knew no English.

Second, the Ceylon Tamils tended to come from rising middle-class families, mostly Hindu in religious tradition but including many Christians, and commonly having relatives who had been in government service under the British in Ceylon or Malaya. The majority of the Indian Tamils were from labouring class families and from villages where they had little contact with the British; most were Hindus and the non-Hindus were more frequently Moslem than Christian.

Third, their pay scales and relatively permanent jobs enabled the Ceylon Tamils to establish families in Malaya quite soon after their arrival, if wives and children did not actually come with them. There was, consequently, an early Malaya-born generation, and at any given census period the ratio of men to women has been lower among the Ceylon Tamils than among the Indian Tamils. The latter, for economic and other reasons, did not establish families in Malaya so quickly. Labourers recruited for the estates and mines rarely brought wives or families with them, and even the Tamil businessmen, such as the Chettiars, commonly left their families in India. As living conditions on the estates and mines improved, women from the same castes as the male laborers were brought in from Tamil Nad and employed as workers along with the men. Eventually families were established, and with high birth rates there was a rapid growth of Malaya-born Tamils in this group. By 1957 the sex ratio of Tamil Nad Tamils had declined to 127 males per 100 females, but this was still somewhat higher than that of the Ceylon Tamils which had declined to 115, not far above normal for an established population.

Fourth, because of circumstances already summarized, most of the Ceylon Tamils are now of the second, third, or fourth generation; most of the Ceylon-born generation is gone, although there is a small and influential number of recent migrants who have come to Malaysia in academic and professional positions. Among the Indian Tamils, the India-born generation is still an important element. There has also been an influx of university graduates, in even larger numbers than from Ceylon.

Fifth, the Malaya-born Ceylon Tamils were concentrated, almost from the beginning, in the towns and cities that were government administration centres, while the Tamil Nad Tamils were predominantly located in more isolated rural areas.

Sixth, there was a striking difference in the educational experiences of the Malaya-born Tamils of the two groups. Ceylon Tamil children, because of their urban residence, had readier access to English-medium schools, and their families were more likely to encourage them to attend these schools in preparation for government and professional positions. With family incomes well above those of the Tamil labourers, many Ceylon Tamils sent their children not only through secondary school but also overseas for professional education. 

Most of the early generations of Tamil children of Tamil Nad parentage had fewer educational opportunities; in the rural areas they had little access to English-medium schools which would prepare them for higher education, and they came largely from families with little or no tradition of formal schooling. Children of estate and mine labourers commonly did not attend school at all or were taken out of school as soon as they could add to the family income. 

While the 1957 Census of Malaya did not report educational data for Tamils separately, some inferences can be drawn from the data reported for the " Indian " category, which show that 29 % of the Indian males and 67 % of the Indian females fifteen years of age and over had never attended school. Tamils constituted 80% of the Indian population in 1957; the percentages of Tamil Nad Indians who had not attended school would undoubtedly have been higher than for the Indian group as a whole, while those for the Ceylon Tamils would certainly have been much lower. It must be recognized that this is a consequence of earlier circumstances; the situation is rapidly changing for the Malaysia-born descendants of immigrants from Tamil Nad, with their increasing movement to the larger cities, the growth of a middle class increasingly conscious of the economic and status values of formal schooling, and the improvement in rural education since independence. Nevertheless, the earlier educational advantage of the Ceylon Tamil group has been an important factor in their conception of themselves as having a status distinct from, and superior to, that of the mass of labouring class Tamils of Tamil Nad origin.

The study of top leaders of Indian origin in Kuala Lumpur mentioned above supports the view that the Ceylon Tamils have benefited from the accumulation of educational and other advantages they have enjoyed. A simple index of this is the fact that although the Indian Tamil population in Kuala Lumpur District is more than seven times as large as that of the Ceylon Tamils, leaders of Indian Tamil origin among these top fifty leaders were less than twice as numerous as those of Ceylon Tamil origin - 22 as compared with 13.

