Arrival of early Indians in Singapore/Malaya

Soundara Nayaki Vairavan

The early connections

Southeast Asia has had for many centuries, close ties with India. From ancient times, the Tamils were interested in seaborne trade and the Tamil kingdoms of India developed splendid harbours which led them to engage in sea trade and commerce with the Malay archipelago. It was the Chola dynasty, which left a rich legacy in arts, culture and state craft in the southeast Asian region in the ancient times. It is said that the Pallava Dynasty brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia. During their rule, stories from the Hindu epics Ramayanam and Mahabaratham spread in artistic form through fine sculpting in the Hindu and Buddhist temples of the region.

The coming of Europeans to Southeast Asia

With the arrival of Europeans to this region in the 16th century, the compositions of Southeast Asia was transformed. The first wave of Europeans were drawn to the areas by the spice trade, venturing into the prosperous trade of traditional Tamil herbs like jathigai (nutmeg), masigai (oak Gall), lavangam (cloves), elakkai (cardamom) and many more. This period saw the establishment of trading posts such as Penang, Malacca and later Singapore. During the last quarter of the 19th century, European colonies started to experience the effect of the Industrial Revolution. In order to find the right markets to sell their manufactured goods, colonial territories were established in Southeast Asia. These territories were in need of labour for their ventures. This resulted in mass migration, especially from British India and China to Southeast Asia. European colonisation brought in profound changes to the region. They introduced Christianity, western forms of administration, courts of law and modern education.

The British Era

The British East India Company, a private firm established during the 19th century was a major player in the region. The focus of the firm was initially to trade with East Indies, but later was expanded to Indian subcontinent and Qing China. 

In the 18th Century, in order to safeguard its trading interests in India, the British East India Company felt the need for a base east of the Bay of Bengal.  It therefore established trading posts in Bencoolen (Sumatra) (1685) and in Penang (Malaya) (1786). 

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the return of the Dutch of the East Indies in 1815, the British were on the look out for a new outpost.  This let to the establishment of Singapore in 1819, which suited their geo-political and economic interests.

When Sir Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with the Malay Sultanate to acquire Singapore, the island was inhabited by just over 1,000 people. 

Arrival of Indians during this period

Among the early arrivals of Indians to Singapore were the sepoys, labourers, traders, moneylenders, civil servants and others who came in the wake of the East India Company.  They attended to the many needs of the Company and its officials.  Some of them came on a temporary basis planning to return to their homeland after earning enough, while others stayed on, on a permanent basis. 


Sepoys were the first Indians to arrive in Singapore.  When Stamford Raffles landed in 1819, he brought with him 120 sepoys from the Bengal naval infantry.  According to Rajesh Rai, in his book Indians in Singapore 1819-1945, that was published in 2014, he says, ‘In 1825, the first regiment was relieved by the 25th (Marine) Regiment, Bengal Native infantry and in April and May 1827, troops from the 35th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry took their place.  From 1827 to 1872, various regiments of the Madras Army held the garrisons of Singapore’.


Various Tamil Communities came to Singapore in search of their fortunes.  Some were in the moneylending business, some established themselves as traders and entrepreneurs selling spices and other commodities while others were involved in the textile business.  Small scale businesses included sundry shops, flower shops, food businesses, craftsmen and goldsmith, milkmen, washermen and barbers.


Britain had been shipping its convicts in India to Bencoolen in Sumatra (1787) and to Penang (1790).  Singapore received its first shipment of convicts and Malacca also became a convict station.  By the 1830s, Singapore, Malacca and Penang were penal colonies under British colonial rule.  Convicts who had committed crimes were sent to these Penal colonies.  According to scholars, the Straits Settlements received about 15,000 Indian convicts. 

They belonged to various classes, castes and spoke different languages.  They were stationed in a walled prison in Bras Basah Road. 

As Singapore grew, the colonial authorities found it difficult to recruit enough good, cheap Chinese or Malay labourers for the public projects; hence, convicts were used for this purpose and they contributed considerably to Singapore’s early economic growth.  They carried the soil to fill the marshland that later became Singapore’s commercial centre; they fought against tigers in the tiger-infested forest that stretched from Bukit Timah to Johor; they built the first roads; the Istana (which now houses the President’s office, St Andrew’s Church, Sri Mariamman Temple and the Serangoon road. 

Indentured Labourers

With the growth of the economy particularly in the plantation sector, there was a greater demand for unskilled labour.  Once again, India was the main source of workers.  The majority of the indentured labourers in the Straits Settlements came from South India and a few hundreds from Bengal.  It is observed that between 1844 and 1910 some 250,000 indentured Indian labourers aged between 15 and 45 came to Malaya.

Various Communities

Many communities arrived in Malaya/Singapore in search of fortunes.  To mention a few, the Chettiars, a trading community who did their money lending business came from the deep South Tamil Nadu in 1824; The first Sikhs from Punjab numbering about 165, arrived in Singapore in 1881 to join the police force; when the British signed the Pangkor Treaty with the Sultanate in Malaya in 1874, they embarked upon constructing the roadways and railways to develop the infrastructure of Malaya.  In 1890s, saw the first major arrival of Ceylon Tamil men into this region.  They came from the 12th Division of the Ceylon Pioneer Corps, to help survey the land and build the network of railways, roads and infrastructure connecting the rubber plantations and tin mines to the port.  Then the railways, Public works department, civil service and public administration service, medical service, educational institutions, courts of law and legal services employed many Ceylon Tamils; the stone slabs of Tamil Nadu, cited that Muslims came as sepoys or soldiers to Southeast Asian countries with the Chola Army during the 10th century.  When Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a trading post, he set up an office in Nagapattinam, to provide information about the job opportunities and the recruitment process in Singapore.  Muslims were thus encouraged to come over and were involved in the money exchange, textile, food and small shop businesses.  They also traded in typewriters, medicines and other goods which the British were in need of and their businesses were located at Market Street and Chulia Street. 

Early Indian Immigrant Settlement

Their first settlement was in Chinatown in Upper Cross street.  That was the reason why Naraina Pillai, the first Indian to have arrived Singapore in 1819 along the 120 sepoys that came with Sir Stamford Raffles built the first Hindu Temple at South Bridge Road in 1827.  Similarly to accommodate the Muslim community in in the Chinatown area, the Nagore Durga Shrine was built in Telok Ayer Street between 1828 and 1830.  The money changers, money lenders, petty shopkeepers were located at Chulia Street, Raffles and Market Street areas.  The Indians recruited to work in the plantations lived in the districts of Bukit Timah, Seletar and Pasir Panjang areas.  The Indians who monopolised the laundry business, known as dhobies, lived along Shoby Ghaut, which was named after the laundry businesses. 

Thus the early Indian immigrants have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the growth of Modern Singapore.


Rai, Rajesh, Indians in Singapore 1819-1945, 2014

K S Sandhu and A Mani, Indian Communities in South East Asia, ISEAS

Leslie Netto; L Narayanan; R Rajendran, Passage of India, Singapore Indian Association, 2003

Carl Vadivella Bella, Tragic Orphans Indians in Malaysia, ISEAS, 2015