How Malaya became a 'death trap' for early labourers from India

This is an edited excerpt from the book, Journeys: Tamils In Singapore, 1800-Present, by Murugaian Nirmala. Published by Straits Times Press, 2018, it is available for $30 at leading bookstores.

Between 1852 and 1937, about two million labourers from India came to Malaya to work on plantations, roads and railways and other building projects. The largest average influx of Indian labour into Malaya was between 1911 and 1920, when over 90,000 arrived, more than double the figure from 1901 to 1910. The need for migrant workers came about because the English were convinced that the future of Malaya was in growing and exporting crops. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES ANNUAL
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Deception. It was the name of the game for recruiters looking for labourers to sign up to work in Malaya and Singapore. In other words, it was deception, plain and simple, that led to many of the first Indians landing in this part of the world. The swarthy men who were seeking to fill jobs preyed on the innocence of those they sought out, dangling grand promises before them and hooking them with false dreams.

The labourers were duped into believing that they were going to a place where life would be better. One report in the Indian Emigrant, a Madras monthly which had reports on Indian emigrants, said in 1915 that the impression many in Tamil Nadu had was that they were moving on to life on an estate. The word "estate" in Tamil is "thottam", or garden. "Thus the labourer before leaving India imagines the work in an estate is like the work he has to do in an Indian flower garden."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 12, 2019, with the headline How Malaya became a 'death trap' for early labourers from India. Subscribe