Changing position and status of the two Tamil groups

From the foregoing discussion, it is obvious that the Ceylon Tamil group was in a much more favourable position in Malaya during the British colonial period than was the Tamil Nad group.(2)The Ceylon Tamils were closely associated with the ruling power; they served as the permanent staff of bureaus and departments under British officials who came and went; and they developed a sense of importance and influence which gave them a group cohesiveness at the same time that it created a distance between them and other groups in the population, including the other Tamils. The Tamil Nad Tamils were heavily concentrated in the least desirable, lowest paid jobs and in the rural areas; occupationally and geographically they were far from the centers of influence; and most of them lacked a sense of identity and status that would have included all Tamil Nad Tamils in Malaya.(3)

During the last years of British rule in Malaya the differential status of the Ceylon Tamils and the Indian Tamils was emphasized when the colonial regime extended representation to Indians, Chinese, and Malays on government councils, and the persons who were appointed as the " Indian " representatives turned out sometimes to be Ceylon Tamils. This exacerbated a growing resentment of the Ceylon Tamils among the Indians, the majority of whom were Tamils.(4) The Ceylon Tamils were increasingly regarded as collaborators in the perpetuation of British colonial rule, when many other Tamils in Malaya were supporting the Indian National Congress, and later when they became involved in the Malayan independence movement.

When the Federation of Malaya became an independent nation in 1957, the two Tamil groups began to undergo a reversal of positions in the political power structure. The government came under the control of the Alliance, a federation of three "racial" political parties: the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). The changing position of the two Tamil groups is in many ways reflected in developments within the MIC. The MIC had its origins, as its name indicates, in Malayan Indians' sympathy with the Indian National Congress, a sympathy which few Ceylon Tamils demonstrated. 

The MIC was organized in 1946 with an Indian nationalist, an India-born Tamil, as its first president. Three of the five presidents have been Indian Tamils, the other two having been North Indians. The current president, who took office following a severe internal conflict within the MIC in 1954, is a Malaya-born Tamil of Tamil Nad descent. With more than three-fourths of the Indians in Malaysia being of this descent and with an increasing sense of unity among Tamil Nad Tamils, it is not surprising that Indian Tamils now predominate in the membership and leadership of the MIC.s Although from the beginning a few of the members and even some of the spokesmen have been Ceylon Tamils, some important Ceylon Tamils have not joined. 

Within the MIC there have been clashes between Tamil Nad Tamils and Ceylon Tamils aspiring to leadership roles; some of my informants have reported resentment by Tamil Nad Tamils of what they considered to be the superior, sometimes condescending attitudes of Ceylon Tamils toward them. 

By 1965 it appeared that most of the former Ceylon Tamil members were no longer in the MIC. Instead, they have been allowed to acquire " direct membership " in the Alliance as individuals. But this does not give them, as a group, a collective base for political bargaining. There is a Ceylon Federation which has long been the main group speaking for Malaysians of Ceylonese origins, led since its inception mainly by Ceylon Tamils, but it has no status as a political party. Its efforts to be accepted as a fourth partner in the Alliance have not succeeded.(5) Minor concessions have been made: the head of the Ceylon Federation has been appointed a Senator in the Dewan Raja (the upper house of the Malaysian Parliament), presumably to represent the interests of the Ceylonese Malaysians, most of whom are Ceylon Tamils, and a few Ceylon Tamils have been permitted to stand as Alliance candidates in State and municipal elections and have been elected.

In spite of these concessions, the once influential role of the Ceylon Tamils as a group is viewed by many Ceylon Tamil leaders as declining. In the colonial administration, because of their ready access to British officials, the Ceylon Tamil group wielded an influence in decision-making far out of proportion to their relative numbers. Now, in a political system where power is allocated through voting at the polls, the Ceylon Tamils, with their small population in comparison to the Tamil Nad Tamils, cannot exercise comparable group influence in the political party system, and at the same time they are losing their prominent position in the governmental bureaucracy. Regulations on the filling of administrative posts now favor the employment of Malays. Ceylon Tamils still in the bureaucracy can no longer use their influence as effectively as they once did to secure the appointment of other Ceylon Tamils, and they are inclined to view the present situation as one in which positions above Ceylon Tamils are often being filled by Malays with fewer qualifications and less experience. There is a corresponding decline of the self-image of the Ceylon Tamils as the backbone of the bureaucracy, an efficient in-group which " kept things running."

Since Ceylon Tamil families still enjoy better than average incomes, they continue to provide their children with educational advantages with which to compete for professional and technical jobs. However, the older Ceylon Tamils have been concentrated so largely in government jobs that they are in a weak position to help their youth get jobs in commerce and industry in the same way that they were once able to get government appointments for them. There is, thus, more feeling among them that the younger generation will have to get ahead on the basis of individual abilities and personal contacts, or through connection with non-ethnic organizations such as professional associations and labour unions.

