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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Tamils - a Nation without a State

Singapore - சிங்கப்பூர்
- an estimated 200,000 Tamils live in Singapore -

When it is cool to greet with Vanakkam?

Tamil Guardian, 4 January 2001

Five years ago, the Tamil community in Singapore was concerned about the future of their Tamil language. Today, plays, poetry reading and events in Tamil are well-attended. Websites in Tamil are mushrooming and newspaper readership of Tamil Murasu has risen. What accounts for this surge in interest asks M. Nirmala for the Straits Times

Forget about Shakespeare in Love. How about Shakespeare in Tamil? That was what the Ravindran Drama Group did when it staged Macbeth in Tamil at the Drama Centre last month. It was a sellout performance.

As Mr Vadivalagan P.V.S.S, 30, an actor and a director in the 12-year-old drama group, recalls proudly, there were hardly any hitches on and off stage. Getting the $35,000 to stage the play was not a big problem as the National Arts Council and several organisations shelled out the money.

But the bigger achievement was the response of Tamil speakers to the theatrical effort, he says, adding: 'We even managed to get Tamil-speaking university graduates to act in the play.' What a far cry it was from the year 1988 when the drama group was set up amid much tongue-wagging. The oft-asked question: Was there a place for a Tamil drama group in Singapore?

Mr Vadivalagan remembers they had no money to stage their first play. 'So some of us worked part-time at construction sites and did catering services to raise the money.' The troupe's ability to pull off a Shakespearean play in Tamil this year is just one of several promising signs that the language, which was once thought to be on the decline, is undergoing a revival of sorts.

The Government has sent strong signals that Tamil will remain one of the four official languages. It is the official Indian language used in government campaigns and public-education programmes. Political luminaries have thrown in their support with no less a person than Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong turning up as the guest of honour at the Tamil Language Council's (TLC) fund-raising tea at the Shangri-La Ballroom last month. About $400,000 was raised.

The council was set up by the Government to promote the use of the language among Singapore's Tamil-speaking Indians. In schools, the Education Ministry has conducted a major review of the study of Tamil and programmes are in place to help both academically bright and weak students to learn the language.

In cyberspace, it has now become possible to order spices or saree through the Internet and Singapore is playing a leading role in introducing Tamil on the Internet. Five years ago there were worries that the increasing use of English spelt bad news for Tamil, just as it did for Mandarin. Indian politicians, academics, teachers and leaders of community organisations agonised over the future of the language.

But, today, Tamil speakers from Singapore to Sydney to San Francisco seem to be singing a different tune.

Uniting under an invisible banner, which could well read 'We love Tamil', Tamil speakers are asserting that they must keep the language alive by speaking it and making sure that this tradition continues with the younger generation.

Indeed, in 1995, there was real concern in the community that fewer Tamils were speaking Tamil. Representatives of 25 Indian organisations raised $200,000 and held a series of events which saw taxi drivers, teachers and Indian MPs doing their bit to celebrate Tamil language and culture.

The 1990 Population Census revealed a steady drop in the number of Tamil-speaking households - from 52 per cent of all Indian households in 1980 to 44 per cent in 1990. Indian Singaporeans make up 7 per cent of the population, with Tamils the major Indian group at 64 per cent.

The census showed that the use of English was having an impact in Chinese and Malay homes as well but it was not as serious.

A study by National Institute of Education lecturer K. Ramiah, from 1989 to 1992, reinforced the census findings on Tamil. He asked about 1,600 Indian primary and secondary students when they spoke Tamil and to whom. The results were disturbing.

In school, six out of 10 said they were comfortable speaking in English. More than 40 per cent said they would not study Tamil if it was not compulsory. At home, 80 per cent spoke Tamil to grandparents but only half did with parents and siblings.

In their questionnaires, students revealed their dislike for the language and made little effort to hide their feelings. One wrote: 'It drives me crazy just to look at a comprehension passage.' Another said: 'My parents tell me that if I learn Tamil, I will only get a job as a coolie.' So what has happened in recent years to spark off a renaissance of the 2,000-year-old language?

According to Indian MPs and professionals, the single biggest factor has been the impact of the Internet on Tamil. The availability of Tamil on the Internet opened up new links for Tamil speakers all over the world and it became difficult for many to ignore the ethnic importance and size of the Indian diaspora.

True, there might be only about 120,000 Tamil speakers in Singapore. But the population of Tamils worldwide stands at more than 70 million.

And in many corners of the globe the Tamils go to, they set up websites, offering Tamil lessons, capturing the rich history of the language and reminding Tamil speakers to keep the language alive.

As one academic notes: 'Five years ago, many were starting to give up hope and believe that there was no future for Tamil. Now new technology has taken the language into new frontiers and the language is having a life of its own in cyberspace.'

Mr Mani M. Manivannan, 44, a software engineering manager in the Silicon Valley, who has been living in the United States for 22 years and is now an American citizen, tells Insight via e-mail: 'There are lots of complex, interesting ideas that we have inherited. 'We need to discover this gold that we are sitting on.'

This development has been good news for business because e-commerce can now tap a huge global Tamil village. One businessman says: 'Imagine 120,000 Tamils in Singapore, then 40 million in India and then it expands to 70 million all over the world. The business potential now becomes enormous.'

In Singapore, another factor that is making Tamil more widely spoken and accepted is the growing number of Indian professionals who are coming from the Tamil-speaking parts of South India. Most of them are in the IT, engineering, accounting and business lines. One typical Tamil expatriate is Mr Murali Natarajan, 40, who came to Singapore in 1993 and joined a jewellery company.

Today, in Solutionnet International, the company where he is vice-president, about 70 out of a staff of 100 are IT professionals from South India. The company does Internet consulting and offers Internet banking solutions.

Changes are also taking place in the homes of many Tamil Singaporeans. Parents of children who are going to school are brushing up on their written and spoken Tamil so that they can coach and guide their children with their school work.

Dr Chitra Rajaram, 36, editor of Tamil Murasu, notes that the most popular section of the newspaper is a students' supplement on Mondays, when its circulation hits 16,000.

At the government level, changes have also been made to foster a Tamil-language elite and to help bright students who have difficulty learning the language.

Now more students can also take higher Tamil and this is aimed at encouraging students to take up Tamil-related courses at university level.

Tamil language teachers can ask the Education Ministry to sponsor their full-time undergraduate studies, in the language they teach. This is the preferred approach as it is not practical for the local institutions to have degree courses in theTamil language to cater to the small number who teach it.

In the view of Mr Arun Mahizhnan, director of the secretariat for the International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil, the language is learnt and appreciated for several reasons. 'Tamil is learnt not to just gather information but for a whole range of personal, social, political and economic reasons. If we confine language learning to any one dimension, we are just shooting ourselves in the foot!'

The community must also pump in more resources to help Tamil-speaking students overcome the educational hurdles. Perhaps, then, Tamil speakers can say with pride: Tamil sohru pohdum, which, loosely translated, means, 'You will never have an empty rice bowl if you speak Tamil.' And it will be cool to say Vanakam (meaning 'greetings' in Tamil). (Edited for brevity)



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