Suvadhu describes the Indian presence in Malaysia from before the twentieth century, highlighting significant events as well as the trials and tribulations faced by the community. For us to move into the 21st Century with success,we need to re-trace our footsteps and look at the important moments in history, analyze the mistakes we made, think wisely and plan better for the future. For that to happen, we need to stand united.
In order to review specific events, I have summarized key issues by year, where applicable. At this point, I would like to thank Makkal Osai for giving me the opportunity to present Suvadhu.
– M. Arivananthan
Part 1: Ties that bind
It is a known fact that India and Malaya enjoyed close trade and cultural ties since prehistoric times. In addition, the spread of Buddhism on such a grand scale to Southeast Asia only lent credence to its strong influence.
With the arrival of the first Indian settlers to Malaya, a major cultural revolution occured in the areas of the Malay classical language and customs. Evidence of this is seen in the royal customary practices of the Malay Sultanate, which are reminiscent of Indian traditional customs and culture to this day.
South Indian traders plied their way to foreign lands including West Asia, China, Southeast Asia and Rome. They traded in precious stones, pearls, gold, coral, silk, teak and aromatic agarwood in the western world with great success. This was a golden age for them and they lived bountiful lives.
Over time, history took a turn and the colonial era began.
The British occupation saw Indians being thrown into ships and sold like cattle. Their system of labour through bondage (coolie) using overseers (kangani) ingeniously marked the beginning of slavery and human trafficking that flourished for decades.
Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, C.N. Annadurai, also known as Arignar Anna (Anna the scholar) once commented on this sad reality of Tamils who went abroad to better their lives in the first half of the 20th Century,
“Is the seawater salty from the tears of Tamils who left their motherlands in search of better livelihoods?”Indeed, the plight of Tamils who went to Malaya and other countries in search of jobs was pitiful. Disillusioned and heart-broken, these Southerners would be the ones responsible for clearing land and establishing agriculture wherever they were shipped. They worked honestly and unselfishly, often falling victim to snake bites and tiger attacks. Ravaged by fever and disease, they worked harder still until death claimed them, fast becoming fodder for the very land that they sought to live on.
Today, the glistening road transport systems, the towering high rise buildings and the manicured gardens that stand in these countries, have the long-forgotten Indian workers to thank.
The torturous existence that the Indian race faced in Malaya and other countries cannot be fathomed. South Indian workers were cheated into coming to Malaya and used as slaves and estate coolies by so-called middlemen. With the promise of land and money, they were taken to work in sugarcane, coffee, tea and rubber plantations.
Their despair and suffering tears the hearts of people, even today.
Mahakavi Bharati, the grand pioneer of modern Tamil poetry once wrote a poem about the downtrodden masses who found themselves in foreign lands.
They toil with their hands and feet, falling on the sugarcane plantation,
Toiling in the blazing sun, dissolving themselves.
Is there no way to end their suffering? Is there no cure?
Being worked like cattle till they are worn.
Do they think of their motherland? Their mother?
Do they think of their family back home?
Oh wind – you have likely heard their sobs and cries – the cries of our ladies in their wells of sorrow
Oh wind – will you relate their story?(Please note the translation above in no way captures the elegance and beauty of the original poem ‘Karumbu Thottatil’. These words merely hint at the essence.)