The group position of the Tamil Nad Tamils is viewed by their leaders somewhat more optimistically. They do not have the nostalgia that some of the Ceylon Tamils have for the " good old days", because they are conscious of the low status accorded the estate and mine workers who have constituted such a large part of their group. Now, through their larger numbers and their partnership in the Alliance through the MIC, they do have some political power, and two Cabinet Ministers are of Tamil Nad descent. 

There is some feeling, however, that the political recognition and benefits received through this partnership are not commensurate with their numbers in the voting population. It is true that Indian Tamils face obstacles to improvement of their economic position. The growing fragmentation of the rubber estates and the declining price of natural rubber undermine the employment security of poorly educated Tamil estate workers. But there is a feeling of collective strength in facing these threats, partly because of increasing trade union power and partly because they do have representation in the government. 

The National Union of Plantation Workers, by far the largest trade union in Malaysia, most of whose members are Indian Tamils, has wielded much more influence since independence than unions did under the British regime. Its president, an India-born Tamil, has been appointed a Senator in the Dewan Raja by the Alliance government, and in this role he is viewed as a spokesman for the interests of all unionized workers generally and for plantation workers specifically. 

Moreover, the security of the plantation workers has become a concern of the President of the MIC who is also Minister of Works, Posts, and Telecommunications. Through his leadership and the efforts of his associates in the MIC, the National land Finance Co-operative Society was organized in 1960. It has raised money to purchase rubber estates in order to prevent their fragmentation and the displacement of workers, mostly Tamils. The more than 20,000 acres purchased so far is only about a third of the acreage actually fragmented since the association, was formed, but this movement has important symbolic value in giving the threatened Indian Tamil workers a feeling that there are Indian Tamil leaders in positions of influence who are concerned about their plight and are trying to do something to help them.

Although the majority of employed workers of Tamil Nad origin are still in lower skilled, lower paid jobs as compared with the Ceylon Tamils, the status of the group as a whole is less disadvantageous under present conditions. Through the influence of union officers, political leaders, and government representatives of Tamil Nad origin a more satisfactory group image is developing. At the same time, an increasing number of Malaysia-born descendants of immigrants from Tamil Nad have been obtaining the educational qualifications by which, as individuals, they hope to climb the economic and social ladder. 

However, they face the same obstacles in obtaining government employment as do the Ceylon Tamils in a developing nation in which government positions seem to be particularly coveted. They face the competition of their Malaysia-born Chinese peers in commercial and industrial segments of the economy which have been strongholds of Chinese entrepreneurs. 

Higher education or specialized education in preparation for professional and technical positions holds some promise for advancement, but many of the younger, educated Indian Tamils, like the younger Ceylon Tamils, feel a sense of uncertainty and insecurity about their future. Perhaps this is another instance of the " rising expectations " syndrome: as a minority's self-conception improves, the ambitions of its members rise faster than the opportunities to satisfy them. But ironically, the youths of the formerly advantaged group, the Ceylon Tamils, are now facing the same problems as the educated youth of the Indian Tamil group. However, the Ceylon Tamils are a minority within a minority, having to cope with a more drastic re-evaluation of their group status.


1 Leaders of Indian Origin in Kuala Lumpur: A Study of Minority Group Leadership and Trends Toward National Cohesion." Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies Vol. I,  I.A.T.R. Kuala Lumpur, 1968, pp. 227-41.

2 Many of the observations and generalisations set forth in this section are based upon interviews made in Kuala Lumpur during 1962 and 1965, particularly interviews with top leaders of Tamil Nad and Ceylon Tamil origin. The paper therefore reflects ways in which leaders from these two Tamil groups assess changes in the position of their own groups over time, in the relative positions of the two groups, and in the image of their respective groups in the larger social structure of western Malaya. because of space limitations, it has not been possible to include much of the supporting data.

3 S. ARASARATNAM, " Social and Political Ferment in the Malayan Indian Community 1945-1955, " Proc. of the First Int. Conf. Sem. of Tam. St., Vol. I, pp. 141-55.

4 USHA MAHAJANI, The Role of Indian Minorities in Burma and Malaya, Bombay Vora & Co., 1960, pp. 102-3. Dr. Arasaratnam also refers to reactions among Tamils to the appointment of a disproportionate number of North Indians in Malaya to fill such positions.

5 ARASARATNAM, op. cit. After 1963 the M.I.C. became the Malaysian Indian Congress.

6 Straits Budget, August 23, 1967, p. 9; September 20, 1967, p. 8.


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