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Indian migration and population change in Malaya, c.100-1957 A.D. : a historical geography Sandhu, Kernial Singh

Abstract

The study of the historical geography of Malaya is fraught with more than the usual difficulties. Firstly, source material is scarce, often fragmentary and obscure. Secondly, documentation of the little material available has only just begun and is beset with many handicaps, not the least of which is the dearth of qualified workers. Finally, much of the information available is inaccurate and unreliable, rendering its meaningful interpretation extremely difficult. Typical though it is of many studies in Malaya, it is especially applicable to the study of the Indian immigration and population change, particularly in the initial stages. Though some progress has been made during the present century in resolving these discrepancies, ommissions, at times serious, still remain in the information regarding the Indians in Malaya. For example, the tale of the evolution of the population pattern of the Indians in Malaya has yet to be told. In this study an attempt has been made to assemble the information on the Indians in Malaya and analyse the population changes among them from the beginning of their migration, about 2,000 years ago, to 1957, the year of the last population census of Malaya and of Merdeka (Independence), which marks the end of one and the beginning of another epoch. Indian contacts with Malaya go back to pre-historic times. The full implications of the wealth of the region were, however, not realized by them till the beginning of the Christian era. From then on, for more than a thousand years, there was a constant movement of Hindu and Buddhist traders, adventurers, priests and literati to the veritable El Dorados of Malaya and other Southeast Asian areas. This traffic, through intermarriage and cultural assimilation, led to the foundation and growth of a number of city-states, since extinct, and the "Indianization" of the Malay way of life. This was the apogee of Indian influence in Malaya, for with the rise of the Malacca Sultanate and the arrival of European powers, particularly British, the whole position of the Indians was altered. In contrast to their earlier brethren, who represented a powerful and respected commercial and economic force, the Indians who now flocked into Malaya were chiefly illiterate labourers. This transformation took place as British power was established in both India and Malaya and the economies of the two countries subordinated to imperial needs, which entailed the curbing of Indian enterprise and the encouragement of a flow of cheap, docile Indian labour in large numbers to work the Malayan plantations and Government projects. In their wake followed petty shop-keepers, tradesmen, clerks and professional men to cater to special needs. This latter movement continued long after the labour migration was stopped by the Indian Government in 1938 but in a gradually decreasing volume, following immigration restrictions imposed by the Malayan Government in the post-war period. It was this section of the Indian migrants which first sank its roots in Malaya, thus beginning the stabilization of the local Indian population. The Indian population has increased steadily, through immigration until the 1930's, and later through natural increase, following the improvement in the sex-ratios and the general stabilization of the community. Most of the Indians in Malaya are now local born and are re-producing at a faster rate than the other communities. If the present trend continues their numbers are expected to pass the 1,500,000 mark by 1980. With stabilization, changes are also taking place in their occupational structure and urban-rural ratios. Following the Indian Government's ban on unskilled labour emigration and the spread of education in Malaya the proportion of labourers in the Indian population has been steadily declining. For example,it was estimated that less than 50 per cent of the economically active Indians were labourers in I960, compared to more than 80 per cent in the early 1920's. This trend will probably continue as the majority of the younger generation Indians appear to prefer clerical, technical, commercial and professional occupations. In 1921,less than 10 per cent of the Indians were urban dwellers but by 1957 more than half of them were living in urban centres. By I960, the proportion of the urban dwellers in the total Indian population was estimated to be as high as 60 per cent. If this rapid rate of urbanization is maintained, and there is no reason to believe that it will not be, Indians might well challenge the Chinese as the most urbanized community of Malaya.

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