Tamils - a Nation without a State
- 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
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
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
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
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
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)