The Star Malaysia - Star2

More info on indentured labour

- DR SWAGATA SINHA ROY Assistant professor, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman & co-organiser, Paperback Book Club Kuala Lumpur

IN the article “Calling them to account” (Human Writes, The Star,

June 28; online at labour), columnist Mangai Balasegara­m mentions a book that focuses on the topic of indentured labour, A New System Of Slavery (1974) by Hugh Tinker.

Perhaps I could add to her account by bringing to readers’ attention more recent published accounts of literature (both fiction and nonfiction) on the subject of indentured labour. These works could serve as a springboar­d for further intelligen­t discourse about what is often thought to be a difficult topic to openly discuss.

In the 1980s, a towering figure in Malaysian fiction, KS Maniam, gave voice to the anguish, pain and hardships of indentured labourers in The Return (1981), which for many years served as a reading text in many schools in the peninsula.

Further, in 2018, Journeys: Tamils In Singapore, 1800-Present

by Nirmala Murugian, published in Singapore, gives a detailed account of indentured labour in Malaya. She writes: “According to a report by HJ Stokes, Acting Sub Collector, Tanjore, this was how the system operated by speculator­s in the 1870s worked: ‘A shipowner advances money to a head maistry (recruiting agent) who employs under him several subordinat­e maistries. These latter have to go about to villages and persuade coolies to emigrate. This they do by representi­ng, in bright colours, prospects of enrichment

and advance. The ignorant coolies believe easily, and, while some volunteer to go to try their fortune, many are persuaded.’ ... According to documents in the Government of Madras Proceeding­s in the Public Department 1870, the traffic was so profitable that recruiters kidnapped boys and women as well. ... Until 1910, when the recruitmen­t system was changed, a majority of labourers migrated to Singapore and Malaya via this abuse-riddled system.

“Unlike Chinese labourers, who

could move around freely on the island, Indian workers were isolated from the rest of the local population, housed in barracks and severely punished for acts of disobedien­ce or for not doing sufficient work. Toddy shops and cinemas were opened for them, and many became addicted to toddy, known as the poor man’s whisky, and sought escape through Tamil films with themes of romance, betrayal and violence.”

In 2018, two further things converged: the University of London

(Balasegara­m notes in her column is tracking companies with historical links to the slave trade), in partnershi­p with its School of Advanced Studies, published an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Writings From The Descendant­s Of Indenture (available at The only entry from Malaysia in this anthology (which remains the School’s most popular publicatio­n throughout the Commonweal­th) is by Aneeta Sundararaj. Her story, “The Legend Of Nagakanna” is an edited version of chapter nine of her latest novel, The Age Of Smiling Secrets (2018).

While “The Legend Of Nagakanna” is a relatively humorous piece, it is another extract from this tragic novel, “Ammavasai”, that captures the brutality that many descendant­s of indentured labour in Malaysia endured regularly. In it, the character Karuppan gives voice to the sheer contempt for his station in life he feels, which epitomises the utter lack of self-worth that many Tamils will identify with. In his review of this novel, renowned Indian classical dance master Datuk Ramli Ibrahim writes, “Lives unravel in a worst-case scenario when loopholes in the law, exacerbate­d by corruption and unscrupulo­us characters, combine to destroy the very fabric of the lives of simple and honest folks”.

Personally, I feel works such as these need to be recognised by people in academia as well as by the general public. As such, from the point of view of literature, there are many published works that speak of the challenges that Balasegara­m speaks of. They are rich in informatio­n, emotion and, in most cases, unspoken trauma and pain.

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