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Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement (1786–1957)

KERNIAL SINGH SANDHU (b. 1929 – d. 1992) was a former Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and a Professor at University of Malaya.

Cambridge University Press (First Paperback Printing, 2010)
346 pages including Bibliography and Index


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Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement (1786–1957) discusses the Indians who lived in Malaya and the effects of their presence on Malayan social and economic development between 1786 and 1957, the period of British rule. The author examines in detail the character and flow of Indian immigration during its main fluctuating periods; from about the 1790s to the 1930s and from the 1930s to 1957. The social and economic causes of the immigration are studied and the author shows that the movement of Indian immigrants resulted in changes in the population structure and the cultural landscape of Malaya. Originally published in 1969, this book was based on a wide variety of sources, including the official and private records of the Indian, Malayan and British governments.

The work is divided into three parts, the first dealing with Indian immigration into British Malaya, the second analyses the content and characteristics of the Indian population that resulted from this migration and the third discusses the economic role of the Indians in modern Malaya. An Epilogue gathers together the main strands of the argument and sums up the impact of Indians on the Malay Peninsula.

The first part contains the central theme of the work and occupies over half of it. After briefly touching on Indian contacts with Malaya before the 19th Century, the author goes on to grapple with the major problems of Indian immigration in the period of British influence and control. Very aptly he begins to look at the position in the home country and seeks to unravel the factors that caused this historic phenomenon of Indian labour emigration in the 19th Century.

The discussion is pertinent to the whole general field of Indian emigration during this period and the points made in relation to Malaya apply with equal force to migration to Ceylon, Burma, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa and the West Indian Colonies. In this discussion as well as in some other parts of the work the author tends to overemphasise the force of the Hindu scriptural injunction against travel over the ‘salty ocean’. If the higher castes were ritually prevented from sailing across the ocean, there were also rites to purify them if they did.

On the very fascinating subject of the economic factors that motivated migration and the economic and social groups from which these migrants came, the author relies on existing literature which itself is not sufficiently detailed or penetrating as to satisfactorily explain the actual position of South Indian agriculture, and the state of agricultural classes in the villages which provided the largest number of emigrants. Further, too much attention is paid to the landless labour and serf groups of South India as those from which the migrants were drawn. There were also a large proportion of members of the land-owning castes that emigrated, some of them of middle to high status in the social scale: padaiachchi, kallar, vanniar, vellalar among Tamils and reddi and nayudu among Telugus.

The author is on much firmer ground when he moves over to a discussion of the factors that promoted a demand for labour in the Malay peninsula and the steps taken to satisfy this demand. He shows how the expanding plantation economy and public services required certain types of labour and these were fulfilled by assisted and unassisted migration. The sections describing the mechanics of labour migration, the methods of recruitment, transport and dispersal in Malaya and the laws governing this phenomenon are the most enlightening parts of the work. They appear to contain everything that can be said on the subject and the author has certainly tapped every possible source to enrich his account. While labour migration occupies a greater part of this description, attention is also paid to other types of migrants—commercial, professional, clerical, security and armed services personnel, farmers and convicts.

A section brings together the statistical data collected by the author on migration and discusses it meaningfully, with tables and graphs in terms of annual in-flow and out-flow. The data gathered here clearly establishes the short term character of Indian migration to Malaya. There is also the singular phenomenon that the net immigration over this total period of 170 years is much larger than the Indian population of Malaya in 1957. The author points strongly to the only possible explanation that there must have been a very high death rate among these net immigrants which accounts for the low residue that remained at the time of independence.

The demographic results of the immigration movement are the theme of the second part, discussed under four heads. Here again a mass of statistical data is assembled together to show the growth of the Indian population in the various states of Malaya. The author analyses meticulously the figures of each country-wide census from the end of the 19th Century, and takes us through each stage of growth with explanatory comments. The question is considered from all angles: sex, age groups, geographical and occupational distribution. The growth of the Indian population is always considered in the context of the total demographic growth of Malaya and of comparable changes in the other major immigrant community, the Chinese.

A section in this part discusses the pattern of distribution and another the characteristics of Indian settlements in cities, towns, plantations and villages. All these points are neatly illustrated with detailed sectional maps and charts. This part concludes with a linguistic break down of the Indian population, giving a picture of the size of each linguistic sub-group in the Indian minority, and its area of concentration. A factor that emerges from this study is the increasing urbanisation of the Indians of Malaya in the 20th Century and the trend to move away from plantations to the connurbations.

The last part deals with the economic role of the Indians. The well-known phenomenon of Indian concentration in the plantation industry is brought out with statistical detail and in comparison with the role played by other ethnic groups. Less known facts about Indian ownership of land, small-holding agriculture and rural settlement are brought out. A number of attempts were made to settle Indians on land, most of which were abortive. The few that remain are a symbol of what could have been done, given some more initiative from the colonial government and more leadership among the labourers themselves. The role of Indian labour in the development of the transport and communications system as well as of the small Indian capitalist and enterpreneur class are discussed in the final section.

List of illustrations
List of tables
Glossary of Indian, Malay and other local terms


Part I. Indian Immigration into British Malaya: Origins and Trends
1. Indians in pre-British Malaya
2. Causes of Indian immigration into British Malaya
3. Types of migrants and recruitment or movement
4. Emigration–immigration law and practice
5. Flow and characteristics of migration

Part II. The Indian Population of Malaya: Growth and Associated Characteristics
6. Growth and structure
7. Pattern and distribution
8. Settlement characteristics
9. Ethno-linguistic composition

Part III. Indians in the Modern Malayan Economy
10. Agriculture and industry
11. Communications and commerce


1. Indian labour immigration into Malaya, 1844-1941
2. Types and numbers of Indian assisted labour arrivals in Malaya, 1844-1938
3. Total Indian arrivals in Malaya, 1786-1957
4. Total Indian departures from Malaya, 1786-1957

Select bibliography

Weight0.58 kg
Dimensions23 × 15 × 2 cm




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